Tony Fyler dodges a bullet.
There are points throughout Doctor Who’s history where spin-offs become possible. Some have been realized, others not yet. 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks screamed ‘spin-off’ right from broadcast, its team of three humans fighting the combined Dalek threat alongside the Doctor and Ace having the distinct air of a ‘Web of Fear proto-UNIT’ about them – Group Captain Ian ‘Chunky’ Gilmore, Professor Rachel Jensen and Dr Alison Williams were well-characterised, rounded, real people, and when the Doctor and Ace left them behind, there was always the sense of them having lives beyond their involvement in the Doctor’s life. That’s how you can tell a natural spin off point – if you can imagine the characters going off to have adventures of their own, that’s a spin-off point.
But still, before you commit resources to writing and recording stories for them, any group of spin-off characters needs a try-out, and that will usually be a story which allows them to show off their potential, but which probably still includes the Doctor in some way, to carry the weight of ‘omnipotent alien with a plan’ plotting, in case such a thing is necessary.
The Intrusion Countermeasures Group – Gilmore, Williams, ministry man Sir Toby Kinsella and maybe, at some point, Jensen – were given their try-out in The Assassination Games, the third Big Finish story celebrating fifty years of Doctor Who, the so-called “1963” stories. In terms of personal reaction, I was looking forward to the Peter Davison and Colin Baker outings in the trio, but not particularly the McCoy entry, not being the biggest of his fans. Both the first two though disappointed by padding and a moderate insanity of plot. McCoy’s The Assassination Games managed to keep the story reasonably tight all the way along, and I was forced to concede it had ‘won’ the trio.
Because it’s both a Counter-Measures origin story and a Seventh Doctor story, the trick is in giving everyone enough to do, without spinning the story out for hours and hours and making the listener lose the will to listen. That’s why you give such a story to a writer like John Dorney. He establishes the tone, the period and the nature of the action rapidly – a new kind of nuclear missile, the Starfire, can cause solid amounts of devastation, but leave relatively little fall-out and minimize the shockwave effect. And Britain has it. The chance to break the nation out of its post-war post-imperialistic doldrums and set it on the path to world power status beckons, and then people start getting shot – assassinated in ways that elevate the tensions around an already highly-strung nuclear chessboard.
There are nuclear agendas, nuclear protestors, political sex scandals (this being 1963, the year of the Profumo scandal is shamelessly, even joyfully worked in, with a ‘good-time girl’ sleeping with both a Minister for Defence and a Russian spy), some fantastic undercover work from both Ace and the Doctor (the Doctor’s reveal in particular is delicious). There are basements full of alien tech, there are hyno-zombies, and there are creepy alien illuminati who combine elements of The Faceless Ones, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Bodysnatchers and the Darwinian nightmare of parasitoid wasps – so, pretty grim, all in all. But more than all of this, there’s a solid sense of period here, and of the potential of what Counter-Measures could be: perennial Big Finisher Hugh Ross adds to the Counter-Measures team we know with a smooth, polished performance as Sir Toby, the ultimate Westminster mandarin, while there’s something entirely logical for everyone to do within the storyline – Alison the duffle-coated idealist going undercover with Disarmament Now, Jensen giving the semi-official once-over to the armament stores of the arms manufacturer du jour, Sir Gideon Vale, Gilmore chasing down assassins and saying “What the devil-?” a lot – it sets out a manifesto that says “This bunch could sustain an adventure series on their own, once the Doctor bogs off in his blue box again.”
While Dorney and veteran Big Finish director Ken Bentley keep the plot cracking along and reasonably tight, there’s also enough about the plot that’s absolutely barking mad, in the style of the great ITC adventure serials of the 60s and 70s – Danger Man, Department S and yes, The Avengers – and adds that element of demented invention to the stall that The Assassination Games sets out for a potential Counter-Measures series. Without being too spoilerific, threads of conspiracy and the potential replacement of key personnel lead to doppelgangers, double lives and a potential third world war between America and Russia – nothing like upping the stakes! It plays in to the paranoia of the age, but also delivers enough realism in the characters’ lives and dialogue to make you buy into the potential of the story and the show.
In some ways, The Assassination Games is the inversion of Remembrance of the Daleks, in which the Counter-Measures team (in embryo) were strong enough, but played second fiddle to the Doctor and Ace’s battle with the Daleks. In The Assassination Games, the Doctor and Ace are strong enough, and crucial enough, while playing second fiddle to the Counter-Measures team, meaning that once it’s over, you don’t immediately think “I could listen to more Seventh Doctor right now,” but rather “I could listen to more with that Counter-Measures team right now.”
Fabulously of course, you can – the original Counter-Measures team went on to have four whole series of adventures. The latest news from Big Finish is that in 2016, there will even be a reboot – The New Counter-Measures. That will be a very big gamble, because Counter-Measures was spun off from a core group of characters created for the screen by Ben Aaronovitch. But before we even have to confront the question of how The New Counter-Measures will work, there are sixteen hours with the original team to enjoy.
The Assassination Games works well – barking and realistic, finely balanced and yet crackingly paced. If this story sets out the stall for the Counter-Measures series, then bring it on!
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