Tuesday 28 August 2012

Counter-Measures Series One

Remembrance of the Daleks featured one of the finest guest performances of Doctor Who, that of Pamela Salem as Dr. Rachel Jensen. The portrayal was delightful; for once we got a mature and intelligent female character who was both sexy and elegant. Rachel Jensen was accompanied in that story by two other characters, Group Captain 'Chunky' Gilmore and a younger scientist, Allison Williams. While none of these characters had a fully fleshed out background in Remembrance of the Daleks, the strength of their performances along with their similarity to UNIT made them very memorable.

When I heard the news that these three cast members would be reprising their roles for the Big Finish audio series Counter-Measures, I was overjoyed. I have been waiting the release of this spin-off all year. On the whole, I have not been disappointed by Counter-Measures.

In creating the Counter-Measures team, Paul Finch and the writers made a deliberate attempt to avoid copying the set-up of UNIT. UNIT was a military organisation, with the Brigadier in charge. In contrast, the Counter-Measures group is under the leadership of Rachel the scientist. A fourth member of the regulars has been added, Sir Toby Kinsella, a slippery civil servant, played by Hugh Ross. Sir Toby is a delightful character, a Machiavellian whose true agenda is never really made clear.

Back in Remembrance of the Daleks, Jensen made a sly reference to Bernard Quatermass and British Rockets Group. Appropriately, Counter-Measures draws heavily om Quatermass as a source of inspiration. The plots concern dangerous experiments, terrifying artificial intelligences and unknowable entities from dimensions unknown. We are constantly left with the grand theme of Quatermass; that human civilization is only a step away from breakdown and madness. The writing on these stories is very strong, with an emphasis on sophisticated dialogue and character development rather than straightforward action.

All of the main cast members do a fantastic job. My only complaint is that Karen Gledhill's voice sounds just a little too Estuary to convincingly pull off a middle-class character from the Sixties. Just compare her vocal performance with that of Doctor Who regulars from the Sixties like Polly and Barbara. Karen Gledhill simply does not speak precisely enough. The guest cast are generally strong. A particular stand-out performance is that of Stephen Greif as Ken Temple, a megalomaniac industrialist from the East End.

The sound effects were a little too experimental at times, but very atmospheric and effective at creating an eerie atmosphere. The musical scores were appropriate to the period, and the flute-led theme tune is wonderful, evoking many Sixties spy dramas.

State of Emergency was by far the best story. This piece imagined a military coup against Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson. Interestingly, it also featured bat-like demons from another dimension. I could not help being reminded of the State of Decay vampires and the Yssgaroth. Given the title of this story, it seems likely that writer Justin Richards intended a connection.

There are a few things that disappointed me about the series, however. Gilmore is badly underused and is reduced to being just an action man. The writers have purposely tried to avoid making him another Brigadier. The problem with this is that Gilmore was conceived as a proto-Brigadier and bereft of this role, he is a little redundant.

I was a little troubled by the way the Counter-Measures group was introduced. The Counter-Measures team existed in Remembrance of the Daleks, yet two years on from that in this series, it is treated as a new organisation. There is not enough sense that this is three people who have worked together before. The only reason I can think of why the group is being treated as a new organisation is Rachel's throwaway comment about writing her memoirs (which Who Killed Kennedy established as what she actually did- though Millennial Rites suggests the opposite).

The logo and the resemblance of Sir Toby to Mr Waverly led me to expect Counter-Measures to have some resemblance to Man From Uncle. While the theme tune points in this direction, nothing else does. Counter-Measures first series has some great stuff, but what is missing is very apparent. I was surprised by the lack of humour, the lack of anything camp, or anything glamorous. It is so bleak and gritty. Is this not the Swinging Sixties? The next series definitely needs more light-hearted moments and some interaction with the rich popular culture of the early Sixties.

I was a little surprised by the lack of references to the wider Doctor Who universe. I got the impression that the writers saw themselves as a bit above that sort of thing. However, as it will only be Doctor Who fans who buy Counter-Measures, it makes sense to reward them with just a few more Doctor Who references. It would be nice to have a guest appearance from somebody familiar too. My suggestion would be Big Finish character Elizabeth Klein (the UNIT version). Why not? If UNIT Klein is the same age as Nazi Klein, she would be about 30 at the time of Counter-Measures. I hope Big Finish are reading this.

It was nice that Group Captain Gilmore making a comment about Rachel being unable to run in heels in Artificial Intelligence. This was a nice reference to the scene in Remembrance of the Daleks where Rachel was seen standing in her stocking feet having removed her heels to climb on board the Dalek spaceship.

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