Big Finish, Christopher Benjamin, Colin Baker, Counter Measures, Daphne Ashbrook, Doctor Who, Gallifrey, Jago & Litefoot, Karen Gledhill, Lalla Ward, Lisa Bowerman, Louise Jameson, Pamela Salem, Richard Franklin, Simon Williams, third eye cinema podcast, Trevor Baxter, UNIT, Yee Jee Tso
These days, it’s become so commonplace as to invite groans, but back in the glory days of comic fandom, there were occasional (if rare) events known as crossovers.
What would happen is that unlike the standard approach of effectively siloed and self contained worlds between each character or title, some major storyline would not only expand beyond the usual one to two issue length, but further expand its breadth to “cross over” into another unrelated title.
Sometimes this was due to the cancellation of a lower selling title (whose loose ends and dangling plotlines were wrapped up in a catch-all “spotlight” “premiere” or “special” title or perhaps a “team up” one), other times deliberately designed to introduce a new or relatively obscure character to a larger audience.
But generally, these were huge “earth shaking events”, necessitating the intervention and involvement of heroes across the spectrum. The results were strange and fascinating, as multiples of otherwise unrelated “worlds” and background characters would be breached and impacted by the mingling of often large groupings of solo artists with super teams.
In what would appear much the same spirit of 70’s-early 80’s comic scripting, Big Finish has brought together several of its tangenitally Who-related spinoffs into one overarching story.
“People do indeed confide in Henry Gordon Jago. I think it’s because I have an innate ability to put them at their ease, to engender a sort of confidence that makes them feel they can be open and honest and forthcoming.”
“So, have you heard anything?”
“Not a word.”
First up, Justin Richards (Whispers of Terror, Jago & Litefoot, Gallifrey) gives us a typically delightful display of linguistic legerdemain and logophilic luxuriance (not to mention a honorarium to halcyon Victorian Holmesiana) from our personal favorite of all the Big Finish lines*, Jago & Litefoot.
* Admittedly, the highly entertaining if somewhat one dimensional Pathfinder Legends is becoming a serious challenger to that lofty designation…
“He does do some mesmeric messing about and the sort. The public love it. To be honest, I find it a bit cruel…making people do things they didn’t ought to be doing…I don’t know, I got the impression that he enjoys humiliating others.”
“Some people do.”
A sudden rash of mysterious murders and suicides has hit central London.
The victims…and perpetrators are all seemingly upstanding citizens without any sort of criminal record. What ties these terrifying events to Henry Gordon Jago’s New Regency Theatre? And what is the awful secret of his highly popular new act?
With a suave if sinister villain whose sheer delight in the command and ruination of others and some obvious overtones of the Wizard of Gore himself, Montag the Magician, Mr. Rees makes a worthy additon to the annals of cultured nasties and upper crustish bounders the fellows face on a routine basis (Gabriel Sanders, Dr. Tulp, Prof. Payne, The Colonel, etc.)
“It’s horrible…those poor people, being made fun of like that.”
“I can’t pretend it’s to my taste at all. Most of the audience seem to find it amusing.”
“It ain’t the least bit funny. It’s cruel, just like Mr. Jago said. To stop it, he ought.”
“I suppose he needs what he refers to as the bottoms on seats, if you’ll forgive the vulgarity.”
“Not as vulgar as what’s happening on stage…”
“Ellie, you’re not thinking of…”
“Stopping it? No, but someone should. I can’t stand this no longer, I’m gonna get some air.”
Further, even beyond the obvious sociopolitical jab at would be “power brokers” with utter lack of concern for human dignity or the welfare of those whose actions they manipulate to their own selfish ends, there’s a rather timely if slightly more subtle comment being made here about contemporary culture.
With the rise of “amateur video” in numerous arenas making the move from semi-innocent if obviously faked “Funniest Home Videos” to the more malign schadenfreude of “Jackass” culture, “torture porn” and eventually such disturbing trends as the so-called “knockout game”, we’re seeing an increasing number of malicious kids and teens whose idea of fun is to harm small animals, the homeless, the aged, the disabled and those smaller or more unable to defend themselves.
Taken in light of this disturbing paradigmatic shift in society, both Mr. Rees and the crowd’s obvious enjoyment of his public degradations of the unsupecting should hit the listener right between the eyes with admonitory accusation. For if you’re not part of the resistance to blatant and outright evil…are you not therefore offering it your tacit support?
“Then I shall be delighted to chaperone such a charming and refined companion.”
