Seabird One provides a window into an alternate 1990s of Doctor Who spin-offs that never were, with three note perfect tales of pre-millennial tension
Doctor Who has always been very good at creating characters who earn affection and loyalty from the fans. And often that’s been completely disproportionate to their screen time. Jago and Litefoot became lifelong fan favourites after only six episodes in 1977 but that didn’t stop Big Finish giving them their own glorious series. Sally Sparrow is an icon of the show despite only appearing once. And then there’s Angela Bruce’s Brigadier Bambera… In Bambera’s case, though, there’s a little more to it than just how compelling a character she was in 1989’s swords-and-warheads epic Battlefield. That story felt very much like a passing of the torch from Nicholas Courtney’s beloved Brigadier to a new generation. And it’s almost impossible to imagine that Bambera wouldn’t have become a recurring character had Doctor Who continued through the 1990s, her UNIT team grounding the Doctor’s more earthbound adventures.
Except Doctor Who didn’t continue past 1989. In fact, Bambera’s first appearance proved to be one of the Doctor’s last (for a while, at least.) Frankly, we was robbed. That’s a sentiment that’s felt right though the three stories of this first new boxset of audio adventures for Bambera. Big Finish have always been adept at recapturing the spirit and style of a given era. But this is an unusual case as UNIT: Brave New World is trying to evoke an era that never was. Instead, it plugs into the feel of the narrative language of 1990s action adventure films.
The set provides a version of UNIT that would fitted perfectly into Radio Times listings between episodes of The X-Files and the network premiere of GoldenEye
Most specifically, events here feel like they could be happening just around the corner from Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond. Perhaps with Bambera following in the tradition of Wai Linn or Jinx as a rival turned reluctant partner (she’d come out on top, obviously. So to speak.) UNIT even have their own Dame Judi Dench in the form of Liz Sutherland-Lim. As Dame Lydia, she’s the calm and collected government official who assigns Bambera her missions. Even the way Lydia’s wry affection for Bambera is tempered by her raising an audibly perfectly shaped eyebrow at the Brig’s more explosive methods, seems familiar.
But the real mission here is to reintroduce Bambera and subtly reinvent her. To evolve her into someone complex enough to carry the lead of their own series. The scripts, particularly Robert Valentine’s series opener Rogue State provides a smooth and well laid out foundation for that. But ultimately it all rests on Angela Bruce’s shoulders. Bruce does a superb job of integrating these new shades to he Brig’s personality while being totally consistent with the woman we’d already met. She’s still brusque and no-nonsense to the point of being rude. And she still accepts risking death as just a calculated part of life, diving in without hesitation anywhere she thinks she needs to be. But there’s a wider appreciation of her pre-millennial angst. She has a cynicism that the post-Cold War utopia she fought for is already slipping away.
Seabird One and Angela Bruce make Bambera’s transition from guest star to star of the show seem deceptively effortless
One of Seabird One’s main goals may be to firmly re-establish Bambera and remind us why it’s great to have her back. But it also has to introduce the rest of this new/old UNIT. It’s a central trio designed to complement each other perfectly. One theme throughout the set is Bambera’s awareness of her own limitations. She’s not the best at dealing with people, and her tolerance for the ‘woo woo’ stuff is low. But her greatest strength is accepting that about herself and bringing in the right people to complement her own strengths.
She quickly establishes a rapport with her new right hand man, Sergeant Savarin. His Gallic warmth and wry humour helps soften Bambera’s harsher edges. They don’t quite go so far down the Clara and Twelve route as having him declare her carer, caring so she doesn’t have to, but they’re not a million miles away from it either. More importantly, he’s someone she can trust as a steadying hand to tell her when she’s pushing too hard.
UNIT once more pivots the relationship between its military leader and their scientific advisor. This time it’s two very different women learning to appreciate each other’s strengths
By second story Time Flies, Savarin’s role also extends to acting as mediator between Bambera and her new scientific advisor Dr. Louise Rix. Played with sparky wit by Yemisi Oyinloye, Rix has an insubordinate demeanour and ‘unprofessional’ hair and clothes. It’s a combination that immediately put her at odds with the new Brig.
It doesn’t help that their first meeting involves Rix calling in a full UNIT force based on a hunch. Bambera’s not thrilled to be put on the spot vouching for a member of her team she’s never met before. She’s even more unimpressed by how Rix’s theory manages to be both wild and vague.
