Tuesday, 26 July 2011

UNIT: Snake Head written by Jonathan Clements and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: A mobile phone call to the emergency services, a body found on Government land and an ancient burial site unearthed at an archaeological dig all point toward an odd mystery by the coast… UNIT's new commander, Colonel Robert Dalton, and its political officer, Colonel Emily Chaudhry, investigate strange goings-on in Southend. What is out there on the beach? What happened to the recently found savaged body? And what of the man who's just been smuggled in to the country? Is this just a simple case for the local police or, as Chaudhry suspects, is there more to it than meets the eye…?

Colonel Chaudhry: Chaudhry seems far more relaxed in this story and as a result a lot more likable. As soon as she realises they are heading for the beach she wants to check out the local attractions. Poor Chaudhry is mistaken for an immigration officer and is given the guided tour of Kevin’s flat and offered the chance to sniff his sheets to prove that he and his wife live there!

Colonel Dalton: He has never had a cockle in his life and he doesn’t intend to start now! He realises quite quickly that his UNIT pass opens more doors than he is used to. I do like the fact that Dalton doesn’t automatically jump to the supernatural explanation because there must be times when it is an entirely Earthbound menace but he does seem remarkably stubborn when refusing to face clear evidence that points him towards alien involvement. Dalton describes ISIS as a Gestapo charm school run by the Keystone Cops. He was expecting some evidence after hunting down a vampire ands when he thinks he has been taken for a ride he furiously turns on Chaudhry because it was her belief in this mythology that kept him wading through water at all hours of the night.

Standout Performance: Toby Longworth is always good value and it impresses me whenever I look at the various parts he has played and the sheer versatility of his range. Ian Hayles was far less convincingly as Kevin who plays the restaurant owner with a really irritating whiny voice that grates after a minute.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Not everything happens inside the M25!’

Great Ideas: When the radio announcer reads out an email for the Professor some clever dick writes in and calls the Saxon body another immigrant! 32% of all paranormal events are caused by disturbances of the Earth. A Saxon grave has been unearthed and cockle pickers are dead and Chaudhry automatically puts two and two together. Hoffman has been manning the phone and trying sift through the Time Lords from the time wasters and one caller swears she has seen Jesus’ face in a potato! Snake Heads are illegal gangs where they wind up doing the menial jobs the average British citizen doesn’t want to do. Albanian superstition says that Vampires break your bones and suck out your marrow…and particularly enjoy munching on fingers. They are terribly difficult to catch because they are invisible and you are only safe if you have an orthodox priest in the family! Their other habit is girls who they enjoy taking advantage of. Peasants like easy answers and curses are easier for them to understand than viruses and cancers and when something goes wrong in their world they are ready to believe it is a malicious spirit. Whenever people are ready to believe in these things there is always somebody about ready to take of advantage of it and there are reports of men staging fights with evil spirits, smashing houses up and claiming their troubles are over with his reward. Science fiction being used as a smokescreen to cover what is actually a very nasty world that we live in – now that is an angle this series could have taken.

Audio Landscape: Crows screaming, phone ringing, seagulls, wind whipping, wheezing kettle, eating in a Chinese restaurant with cod exotic music playing in the background, rain battering down, thunder rumbling, footsteps, unlocking a car, water lapping, scattering the birds with a bullet, wet footprints, the vampire attack is nicely done with Chaudhry breathing manically close to the camera as the creature screams in the background, police sirens.

Isn’t it Odd: I still have no idea who this series is supposed to be aimed at. With other spin offs from Big Finish’s main range you know exactly what you are going to get after the first story (temporal politics from Gallifrey, atmospheric infernal investigations with Jago & Litefoot, intimate tales by various assistants from the Companion Chronicles) but the UNIT series seems to want to appeal to everybody at once and as a result I feel it is falling between several stools. The first story was a camp and overblown James Bond thriller and the series could work if it took that angle (probably not for me because Bond films are so dull) and Snake Head tries to mix hard hitting themes of immigration (again an approach that could work and would certainly be followed up in the next story) with mythological horrors and winds up an awkward mess because the two don’t gel in the slightest. Or at least they don’t gel at this slack pace with no danger or action. Is this a contemporary thriller series? Science fiction with an edge? Dumb action adventure? Doctor Who has a suitable plot device that can allow all these genres to play out and for it to still be the same show but all that holds this range together is two sketchily drawn characters and it feels like we are in a completely new series with them each week. Shockingly even the climax where the terrifying invisible vampire attacks Goran we are left completely in the dark as to why we should be scared – there is nothing at stake, we don’t know who the vampire is or what his motives are…its just an invisible presence with invisible credibility. At the end of the story everybody is laughing and joking and ‘lets hope once people realise they have been manipulated all the riots end.’ Oh please.

Standout Scene: I was very happy when the vampire did show up and start killing the very dull guest cast.

Result: Snake Head seems to be trying to capture some of the success of Ultraviolet by placing vampires in a decidedly modern setting of illegal immigrants and takeaways but it lacks the menace or the subtlety to pull it off. When compared with Doctor Who’s own Project Twilight it is a pale imitation because the parent range knew that to make this sort of thing work you need a strong villain, some heavy science and some disturbing violence. This sanitised version sees Chaudhry and Dalton checking out some foreign mythology and interviewing a local scientist and takeaway owner – it’s a really dull approach to the material. The story does try and make the very nature of the threat ambiguous but we’ve been with UNIT for far too long to accept a story without an alien menace. There are some reasonable atmospherics at the climax when the vampire finally rears its head but that is about 2% of the overall story. The fact that even during the scary moments people are standing around eating prawn crackers says everything you need to know: 4/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/12-UNIT-Snake-Head

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