15 August 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Matt Fitton, Justin Richards, Ken Bentley, John Dorney

RRP: £35.00 (CD) / £30.00 (Download)

Release Date: August 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 15th August 2014

The British government has created the Counter-Measures group, a specialist team that investigates strange phenomena and dangerous technology. This box set contains four of their adventures plus a behind-the-scenes documentary.

Changing of the Guard
Sir Toby fights for his career, while Counter-Measures leads a very different fight...

The Concrete Cage
Counter-Measures investigates strange events at a tower block under construction.

The Forgotten Village
A personal crisis for Allison turns into one of Counter-Measures' most dangerous assignments.

Unto the Breach
When footage emerges of an alien creature held in the Eastern Bloc, the team goes undercover to find it.”

***

Anyone who has read my review of The Assassination Games will know that I am rather fond of this spin-off series.  Plucking Allison, Rachel and Ian from the events of Remembrance of the Daleks and giving them their own series was perhaps a risk, but three series in, that edge of potential jeopardy is gone and you wonder instead why no-one saw the potential beforehand.

Three series in now, Big Finish seem happy enough to tweak the format slightly and give us something which is structurally perhaps more in line with Jago and Litefoot and Dark Eyes: the series’s story arc is more prevalent here than it ever has been before, ala Jago, whilst the entire thing feels at times more like the first instalment of something rather than a standalone affair, much as was the case with Dark Eyes 2 (and yet it is quite unlike that, for reasons I’ll go into later).  Whether or not that’s a good thing will depend, I suspect, on one’s views on those two series, and there is definitely an argument that what hasn’t been broken before maybe didn’t need to be fixed.  That said, it worked for me: I liked the risk it took and by the end of the fourth story in the set, I was very much on the edge, wanting more.

Let’s look at the stories in turn though, because much as I enjoyed the set overall, it’s safe to say that some episodes ranked higher for me than others.

We open with Changing of the Guard by Matt Fitton, a very capable pair of hands when it comes to scriptwriting in general and even more so when it comes to Counter-Measures.  This story has to serve two fronts: to mop up the debris of Series 2 and to set up the placement of the characters’ relationships for the rest of Series 3.  Fitton does this well with a script that takes full advantage of the 1960s setting with a tale of gangsters and ne’er-do-wells whilst counterpointing Sir Toby Kinsella’s duplicitous nature and string-pulling with the fact that he too is a puppet at times to higher powers.

Is it a perfect story? No.  There is a moment of utter stupidity for Allison that was frankly embarrassing in which she appears to forget seeing an object that the script brings painful attention to mere moments later when she sees a duplicate of it, and what should be a rousing and hard-hitting moment when Gilmore tries to round up some troops is left a bit icky and overly-sentimental as it’s reliant upon Gilmore narrating what’s going on: some things work better visually.

It’s a good opening though and leads us nicely to The Concrete Cage, the second tale in this box set and arguably the most standalone.  Written by Justin Richards, it is a ghost story that again uses the 1960s setting well, with post-war England trying to rebuild itself whilst shadows of the past loom large.  Sadly though, beyond using the era well, this episode did very little for me, with certain characters being oddly slow to reach what are fairly obvious solutions and, sadly, an air of predictability about it that renders potential surprises a bit dull.  What it most definitely does have in its favour though is a very solid guest performance from Michael Troughton as the brilliantly named Roderick Purton (Roderick Purton! Come on, that’s a great name) who manages to elevate what could be a rather nondescript and, again, predictable character with a predictable function far beyond its confines.

There was little else that really stood out for me in this story though.  Yes, the main cast’s rapport is as good as usual, but three series in now, that’s almost just expected from proceedings.  Thankfully though, things take an upswing with The Forgotten Village, the scriptwriting debut for Big Finish Productions by their go-to director Ken Bentley.  Ostensibly a character piece for Allison Williams, the story involves Allison being forced to return home to care for her sick father in his hour of need, despite her reluctance to and antipathy towards him.  So far, so usual perhaps, and certainly as the start of this episode, I found myself thinking, “Well, I can see where this one’s going...”

I was wrong though.  Potential old flames and happy reunions present themselves but Bentley is clever and knows Allison well enough to not make her do anything out of character.  We have the sprouts of clichés present themselves to us, but rather than fully blooming, Bentley subverts them.  It also gives us a truly surprising ending, something it has in common with the series finale, Unto the Breach by John Dorney.  This is probably the strongest use of the 1960s setting in Counter-Measures yet to my eyes and it reaps rewards accordingly.

Using the paranoia, cold harshness and mystery (to outsiders) of post-war Berlin as its starting point, Unto the Breach deals with the aftermath of The Forgotten Village on one hand whilst pushing other characters into truly dangerous situations with the other.  It’s become something of a cliché for press releases to describe stories or episodes as pushing ‘characters into places they have never been before’, but this story fully lives up to that hype.  Tense, clever, surprising and utterly nasty at times, Dorney ends the series on a real high and you do reach the end wondering how on earth Series 4 is going to resolve all that’s happening.  This is where it is simultaneously like and unlike Dark Eyes 2, as I alluded to earlier.  Both of them are the first instalments of something larger, but whilst a lot of Dark Eyes 2 perhaps felt like it was setting up all of which is to come, Counter-Measures 3 is less setting up than being that first episode of a two-part adventure.  I have a feeling that Series 4 will be less a standalone affair and more akin to Series 3b... but I’m fine with that.  If it can successfully build on all that has been started here and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion (no easy task) then I’ll be cheering.

It’s just a pity we have such a long time to wait before then! Time enough to watch Remembrance of the Daleks one more time and go back to where it all started, perhaps.

 

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