Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Five Reasons to Listen To Home Truths – Doctor Who 52 Extra: E (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who – Home Truths…
A ghost story for Christmas featuring one of Doctor Who’s shortest-lived companions as the heartbeat of one of its most intimate and personal tales. Jean Marsh recreates Sara Kingdom for this creepy Big Finish audio two-hander (3.05 in their Companion Chronicles series) where she poses a challenge to church, state and listener simply by being there. For all that she and the visiting Night Constable scoff at fairy tales, she embodies perhaps the oldest fairytale lesson of all…
“There’s a house across the waters at Ely where an old woman tells a strange story.”
Five Reasons To Listen To Home Truths (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – Sara Kingdom.
From the beginning of December 1965 to the end of January 1966 – but also from the year 4000 – Jean Marsh played Space Security Agent Sara Kingdom in Doctor Who. It may have been a short time for her character on TV, but she made an impact. Ms Marsh is possibly the Doctor Who star with the most glittering career; Agent Kingdom was a startling change from the Doctor’s other companions; and the end of her story is still talked about today, even though it’s long gone and you can no longer see it, just listen. Sara Kingdom reluctantly teamed up with William Hartnell’s Doctor and his friend Steven Taylor, after first being sent to kill them – and in a sort of shocking sort of The Apprentice twist, killing another of the Doctor’s companions to get there, who haunts her still. In many ways she seems a New Adventures companion long before her time: hard as nails; personal tragedy and betrayal; always the shadow of the Daleks and death hanging over her; but some part of her always remains, because she travelled with the Doctor. Sara died an old woman, but there’s still no time after her travels for the Doctor for more adventures. So the most obvious way to bring her back is to give her an exciting Space Security Agent adventure before she ever met the Doctor (see “Lost Story” The Destroyers, also from Big Finish). Older, sadder, gentler, Home Truths is not the obvious way to bring Sara back…
2 – Is she or isn’t she?
“Hear the old woman’s story. Then decide her fate.”Fans argue. And one of the oldest fan debates in Doctor Who is whether or not Sara Kingdom counts as a ‘real’ companion. She travelled in the TARDIS. But only for one story. But it was a very long one. But not even for all of that. But she deserves it. And so on. Or in later years, are the Doctor Who stories that begin as books or, here, CDs ‘real’ stories? To ask the question is to miss something about stories, for me, and while I make lists and write about esoteric story points too, those two questions aren’t ones that engage me, so perhaps I’m predisposed to take one side within this story. Because Home Truths itself takes such questions and ambiguities and weaves a story out of the very criticisms that people are bound to come up with before they’ve even heard it.
So the story starts with Robert the Night Constable, the sceptical listener, arriving with the intention of judging Sara, not of enjoying her company. Jean Marsh is enchanting as she tells her story for him, remembering pain and excitement long ago, gently sparring with him as he concentrates on finding fault. Home Truths has much in common with Ghost Light, though with a very different feel in its sparse settings, adrift from any one time: the stories are confined within a house; there’s a hint of M R James, with a religious scientist investigating the unknown; and like the ultimate villain in Ghost Light and like the fans this story is challenging, Robert has a list of categories that count and, because she doesn’t fit into them, he can’t accept her. It’s not real if you can’t see it. Can he, and the sort of fans who police the list, give her a chance by listening? And so their frame story, and the mystery found by the Doctor, Steven and Sara, and the meta-story of the listeners interweave as he questions what to him are her unreliable narrative devices, and says that he won’t allow the bits that contradict his continuity of facts, without being aware of the gaps in any of his own assumptions, the ghosts of his own superstitions, even as he unconsciously echoes the old wariness of eating ‘fairy food’. He’s putting her on trial as a danger to church and state while not really believing in the church side of his role, but you can see how although he doesn’t like the superstition built into the law, following its rigid doctrine has warped his ability to ask questions and do his job. The rules have even made science into a dogma of its own rather than akin to his sense of enquiry – which makes her real threat more to his own worldview than to his world, and all the harder for him to listen without prejudice.
“Well? What’s it going to be?”
3 – Asking questions about human nature.
The discussion between Miss Kingdom and Robert isn’t just about the people in the stories she’s telling, but about how we’re all wired – and tangentially between the two of them, both night constables of a sort, the conflict between orders and individuality, duty and empathy, and how all choices have consequences for which we must take responsibility. You have to ask questions, even if it’s hard: Sara’s original sin and Robert’s choice can’t be passed off as just obeying orders, and perfection doesn’t suit humanity. These are ideas that go to my wider political fear that utopias never have room for people who complicate things and that if you don’t count, you can’t exist, just as the story within the story speaks to inner fears of thoughtlessness (or of thoughts). And, ultimately, throughout this poignant tale, Miss Kingdom in Jean Marsh’s beautiful voice is the soul of it all, someone with reason to empathise with murderers who don’t really wish to be murderers, and in reaching out to them, might save herself.
4 – Opening up more stories.
