Way back in October 1988, the BBC gave me the coolest 18th birthday present: a four-part Doctor Who serial from Sylvester McCoy’s era that was really rather good. Remembrance of the Daleks kicked off the TV series’ 25th anniversary celebrations with a story that brought the Doctor back to Earth in November 1963, and the area around Coal Hill School – the setting for the very first episode. It also featured Daleks, Michael Sheard (at the time most famous for playing villainous deputy head Mr Bronson in Grange Hill) as a very different type of teacher – and a group of scientists who were working with the armed forces in the Intelligence Counter-Measures Group.
Now that same group has been revived on audio. Big Finish, who make the Doctor Who audio adventures and a number of spin-off series, have reunited Remembrance’s team of actors Simon Williams, Pamela Salem and Karen Gledhill, thrown in a smattering of new regulars and created four dramas involving strange happenings in 1960s London.
The result? Imagine a radio version of Quatermass, if it had been made by 1960s cult purveyors ITC Entertainment…
The four stories include the obligatory ‘pilot’ episode, which takes place an unspecified time after the events of Remembrance of the Daleks. Professor Rachel Jensen (Salem), who has returned to a life of academia, is visiting her friend Allison Williams (Gledhill) and gets embroiled in the investigation of weird science in a disused factory in deepest, dankest Bermondsey. By the end of the first story, the full team is reunited and working well – but the conditions behind Jensen rejoining the team continue to have repercussions throughout the series.
And that’s a canny move: by giving Simon Williams’ Group Captain Ian Gilmore something tangible to push against in his working life, it enlivens a character who could otherwise be a two-dimensional military man. In the same way as the late Nicholas Courtney’s UNIT Brigadier improved immeasurably once he was allowed to have a heart showing beneath the uniform, Gilmore only works if he’s a rounded character. It gives Williams something to do too – which is just as well, as the “hired muscle” role he seems to be falling into is a waste of his talents. There are small signs that the writers are getting a handle on what to do with that character, but there’s no disguising that the lion’s share of the great dialogue is given to the two female leads. On the other hand, how often can you say that? Big Finish has a good track record of leading series with strong female characters, of course: Bernice Summerfield and Iris Wildthyme, for example, and let’s not forget that they brought back Sarah Jane Smith long before the BBC did. Counter-Measures is another addition to Big Finish’s celebration of great characters and great acting, regardless of gender.
Of the four episodes, I think the second, Matt Fitton’s Artificial Intelligence, works the best. That’s due in part to another storming female performance, this time from Lizzie Roper as a sexy Czechoslovakian scientist. Ian Potter’s The Pelage Project has a lot going for it, too, although I couldn’t quite get past the name: Pelage is pronounced to rhyme with “large” rather than “pillage”, making it sound like a French town rather than the hush-hush English one that’s the setting for the story.
The final story, State of Emergency by Justin Richards, is simultaneously the most solidly written and least consistent story of the four. There are several sci-fi elements to the story, including several callbacks to the previous episodes in the box set – but those soon fall into the background in favour of a political thriller set inside No 10 Downing Street in the first days of Harold Wilson’s government. Not a bad thing in itself, but after Counter-Measures sets out its stall as a sci-fi based adventure series, this sharp turn into politics doesn’t quite work.
But for all its faults, the announcement this week that a second series has already been commissioned is great news. Counter-Measures is a worthy addition to Big Finish’s range and is well worth a listen.
One gripe, though: I bought Counter-Measures as a download from the Big Finish website, and took advantage of their new ‘audiobook’ download format, which includes all four stories and the behind-the-scenes documentary – the best part of five hours of audio entertainment – as a single audiofile that stores itself in your iTunes library’s Audiobooks section.
However, unlike the olden days when audio dramas would come in CD cases with full cast lists and episode titles, there’s very little in the way of supporting material for the story itself. The audio file comes zipped up with some cover art JPEGs for each story (although the audiobook itself uses only the box set version of Alex Mallinson’s artwork). But whether you listen to the audio alone, or read the accompanying free PDF of Big Finish magazine Vortex, there is no indication of all of the guest actors involved.
As Big Finish’s distribution gets ever more dependent on digital downloads, there will be more people who get as frustrated as I about wanting to know who was involved in each story. I listen to huge amounts of BBC radio drama, so the concept of spoken credits doesn’t alarm me – quite the reverse. And when Big Finish’s own dramas have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra (a new series, Graceless, starts on Monday, by the way) they have had to add audio credits. I would dearly, dearly love for Big Finish to start ending each story with credits.
Incidentally, I tweeted my concerns on Friday, and got a couple of replies. First, writer Ian Potter:
And later, Counter-Measures director Ken Bentley replied with:
So things may change in the future. Let’s hope so – while the hour-long documentary is well worth listening to, simple end credits help define an audio “full stop” to an episode. There is a downside, of course – the awesome theme music for Counter-Measures, which superbly evokes the TV themes of the time, would not be as audible. But I do hope that Big Finish considers crediting in audio all the awesome actors, writers and other production personnel whose hard work goes in to making their enjoyable fare.