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.

Friday 17 August 2012

Warlock, by Andrew Cartmel (Virgin New Adventure)

I really liked Andrew Cartmel's first New Adventure, Cat's Cradle: Warhead. There were a number of elements that made it great, the mysterious grim and foreboding Doctor, the non-linear plot, the peculiarly sparse dialogue and the surreal sense of a near future setting. Sadly, Warlock lacks all these elements that made Warhead so delightful.

Warlock has some great prose at times (and in a few places, some really bad prose) and some wonderful moments, such as the drug dealers using their drug to sound out who is an undercover cop and the way the gangster is destroyed by body language. However, it is seriously let down by a rambling and meandering plot that failed to engage with me. Cartmel also does an appalling job of trying to address the issue of vivisection, making out animal experimenters to be fiends who kidnap pets (animals for experimentation are specifically bred for that purpose) and enjoy torturing them for fun.

The Doctor does very little in this story. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Doctor-lite stories can be really effective. Birthright for instance has the Doctor only appearing a few times, yet the entire novel is filled with the sense of the Doctor's unseen presence. Warlock lacks that sense of the Doctor's presence or importance. He seems entirely incidental to the plot. The regular characters do very little as well. Cartmel puts the focus on his own characters, who are the most part, rather uninteresting and difficult to like. Perhaps it was down to the change in style, but even given several years maturity, Justine felt like an entirely different character to the person we saw in Warhead.

Being such a massive fan of the New Adventures and Warhead in particular, I expected a good deal more from this novel.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Arrived This Week!

My copy of the unlikely Big Finish audio spin-off , Counter-Measures arrived this week. I had been awaiting this with great anticipation all year. I pre-ordered it on Amazon, but they took a while to get hold of it after Big Finish released it.

In this Sixties science fiction adventure, Pamela Salem, Simon Williams and Karen Gledhill return to their roles as Rachel Jensen, Group Captain 'Chunky' Gilmore and Allison Williams from Remembrance of the Daleks.

Not only is Remembrance of the Daleks my favorite Doctor Who story, but Pamela Salem is my favorite guest actress in the show. Rachel Jensen was sexy in a really elegant and mature way, something unusual in modern television.

Judging by the artwork, I suspect that this series takes an awful lot of influence from the cranky Sixties spy show, The Man From UNCLE.

Expect a review in good time.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

The Keys of Marinus

There are some Doctor Who stories which get less interesting or enjoyable with every viewing. The Ark in Space comes into this category for me. It's a rather dull story once you have seen it a couple of times. In contrast, The Keys of Marinus becomes more enjoyable with every viewing. Each time I watch it, I get something new out of it. I did not care much for The Keys of Marinus on first viewing, but since then I have come to love it. Yes, the production values are very low in this story, but it still has a simple charm that does not fail to entertain. The Keys of Marinus reveals Terry Nation's main skill as a writer; he is brilliant at filling a story with exciting events. There is no shortage of tension or excitement as he takes the characters on a roller-coaster ride from one danger to another.

At the time of The Keys of Marinus, the format of Doctor Who was still in a state of flux. The Doctor was still not that likable and Barbara and Ian were the main characters. The loose-structured nature of this story, with it's episodic narrative makes a strong contrast with later serials, but it reflected the experimental nature of Doctor Who at this time.

Remember the Chrystal Maze? That program had different zones, an Aztec Zone, an Industrial Revolution Zone, a Medieval Zone and a Futuristic Zone. This serial likewise puts people the main characters into similarly diverse settings. And like the participants in The Chrystal Maze, they have to hunt for keys.

The first episode has a few problems, most caused by the small size of the sets. The cast do their best, but they are clearly struggling to make it convincing. This is not helped by the remarkably large number of fluffs from William Hartnell.

The Velvet Web's sets are a little cheap-looking as well, but this episode uses them better. The premise of things not looking like what they are is very cleverly done, with different points of view shots. The brains in the jars are very well conceived and their voices are highly effective. It is just unfortunate that their final scene is ruined by Jacqueline Hill's inability to break the glass.

There is a nice eeriness to the Screaming Jungle and this is backed up by a real sense of urgency. Unfortunately, this is a really cheap looking episode, with the dreadful idol and the laboratory that appears to be in a garden shed.

The next episode is more effective, mainly because of the great acting from Vasor, the trapper. I must admit, I am a bit in two minds about the scene where he appears to threaten Barbara with rape; it is a children's show after all. There is something a little worrying about the way that Barbara is repeatedly threatened with rape in the Hartnell era, though I suppose it is sadly true to life.

The ice warriors (what else do you call them?) look as cheap as the rest of the story but they are hilarious. The moment when they are stuck on the wrong side of the chasm is hilarious. I recently watched the Eisenstein's Russian classic, Alexander Nevsky. Every time I saw the Teutonic Knights, I kept thinking of the ice warriors in The Keys of Marinus and it made me crack up.

From the snows of the mountains, we are brought into a murder mystery in the more modern environment of Millennius. There is plenty of suspense and tension in this. I love the way Hartnell conveys frustration as Ian's plight becomes more desperate. I also really enjoyed the performance of Fiona Walker as Kala, which is especially impressive, given that it was her first role.

The conclusion is rather clumsy. Having a villain who only appears in the final episode can sometimes work, but in this story it does not. The Voord also appear to have changed their nature. In the first episode, they appear to be humans or humanoids in wetsuits. Now they are described as 'creatures' and Yartek their leader seems unable to remove his mask while disguised as Arbitan. That said, Yartek's pretence at being Arbitan is hilarious and not a little camp. Coming across as Fu Manchu in a rubber suit, he is one of the sillier Doctor Who villains.

As with a lot of other serials, Susan does not come across well in this, as she goes into a screaming fit at the slightest provocation. She is slightly redeemed in the fourth episode when she summons the courage to crawl across the deep chasm on a fragile pole of ice. I love Susan. She was such a great character, but if only she had been given a better deal by the writers.

Sabetha and Altos are interesting in the pseudo-companion like role they take on. They might have worked a little better if their background had been fleshed out a bit more. Their romance is suddenly sprung on us at the end. Sabetha is rather bland, though I do like the way she is so prim and proper. Altos is just a little bit too camp and definitely needed a longer tunic.

One piece of Doctor Who lore that deserves to be discussed here is The World Shapers comic strip, by Grant Morrison and John Ridgway. This remarkable story revealed that Marinus is Mondas and that the Cybermen were originally the Voord! A lot of fans are unwilling to consider this story canon, as it has Jamie McCrimmon dying an horrible death. Yet there do seem to be some good reasons for thinking that Marinus really might well be Mondas. The only reason identified in The World Shapers is the physical similarity between the Voord and the Cybermen. Both have handlebar like appendages on their helmets. There are other reasons. Marinus is an earth-like planet inhabited by near humans. It could easily be Earth's twin planet. There is also the stuff about computers controlling people's behavior. The episode The Screaming Jungle gives hints that Marinus might be threatened with environmental problems. Perhaps the ice creatures are cybernetic proto-Cybermen. As one of them screams, they cannot be robots. Personally, I am very keen on this theory as it seems to enlarge the importance of an otherwise throwaway story.