“Hmm, thank you, professor. And we’ll let Ellie come along too.”
As ever, the sheer delights of the Jago & Litefoot world are twofold: the fogbound Victorian London setting, so strongly evocative of the dual worlds of Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer, and the strong emphasis on characterization.
Centering as it does on two late middle age protagonists from very different social strata (and their beloved barmaid companion cum adventuress Ellie Higson (series director Lisa Bowerman), this is a series that depends on the likeability of its leads and a sort of worldbuilding that develops around the two men and their odd duck companionship as a pair (or trio) of unlikely Holmes and Watson cum Smith and Petrie detective-adventurers (Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter, respectively).
Where even the strongest scripted Who with the least physical of Doctors can still resort to explosions and all out action as a crutch, with two literal (or aspiring) gentlemen of a certain age, that sort of thing is never really an option.
The emphasis, rather, falls on the highly gothicized mysteries and a mix of intellectual acumen and light comedy accentuated by no small measure of tongue in cheek logorrheic verbosity, and the warm if often rather silly interrelationships and characterization between the two loveably pompous if somewhat doddering gents and their small circle of compatriots (to which we’d be remiss not to append the faithful if somewhat dim Sgt. Quick (Conrad Asquith).
There’s not a lot to say about this particular episode as a standalone, other than that it does provide a clear example of all the elements that make the series such a great one; in fact, far moreso than any of the prior crossovers, this one truly “feels” like the yearly to twice yearly season box sets, and provides a great introduction to those unlucky few who have not yet indulged in what remains Big Finish’s most delightful, well scripted, brilliantly acted and ultimately just plain loveable series.
“The Reesinger Institute is a top level service provider. They’ve been checked and vetted, and between you and me, they’re a damn good value for money.”
“That rather depends on what they provide.”
“It’s basically specialized training for key military personnel and senior civil servants. What we term contingency character building. I’m sure you know what that means.”
Several prominent political and military personnel are committing murders followed by suicide. Each of them leaves behind a successor with right wing warhawk tendencies. Could this be a plot to heat up the Cold War?
But if so…why are seemingly random civilians also being targeted?
Group Captain Ian “Chunky” Gilmore (Simon Williams) and Alison Williams (Karen Gledhill) find themselves undergoing training at the Reesinger Institute, a government contractor providing a cutting edge anti-brainwashing technique that the British military is only too happy to utilize.
But when one of the would-be suicides winds up in a coma, Dr. Rachel Jensen (Pamela Salem) discovers a bizarre anomaly in his brain, a second, fainter waveform that implies something far more sinister…
Can the team unravel the mystery? And will Sir Toby Kinsella (Hugh Ross) and Dr. Jensen be able to extricate the rest of the team from winding up in the same situation as those unfortunates they’ve come to Reesinger to investigate?
After a bit of a rough start introduction to the Counter-Measures team with the rather dry 1963: the Assassination Games, I find the relatively new line beginning to grow on me.
Certainly the recent Season Three proved there was more to the Remembrance of the Daleks spinoff than Robert Ludlumesque spying and intrigue, with some eyebrow raising romantic and personal elements showing up alongside a bit of a sci-fi orientation that brought Torchwood somewhat to mind.
But this story does more than simply continue on that less forbidding, more inclusionary tack – it actually improves upon it by offering very much of a (Brian Clemens) Avengers bent. Take my word for it, once you’ve heard this particular installment, you’ll find it quite easy to substitute John Steed and any of his distaff companions (or even Gareth Hunt) in place of Gilmore, Williams, Jensen or Kinsella. As a longtime fan of that series and its particular motifs, I’m taking this as a definite plus.
One can only hope the next season of Counter-Measures picks up in the same spirit where this episode leaves off…
“Ruth and I are here because the alternative was a lifetime behind bars. But you volunteered. So why?”
An emergency signal has gone out from The Vault, where a rather Torchwoodesque UNIT has moved all their captured alien tech from over the years. A contingent of a dozen soldiers are trapped down there, with…something. Something unknown. Something deadly.
The odd duck in the bunch scriptwise actually seems to flow quite well from the Counter-Measures adventure, namely Jonathan Morris’ (Cobwebs, Ghost in the Machine, 1963: the Space Race) sole contribution to this set, The Screaming Skull. Interestingly, it pairs the appropriately Pertwee-era UNIT Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) with (of all people) the two companions from Paul McGann’s sole televised adventure (!)
Yes, none other than Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso turn up as the apparently disgraced modern day UNIT agents Ruth Matheson and Charlie Sato. Not being familiar with the Big Finish iteration of UNIT, all I can go by is what is said here, that they were formerly under the control of the Master and thus have become a high security risk.
