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Doctor Who: 1963: The Assassination Games Review

The Counter-Measures team find themselves caught up in a vast conspiracy... one they'll need the Doctor and Ace to help solve!

By Joseph A. MorrisonPublished 6 months ago 6 min read
The CD cover for "The Assassination Games", designed by Alex Mallinson.

Back in 2013, Big Finish decided to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who with three stories set in 1963, the year of the launch of the programme. Each story featured a different Doctor from the 1980s, and the final story, specifically, saw the Seventh Doctor and Ace reunited with the Counter-Measures team, first introduced in the 1988 story "Remembrance of the Daleks" (itself designed to celebrate 25 years of Doctor Who), and who were given their own spin-off by Big Finish. In that sense, there's a lot going on in "The Assassination Games", and, as such, this is a very complex story with lots of strands to it. However, despite the complex plot and the weight of expectation on this release, "The Assassination Games" is a fantastic release that maintains a speed and pace that is perhaps unmatched by many Doctor Who stories, as well as balancing all the lead characters we know and love. In those regards then, this is an expectational story.

The Doctor and Ace - Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred - are reunited in "The Assassination Games". Here, they are pictured during recording on "Remembrance of the Daleks", the story that originally introduced the Counter-Measures team.

As mentioned above, this is a complex tale, and it is one that demands the listener pays attention. The Counter-Measures team are investigating Starfire: a new nuclear missile programme that aims to put Britain back on the international stage. But when the Defence Minister is assassinated at a press briefing, the team find themselves tangled in a deadly conspiracy, involving political manoeuvring, anti-nuclear terrorists, philanthropic arms manufacturers... and a century-old plot. And, when the Doctor and Ace turn up, it's clear all hell is breaking loose... I wasn't joking when I said this one was complicated. There's a lot going on here, and it is really easy to loose the thread of the story if you don't pay attention. It isn't necessarily overcomplicated, however: that's just the way the story needs to be told, and the villains are suitably grandiose in order to justify it. In fact, they are a little subversion on the traditional 'huge godlike force from the dawn of time' thing that the Seventh Doctor's era usually engages with, and, while they have been displaced by some other creations in the years since, they are a suitably menacing threat. In many ways, they play into contemporary fears about shadowy puppeteers behind the scenes more than they did at the time. The complicated plotting doesn't affect the pace of the story either: this thing flies along, moving from impressive set piece to impressive set piece, with barely time to draw a breath. The skill with which writer John Dorney keeps so many plates spinning, and so many cards on the table is staggering, and it is little wonder that he remains one of Big Finish's best writers, with a talent like this. He remains in charge of the story throughout, and it is testament to his skill that this story remains not only comprehensible, but thoroughly enjoyable. Something like this is so hard to pull off so successfully, so it is no mean feet. Dorney deserves some high praise indeed.

The Counter-Measures team at the recording of the final two episodes of The New Counter-Measures. From left to right: Hugh Ross (Sir Toby Kinsella), Pamala Salem (Rachel Jensen), Simon Williams (Ian Gilmore) and Karen Gledhill (Alison Williams).

Of course, in a story like this, it could be so easy to focus on the plot, and ignore the characters, especially the occasion of bringing the Doctor and Ace and the Counter-Measures team back together. However, John Dorney gives this event the due respect it deserves, and the interplay between the five characters remains as fiery as it did back in 1988. While a number of them are split off into their own 'teams' (Gilmore and the Doctor and Rachel and Ace spend a large chunk of the story together), they do all get moments where they interact, including Big Finish creation Toby Kinsella. While this does limit the number of guest characters you can have (with six lead characters essentially, it was bound to happen), it doesn't really matter too much, because you just want to spend more time in the company of our leads. However, Dorney does have his cake and eats in with his guest characters, as there's a lot of doubling up going on, both in terms of actors and in terms of characters. It's hard to explain without ruining the story, but, basically, don't really trust anyone, because they may not be who they claim to be. What helps this is the quality of the actors: they manage to sell every character brilliantly, and they walk that fine line between dropping hints something isn't right, and not giving the game away. Of course, it is the regulars who steal the show here: the cast of Counter-Measures return to their parts like no time has elapsed at all. If I had to single one actor out, it would be Karen Gledhill, who literally sounds like she could have walked off the set of "Remembrance of the Daleks" to record this. That's not to disparage Simon Williams and Pamela Salem, but her performance is so exact, it's amazing. Of course, Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred sound as alive as ever, and both go back to their relationship in Season 25 with aplomb. Finally, Hugh Ross rounds out the cast as Toby Kinsella, and it is a nice touch to include such a loved character from Counter-Measures in, what is ostensibly, a Doctor Who story. In production terms, director Ken Bentley brings the whole thing together with an eagle-eyed attention to detail, while Wilfredo Acosta handles the post-production work with sublime skill. His sound design is subtle, but effective, while his music is in a league of its own, and sounds utterly fresh and vibrant. All in all, this is a first-rate production, and capitalises on the success of the script. It's hard to find a Big Finish Production that fails to deliver in production terms, and "The Assassination Games" continues this fine tradition with style.

A promotional piece of artwork of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, designed by Lee Binding for the official Doctor Who website.

In conclusion, then, "The Assassination Games" is a phenomenal conclusion to a quite unique trilogy of stories designed to celebrate 50 years of Doctor Who. Reuniting the Seventh Doctor and Ace with the team from Counter-Measures would have been a strong enough hook for this story on its own, but "The Assassination Games" goes above and beyond by being a standout story. A perfect script, some brilliantly deceptive guest characters, and production work that goes above and beyond what is expected of it all add up to something very special. While some may argue with me about this, I believe this is the strongest story in the 1963 trilogy, which, in itself is one of the strongest things to have come out of the anniversary, and stands as a shining example of the work that Big Finish can do so brilliantly. I love "The Assassination Games", and it remains one of my favourite Seventh Doctor Big Finish stories to this day.

You can purchase "The Assassination Games" as a digital download and collectors edition CD from the Big Finish website (see below). Just type "Assassination" into the search bar at the top of the page.

All pictures copyright to Big Finish Productions/the BBC. Thank you very much for reading.

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About the Creator

Joseph A. Morrison

25. Fan of Doctor Who, Blake's 7, The Prisoner and more old-fashioned TV. Reviewer, wannabe writer and general twit.

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