❉ Doctor Who spin-off Counter-Measures returns for a new series, channelling the vibe of fast-paced ITC spy dramas.
Big Finish have been supremely proficient in spotting a decent spin off from ‘Doctor Who’, and ‘Counter Measures’ has been spinning along for a couple of years now. For the uninitiated, the series is based on three characters created by Ben Aaronovitch who appeared in a 1988 ‘Doctor Who’ serial called Remembrance of the Daleks, a story where the programme suddenly remembered how to be fast-paced and exciting for kids of all ages. Although onto its sixth set, no prior knowledge of the series is needed, and so makes for a good jumping in point.
The characters are played by the same actors, although naturally there are some subtle changes in their portrayal. Simon Williams plays the never seemingly promoted Group Captain Gilmore, in a performance where he manages to find humour, even when stuck in the direst of situations. On television, Gilmore was a humourless dunderhead, but on audio he has morphed into a cross between John Steed from ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Doctor Who’s Naval idiot Harry Sullivan. Gilmore is the group’s action man: infiltrating a gang of bank robbers or driving off the road a fleeing con artist, or organising a rescue method based on the Roman’s tortoise principle. Pamela Salem plays the brains and the drive of the team, and puts in some particularly good performances in her turn as the effusive Professor Rachel Jensen. Calmer, yet as intelligent, is Rachel’s side-kick, Allison Williams, played by Karen Gledhill, who on television seemed to be there just for Jensen to talk to and let off steam, but has been given some good material by the series writers edited by John Dorney. Hugh Ross plays the specially created Sir Toby Kinsella, their smooth Whitehall superior, currently ensconced in an office in the GPO Tower, but someone who is more than willing to get out into the field and risk his own life.
Like any good spin-off, ‘Counter Measures’ has taken a life of its own in the confident hands of Big Finish, and is now in a new incarnation, set in 1973-4, which the writers (some subtly, some not so), sprinkle in references to three day weeks, energy crisis, and films. The stories in this set seem to be trying to capture the feeling of ITC spy series where wealthy playboys, some state sponsored, solve bizarre crimes. By 1974 were this was dying a death. The vogue was for more grunge and urban crime. The early sixties, from whence ‘Counter Measures’ came, was a grim place, ran by a patrician government, a rigid class system and identikit citizens, waiting for the explosion of youth and colour that was just around the corner. The early seventies is not without its interesting points for fantasy drama: I imagine a future series might feature hijackers, north sea oil rigs and a polarisation in politics that lead to some extreme actions from both left and right.
Regardless of all that, this is a cracking good set of stories, which don’t contain a story-arc which makes ‘spoilering’ the series less easy to do.
Nothing To See Here by Guy Adams begins with a peculiar bank robbery, the type ‘Department S’ or ‘The Avengers’ would have done during its more crazier science fiction with Diana Rigg. One of these robbers who seem to appear out of nowhere, is Gilmore, and a sharp shooter too. How the robbers are able to appear and disappear is the plot macguffin, and deliciously, it has side-effects which drives the narrative at a cracking good pace. The ring leader of the group is Balthasar Schrek, played with some relish by George Asprey, as something of a pyschotic thug with a heavy accent to boot. The problem with the side effect is it makes life difficult for Gilmore to do the job he is there to do, and even when Rachel and Alison have captured one of the gang members’, resolving the plot isn’t straight forward. But this little breathe of ‘Avengers’ nonsense, and an ITC ski-chase, (you can picture the terrible back projection), makes this an enjoyable starter.
Ian Potter’s Troubled Waters is not as jolly as the opening episode and has a superb set up before the ‘titles’ crash in, a rather masterful and sinister sound collage which you understand what is actually going on. The rest of the story is something of a ghost story, set within the bowells of a seemingly sunk nuclear submarine, the Reynard. The team have a suitably spooky time, featuring flashbacks, manipulated memories and voices in their heads, as they try to ascertain the whereabouts of the missing 130 strong crew and uncover the mysterious cargo. Excellent stuff.
Episode three, The Phoenix Strain by Chris Hatherall, is back on familiar territory, good old London, as you can tell by how every small part is a cockney rub-a-duck guv type, and no mistake. The opening sequence of a tour guide discussing Churchill’s statue on Trafalgar Square is a little confusing as on first listening it seemed that the statue coming to life and looking for a cigar. No, just a standard bird attack. A flock of starlings. Add into the mix the death of a friend of Rachel Jensen, which may not have had a natural cause, and a patriotic civil servant involved in illegal biological warfare research. This gives you a reassuring conspiracy gone tits up, the sort of thing ‘Counter Measures’ have done before. In 1974, there were rumours galore of either a communist revolution or a right wing coup, so it is nice to see ‘Counter Measures’ tuning into the paranoia here. A roller-coaster of an episode, and probably the best of the four, but that is simply down to a preference for these type of stories featuring smooth-talking bastards.
John Dorney, the series script editor takes us back into ‘Avengers/Persuaders’ territory with the merest hint of alien technology in A Gamble With Time. The villain of the piece is one Lady Suzanne Clare, played by Carolyn Seymour, whose casino/hotel is the backdrop to negotiations to buy a time machine from an American, wonderfully played by Tam Williams. Naturally, there is less to this than meets the eye and the way the plot unravels is quite entertaining. There is not much else to say about this episode without giving away some nice little surprises or things that don’t happen.
In all, a very good set of episodes of the sort of series Big Finish do very well. There are a few more series in the format yet before ‘Counter Measures’ outstays its welcome.
❉ ‘The New Counter-Measures: Series One’ was released on 19 December 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until January 31st 2017, and on general sale after this date.