Blurb: There’s a house across the waters at Ely where an old woman tells a strange story.
About a kind of night constable called Sara Kingdom. And her friends, the Doctor and Steven. About a journey they made to a young couple’s home, and the nightmarish things that were found there. About the follies of youth and selfishness. And the terrible things even the most well-meaning of us can inflict on each other.
Hear the old woman’s story. Then decide her fate.
Review: Of all the companions that Big Finish could work with, Sara Kingdom was the most likely. Since she only appeared in the final nine episodes of a single serial, The Daleks Master Plan, it didn’t seem possible for her to have any unseen adventures with the Doctor and Steven. Yet, Big Finish decided to exploit the fact that episode seven of The Daleks Master Plan does not contain a cliffhanger for episode 8. With Sara’s characterization changing somewhat in the later episodes, it seemed possible that maybe she did have a few more adventures with the Doctor and Steven than what had been seen on TV. It created a great opportunity for Big Finish, since Sara has a tremendous backstory to exploit. She started as a blindly obedient agent of the futuristic Space Security Service who doesn’t even question the order to murder her brother, Bret Vyon, when it’s given by the Guardian of the Solar System, Mavic Chen. Her obedience leads her to do the deed and to hunt the Doctor and Steven as criminals until they prove to her that Chen has sold out the human race to the Daleks. Then she swears vengeance on Chen even as she travels with Steven and the Doctor to protect the taranium core that the Daleks covet. Writer Simon Guerrier who had written a short story for Sara Kingdom was asked to write the story, and Big Finish prepared to reintroduce the character to modern audiences with Home Truths.
One of the central questions that the story needed to answer is how could Sara be narrating a story. She died at the end of the only story in which she appeared. Guerrier plays on this by leaving it as a mystery for the listener to puzzle over while the story unfolds. Sara is presented as old landlady running a guest house, who invites a man named Robert in from the rain and spins a tale for him. It’s such an obvious inconsistency that it just begs to be answered and as Robert and Sara talk about her story the listener gets clues as to what is really going on as well as getting insights into both of their characters. This is juxtaposed with the story that Sara is telling, about a time when she, Steven, and the Doctor arrived in a house and found two dead bodies with no sign of a cause of death. Guerrier cleverly paces both stories so that they reach their climax at the same time and when the resolution comes they realize that they’re not as disconnected as they first appeared.
This is a story just brimming with atmosphere. Both the framing sequence and the narrated story build upon the idea of a haunted house and put in their own atmospheric touches to pull it off. The framing sequence utilizes the trope of the remote home with a storm raging outside and creaking doors and floorboards. There’s an old lady running the house that isn’t what she seems and there’s the ever-present, ominous tick-tock of a clock in the background as she tells her tale. Within her story there’s the eerie idea of a house that opens doors or turns on faucets when they think for it to do so. There are things that don’t make sense, like a corpse wearing a coat that doesn’t fit him or bodies having their eyes shut when they’re not moving, or people disappearing when you look away. In some ways it’s classic horror movie fare, but it’s woven together with a Doctor Who story and given a touch of The Twilight Zone by way of The Forbidden Planet to give it a flavor very uniquely its own.
Of course, all good Companion Chronicles delve into the character and psychology of the companion; Guerrier rises to the challenge. This story goes beyond its mandate to open up the potential for future Sara Kingdom adventures, but delves into the psychology of a woman who would so blindly follow an order to kill her own brother. There’s a touch on her background and training and why she obeyed so unquestioningly. There’s also a nice examination of her relationship to her brother and how she feels now after having ended his life so uselessly. There’s also some talk of how traveling with the Doctor and Steven has helped her to come to grips with what she’s done. Yet, the story goes beyond the introspection and shows how much Sara enjoys acting as a policeman. She enjoys solving problems and looking through clues to reach logical conclusions. Some things don’t work quite so well. Although Guerrier fleshes out Sara’s character and creates a fully realized companion that’s just as interesting as anyone else that the Doctor has traveled with, some elements don’t seem to fit what’s already been established onscreen. Her squeamishness about seeing a dead body seems particularly jarring. Yet, overall, his approach works. It all comes to a head as the central conflict becomes a battle between Sara’s need to find answers against her own inner struggle and Guerrier effecitvely resolves that issue in a way that’s satisfying and resolves both mysteries.
The performances in this are mostly good. Jean Marsh relishes narrating the story. She sounds every bit like the kindly old landlady who’s telling a story to a guest. Unfortunately, Marsh doesn’t try really “acting” when narrating. Most of narrators in the Companion Chronicles will speak the lines for the characters in their stories as if they were portraying that character. Marsh’s portrayal of the Doctor, Steven, and even Sara Kingdom is very flat. Yes, Marsh is an older woman whose voice has aged considerably since 1965. She also only worked with Hartnell and Purves for nine weeks, and may not remember their voices and performances. Yet, it does still make this story seem less engaging when compared to other Companion Chronicles with more lively performances. On the other hand, Niall MacGregor knocks the character of Robert out of the park. He has a kindly, reserved manner but manages to come off with a determined air. When he says that he’ll act on his findings from this visit it’s completely convincing. Yet, he seems genuinely concerned about Sara’s situation and wants to make sure that he understands everything before he decides.
The sound design on this is excellent. This story exudes atmosphere, and that’s mainly due to the tremendous soundwork. As already mentioned the framing sequence starts with a thunderstorm and moves on to sounds of creaking doors, feet on flooboards, and the clanking of silverware on bowls. Then as Sara relates her tale there’s the ever-present sound of a grandfather clock ticking away. It all creates that spooky feeling of a haunted house as someone relates a strange tale from the distant past. In Sara’s narrated story there are some mundane sounds like a faucet pouring water, but it’s juxtaposed with this unsettling whooshing that happens whenever something strange is about to happen. It’s a clue as to what’s going on, but when combined with the ghost story setting of the narration it helps to emphasize that something unsettling and scary is going on. The music is a melancholy piano piece that sets a downbeat mood, but that’s also used to good effect when it stops abruptly to highlight that something important is about to happen. While it seems to be getting old to constantly praise Big Finish on the sound and music, this story really is something special in that regard and it ought to be noticed for that.
Recommendation: A fine example of layered story-telling, Home Truths more than adequately satisfies its mandate to provide a reason for Sara Kingdom to be able to narrate a series of stories about her time with the Doctor. It also fleshes out her character, so that Sara can stand next to the more established companions in the range with a rich story and personality just waiting to be mined by future stories. The atmosphere is spooky and engaging as the sound department pulls of a wonderful performance to keep the listener’s attention as tightly as possible. Some aspects of Sara’s characterization and some details in the story don’t seem to fit together, but the overall result is still very good. I recommend listening to this.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Simon Guerrier
Runtime Approx 60 min.