This time last year, I reviewed a new audio drama series by Big Finish, Counter-Measures, a spin-off from 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks.
The second series was released earlier this month. It’s solidly built upon what worked in the first box set: stories that are based upon the paranoias prevalent at the time, be they scientific or political, rather than relying on extraterrestrial agents. The Intelligence Counter-Measures Group are best when dealing with foes who, if not the archetypal “mad scientists”, are amoral at best – people for whom the end may justify the means, even if those means cost the lives of innocents.
The box set opens with Manhunt by Matt Fitton, author of my favourite season 1 episode. Throwing us straight into the story, Group Captain Gilmore (Simon Williams) is on the run, wanted for murder. While he seeks help from Lady Waverly, his supposed victim’s widow, Rachel (Pamela Salem) and Allison (Karen Gledhill) investigate the strange deaths of several government scientists, who seem to have undergone dramatic transformations.
What could have easily turned into a variation on the werewolf genre is prevented from falling into cliché by introducing intriguing revelations about the Waverly family. The chemistry between Gilmore and Lady Waverly is palpable – understandable, given that the latter is played by Williams’ wife, Lucy Fleming. But the story’s real strength comes from Gemma Whelan as the Waverlys’ daughter Emma – a young woman clearly damaged by her relationship with her late father, but who has turned into a feisty, impassioned adult with several tricks up her sleeve and some intriguing skeletons in the closet. Combined with a great performance by Blake Ritson as Gilmore’s temporary replacement, Captain Astor, Manhunt is a great start to the box set. Its only real downside is some clumsy dialogue about the advancement of women in politics: necessary perhaps, given the nature of the way gender politics plays into the fantasy element of the story, but I couldn’t help but groan during the exchange.
In James Goss’s The Fifth Citadel, the idea that World War II Britain prepared several large scale nuclear bunkers, or ‘citadels’, underneath London, retained for use in the Cold War, is extrapolated to a dangerous – and desperately sad – conclusion. Guest star Celia Imrie is wonderful as an old flame of Counter-Measures’ Sir Toby (Hugh Ross), who attempts to use her own desperate situation to blackmail the government into engendering world peace. It becomes another situation where science has, with the best of intentions, condemned many people – and bad decisions compound the issue. It’s a tragic character piece that gives Imrie far more to get her teeth into than her role in Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John did.
Cavan Scott and Mark Wright’s Peshka takes the team out of the UK for the first time, to a defection drama set within the world of international chess. But this is no musical with songs by Benny and Bjorn: is a psychological weapon also emerging from behind the Iron Curtain? This is paranoia with a capital “P”, as the team are forced to voice their frustrations with each other. Angry acting is hard to get right, and requires both writer and performer to hit just the right note. I recently listened to Mark Ravenhill’s Imo and Ben on Radio 3, and the antagonism between the characters there felt forced, petulant and whiny, resulting in an unpleasant listen. In contrast, Peshka demonstrates how it should be done. The characters’ anger comes from the already established tensions between the characters, making it all the more believable.
The final story, John Dorney’s The Sins of the Fathers, is a direct sequel to Manhunt and further explores Sir Toby’s increasingly murky role in the series of experiments which led to the events of both stories. As with the last series finale, there are hints at large-scale military activities – but the big climax is a much more personal one, as past mistakes have a direct, and tragic, effect on one person. It’s a tribute to actor Robert Lonsdale that his character, Ray, generates so much compassion from the audience straight away.
All in all, it’s good to see that Counter-Measures has the prospect of longevity in it: this second series is more consistent, more enjoyable than the solid first box set. The Counter-Measures team will be reunited with the Seventh Doctor and Ace later this year, as part of Big Finish’s 50th anniversary celebrations: interesting to note that this year is also the 25th anniversary of this team’s first television outing. In its second “real” year, there’s plenty of life left in the concept yet.