Sara Kingdom’s original story, The Daleks’ Master Plan, was Doctor Who’s longest TV adventure (subject, naturally, to debate). So it’s a cheeky ambition for Home Truths to put another story into the middle of it and open it out to be even longer, with a promise of more in there still. Author Simon Guerrier’s Doctor Who writing keeps coming back to William Hartnell’s Doctor, captured here in many facets – loving to explore, treating his companions as children but like a mischievous child himself, irritable when made to look foolish but almost serene at the end – and for Big Finish he’s created several rather marvellous adventures for the Doctor and neglected companions Sara and Steven (Peter Purves). Home Truths itself has two sequels (though not necessarily in that order), The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System.
While the events of Home Truths are resolved as far as the Doctor, Steven and Sara’s travels go, not only is the story of Sara and Robert left unresolved, but the hints of the world they inhabit fire the imagination. It’s far in the future, but after war, flood and disasters we can only guess at. What might have caused the downfall of the civilisation after next? And how did another rise, seeing A Canticle for Leibowitz through a crooked glass, in the stern dogma of strictly defined church and science, though tantalisingly neither defined for the listener? Is this strangely past-future even Earth, or have names been carried over the stars like Robert across the fens? And why is he a Night Constable? Does this world ever see the light? Miss Kingdom herself tells Robert that she has a hundred stories to tell about the people who have stayed with her – though he’s deliberately asked to hear one he doesn’t believe. It’s no wonder that her conversation with him has more than a hint of Scheherazade, and the whole thing a sense of The Twilight Zone (a series in which Jean Marsh herself starred in another lonely two-handed psychological horror story / psychological character study).
5 – This creeps me out more personally than any other Doctor Who story.
“The corridor in which the woman lay led to a wide staircase, littered with flowers and paper-wrapped gifts. The Doctor examined the labels: they were wedding presents for Richard and Alex.”Did you ever think idly how gratifying it might be to find yourself in Doctor Who, in whatever small way? I imagine I did. As the fairy tales warn us, be careful what you wish for.
Home Truths author Simon Guerrier is a friend of ours and gave us a wedding present. Nothing of Home Truths, though, which is perhaps for the best (his lines that we weaved into our wedding reading weren’t from here, either). My husband is a careful driver, and the only time I can remember him swerving the car in shock was on a dark and stormy night coming up to Christmas 2008 and driving up to see our parents. The story is quite creepy enough, with the mysteriously, suddenly dead bodies of two newlyweds in their ideal home. We were already feeling for them, and then Sara Kingdom told us their names in track seven. Thanks, Simon. Of course, they’re not a perfect match: Simon’s been to our place and knows it is not in all honesty uncannily pristine; Alex has been gender-swapped (thinking about it, the story itself might have a trans character, from a certain point of view).
What Else Should I Tell You About Home Truths?
You can buy it on CD or download from Big Finish Productions here.
This is where I often mention things other fans don’t like about a story and turn them on their head, but I’m not as familiar with reviews for extra-televisual Doctor Who. So my contrary view on Home Truths is that the opening mystery and the aftermath are both brilliant, but some of what would ordinarily be the climax (to the ‘old’ story, at least) doesn’t engage me as much, though it captures the Doctor well and I can see how it’s a necessary bridge. Perhaps it’s just because in some ways it’s an extended ‘action’ sequence, which despite being a harrowing moment for Sara, those are always less effective on the radio, and though she has to ‘earn’ the resolution, I can see it coming and am impatient to get there once I think I know the answer (one of them, anyway).
Simon Guerrier is also the author, with Dr Marek Kukula, of a less fictional book on The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. A lot of people who don’t review his stories have nevertheless found this fascinating, so you might still find him popping up on the radio or at your local library to talk about Doctor Who and science and things, and he’s always worth listening to (and questioning). Whatever you think of this pair’s scientific views, at least they don’t wield them with the authority to unperson you if you disagree.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Home Truths, Why Not Try…
More Sara Kingdom: The Daleks’ Master Plan. This is a thrilling epic from 1965-66, including in the middle Doctor Who’s first ever Christmas special episode (which isn’t very M R James at all). Unfortunately the BBC burnt most of it, but you can buy the whole soundtrack on CD, and see the three complete surviving episodes on the Lost In Time DVD set. You might also look out for Reconstructions online, which combine the soundtrack with photos to make the missing episodes easier to follow. I recommend Simon Guerrier’s sequels to Home Truths, too, and just this month he has a new Early Adventure out from Big Finish where the Doctor, Sara and Steven face the Sontarans as played by Dan “Strax” Starkey, bringing together some of the oldest and newest Doctor Who.
For more Jean Marsh, there’s the 1965 historical adventure The Crusade (for which most of the same limitations apply), and 1989’s Battlefield (all of which, thankfully, you can see on DVD or download from BBC Store). Ms Marsh plays different characters in all three stories, though all three have complicated relationships with their brothers – see especially her soliloquy at the end of Battlefield, her coldness in the middle of The Daleks’ Master Plan and a terrific The Crusade scene in which she tears strips off Julian Glover.