Doctor Who reviews: The Sara Kingdom Trilogy

“There are many sorts of ghosts, Jo. Ghosts from the past, and ghosts from the future.” – the Third Doctor, “Day of the Daleks”

On the Big Finish Audio group on Facebook it was mentioned that actress Jean Marsh turned 87 years old today. Marsh, who was born on 1 July 1934, has had a very lengthy and storied career. Among her many, many roles, she appeared a few times on the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who.

Way back in 1965 Marsh appeared in episodes four through twelve of the Doctor Who magnum opus “The Daleks’ Master Plan” written by Terry Nation & Dennis Spooner, script edited by Donald Tosh, and directed by Douglas Camfield.  Marsh portrayed Sara Kingdom, an agent of the Space Security Service in the year 4000 AD.  Sara was initially depicted as an icy, ruthless operative who followed orders zealously. When the Guardian of the Solar System, Mavic Chen, informed Sara that fellow SSS agent Bret Vyon was a traitor, she believed it.  As far as she was concerned, Chen was her superior, and totally above reproach.  Sara confronted Bret and shot him dead.

Unfortunately, what Sara did not know was that Chen was collaborating with the Daleks and a number of other aliens civilizations in a diabolical scheme to conquer the entire galaxy.  Bret learned of Chen’s treason, and so he had to be eliminated.

Soon after gunning down Bret, Sara tracked down the Doctor and Steven Taylor, ready to dispatch them in a similarly ruthless manner.  Fortunately, the Doctor was able to convince Sara of the truth about Chen and his alliance with the Daleks.  Sara was utterly devastated.  Bret, it turned out, was her brother, and her unquestioning adherence to orders led her to kill him in cold blood.

Determined to thwart Chen, the man who manipulated her and betrayed her trust, Sara joined the Doctor and Steven on the TARDIS as they sought to stop the Daleks’ scheme.

At the conclusion of “The Daleks ’ Master Plan” the Doctor managed to turn the Daleks’ doomsday weapon, the Time Destructor, against them, destroying their invasion force.  Tragically, Sara was caught in the Time Destructor’s field, and rapidly aged to death.

In 2008, over four decades after she had portrayed Sara Kingdom on television, Marsh was given the opportunity to reprise the character in Doctor Who audio stories produced by Big Finish. The spin-off range The Companion Chronicles were adventures narrated by various individuals who had traveled with the Doctor throughout the years. The trilogy of Home Truths, The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System featured Sara Kingdom. The three audio stories were released in November 2008, July 2009 and July 2010.

When author John Peel had novelized “The Daleks’ Master Plan” in 1989  he inserted a six month gap between the events of episodes seven and eight.  Peel liked the character of Sara Kingdom, and he stated that this gap could provide other writers with an opportunity to tell stories of Sara’s travels with the Doctor and Steven.

The events recounted in of Home Truths, The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System are set during that six month period.  But, if Sara is dead, how can she be narrating the stories?  Well, it turns out we are listening to Sara’s ghost… sort of.  Author Simon Guerrier comes up with a very unusual and inventive way to bring Sara back in these this trio of audio adventures.

Marsh is an amazing actress.  It cannot have been easy for her to reprise a role she had played 42 years before.  Especially since of the nine episodes of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” Marsh appeared in only two (episodes five and ten) are still known to exist.  So she definitely did not have much material to reference.  Nevertheless, despite this obstacle, Marsh is positively brilliant in these three audio stories.  She does an amazing job slipping back into the character’s shoes.

As William Hartnell, the actor who portrayed the First Doctor, passed away in 1975, there was obviously no way he could have contributed to these productions.  But Guerrier’s dialogue sounds exactly like what the Doctor would have said.  And Jean Marsh, when speaking the Doctor’s lines, manages to capture the cadence and personality of Hartnell’s speech patterns.

