Originally featured in 1965’s The Daleks’ Master Plan, Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh) has been given a whole new lease of life at Big Finish, and today we’re going back to where it all started: with Simon Guerrier‘s exceptional trilogy of Companion Chronicles…
BEWARE! While I won’t be spoiling any big reveals or huge plot twists, I’m going to be a little less ‘spoiler-free’ than in my usual reviews, given that these stories are now thirteen years old! Therefore, if you haven’t listened to these releases and you’re dead-set on going in blind, exercise some caution when reading on.
1. “Home Truths”
There’s a house across the waters at Ely where an old woman tells a strange story. Robert (Niall MacGregor) has travelled there to hear her tale, and to decide whether, as the law decrees, this strange ghost from the past should be exorcised. Arriving at the house in a dramatic opening scene, Robert encounters Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh), who offers him refreshment and sits him down by the fireplace. And then her story begins…
Most of Home Truths is taken up by this, with Jean Marsh hauntingly narrating Simon Guerrier’s beautifully written prose. She tells us how she, the Doctor and Steven arrived in a mysterious house where everything, even down to the carpet, was absolutely perfect. Except, of course, for the smiling couple lying dead on the floor. But even they are unharmed, as if they just fell dead in a split second. Intrigued, the travellers decide to investigate, before they realise that they’re locked in with whoever- or whatever- killed the couple.
While listening to the first half of this story, I was struck by just how little actually happens. The opening half-hour quite literally just consists of the Doctor, Sara and Steven arriving, and finding two bodies. Despite this, the story never gets dull, with Guerrier using this slow pace to build a rich and tangible world through his exquisite prose. As a literature student, the writing here reminded me a lot of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf in the way it luxuriates in a single moment, painting it almost like a picture so that its every detail becomes vivid and real. Of course things do pick up in the second half, but as strong as the denouement is, I must admit I far preferred the slow and steady build-up of the story’s opening.
This, combined with the evocative sound design and music from Richard Fox and Lauren Yason, makes for an incredibly atmospheric listen. A crackling fireplace, pouring rain, the creak of an old house and a gloriously haunting piano score all come together to elevate Guerrier’s script to the next level.
As the story ends, we return to the framing narrative in Ely, where it is revealed how Sara can possibly be alive after she was killed by the Daleks in The Daleks’ Master Plan. It’s a brilliant revelation, delivered in a truly spine-tingling way by Jean Marsh. And then she urges Robert to make his choice, perform the exorcism or leave her be, asking him in a chilling whisper… ‘what’s it going to be?’ And that’s where Home Truths ends: on an electrifying cliffhanger!
Overall, this is a truly fantastic slice of audio drama, with Guerrier taking one of Doctor Who’s lesser-known companions and crafting a beautifully-written story around her. Jean Marsh and Niall MacGregor put in amazing performances, underscored by some really strong sound design. Almost perfect.
2. “The Drowned World”
Robert returns to the house at Ely in this second instalment of the trilogy: The Drowned World. He’s been sent back by a council of elders who want to hear one of Sara’s stories for themselves, and so he implores her to tell him another tale. And she does, recounting the time she, the Doctor and Steven arrived on a scientific base in the far future which had found itself under attack from an ocean of strange, deadly silver-purple water.
As in the previous story, much of the first part of The Drowned World is taken up by Sara’s narration as she recollects her time travelling with the Doctor. It’s not quite as compelling a tale as the one she spins in Home Truths, but Guerrier’s prose is once again evocative and powerful, revelling in describing small moments that make Sara’s story seem all the more real. Where this release departs from its predecessor, however, is that, as much as its major narrative thrust is in Sara’s flashback, it puts an equal focus on the framing narrative with Robert.
Accordingly, at the conclusion of part one, we return to Ely, where Robert makes a shocking decision the details of which I won’t go into in this review. When the story resumes in part two, the consequences of this decision mean that Robert must now narrate Sara’s story, with Niall MacGregor doing just as good a job as Jean Marsh at bringing Guerrier’s writing to life. Marsh eventually resumes narrating duties, but this kind of formal and narrative experimentation helps to keep the story fresh, and not just a retread of Home Truths.
Overall, while this isn’t quite as good as the previous story, it’s still of a very high class indeed. Marsh and MacGregor bring their A game, while Richard Fox and Lauren Yason once again provide some great sound design, particularly where the alien ocean is concerned. Meanwhile, Guerrier takes Sara’s post-TARDIS journey in an exciting new direction, topping it off with another tantalising cliffhanger. Highly recommended.
3. “The Guardian of the Solar System”
After the events of the previous story, The Guardian of the Solar System sees Robert, tiring of his time in the house at Ely, ask Sara to tell him one last story. This time, she tells us about the time she, the Doctor and Steven found themselves caught up in the workings of an enormous clock powered by a group of imprisoned old men: a story full of potent imagery that works very well on audio, and even better when depicted through Guerrier’s evocative writing. Unfortunately, I think the central premise is much stronger than the plot itself, which largely consists of conversations between Sara and other characters, though things do pick up towards the end with some interesting twists.
Perhaps the reason this narrative works a little less well than the other two stories is because the framing device is far more interesting. Without going into too much detail, a lot happens in this story that changes the status quo for Robert and the older Sara, and so this storyline is often a lot more gripping than the more prosaic flashback story. Nevertheless, this is still a strong story from start to finish.
Special praise should go to Richard Fox and Lauren Yason, who continue to supply excellent sound design and music in this release. The highlight has to be the Great Clock itself, which is depicted in such strong aural detail that the story’s setting really comes to life. Meanwhile, the scenes in Ely are once again rendered wonderfully melancholic with their stellar piano score.
Overall, though, this is a gripping conclusion to the trilogy.
Home Truths, The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System are available at http://www.bigfinish.com
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