Counter-Measures, Series 1
Tony Fyler deploys Counter-Measures.
The trick with Counter-Measures was always going to be about carving itself a special niche in the audio world – it takes a particular vision to see the point of a Doctor Who spin-off essentially composed of a soldier and a couple of scientists fighting extra-terrestrial threats when fans already have Who itself and a UNIT spin-off to absorb their interest.
The Counter-Measures team, based around the figures the Seventh Doctor met in uncontestably his most context-rich TV adventure, Remembrance of the Daleks, lived in 1963, and this is the basis of a tonal choice that begins in Series 1 to carve out that particular niche. Whereas UNIT for most of its life was distinctly 70s-flavoured, and the new UNIT audios have a more contemporary military vibe, there’s a very black-and-white, 60s feel to everything in Counter-Measures – attitudes, sound, music, the lot.
If you’re looking for another tonal loadstone, you’re looking at things like the 60s Quatermass series – that strange sense of a pioneering, Government-backed scientific organization, with military teeth if and when it needs them. ‘Science leads,’ has apparently become a motto in 21st century UNIT, and, since at least as far back as the Remembrance novelization, Counter-Measures was designed to be thought of as a UNIT precursor, there’s a pleasing resonance of that sentiment here – it’s Pamela Salem’s Rachel Jensen who takes the lead in Counter-Measures, with Group Captain Ian ‘Chunky’ Gilmore and Alison Williams as back-up. There’s also a new addition to the team, ‘man from the Ministry’ Sir Toby Kinsella, and essentially, these four are the faces and voices of Counter-Measures.
The stories with which the concept was tested were probably chosen expressly for that reason – to show the breadth and scope Counter-Measures could encompass, while maintaining the 60s tone very distinctly and Not Being UNIT for all they’re worth.
In Series 1, we meet an ex-Nazi scientist who believes he’s independently created teleportation technology, a creepy mind-manipulation device, a factory of noxious goo in a Prisoner-style model industrial community, and a plot to launch a coup at the highest levels of government – all very 60s stuff, which helps reinforce the Not-UNIT nature of what Counter-Measures is. While Quatermass is the lodestone, there seems to be another stylistic player here too – Counter-Measures has the feel of many of the ITC classics of the 60s and very early 70s – Department S, The Saint, and – before Big Finish got the license to actually tell Avengers stories, there’s a hint of The Avengers here too. Possibly all these references are just what happens if you try to make a ‘Government-Agency-Against-Aliens-And-Psychopaths’ series and give it a 60s flavour, but none of them are bad things to evoke if what you’re most of all going for is precisely that taste of the 60s.
The soundscapes of Counter-Measures, Series 1 are odder things than you might be accustomed to – often the ‘pre-credits’ sequence is longer and more soundless than makes for entirely comfortable listening. In Threshold, by Paul Finch, the story that kicks us off and deals with the ex-Nazi teleport scientist, the soundscape gets very very uncomfortable and creepy, ghostly little girls calling for their daddy, dolls that get up and walk and talk – again, the tone is somewhere between The Avengers and Sapphire and Steel, and you may not make it through that first episode in one listen.
Matt Fitton’s Artificial Intelligence is more solid 60s fare – Russian scientists with brain-washing machines gone berserk are always good for a slice of black-and-white conspiracy fun. Add a British games theory specialist and you’ve got yourself a ball game. Add in some great character backstory elements – hints of a liaison between Chunky Gilmore and Russian scientist Dr Nadia Cervenka and the relationship between Alison and her long, long, long term boyfriend, Julian St Stephen shown as it was only ever hinted at on-screen, and you deliver a healthy slice of enjoyable audio.
The Pelage Project from Ian Potter too is pretty much in-genre and of its time – mysterious shenanigans at an industrial complex that also has its own model village. It’s almost a 60s version of Who’s on-screen Crimson Horror, but thankfully without the little red cockroach. Especially thankfully because the presumed villain of the piece is played with characteristic aplomb by Blake’s 7’s original Travis, Stephen Grief, and it would be a crying shame (as it was in the case of Diana Rigg) to dilute a performance like that with a simplistic ‘ooh, look, it’s an alien parasite’ rationale.
Finally, Justin Richards’ State of Emergency gives us the firmest evidence to date of the period we’re in, with the election of Harold Wilson’s government in 1964. Wilson was an extraordinary politician, but also, given that he was a politician, a very principled human being. Richards’ play has the courage to bring that to light, despite it being quite an unpopular view these days – as indeed it was at the time. But Whereas we’ve seen Counter-Measures deal with science gone mad in Threshold, espionage and counter-espionage in Artificial and undercover investigation in The Pelage Project, this is the most pacey, full-on offering of the four – Counter-Measures in full flight, trying to stop the overthrow of British democracy. It’s heady stuff, with a convenient ending that ensures the funding, if not the safety, of Counter-Measures for the next five years. What’s more in real world terms it sets the seal on the series and its capacity to tell four very different types of story within the Counter-Measures ‘brand,’ while keeping it different to everything else Big Finish does, adding layers of characterization – there’s a scene in State of Emergency that punches one of the team right in the heart, and will have the same effect on you – and making Counter-Measures a viable, different, exciting, potentially creepy franchise all of its own.
Counter-Measures, Series 1, is not always an easy listen, because you’re not always sure what exactly it is you’re listening to, or what it is you’re expecting to listen to. Give it its chance and its head though, and it’ll get its hooks into you deeply, and repay your patience with shudders, thrills and a couple of air-punches, as well as giving you the chance to hear both some established favourite writers – Fitton and Richards – and some newer ones – Finch and Potter – play with a new set of toys, fresh out of the box they came in back in 1988. And of course as an added bonus, you get to spend time with some great actors – Pamela Salem, Simon Williams as Ian Gilmore, Karen Gledhill as Alison, Hugh Ross as Sir Toby and so on – as they make the world of Counter-Measures a brand new but vaguely familiar reality in your mind.