The framing sequences of the trilogy are set on Earth in the far, far distant future, after some unnamed cataclysm has sent humanity back to a primitive technological level.  Robert, who is sort of a cross between a detective and a priest, is sent to investigate Sara’s “ghost.”  It is to Robert that Sara recounts her adventures.  Robert is played by Niall MacGregor.

Home Truths, the first installment of the trilogy, is a very introspective story.  Guerrier really gets into Sara’s head, and we learn a great deal about her.  The grief she feels at having killed her own brother is palpable.  Marsh narration imbues Guerrier’s script with deep, moving emotion.

The setting for Home Truths is a super-advanced computerized house, one that appears to be haunted.  Guerrier effectively uses Clarke’s Law, i.e. any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  He also broaches upon the theme of how our technology advances far faster than our ability to control it or use it wisely.  And he focuses upon how each and every one of us has dark thoughts & urges buried in our unconscious.  Home Truths reminded me a bit of the classic 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet, with its “monsters from the id.”

The Drowned World, in contrast, is a more action based story.  The Doctor, Sara, and Steven arrive on an endangered asteroid mining colony.  Sara is really thrust to the forefront, as we see her steely determination that no one else dies on her watch.  Confronted with almost certain death, she refuses to give in, standing her ground and holding off the alien menace until everyone else gets to safety.

The story has a very 1960s feel, reminiscent of the “base under siege” formula utilized a number of times on the show.  Admittedly, the aliens in The Drowned World would probably have been impossible to achieve with Sixties special effects.  But they are good creatures to use in the audio format, where all that’s required is the listener’s imagination.

At the end of The Drowned World, Robert brings his gravely ill daughter to the house, asking Sara’s to use the house’s incredible abilities to cure her.  As The Guardian of the Solar System opens, we learn that Sara has healed the young girl, in return for Robert agreeing to remain in the house for the rest of his life, to keep Sara company.  Now, many years later, after his daughter has grown to adulthood and left the island the house is built upon, Robert requests that Sara finally allow him his freedom.  She agrees, but first wishes to tell him one last story…

While Sara was traveling with the Doctor and Steven, the TARDIS materialized within the bowels of a titanic clock that was warping the fabric of time & space.  Exploring amongst the maze of giant gears and chains, watching a towering pendulum swinging back & forth, they observed a group of tired, stooped old men shuffling amidst the gantries and walkways of the cyclopean clockwork mechanism.  The trio soon discovered that they are back in Earth’s solar system.  Even more pertinent to Sara, she learns that they have arrived approximately one year before the Daleks’ massive plot went into action.  And, on a more personal note, one year before Sara killed her brother.

The TARDIS travelers are arrested by the Space Security Service.  Recognizing Sara as a fellow SSS agent, their captors bring her to a separate interrogation room.  And there Sara comes face to face with her brother, Bret Vyon.  Nearly hysterical at seeing him alive, Sara begins to wonder if it is somehow possible to change history, to alter the events that will occur in the next year, events that will culminate in her shooting her brother down in cold blood.

Sara’s attempts to explain that she has traveled back in time are met by disbelief by Bret.  Between her emotional outburst at seeing him alive again, and Bret knowing that prolonged exposure to the forces within the humongous clock can cause mental disorientation, Bret finds her tale of time travel unbelievable.  Then Sara learns that she has another opportunity to alter history, for an important figure happens to be visiting the clock facility: Mavic Chen himself.  And Sara manages to gain an audience with him.

Coming face to face with Chen, the man she hates most in the world, Sara is forced to keep her calm.  She attempts to steer the conversation in a way that it might influence Chen might act differently in a year’s time.  All the while, she has to carefully sidestep mentioning any information that would indicate to Chen that she is aware of his alliance with the Daleks.  In the process, she learns the terrible secret of the clock, and a possible explanation for what led Chen to collaborate with the Daleks in the first place.

Guerrier once again does a superb job writing Sara.  He puts her through an emotional wringer, having her forced to see Bret alive once more, and then attempting to reason with Chen, a man she knows will very shortly betray Earth.

