Relocating the adventures of the Counter Measures team into the 1970s opened up a new contemporary setting in which the group could set about tackling threats from alien incursions and human criminality. It’s a change of scene that the creative team at Big Finish have already made great use of in earlier boxsets in this audio range.
As The Hollow King begins, the group are already involved in their latest investigation into a series of unexplained phenomenon, including a mysterious UFO sighting – in which an oddball self-help community called the Open Band seem to be implicated. In the same area, there’s a worrying spike in cases of serious mental illness which may be linked to the “mind expanding” activities to which this group is committed.
The team attempt to crack the case from multiple directions, with Allison going undercover inside the settlement, Rachel setting up a nearby laboratory base and monitoring station, Gilmore impersonating an intrigued documentary producer, and Toby trying a direct approach to the cult’s guru, and the Swami of Swammcombe, Lord Cavall.
The regular cast are all on good form, and – as the behind-the-scenes interviews confirm – clearly enjoying what is likely to be the last standalone Counter Measures release for the foreseeable future. Amidst the strong guest cast, Tim Bentinck stands out for his portrayal of the self-absorbed and (as it transpires) painfully unaware prophet with feet of clay.
What Ian Potter’s sparky script achieves so effectively is to capture the culture of the wacky self-help, self-realisation scene that reached its zenith in that decade. It’s the fashion fad that provides the cover for the nefarious activities that the story’s villains are engaged in. Some fiction writers treat the counterculture of the sixties and the seventies as essentially synonymous, ignoring the differences (both substantial and subtle) which distinguish each era from the other. Thankfully Potter’s characterisation is spot on, crafting a painfully recognisable sense of the self-aggrandisement of the gurus who peddled the made-up mystical ideologies of the pre-punk years.
It’s a fast-moving story, revealed through the perspectives of different protagonists from the Counter Measures team – each of which share the limelight in turn as events unfold. Potter’s characterisation is strong, and his dialogue feels authentic. Exchanges are lit up by a series of both gentle and barbed digs at the self-image of those preoccupied by the pursuit of seventies’ enlightenment.
When the secret of what lies buried with the “King under the hill” is finally brought to light, the truth is satisfyingly surprising (and full of some gruesome, icky images). After an energetic set-piece finale, there’s a lot of exposition filling in the hidden backstory of Swammcombe. Not every plot point is tied up, but the verve and style of the story compensates for the loose ends.
The Hollow King delivers a strong, convincing endpoint for the current series. It’s so effective that it makes the news that the adventures of the Counter Measures team are coming to a premature end feel even more counter-intuitive.