Every once in a while, an established series is utilized to promote a fledgling series by the same production team.
The first option producers often take is the spinoff series, a somewhat risky endeavor that takes a previously established minor character or sidekick and attempts to forefront them with varying result.
Sure, you could easily tick off Angel from Buffy, Isis from Shazam!, the Jeffersons and Maude from All in the Family or Rhoda from Mary Tyler Moore on the relative success side, but how many more Phyllis, Flo, Joanie Loves Chachi, AfterMASH, Top of the Heap and Fish can you name?
But far more shaky ground is to be plumbed when that aforesaid parent series devotes an entire episode to a completely new, only vaguely related postulative pilot featuring characters one has never seen before, or which regular viewers only met in passing somewhere along the way.
There was that Six Million Dollar Man episode “the ultimate imposter”, with that guy with the computerized brain. Star Trek went all James Bond in “assignment Earth” with that guy “Gary Seven”. Kojak had “a house of prayer, a den of thieves”, with old fat Vincent Gardenia as a “retired” NYC cop pounding the detective beat in Vegas with his brat nephew in tow. Even Smallville had that Aquaman episode, which spun off into a one off TV movie featuring a different actor in the role.
As you can see, these barely involve the main characters of the titular series and in the end tend to present something of a dead end street – regardless of merit, the pilots are seldom picked up and never really go anywhere.
Perhaps it’s the oddity of how it’s handled. You may pick up folks looking for something new through advertisement or trailers, but the simple fact is that a fan of an ongoing series has a lot invested in the characters and tenor that series is comprised of.
To shunt matters off into a nigh-unrelated sideline, even with a nod or two to the parent series’ own characters, is likely just too jarring for the audience, with the usual reaction being stony indifference. It’s happened over and over historically, with the four examples cited merely the tip of the iceberg.
And so we come to this month’s ostensible conclusion to the 50th anniversary celebratory “1963” trilogy, the Assassination Games.
While ostensibly a Sylvester McCoy/Ace story, their presence in this installment is comparatively light. The actual heavy lifting is devoted to a newly created line called Counter Measures.
Now to be fair, Counter Measures is a step up from, say, Gary Seven in that it comes with a slight Doctor Who connection: the agency did in fact appear in fan favorite McCoy era televised episode Remembrance of the Daleks. You know, the one where Ace takes out a dalek with a baseball bat? Yeah, that one.
Counter Measures itself is a sort of early 60’s precursor to UNIT, complete with a Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart analogue (Group Captain Ian Gilmore) a Pertwee-era Doctoresque know it all scientist (Prof. Rachel Jensen) and her assistant (Allison Williams).
And this brings us to the second area in which Counter Measures bears a bit more credence than “the ultimate imposter”: these three roles are essayed by established character actors.
Jensen comes to us by way of the lovely Pamela Salem. A Who veteran a few times over, she was also quite prominent in the Tom Baker era serial Robots of Death, and was nearly cast as Leela before Louise Jameson won the part. Salem is also notable for her role as sexy witch Belor in Into the Labyrinth*.
* Which series was broadcast stateside as part of the excellent early 80’s anthology series The Third Eye, which similarly played home to the highly recommended Children of the Stones featuring none other than Gareth Thomas of Blakes Seven!
We also get Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Uncanny and Upstairs Downstairs’ Simon Williams as Gilmore, and occasional telly bit player Karen Gledhill as Williams – not too shabby a cast for a startup spinoff!
In any case, the closest Assassination Games gets to a proper tie-in to the year of Doctor Who (the teleseries)’s birth is in a vague zeitgeist interrelation with that year’s infamous Profumo Affair.
Of course, being that we’re discussing Who here, all the implications of sex and imagery of the fetching Christine Keeler that statement brings to the fore are entirely absent, with a wholly fictional “corruption in government” and shootings of public figures taking its place. One could extrapolate or attempt to make ever more tenuous ties to everything from the King and Malcom X assassinations to those of John and Bobby Kennedy, though both timeframe and particulars are quite at odds with all this.
In point of fact, there is a far stronger tie to the sort of Department S by way of MI-6 thing that the James Bond series was tapping into. In a way, it is in this arena which author John Dorney stakes his claim, all military and governmental intrigue and Cold War double dealing in the corridors of power.
Dorney, who’d done some parts in Big Finish audios previously (most notably in Davison/Nyssa quickie ‘Special Features’ from the Demons of Red Lodge anthology, as well as this month’s big 50th anniversary special the Light at the End) has also been honing his craft as a writer, with the best of his work to date appearing in Jago & Litefoot season four (the amusing Oscar Wilde episode Beautiful Things) and previously reviewed Jago & Litefoot/Tom Baker-era Doctor reunion Justice of Jalxar.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea – by the time we wend our way to the second half of the story, there is some measure of both Ace (on the action end) and McCoy (operating on the quieter but more significant political intrigue end of the spectrum). Furthermore, there is a touch of science fiction thrown into the mix, so it’s not all desk jockey hierarchical positioning and military black ops skullduggery.
But the simple fact is that Assassination Games represents far more of a Counter Measures story in tone, style and floor time than the average Who fan, particularly those well acquainted with the more typically forefronted style of the Big Finish Who, would ever have expected.
With this in mind and taking into account the lack of any direct connection to the history of 1963 so apparent in the previously reviewed Beatles pastiche Fanfare for the Common Men and Cold War “Space Race” story going by that very title, the Assassination Games represents something of an oddity and break in the festivities as it were.
And since this break comes in twofold form, representing a noticeable variation from the whole 1963 tie in as well as Big Finish Who per se (as far more of a Counter Measures spy affair than anything more acceptedly Who by nature), it’s hard to know how to take this one.
While it’s always a pleasure to hear Sly and Sophie together in action (and in fact the two represent my favorite of all Doctor/companion pairings in both televised and Big Finish audio settings, right up alongside the Pertwee/Jo/UNIT/Delgado Master team), the end result beggars two core questions in no small (Counter-) measure.
Is it a bad story? Certainly not – in fact, viewers gripped by the likes of The Ipcress File, All the President’s Men and Ffolkes, not to mention fans of such dime store novel authors as Robert Ludlum, John Le Carre and Tom Clancy should absolutely adore this one.
But is it Who – even the more manipulative, darker toned and oft scheming “Dark Doctor” of the Ace-era McCoy?
This latter query represents something of a conundrum, which I leave to the putative listener to decide…