1963: The Assassination Games (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 24 December 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

1963: The Assassination Games
Produced by Big Finish
Written by John Dorney
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: November 2013
“Whoever they are, they’ve messed with the wrong planet. Ladies, gentlemen- let’s go save the world!”

It had to happen some time. After two underwhelming opening instalments in their 1963 trilogy, Big Finish have finally produced nothing short of an outright gem with the ‘series finale’, The Assassination Games. The Seventh Doctor’s journey back to where it all began commences a fundamentally human narrative which- aptly enough for the 50th Anniversary of an iconic British franchise- explores the ramifications of the history of our nation in a pseudo-present day context, establishing a grand action blockbuster tone from the outset.

That Remembrance of the Daleks’ famed Intrusion Countermeasures Group return to the fray will be a key element of the audio drama’s appeal for fans of the McCoy era, particularly those lucky enough to have experienced the Countermeasures spin-off series. The final 1963 storyline is a precursor to the aforementioned spin-off, meaning that Group Captain Gilmore and the rest of the team are still in the process of working out the kinks at this point. Nevertheless, the charming dynamic between Simon Williams (Gilmore), Pamela Salem (Rachel Jensen) and Karen Gledhill (Allison Williams) won’t struggle to captivate veteran or newcomer listeners, and John Dorney’s script does an impressive job of venturing beyond sub-standard prequel territory.

This reviewer’s appreciation of the talents of the classic Doctors and their companions has increased substantially thanks to Big Finish’s output this year, and Assassination Games only furthers that trend. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are each as animated and engaging as ever as the Time Lord and Ace respectively, with the latter’s performance having developed hugely since the culmination of the pair’s time on-screen in 1989. If the Destiny of the Doctor release Shockwave wasn’t enough to convince listeners of Aldred’s accomplished portrayal, then this instalment and next month’s Afterlife should both disintegrate any lingering doubts without fail.

Ken Bentley returns to the director’s chair over a year on from his last collaboration with Dorney, The Wrath of the Iceni, and contrary to the historic tone of that ancient Roman outing, there’s rightly more of a resemblance to Remembrance and The Bells of Saint John in this case. The piece’s soundtrack and fast-paced structure maintain the storyline’s momentum, such that even in Assassination’s quieter moments, the sense resides that a thrilling setpiece of some kind is only ever just around the corner. The action-driven nature of the plot does leave it lacking in the emotional department, but at the same time, what with the sheer pace of proceedings, it’s difficult to take too much note of this absence.

What does prove of notable detriment, however, is the absence of a fully-fledged extraterrestrial antagonist. A threat simply named ‘the Light’ is established in the latter half of the piece, but anyone who makes the assumption as this reviewer did that the final 1963 drama would act as a prequel (albeit belated) to Big Finish’s 50th Anniversary Special, The Light at the End, will come away sorely dissatisfied. Instead, the villains are complete newcomers to the field, and although that’s a much-needed deviation from Big Finish’s plethora of returning adversaries this year, the simplistic and one-dimensional depiction of this Empire-fuelled race is extremely underwhelming.

Bentley does at least hint at future confrontations between the Doctor and his latest foe in this audio range and in doing so holds promise for a more innovative direction for the studio’s works beyond the year of the 50th. A tangible lack of original antagonists has pervaded the various storylines in the Big Finish Whoniverse for the last few months, and to this reviewer, it’s a gap that sorely needs filling in the studio’s 2014 output. The 1963 trilogy has experimented with unexplored adversaries, yet to no great effect- a foe who creates atmosphere more along the lines of last month’s Ghost in the Machine as a regular billing would be an enticing prospect at this stage, indeed.

The Assassination Games is a fulfilling conclusion to this celebratory trio of 50th Anniversary releases, though, of that there is no question. McCoy and Aldred frequently steal the show with their refined, exemplary portrayals of their once-maligned characters, now grand stalwarts of Who’s history just as much as any of their predecessors. The reintroduction of the Countermeasures gang into the fray is instantly refreshing for the range, and begs the contemplation as to whether further and more regular crossovers of Big Finish’s core and spin-off series would provide the studio with their much-needed revitalisation beyond this year. Perhaps the greatest irony of all with regards to the 1963 range is that had it focused more extensively on the year itself in a semi-nostalgic sense rather than striving in vain to create memorable original antagonists, the end results might have been that much more worthy of their overarching title.