Tony Fyler is back on familiar ground.
Series 2 of Counter-Measures from Big Finish did a necessary thing to unnecessary lengths – focusing on Sir Toby Kinsella, arch-manipulator and Counter-Measures’ ‘Man from the Ministry.’ In Series 1, Sir Toby was a typical mandarin (translation for non-Brits – a smooth, aristocratic civil servant that oils the wheels of government), and Series 2 took him from that limited but likeable role into something darker, more scary and more inherently harder-hearted, running the risk of sacrificing his likeability for a gritty reality which threatened to turn Counter-Measures from the adventure series it was into something harder and less inherently fun to listen to.
Series 3 doesn’t compromise in terms of grit particularly, but does take us back to the Counter-Measures basics, delivering strong stories of strangeness and allowing them to affect our team and the people around them. It’s really quite a relief to listen to.
The first story, Changing of the Guard, by Matt Fitton, mirrors and intertwines two storylines – Sir Toby’s the subject of an enquiry, and if it goes badly, he’ll be stripped of control of Counter-Measures for his part in the events of Series 2. Meanwhile, there’s a red goo which becomes a crystal and seems to multiply independent of the laws of physics or biology, and an underground gang war, with a new power taking out some of London’s old guard of criminal gangsters, but always seeming to have any number of alibis. It’s Matt Fitton, so you can rely on it to be inventive, to hit some familiar notes, but to use them in ways you might not expect. As a start to Series 3, it delivers great pacing, good ‘bits’ for all the main cast, an entertainingly odd threat and an energetic push towards the climax of the story. It’s an enormous relief to start Series 3 on this note, and have a feeling of ‘for all Sir Toby’s a dubious character, we’re back in the Counter-Measures business.’ Oh, and there’s a delicious cameo by the Krays at the end – delicious given that their power base rested to some extent on them being identical twins, and new gangster Kenny too bases his attempt to take over London’s underworld on having identical siblings. Class, thy name is Matt Fitton.
Counter-Measures has never been afraid to dabble in Sapphire & Steel territory in terms of its disturbing use of images and soundscapes to deliver thrills and weirdness. The Concrete Cage by Justin Richards is this series’ entry into that realm, while still grounding the story very much in a contemporary issue – the building of ugly, sixties tower blocks. These mass housing solutions were intended to bring a new standard of living for the residents of Britain’s slum streets in the wake of the post-war period of post-colonial austerity, and they may have done so in technical terms, but they also effectively ghettoized a lot of people, who often found their new apartment lifestyle at odds with the culture of friendly neighbourliness on which they’d relied to get them through the harshness of both poverty and war. The Concrete Cage of the title is a reference to the general interpretation of how they felt. When people start seeing visions from the war and jumping out of windows, it’s ‘creepy soundscape’ time, and Big Finish – in case you’re hugely new to the company – does creepy soundscapes breathtakingly well. There is a kind of pseudo-scientific rationale behind it all, which emerges in pleasing, step-by-step developments, and which Richards pretty much gets away with by virtue of pace and atmosphere, rather than necessarily by the credibility of his technobabble. Solid roles for Michael Troughton (who has a way with people who seem just a little slimy and sad on the outside, but may have more to them than meets the eye), and Janet Henfry, who, bless her, is consigned to more or less the same lines throughout the piece, add some weight and complexity to the piece, and leave the listener feeling that they’ve been a little through the wringer, but that it was worth the journey at the end.
The Forgotten Village, by veteran Big Finish director Ken Bentley, is an unusual one, but no less satisfying for that – it takes us back to Alison’s home town, to her ageing father and her (we presume) first significant boyfriend, to confront some of the issues that drove her away from the Herefordshire borders between England and Wales and made her run to the delights of the clever, non-judgmental, non-parochial people and ideas she found at Cambridge.
She goes back to look after her father, who appears to have early onset dementia. The story that unravels when she gets there needs you to keep your eye on the ball, but develops into something rather better and more scary than a traditional ‘base under siege’ tale, ultimately placing Gilmore and Jensen on different sides of the fence (philosophically and literally), and bringing consequences for Alison that look set to disrupt the life of Counter-Measures as we have always known it.
And Unto The Breach by John Dorney takes the team – or some of it at least – behind the Iron Curtain, looking for an alien that can apparently tear lumps out of the Berlin Wall by hand. Tensions rise between three of the team members, with angry words spoken and deeply unethical deeds performed, leading to Gilmore’s declaration that when the mission’s done, he’s leaving the whole bally Counter-Measures business behind. Meanwhile at home, Alison encounters the walking oil-can that is Templeton again, and we end the episode, and the series, on a number of appallingly tense cliff-hangers, with each member of the team in horrendous situations of one kind or another. In terms of ending the series with the avowed intention of getting listeners to part with the money to get Series 4, it’s a masterclass. In fact, if we didn’t know there IS a Series 4, we’d be worried by the ending, that the brave experiment that was Counter-Measures – both in terms of the Group and the audio series itself – had been defeated by malign or commercial forces.
Thankfully, we know that’s not the case. At least, not yet.
Series 3 is a significant improvement on Series 2 as far as listening ease is concerned, simply because it pushes its stories along at a lick, and all the episodes feel like they give sufficient rewards for your attention, as well as just building a dark, grim picture of Britain in the Sixties, as Series 2 was prone to do. This series sees us back on an adventurous track, while still dealing with threats domestic, foreign and extra-foreign. It’s very good to be back.
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
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