The two may be complete opposites in almost every way, but by the end they’ve come to understand each other and find a middle ground. It’s a pointed contrast to the relationship between their predecessors, where the Doctor would so often simply steamroll over Lethbridge-Stewart. Again Bambera admits to needing somebody else to supplement her own mindset. Someone able to look at the weird and unexplained and see the beauty and the possibilities. Throw in Dame Lydia and Lorne McFayden as Rix’s potential love interest McManis and Big Finish have managed once again to build an appealing cast the listener can look forward to spending more time with in future releases.
Rogue State brings 90s blockbuster action to the Doctor Who universe
The three scripts here all exist, to one extent or another, in service of establishing this new cast. But they’re well integrated into functioning plots which underline the relationships being built.
Like all the best 90s actions heroes in their first reel, Bambera begins kicks off first story () by suffering a setback. An op gone sideways has left her in semi-disgrace with her superiors. In fact, she’s close to jacking the whole job in. But then Dame Lydia seeks her out with an offer for one last mission she can’t refuse. So soon Bambera is once more on the hunt for the international arms dealer and terrorist responsible for the disaster. It’s a familiar enough setup that it’s no spoiler to say that by episode’s end, Bambera’s not only saved the day but gotten her mojo back.
Along the way Russian superweapons fall into wandering hands, and there’s a climactic shoot out at the Millennium Dome. It makes this the most Bond like of the three stories. It proves a deft way of plugging the listener into the fuss free plot so that Bambera and her uncertain future can take centre stage.
Time Flies gives UNIT a case straight from The X-Files
Embracing Terrence Dicks’ oft repeated comment about the types of stories to which UNIT were limited, we’re in full on mad scientist territory in Time Flies. With an emphasis on the ‘mad’ as it features possibly the most unhinged academic since Professor Zarrof. He pursues a plan of global extinction for not much reason at all. Having stumbled across how to do it during his other research, he’s simply unable to resist seeing it through.
But Silas Carson floats through his performance as Dr. Grange with such a strong sense of disconnection from the rest of the human race that, for once, the illogicalities and contradictions inherent in a villain’s goals and schemes simply feels like part of the characterisation. There are some imaginatively gruesome deaths of the type that would sit seamlessly among the best of 90s mainstay The X-Files . All in all, Alison Winters’ story may leave you satisfyingly twitchy for the rest of the day.
The new team’s bonds of trust are tested in Dark Side of the Moon
Bambera and Rix’s relationship continues to develop in final story Dark Side of the Moon. And it’s just as well, as it’s tested by the supposed arrival of Rix’s best friend Helena. The trouble is Helena is quite, quite dead, an astronaut killed in a disaster during re-entry a year ago. But with an entity claiming to be her, body-hopping its way across the UK on a quest to stop the next launch by any means necessary, whose side will Rix ultimately be on?
Alfie Shaw’s script keeps you guessing to the end. Is it really Helena on a quest to save the world, or some alien threat trying to manipulate UNIT into staying their hand? And even if it is her, is her belief about a high level conspiracy to use the Britannia launch as the starting gun for an alien invasion correct? Does it even matter anyway? Either way, her single minded pursuit of her goal is leaving a trail of the dead in her wake. It makes for a suitably tense paranoia thriller, with the listener having little idea as it goes along what a happy ending would even look like.
Step into another world with Seabird One and finally live the 1990s the Whoniverse deserved
As a window into an alternate 1990s where Doctor Who didn’t just survive, but thrive to the extent of getting its own spin-offs, UNIT: Brave New World is almost heart achingly perfect. Audiences will have almost as much fun listening to it as the cast did making it (based on the extras, nobody could have had more fun than them.) And it’s a world to which Seabird One will leave you eager to make a return journey.
UNIT: Brave New World – Seabird One
The Cold War is over, the Millennium is fast approaching, and Brigadier Winifred Bambera is the new head of UNIT.
But in this shadowy, unpredictable world of deadly threats and hidden enemies, Bambera and her new team – Sergeant Jean-Paul Savarin and Dr Louise Rix – will need to prove their mettle. The stakes are higher than ever.
UNIT: Brave New World – Seabird One is now available to own for just £24.99 (collector’s edition CD + download) or £19.99 (digital download only), exclusively from the Big Finish website.