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Who out there doesn’t recall with fondness 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks? Effectively the first story to feature Sophie Aldred‘s Ace as a full fledged companion, it marked something of a sea change in 80’s Who from the colorful, played mainly for laughs stock uniform-afflicted panto feel late producer and media cheerleader John Nathan Turner brought with him.

From this episode forward to an all too sudden ending the subsequent year, the McCoy-era Who quickly transformed into the most essential chunk of series history since the respective runs of Barry Letts, Philip Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams over a decade prior.  And it goes beyond the change in tone and focus on the relationship between The Doctor and Ace, with all the subtle, if confrontational mentoring and character building that would comprise.

Because if you can look past the quite literal taking of the baseball bat to what had been a rather long, strange and contentious decade that Ace’s debut laid at the feet of viewers (take it or leave it, there’ll be some changes made here…), there was a further element introduced.  One that, in a similar vein to the much beloved Jago & Litefoot who stole the show in the perennial series high point Talons of Weng Chiang or the well-remembered Brigadier Bambera of the still to come Battlefield, came to the audience fully formed, only to fall into undeserved oblivion at the close of the serial.

Yes, we’re talking about Group Captain Ian “Chunky” Gilmore (Simon Williams), Dr Rachel Jensen (Pamela Salem) and her assistant Allison Williams (Karen Gledhill)…a UNITesque predecessor (or if you prefer, great-grandparent to Torchwood) later given the name of Counter-Measures.

And after a rather dry reintroduction to the team via last November’s Who crossover 1963: The Assassination Games, I’m happy to report this spinoff series actually ain’t half bad.

Caught between the secretive and insinuatory Sir Toby Kinsella (Hugh Ross) and the rather nastier middle management functionary Templeton (Philip Pope), Gilmore, Jensen and Williams have their hands full just navigating the minefield of office politics, never mind the unnatural or even unearthly incidents they investigate.  It’s all a bit too Robert Ludlum for my palate, so it’s a damn good thing this is bolstered by the assured acting of seasoned veterans…and that things turn a sight more science fiction than all this internecene political intrigue would suggest.

“I will not make deals.  I will not make promises.  Least of all, to a jumped up career politician willing to leap aboard whichever bandwagon will gain him the most votes…now don’t forget to wash your hands.”

In Changing of the Guard by Big Finish regular Matt Fitton (The Wrong Doctors, Charlotte Pollard, Dark Eyes 2Luna Romana), the Counter-Measures detachment finds itself under official investigation, with its very existence on trial based on incidents of the prior season.  There’s a power play in effect, from neo-conservative elements with a mind towards national takeover.

And in the meantime, a small time wide boy is moving up in the rackets with unprecedented rapidity, with his opponents literally being reduced to jelly…or so it would appear.

How does this all tie in with a mysterious ruby of unknown origin?  And can the team survive to defeat two seemingly unrelated but strangely parallel bids for control?

Closing out affairs and loose ends that would appear to have been left by the prior season, this is by far the most intrigue-laden installment in Series 3.  With Cockney spiv Kenny (Ben Bishop) and Alison’s side investigation at least providing some much needed colour, it’s bearable enough, but literally feels like an afterthought, both in the sense of the main story arc’s cleaning up of prior messes and in the sidebar inserted almost randomly as what amounts to a fairly trite comment on the main “action”.

It’s much needed in a sense, but in all objectivity, proves quite minor and sidelined by all the hoo-hah in Whitehall, both in relation to airtime devoted thereto and the two stories’ respective inherent gravitas.  Does Kenny’s “army of one” really parallel the Sunday Club’s attempted coup in any profound respect?  While obvious in a sense, it’s really something of a stretch, and could easily have been excised, structurally speaking.  Though again, that being said, I personally would have preferred the reverse…

Next up we have Justin Richards’ The Concrete Cage, which leaves much of the power politics behind in favor of a more Torchwoodesque investigation of the mysterious and unearthly.

“You show me a family that doesn’t have problems these days.”
“Yet only a few years ago, they were telling us we never had it so good.”
“Speak for yourself, guv.”

A public housing project set up amidst the ruins of the Blitz proves to be haunted…or is it?  With the region noted for a preponderance of insanity and built on the remains of a former asylum, the building proves strangely uncomfortable – unusual heat and claustrophobic closeness, headaches, difficulties in breathing, and a mysterious old woman seated at fireside who appears at random intervals.

Then there are the deaths…ones which occur regularly, always at the time of the full moon…

“It’s more of a reputation, I suppose.  They used to say the residents of the area had been touched by St. Antony.  He was the patron saint of madness, you see…

I’ve made extensive studies, but there seems to be no explanation for these sudden bouts of madness…of rage, temper…murder.  St. Antony’s asylum was built here because it was an area where people went mad…it was built for the local residents.”

David Troughton’s younger brother Michael (both sons of late Second Doctor and “cosmic hobo” Patrick Troughton) gives a rather creepy turn as local historian Roderick Purton, who may well be as homicidally insane as the unfortunate residents he describes…

Quite eerie and Lovecraftian, with all its intimate settings and quaint, personable old locals who bear a sinister secret, The Concrete Cage is something of a bucolic rustic ghost story, albeit one with a more science fiction-based explanation and set smack dab in the middle of early 60’s London.  Wholly unlike much of the prior story or the Doctor Who crossover last year, this is the first time Counter-Measures truly “clicks” for this new listener, and provides a much welcome redirection for the series.

