Series 1 of Counter-Measures established the tone it was going for like a punch in the face – 60s ITC, which, to any non-Brits, means ‘in the vein of great adventure serials like The Avengers, Department S, The Saint and the like’ – pacey, stylish, more than a little upper-crust, and with the power to swoop in to save the day if need be.
Series 1 essayed the fundamental spirit of Counter-Measures by pitching the team against four classic villain-types of the day – Nazi scientists with alien assistants, Russian scientists and brainwashing machines, megalomaniac industrialists who ran their own tin-pot kingdoms, and aristocratic anarchists threatening to overthrow the rule of law. All good meaty stuff, with plenty of creepiness along the way.
The planning meeting for Series 2 must have been a juggling session of ‘What have we not done yet?’ – what archetypes of 60s sci-fi adventure drama hadn’t yet been tackled by the team formed after the events of Remembrance of the Daleks?
Here we’re in the territory of super soldiers, genetic manipulation, conspiracy, nuclear power and more Russian mind manipulation. If anything the stories in Series 2 feel more grounded, more down to Earth and less reliant on the alien intervention that launched Counter-Measures on its journey.
There’s a very distinct feeling of the team having grown up slightly here too, come slightly further from the archetypes as which they started, for the most part having been created for the family show that was 80s Doctor Who. There are no sneaky back-references to the Coal Hill incident here – or if there are, they’re minimal and thrown away – but the drama of real humans, real politics and real emotional involvements at a number of levels is explored in significant depth. That’s largely down to an increased focus on the member of the core team who wasn’t part of the Coal Hill hijinks – Sir Toby Kinsella, Counter-Measures’ man at the Ministry. That shift of focus necessarily moves the team from ‘debonair clever folk solving crimes’ territory into something inherently harder: good people doing a tough job, under the command of someone who, much of the time, may not be terribly likeable.
The first story, Manhunt by Matt Fitton, opens up with a bang, with Group Captain Gilmore, the team’s military backbone, on the run for a murder he may or may not have committed. Sir Toby the arch manipulator appears to be heading up the manhunt, while Gilmore’s replacement goes about ingratiating himself with the team. There are real sexual politics at play in this story, very true to sixties life, particularly in the way women fought – and sometimes compromised – their way towards equality in the eyes of an establishment rarely inclined to take them seriously. The big reveals, when they come, are perhaps not as massively unexpected as Fitton might have wanted them to be, but they do at least deliver the drama well and leave us with a few shocks to rock our system, and ensure we listen closely going forward.
The Fifth Citadel by James Goss takes us into creepy 60s nuclear fear territory, with bunkers under London, tube workers with radiation sickness and an ultimate sanction gambit for nuclear disarmament. Fifty years on, nothing about the physics of radiation has radically changed, so The Fifth Citadel still sends a shudder down the spine at its central ideas, but more than anything, Sir Toby is essential in the foreground – while The Fifth Citadel has plenty for everyone to do (Group Captain Gilmore gaining another nickname in the process, in case ‘Chunky’ ever grows tired) it’s Kinsella who’s the key to the whole thing, through his association with another great scientist, Dr Elizabeth Bradley (Celia Imrie continuing her conquest of the geek world with another great turn following her appearance in The Bells of St John). Just as Toby was a key player in Manhunt, delivering a solution that shocked, so he’s a prime mover here, and he ends The Fifth Citadel with a hard-as-nails move that sends even more shivers down the spine than the central threat of the episode does. For all Sir Toby’s charm, these first two episodes introduce us to the man who is the Government’s voice in the investigation of everything strange, setting up an odd dynamic – it’s clearly a bad idea to tangle with Toby, but will the rest of the team eventually have to, to save their souls before Kinsella pushes them too far?
Episode Three, Peshka by writing team Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, is more in the vein of Series 1, with Russian aggression at its core. It’s also Counter-Measures does Chess, with Russian and American grand masters playing in Amsterdam, rumours of an intended defection, and even vaguer rumours of an intelligence programme to create a kind of superhuman. While Kinsella again takes the lead here, there’s more of a Series 1 split between the action, with Pamela Salem’s Rachel Jensen and more particularly Karen Gledhill’s Alison Williams taking centre stage as they befriend the Russian master and his sister, who has begged them to allow him to defect. Nothing of course is as simple as it seems, and as the peshka (pawns) are moved around, a grander gameplan is eventually revealed, leading to the weirdest episode ending in Counter-Measures history so far. While it’s true that Peshka is more in the vein of Series 1, it’s all about the mindsets of political ideologies clashing, so it would be a mistake to imagine it’s anything of a lighter experience than the other episodes of Series 2.
Finally, Sins of the Fathers not only takes us furthest into Sir Toby’s mind and past actions, but also acts as a kind of sequel to Manhunt, rounding off a series that has been intense, moody, in-period but nothing like as much fun as Series 1. More genetic manipulation, more super-soldiers, more ultimate sanctions, and more underlining of the notion that Sir Toby is a cold-hearted public servant, able to divorce himself from human connections to do what he believes is necessary. You could argue he’s a psychopath, frankly – there are plenty of them successfully making their way in society, after all – it just makes it slightly harder to root for the Counter-Measures team if you think of him that way.
The choice to grow up the storytelling in Series 2 is clearly a conscious move to develop Counter-Measures as a harder-edged, more real-human series, but in the process, it goes from being the kind of adventure series ITF used to make to something more akin to a long John Le Carre story, of spies, double-agents, super-soldiers, governmental channels and the like. While Series 1 allowed characters we thought we knew the time and space to grow and mature into fully fleshed-out human beings, in particular Alison, who went through significant trauma in the last episode of Series 1, the focus on Kinsella in Series 2 feels like it rather robs the rest of the team of the same kind of opportunities. It’s a generally gloomier, less engaging listen than Series 1, but it probably does the job it was intended to do – anchoring Sir Toby as a real person in the team, equalizing what we know of him with what we know of everyone else.
Here’s hoping though that Series 3 feels able to up the action and leave a little of the internal chicanery behind.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk