The latest instalment of Counter-Measures opens with a decade-sized leap forward in the timeline of the series, leaving behind its 1960s’ origins and entering the tough new context of Britain in the turbulent years of the early 1970s. What makes this time shift all the more unexpected, is that the previous story ended on a cliffhanger; and one which suggested that the Counter Measures team might have paid the ultimate collective sacrifice.
Big Finish have described this reworking of the Counter-Measures imprint as a ‘reboot’, but there’s much more continuity in evidence here than that description implies; and it’s anyway an updating process that is still to complete. What’s on offer here are two highly-effective bridging episodes, which together provide a self-contained adventure that paves the way for the all-new series coming your way this autumn.
John Dorney provides the script for the opening titular episode, while director Ken Bentley pens the second part The Dead Don’t Rise. These two stories combine to deliver an inventive tale of espionage, international political intrigue and high adventure, set against the background of real world dramas that were gripping Britain at the tail-end of 1973: a time of the three-day week, the oil crisis and a renewed Cold War freeze. In their continuing battle against covert threats to British interests, the reassembled team still confront the dark forces of The Light, but their more pressing objective is terrestrial: to prevent the derailing of an oil deal between the OPEC nations that can stop the country’s economy from sliding into chaos, by thwarting an assassination plot against Prince Hassan Al-Nadyr.
As the team refresh their somewhat rusty investigative and spy skills, it is the tone and feel of Counter-Measures that works so well. The atmosphere effortlessly captures the sense of things being in flux; in transition between the optimism and whimsy of the 1960s and the unexpectedly tough and troubled early 1970s.
That gear shift affected the culture of ‘genre’ fiction just as strikingly as it impacted on real life as the decade turned. It’s entirely fitting then that this drama blends elements of the quirkiness of The Avengers, the action adventure motifs of The Champions, the super-seriousness of Doomwatch and the procedural intensity of Smiley’s People; all without losing sight of the drama’s origins in the fantastical universe of Doctor Who.
The drama does more than nod to the zeitgeist of the time, often through reference to the news headlines of the day (voiced in the calls of street-corner newspaper vendors, and overheard in extracts from radio and news broadcasts). At one critical point in the story, a standoff is interrupted by a power cut (a recurring problem at the time, as the effects of a national miners’ strike hit hard).
The catalyst for the old team to reconnect is the murder of their boss and colleague Toby Kinsella, who plunges lifeless into The Thames after being shot by an old nemesis. In Kinsella’s absence the team must put itself back together, and the reunited trio soon rediscover their combined mojo. It is Group Captain Gilmore (Simon Williams on particularly excellent form) who takes the initiative, encouraging Rachel Jensen (Pamela Salem) and Allison Williams (Karen Gledhill) to unearth the truth behind Kinsella’s demise and to carry on the fight on his behalf. The character dynamic between the reunited colleagues, mourning the loss of their former leader (but clearly revelling in the chance to throw themselves back into the fray), is absorbing and convincingly evokes the familiar motif of ‘getting the team back together’ in a fresh way.
The conceit of a group of semi-independent investigators who are a thorn in the side of authorities’ (yet also the government’s best asset) is itself not the newest idea in genre fiction, but works so effectively here because of the strength of the writing and the muscular momentum of the plot. Director Bentley once again demonstrates the panache with which he handles complex action sequences (no mean feat in the audio-only realm), but the many character exchanges of the piece make for equally satisfying listening.
Initially, though, it is the work of MI5, in the guise of the feisty Overton (Belinda Stewart-Wilson), and the agency’s attempt to protect uncooperative Prince Al-Nadyr (Raad Rawi) from murderous assailants that takes centre stage. Their combative relationship (a clash of two stubborn individuals, equally convinced that they know best) helps to establish the importance of these characters before scrutiny against turns to the Counter-Measures crew.
The final dramatic showdown is confidently plotted and directed, in taut and fast-moving scenes full of surprising twists and revelations. What’s refreshing is that the endgame is not rushed. There’s time set aside for a convincing wrap-up that accounts for the loose ends and sets up a lot of future possibilities. As a jumping in point, these two stories will work well for a new listener; as knowledge of the series’ backstory (although useful) is not a requisite.
The proposition put forward here is that the guile and subterfuge of the Counter-Measures team is not something constrained to a particular era; but talents that can prove their worth afresh as time marches on through the decades. The first of the 1970s’ era of adventures showcased here more than measure up to that idea.
NEW COUNTER-MEASURES: WHO KILLED TOBY KINSELLA? / AUTHOR: JOHN DORNEY, KEN BENTLEY / DIRECTOR: KEN BENTLEY / STARRING: SIMON WILLIAMS, PAMELA SALEM, KAREN GLEDHILL, HUGH ROSS, RAAD RAWI, BELINDA STEWART-WILSON / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW