Building on the momentum provided by last year’s ‘transition’ special Who Killed Toby Kinsella? the first series of the New Counter Measures announces the relaunched team’s arrival in the mid-1970s in fine style, through the drama of distinctive standalone stories which together augur really well for the show’s future.
The time shift leads to some notable changes in tone and style from the tales set in the previous decade. This is a more glamorous Counter Measures than existed in the less exuberant world of 1960s’ Doctor Who. As the behind-the-scenes interviews make clear, the show’s production team have made conscious efforts to emulate the panache, elan and confidence of ITC’s stable of action shows, as a re-energising jumping-off point.
These New Counter Measures’ adventures draw on themes familiar to fans of series such as Man in a Suitcase, The Protectors and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased); not least those shows’ blend of high concept stories, energetic action sequences and moral protagonists who move through a fast-changing world with an unflappable sense of self-belief and confidence.
Not that Counter Measures’ writers feel duty bound to only reflect the lightness and moral simplicity that distinguished so many of ITC’s most memorable imprints. For all of the Seventies’ brashness, these remain stories with serious undertones, and inventive (and sometimes unsettling) plot twists. The inclusion of alien technology and supernatural elements reaffirms the show’s roots in the Doctor Who universe, but there are plenty of realistic, ‘real world’ constraints hampering the ability of the Counter Measures’ team to thwart their enemies’ schemes. These are very recognisable, human champions.
In that sense, there are some clear parallels between the struggles of Toby Kinsella’s agents and those of their early-70s’ contemporaries in the offices of Doomwatch. Toby Wren and his compatriots were another specialist team working on the fringes of officialdom to protect the public good - although Spencer Quist would never have signed-off on an all-expenses-paid ‘jolly’ to Monte Carlo!
This first series of new adventures offers a set of four top-notch episodes. Guy Adams’ “Nothing to See” serves up an effective blend of two genres: going undercover in a gang of thieves pulling off audacious heists, and the sci-fi staple of an ‘invisibility’ device. Adams’ twist is that ‘disappearing from sight’ has unexpected impacts on the user’s memory and psyche. “Troubled Waters” by Ian Potter is a tense and claustrophobic tale set aboard an alarmingly empty submarine. The team risk death in the icy depths as they uncover the chilling truth about the vessel’s hidden weapons.
Best of the bunch is Christopher Hatherall’s “The Phoenix Strain”; in part a homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds, which explores the threat posed by the spread of an avian disease that turns feathered friends into ruthless assailants and which infects scientists and members of the public alike. Events are brought to a satisfying conclusion in John Dorney’s “A Gamble with Time”, which has great fun subverting expectations in a tale of time-travelling technology and high-stakes gambling.
Sparking exchanges between the different members of the Counter Measures team have long since become a signature motif of the series and, as the generous set of cast interviews make clear, all five actors relish working together on the show. Amidst the high adventures, there’s time for some entertaining character interplay; with the spotlight this time picking up on the growing recognition and mutual respect between Professor Rachel Jensen (Pamela Salem) and Allison Williams (Karen Gledhill). Simon Williams continues to shine in the role of dashing ‘man of action’ Group Captain Ian Gilmore, while Hugh Ross exudes an assured sense of focus as the redoubtable team leader Kinsella.
Director Ken Bentley handles the action sequences with the usual aplomb, meeting the challenges set by his scriptwriters (invisibility in the realm of audio is always a tough sell). Sound design is strong, enhancing the atmosphere and the sense of ‘place’ as the drama moves between a tin coffin beneath the waves, the bustling streets of London and the decadent interiors of luxury hotels and casinos.
Amongst an impressive guest cast, pride of place goes to Carolyn Seymour who excels as the elegant and scheming Lady Suzanne Clare. She is a beguiling villainess, and listeners can only hope that Big Finish deliver on their heavy hints about Clare’s return in future stories
The quality of the diverse stories in this boxset confirms that a focus on standalone adventures suit the New Counter Measures rather well. The new setting - the troubled and turbulent 1970s - opens up a whole new vista of storytelling. In the world of genre TV, it was a decade defined by the new brutal sensibilities of shows like Survivors, Noah’s Castle, The Changes and 1990. For as long as the New Counter Measures combines the influences of its 1960s’ roots with the darker and more expansive stylings of the 1970s it will continue to deliver stories that intrigue and convince.
THE NEW COUNTER MEASURES SERIES ONE / CAST: SIMON WILLIAMS, PAMELA SALEM, KAREN GLEDHILL, HUGH ROSS / DIRECTOR: KEN BENTLEY / WRITERS: GUY ADAMS, IAN POTTER, CHRISTOPHER HATHERALL, JOHN DORNEY / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW FROM BIG FINISH; GENERAL RELEASE: FEBRUARY 1ST