Good stuff, from the guy who gave us the excellent early Colin Baker/Peri effort Whispers of Terror and several standout episodes of Jago & Litefoot.

“Do you have to walk so fast?”
“How else am I going to leave you behind?”

Then we come to The Forgotten Village by Counter-Measures series director Ken Bentley (also known for direction of such highlights as The Death Collectors, Enemy of the Daleks and The Dark Planet) – this would appear to be his first screenwriting credit.

“During the time we spent working together and the times we’ve spent in each other’s company, it is fair to say that I’ve always considered you a…blasted idiot!

With Alison given a formal directive to return home to the small town of her youth, she’s forced to face up to old wounds, a sick father and past loves.  While Gilmore puts the moves on Dr. Jensen, Alison must face down her past while finding herself trapped by a mysterious outbreak and quarantine of her ancestral home…and what do the Soviets have to do with all this?

Again, despite what feels like too large of a story to achieve adequate exploration within the confines of an hourlong audio, Bentley provides a welcome, very UNITlike mix of science fiction, characterization and humanity and military procedure.  While it feels like Alison’s story and her issues with both father and hometown are only nominally fleshed out, the end result is nonetheless engaging enough to give this one another thumbs up.

Finally, John Dorney (Justice of Jalxar, King of Sontar, The Crooked Man and the aforementioned 1963: The Assassination Games) brings us Unto the Breach, which manages to upend all the pleasant aspects of the last two stories Dark Shadows style.  Alison’s no longer with us, so to speak (and that’s as much as you’ll get on that), Gilmore and Jensen are splitsville, and there’s a pseudo-Nazi doctress performing experiments on unwitting military “volunteers”.

The double dealing and intrigue, both within the realm of “friendly fire” and without, return en force and there’s a setup for the next series that may bode ill for the team…  Oh, yeah, and there’s aliens in East Germany, and they’re trying to defect.  Sorta.  It’s all rather icky.

Well, overall, this series still comes out on the positive end of the equation, with two surprisingly decent and atmospheric cult horror trope-inflected adventures comprising the meat of this metaphorical sandwich.  While the top slice of bread has some flavor to it, the bottom slice is perhaps a bit past its expiration date, with a distinctly sour tinge offsetting the whole affair somewhat.  And I thought you were supposed to start and end on high points…

Simon Williams, veteran of such disparate offerings as the Jon Pertwee Whodunnit?, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Peter Sellers’ inauspicious swansong The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, pulls in just enough of a Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuartesque likeability to his somewhat dim, decidedly by-the-book career soldier Gilmore.

If anything, his raspy, gargling tones imbue his performance with additional authority, evoking a somewhat world weary but dedicated man of duty and action.  Further, his relations with Salem’s Jensen are positively endearing in their heady admixture of cluelessness and boyish wide-eyed wonder.  It’s a winning combination, and says a lot about the character of Jensen that she is so standoffish and resistant to his naive charm.

Pamela Salem, familiar to viewers from appearances on such series as Blakes 7, Scorpion Tales and Jason King and as the new Miss Moneypenny in the Sean Connery iteration of 1983’s “duelling Bonds”, Never Say Never Again, is perhaps best remembered as the sinister witch Belor in the entertaining children’s series Into the Labyrinth.  Appropriately, she brings the same haughty ice princess imperiousness to her role herein, all clipped sentences and jagged edges.

That said, there is an undertone of good humor that sneaks its way through a line delivery here and there, particularly in the enjoyable (if all too brief) banter and flirtation between herself and Williams that wends its way throughout the season.  It’s subtle, but present nonetheless…

By contrast, Karen Gledhill offers a much needed dose of warmth and humanity, alongside a decided penchant for investigative work.  As Gilmore admits to Williams at one point, “I know you and your hunches are not usually wrong,” and it is her detective work that often uncovers the facts of the matter at hand.

While her backstory is only explored on a very general level, she almost singlehandedly manages to ground the team with a level of likeability and pathos unmarred by the careful speech and untrustworthy backstabbing social politics inherent to explorations of military and governmental officialdom (particularly in a tense and paranoid Cold War setting).

Hugh Ross’ slippery Sir Toby Kinsella is appropriately quite hard to pin down, alternating variably between comprehensibly sympathetic and two-faced: eminently comfortable navigating the corridors of power while seeming to resist the auspices thereof all the same.

It’s a difficult performance to rate, and perhaps this is as it should be.  But regardless of the listener’s (and fellow characters’) ever shifting feelings about the character and his motives, Ross’ performance here is indisputably an accomplished and nuanced one.  Kudos.

In sum, this particular newbie found a surprising if welcome degree of likeability to the four leads and their adventures…at least to the extent they moved beyond the whole Tom Clancy by way of Robert Ludlum milieu.  But much of that is intrinsic to the time period and setting, so to wish it away en toto would likely deconstruct the entire paradigm and basis from which Counter-Measures derives.

That said, all this careful brinksmanship is just not my cuppa, and it is only to the extent that Williams, Salem, Gledhill and Ross (and their rotating cast of screenwriters) are able to transcend all that haute tension political jiggery-pokery that the series succeeds.

 

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/counter-measures-series-3-box-set-1013

 

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