While the expansion of the Doctor Who universe has been the crowning glory of Big Finish‘s 20+ year run, the site has also been responsible for continuing stories from a whole host of cult classic shows; The Avengers, Blake’s 7, Dark Shadows and Timeslip have all been given the audio drama treatment. And in recent years, Big Finish has ventured into the world of Gerry Anderson, thank in so small part to the involvement of his son Jamie Anderson to create new stories from Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Terrahawks and Space 1999 among others.
This month’s release does something a little different in it’s The Worlds of Gerry Anderson range, with an original drama inspired by the storytelling of Anderson. First Action Bureau was developed by Jamie Anderson and Nicholas Briggs and recorded during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Previously released as weekly mini-adventures that tried to capture the spirit on Anderson’s work, the sci-fi spy drama has been released under the ‘series one’ banner, with more adventures to be recorded later this year.
Set in the year 2068, First Action Bureau is described by Jamie Anderson as Killing Eve meets Minority Report with a dash of Joe 90, and that certainly sums up the concept of First Action Bureau nicely. With mild adult themes and a ruthless assassin in Genevieve Gaunt’s Nero Jones, who kills suspected criminals before the crime can occur, there’s a darkly humour that permeates the story, while playing with broad sci-fi themes. This has everything from trips to Mars, the dangerous AI, stolen memories, conspiracies and political intrigue. To call is adult is to note that the narrative is a little more grown up than what Gerry Anderson might have committed to screen, but it still smacks of that Joe 90 meets Space Precinct. The biggest success of First Action Bureau is that it feels like an Anderson production and the world building is superb.
It’s backed up by an impressive cast, many of which are veteran actors of TV and Big Finish. Nicola Walker, best known at Big Finish for playing the Eighth Doctor’s companion, and co-lead of The Robots, offers a sympathetic performance as high-powered business woman Charlize Wilkin, who connects with Nero even as she falls under suspicion for a crime she has yet to complete. Sacha Dhawan is the likeable, sometimes bumbling ally-come unrequited lover of Nero; there’s no Master in sight, but he remains engaging, even if his story if largely fleeting. Wayne Forester’s Eddie Hunter and Richard James’ dual roles of AI and Angus AI Reed both deliver the goods, while Paterson Joseph is great as the ominous Zero One, even though he is criminally under utilised.
Genevieve Gaunt carries the series; she has a darkly-humorous charm that stops her from becoming unlikeable, even though she is utterly ruthless and there are moments running throughout the story, particularly her connection with Charlize and there’s an intriguing mystery surrounding stolen memories that adds some much needed drama to her story.
The narrative thread running through First Action Bureau is perhaps the weakest element though. While it succeeds in conjuring the pulpy charm of Gerry Anderson serials, the tease of a mystery behind what is really happening, never gets a chance to kick into high gear. While the cliff-hanger is a good one, it leaves far too many unanswered questions to make series one a fully satisfying listening. As an experimental curiosity, I enjoyed it. I wonder if the mini-episodes might work more successfully than the collated two-part story presented across both disks.
Ultimately, First Action Bureau sits between two worlds; it’s influence and homage to Gerry Anderson productions succeed in tone but less so in storytelling. There’s a richer, darker tapestry of ideas at play that are never given the chance to fully emerge due to the fleeting nature of the separate chapters. To reflect on the Killing Eve comparison, Nero needs someone strong to play off and Gaunt, as good as she is, is no Jodie Comer (but then, who is?). She certainly is at her best when playing off Dhawan’s Benjamin and Walker’s Charlize. Having an assassin as the lead allows the story to move in unexpected ways. But it means there’s no real hero to the story and this creates a disconnect between the listener and the central protagonist / antagonist.
Still, there is a lot to recommend and perhaps the second series while strike a better balance between the two shows First Action Bureau wants to be.
First Action Bureau Series 01 is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here. It is also available as a three-CD box set, with a 4-page booklet and a special collector’s edition slipcase, exclusively from shop.gerryanderson.co.uk.
75 minutes of extras accompany this release. Behind the scenes interviews open with the cast and crew relieving their memories of watching Gerry Anderson shows, before Nicholas Briggs and Jamie Anderson lead a fun and lively discussion on what First Action Bureau is and how they came up with the concept of the sci-fi spy drama, the nature of deep fakes and the decision to not make a show for kids. Briggs shares his thoughts on working with Genevieve Gaunt in a previous Big Finish adventure The Human Frontier, who in turns gives her own insight into the character of Nero.
You get the usual in depth insight of the characters from each actor, but what’s really interesting is hearing them describe the performances of the rest of the cast. Paterson Joseph, Nicola Walker, Sacha Dhawan, Wayne Forester and Richard James are particularly engaging; Dhawan describing one particular ‘arrestable’ scene is rather amusing, while Walker brings up memories of working with him as a child in The Last Train and an awkward reunion in Last Tango In Halifax. As with with the majority of Big Finish releases today, the strangeness of recording remotely during lockdown offers an intriguing dynamic to the discussion, while Briggs and Anderson bring everything together with their lively banter and in depth discussion., with moments like ‘a scientific analysis for messing around’ and ‘passive aggressive tambourine playing’ sure to amuse.
While unusual for Big Finish extras, there’s some delightful, nerdy insights into the sound design, courtesy of Briggs and Benji Clifford, while the discussion around Joe Kraemer’s music for First Action Bureau (a camp Darth Vader theme anyone?) results in some unexpected teases of events to come in series two. Briggs and Anderson wrap their discussion up with a passionate look at the artwork, the audience reception to the stories release individually during lockdown and their hopes for the future of First Action Bureau, all of which shows the boundless enthusiasm these two writers and producers have for the making of the show.
The final 16 minutes feature the expansive music of Joe Kraemer. It’s a hugely effective part of why First Action Bureau feels like a Gerry Anderson production and there are strong Space Precinct vibes, mixed with a dose of Hitchcock horror and Battlestar Galactica. Heavy chords, ominous string and percussion beats and industrial synth makes for an effective, atmospheric and tense suite of music, while the brassy, heroic theme is straight out of any Anderson production.
The First Action Bureau exists to protect the Earth – near-utopian by 2068 – from criminal elements before they get the chance to act. Using decades of ‘big data’ and globally connected quantum artificial intelligence, the Bureau is able to predict criminal activity before it occurs.
Nero Jones may be the best agent the Bureau has, but something strange is going on. Headaches and bizarre dreams are troubling this deadly assassin, and as her missions continue it becomes increasingly clear that all is not well… not just with her, but with the Bureau itself. But where do the lies end? And where does the truth begin?
- Genevieve Gaunt (Nero Jones)
- Sacha Dhawan (Benjamin Saal)
- Wayne Forester (Eddie Hunter)
- Richard James (Angus Reed)
- Paterson Joseph (Zero One)
- Nicola Walker (Charlize Wilkin)