Faced with the choice of remaining in effective lifetime lockdown or joining the recumbent retiree in what amounts to a potential suicide mission with the promise of a clean slate, they make the only choice possible…
Filled with zombies, talking skulls and a failsafe measure that leaves the trio with one mere hour to accomplish their goal, this episode brings the serial kicking and screaming into the modern age, with a rather Resident Evil 2 by way of…well, Ghost in the Machine and Warning Sign approach that locks our heroes away with a menace that simply cannot be allowed to escape…
“I should have realized. All the other soldiers in the Vault were dead…why not her?”
While the backstory romance between Franklin and Leftenant Jane Lucas stretches credulity somewhat and consequently feels a bit forced, Tso reprises his nervously pessimistic yet wisecracking hipster role with admirable gusto, coming off as easily the most likeable (and honestly, realistic) member of the small ensemble cast thereby.
Ashbrook retains the same snide, somewhat forcefully feminist aggression of her Dr. Grace Holloway, and Franklin offers a strangely uppercrustish take on Yates that seems little in keeping with his more idealistic youthful self in the Pertwee era. Characterization and development, perhaps? Who knows.
The bottom line is that there’s not a lot going on here, plotwise, being something of a particularly atmospheric, horror-tinged vignette with some character bits tagged in than either of the stories which preceded it. But again, this isn’t to say it’s necessarily lesser – if anything, I actually preferred its claustrophobic fatalism to the comparatively light Counter-Measures piece, being more particularly defined by low budget 80’s-90’s style horror and horror/sci-fi videogaming than listeners might generally expect from Big Finish.
In simpler terms, “good” or “bad” isn’t really the operative question here – it’s simply that it’s different from what surrounds it.
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing…it’s just…with that space time telegraph thing, you never know who’s going to turn up.”
“Well count yourself lucky it’s me.”
“I do…I do. Thank you.”
Finally, matters close out with another Justin Richards tale, this time in cooperation with a certain Nick Wallace, which brings both Who and the Gallifrey series together with UNIT to finally put to rest the immortal menace of Mr. Rees.
Featuring the inestimable Colin Baker’s “Old Sixie”, Lalla Ward’s iteration of Romana and Louise Jameson’s Leela together with Franklin’s Mike Yates, Second Sight finds the two “teams” coming together accidentally to solve what’s become a far more cosmic menace than anyone had previously imagined…
“The mechanism of a music box, containing a malevolent mind. Hardly exceptional enough to attract your attention…”
“It’s been giving us enough trouble, still is.”
“Even so. What was so special about this particular psychic trace?”
With Leela possessed and the Rees music box setting huge crowds at each others’ throats, the others must track her down and prevent his takeover of a multinational space program before his ever-increasing scope of influence travels beyond even the borders of Earth itself…
“Oversight? I don’t miss a thing.”
“No, I mean the Oversight project…a huge transmitter in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest.”
“It’s designed to send messages into deep space…”
There’s an interesting comment being made about the NSA and surreptitious government-military surveillance of civilians here, but this one doesn’t really lend itself to in depth exploration. Much like the earlier stories in this particular anthology, Second Sight is more of a vignette, too busy exploring its multitude of characters and the mechanics of plot and action to worry about deeper meanings or spend any real time in introspection and metacognitive philosophizing.
When it comes down to brass tacks, the only thing this particular story hinges upon is the strength of persona of two of its leads, namely the loveably oversized performance of Colin Baker and the ever spunky Lalla Ward. Franklin and Jameson don’t really get proper space to shine this time around, nor is there an incredible amount of room for Jamie Glover’s Rees to strut his malevolent stuff.
In point of fact, this is purely a mechanical exercise, designed to simultaneously wrap up loose ends from the earlier stories and further ramp up the presumed gravitas to a much larger scale. In effect, it’s Grant Morrison’s Justice League – all bombast and no actual point. Like junk food, it may taste pretty good going down, but is quickly forgotten, with few nutrients or substance to show for its brief, rather lightweight presence.
For those unfamiliar with the Jago & Litefoot, Counter-Measures, UNIT or Gallifrey lines, this one’s a no brainer: you get some rather decent representative (or perhaps unrepresentative in certain cases, as both Counter-Measures and Gallifrey can come off far drier than the more fascinating if not exciting iterations contained herein) offerings to suck you in to yet another worthy Big Finish line you may not have delved into to date.