Counter-Measures, Series 4
Tony Fyler takes a lap of honour.
The end of Counter-Measures, Series 3 genuinely sounded like it might be the end of the team – gunshots behind enemy lines (not to mention Berlin walls), people impersonating other people, two of the team actively brainwashed to accept the fictions of a group conducting espionage – it felt like all it needed was one big push and the whole Counter-Measures experiment would fall into the abyss.
Series 4 doesn’t by any means dispense with that threat – in fact it carries it right on, with two of the team brainwashed by chips in their head and two trying to break out of a prison that’s custom-built to be inescapable. But somehow, the fact that it takes what feels like a victory lap before the end squanders what felt like a genuine sense of threat and replaces it with something which feels like business as usual until it’s very pointedly not any more. I’ll tell you what it’s like – it’s like that stomach-lurching moment in The End of Time, when the Doctor has won out against the mad schemes of the Master, and the return of the Time Lords, and he believes for a moment he’s going to survive the day. And then you hear Wilf knocking, gently, on the door of the Vinvocci machine, and both the Doctor and we the viewer know he’s not going to triumph after all, but everything’s going to go spectacularly wrong. That moment is echoed in the whole tone of Counter-Measures, Series 4.
Episode 1, New Horizons, by Mark Wright and Cavan Scott, gets another 60s techno-trope into the series before it ends, with work on a gloriously energy-efficient new monorail system taking Alison and later Rachel into the realms of Indiana Jones and mythic fantasy, with things getting a bit Viking before the end and super-substances abounding as a power source and a brain enhancer. Nazi scientists, ancient arctic writing, multiple factions running about the place like a ‘who’s on whose side’ game of Find The Traitor - it’s all very good and interesting and not a little Curse of Fenric, and it’s certainly an absorbing enough listen with Alison in particular sounding more like herself than she has since she went home to see her father in Series 3, but it takes a while to come to the conclusion that yes, this really is how we’re carrying on after the taut and climactic events of the end of Series 3. In terms of the tension, it’s a fairly big step down, so you’re going to want to take it gently in case you break your expectations.
Episode 2, The Keep by Ken Bentley switches focus somewhat, taking us mostly to Sir Toby and Gilmore, who, being significantly less dead than we’d thought they might be, are busy getting their Great Escape on and revisiting a previous villain who this time has no cunning plan as such. Alison and Rachel are here, and they’re becoming more and more like themselves as the episode progresses, exposing the cover-up that’s kept them blinded and performing at least a little light brain surgery, and by the end of The Keep, Counter-Measures is looking more like itself as a cohesive group again. But whereas Counter-Measures has always been rooted firmly in government and the Establishment, after the events of The Keep, it’s quite clear that the group is out of favour, out of control and it seems, almost out of options.
John Dorney’s Rise and Shine, the third episode of the series, takes Counter-Measures right back to its very beginnings, or near as damnit, with the resurgence of a threat we haven’t heard from since The Assassination Games. While less in the market to destroy power-blocs than it was back then, the orchestrators of the Games still have it in their power to make things increasingly difficult for the Counter-Measures team, and here, if anywhere in this series, begins their trial by fire. With so many sides and sub-sides to choose from, leaving any old enemy alive at the end could be the last mistake you make. Arguably, it’s a mistake that’s made here.
And the threat comes back to haunt the team in Matt Fitton’s series finale, Clean Sweep. There’s coldness and ruthlessness aplenty here, but there’s also the opportunity for Counter-Measures to prove itself one more time – an opportunity the team more than takes. Gilmore, Jensen and Williams prove themselves more than a match for the skullduggery merchants who want them silenced, even after their base is blown to smithereens and the group go effectively on the run. Counter-Measures is triumphant, victorious, back to business as usual.
Remember those four knocks?
The ending that Fitton gives the series is a very ambivalent thing. You could argue it doesn’t work because it comes entirely out of the blue. You could argue that’s precisely why it works so well. I can see the point of both sides, but if you ask me for the emotional pitch, the taste it leaves in the mouth, I’d say it’s off-kilter and unfortunate. It feels like it makes a tragedy out of everything we’ve been through with the Counter-Measures team for four series. We understand of course there’s a ‘New Counter-Measures’ coming next year, and it could well be that the bleakness of the ending here is undercut in that series. Personally, I hope so, as the ending of Clean Sweep seems less fitting an exit than such a team has deserved over the 18 hours of their audio lives.
In essence then, Series 4 feels like a lap of honour, touching on villains from the past that Counter-Measures has made for itself, proving the worth of the people who get to serve in such a group, and then leaving us with what is probably the only way to conclusively bring the series to an end, without necessarily proving that such a move is necessary. If the series was going to end, it would perhaps have been better to end it on the notes of mystery which closed Series 3 than the tacked-on seeming certainty at the end of Clean Sweep. Again, we’ll need to see what comes in The New Counter-Measures to understand that ending entirely, but as it stands, it feels like an odd and unfortunate end to a great series.