Tuesday, 29 September 2015

UNIT 1.4: The Wasting by Iain McLaughlin & Claire Bartlett (June 2005)

  The Wasting opens with Chaudhry sick in hospital, recovering from a two-week coma, and goes on to consider illness and mortality of various kinds throughout its almost 75-minute runtime. A vast, mysterious and international flu epidemic breaks out; SARS is referenced at least twice, but such stories seem to appear every few years or so – we’ve had swine flu, bird flu and Ebola in the last ten alone. In a Western world where lifespans continue to lengthen, an unstoppable supervirus is one of our greatest fears, and so it makes an appropriate choice for a UNIT story (can we also quickly note the rather lovely title? The Wasting not only sounds mythical, like the ravaged land that a plague or a dragon can leave behind, but it evokes the wasting away of a body that you get with illness, and even has a faintly King-James-Bible ring to it. Very nice). And it works effectively – the virus is a properly nasty idea, rewriting human biology to make other humans more palatable as food. This leads to some truly apocalyptic imagery – huge bevvies of frothing, raving, rotting patients spilling out of hospital doors, spreading the plague and devouring innocents alive – and as such this artificial alien toxin is a worthy adversary for a season finale, certainly more so than the increasingly dull ICIS.

Regrettably, The Wasting shares a key weakness with McLaughlin and Bartlett’s first audio, Time Heals: it simply doesn’t follow through on the events of the previous one. Just as the Silurian conference was largely side-stepped, here ICIS’ role in a national terror campaign (right down to threatening the Prime Minister, forcing the Deputy Prime Minister to commit suicide live on television and blowing up 10 Downing Street) is glossed over and the organisation are still up-and-running, all its atrocities apparently forgotten! What kind of continuity is this? It just undermines all sense of “modernity and believability” that the series is clearly aiming for. There’s also a disappointing resolution, and it’s not terribly well-directed (sorry Nicola Bryant, I love you really), with a number of scenes feeling flat or badly realised, or unable to sell the necessary scale (the Soviet Republic stuff is pretty hurried). That said, some of the action scenes (an airplane dogfight in particular) are at least reasonably thrilling.

The Wasting isn’t as fast-paced as some of the other UNIT stories, often choosing to lay more focus on quiet character scenes instead, but that ultimately works in its favour. For one thing, Siri O’Neal has really developed into a strong lead and I’ll be sorry to see the back of Emily Chaudhry, even if she must be the most in-the-thick-of-it PR officer of all time. In addition, The Wasting does at least one thing much better than Time Heals, and that is its treatment of Nicholas Courtney, who gets much more  to do here, scanning for wiretaps and illegally tracking phone lines as soon as he enters a room like the old pro he is. Lethbridge-Stewart’s rapport with Chaudhry has a nicely different feel to the Chaudhry-Dalton relationship, but it works every bit as well – the new guard and the old guard, each with the requisite respect for the other’s life experience (there’s a nice moment where Chaudhry gives the Brig her weapon, a significantly more advanced model than his). And is it just me, or is he a bit more roguishly cheeky in his twilight years? Yet he still retains enough steel in him to shoot Winnington’s hand to pieces if he has to.

The Wasting also sees the resolution to several ongoing plotlines – the true nature of ICIS, the theft of the alien spaceship in Time Heals and Col. Ross Brimmicombe-Wood’s mysterious disappearance. This means, of course, the return of David Tennant, weirdly enough in the same month that the Tenth Doctor arrived on TV. This is Tennant’s final Big Finish appearance, and he gives a typically thorough and nuanced performance, moving from joyous reaction at seeing Chaudhry again to foul-mouthed irritation to the unmasking of his true colours. Yes, the “missing mentor figure” turns out to be behind the evil organisation all along. Although this is a bit of an old trope, Tennant’s performance means it comes off – his taunting scenes with Chaudhry are tremendously effective, and his character motivation (championing Britain over the UN, protecting our own, all that kind of stuff) is at least more toned-down than Major Kirby’s from The Longest Night.

Back with Time Heals, I wondered aloud what the point of the UNIT series was, why we should follow these stories, etc. I think The Wasting makes some good justification for the series on a character level, in that it features a number of people let down by the bigger picture that they used to believe in (most notably, Winnington, but Brimmicombe-Wood too). This can be fascinating if explored well, and is something I would have liked to have seen more done with in UNIT Series 2, along with more exploration of the Brig/Chaudhry dynamic. Unfortunately, that was never to be. On the strength of this set of stories, I can frankly understand why there wasn’t a loud clamour for a renewal. But first runs are often stuttering, hesitant things (not everything gets it perfect from the word go, like Firefly) and this run might have been more positively evaluated in light of a second season that really ran with the strengths and ironed out the weaknesses. To sum up, UNIT is a bit of a missed opportunity all round, but an interesting little nugget in Who history nonetheless.

Other things:
“It always rains at funerals, have you noticed that? You can never shake off the cold and damp afterwards.”
I’ve grown fond of the UNIT theme, weirdly. It’s the string motif that works for me.
A few obligatory Benton and Yates references, but the Commodore Sullivan of NATO phone call is a really lovely, if belated, in-universe tribute to Harry.
As before, the portrayal of journalists is often too one-dimensionally dickheadish: “You know, George, this country might be going to the dogs, but it’s solid gold for our lot! We’ll be up to our neck in awards!”
“Yes, somehow I can never stay retired.”
“My, you have friends in high places.”/“Oh, I have friends in low places as well, Colonel Chaudhry.”
The curfew feels like another shabby attempt to make Britain seem all dystopian and serious.
Michael Hobbs’ terrible delivery of “Oh, Christ, George!” made me howl with laughter, I’m afraid to say.
The Silurians from The Coup agreeing to help analyse the flu virus because “viruses are a specialty of theirs” is a neat way of tying them back into the ongoing storyline. They’re not much used in this series, but it still comes up with new angles on a race that’s often narrowed down to one oft-repeated gimmick.
“If that plane takes off I’ll tear every one of you a new arse!”
Lots of characters talking to themselves for audience benefit, eurgh, and Tennant is saddled with some terrible dialogue during his hand-to-hand combat with O’Neal.
Listening to the Brigadier trying to make himself understood to a Russian is hilarious.
“We need a scientific adviser, like you used to have.”/“Oh, you won’t get one like I had. He was unique.”
Touchingly, the Brig gets the position of Scientific Adviser a decade or so because his daughter takes up the mantle.

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