Likewise, Guerrier captures the character of Mavic Chen perfectly.  Chen is a master politician with a magnetic personality.  He is also incredibly good at reading people and knowing what to say to get them to act as he wishes them to, without them ever realizing they have been manipulated.  He hides his arrogance and ravenous hunger for power beneath a benign concern for the well-being of the solar system.  Even Sara, knowing what Chen’s future actions will bring, finds herself being convinced and won over by his carefully-phrased arguments.

Chen is an interesting, albeit terrifying, figure.  Judging by his role in the The Guardian of the Solar System audio play, what I’ve seen of him in the three episodes of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” that are known to have survived, as well as John Peel’s two volume novelization, Chen is undoubtedly a sociopath.  He is a charismatic and persuasive individual who casually uses and then discards people.  Chen is ready to betray the Earth, and then in turn double-cross the Daleks, so that he can assume total control of the entire galaxy, without a thought given to the countless lives that will be lost due to his machinations.

The original episodes of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” do not delve too deeply into the political climate or structure of Earth’s government in the year 4000.  However, there is a certain quasi-fascist atmosphere present.  We are not told if Mavic Chen was elected Guardian of the Solar System, appointed to the position, or seized power in a coup.  But it is quite clear that he holds tremendous authority, and there are not any apparent political checks & balances against him.  The agents of the Space Security Service possess a “license to kill,” and throughout “The Daleks’ Master Plan” we see them typically shooting first and asking questions later, if at all.  The members of the SSS appear to possess an unquestioning obedience to orders, which is what led Sara to so easily kill her own brother.

When Terry Nation created the Daleks, he used them as a blatant allegory for the Nazis.  It has been suggested over the years by various reviewers that the Earth government Nation presented in “The Daleks’ Master Plan” was also a metaphor for the Third Reich, albeit a much more subtle one, a form of fascism that had successfully hidden itself under the cloak of democracy.  Is it mere coincidence that the SSS is just one letter longer than the common abbreviation of the Nazis’ Schutzstaffel?   More than one commentator has noted that Nation recycled and fleshed out the political atmosphere of this story in his dystopian space opera Blake’s 7, which presented a tyrannical, fascistic “Terran Federation” brutally stamping out liberty and free will.

In The Guardian of the Solar System, Guerrier extrapolates on the seeds planted in “The Daleks’ Master Plan.”  The old men kept tending to the clock are apparently political prisoners or dissidents.  Sara unequivocally states that the SSS have been trained to follow orders to the letter, to not ask any questions.  SSS operations are routinely classified for reasons of security, so that each agent is left in the dark about what missions their fellow operatives have been assigned to.  The organization is run like a well-oiled machine.

In the gargantuan clock, Sara sees a metaphor for herself.  She was just a mere cog in a vastly complicated mechanism, completely unable to alter her destiny.  And when her attempts to alter history fail, that merely reinforces that helpless self-appraisal of her role in the scheme of things. In an anguished cry, Sara hollers “There isn’t any choice!  There’s never any choice!”

Guerrier plays with the possibility of a predestination paradox in The Guardian of the Solar System.  At the end of the audio play, Sara Kingdom is convinced that her attempts to alter history may very well have instead caused those events to take place.  This reinforces Sara’s feelings of being a cog in a machine, bereft of free will, this time not just in Mavic Chen’s government, but in the vast scope of history itself.

However, Guerrier deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether events were preordained.  Both Sara and the listener are kept in the dark as to whether Mavic Chen was already a part of the Dalek conspiracy prior to the events of the story, or if it was Sara’s actions throughout that led him to collaborate with Earth’s enemies.

Once again, as in the previous two parts of this trilogy, Jean Marsh is absolutely incredible as Sara Kingdom.  A thousand years after her mind had been copied into the computer of the mysterious house, Sara is still tortured by her actions, by the massive guilt she feels for unquestioningly following orders and killing her brother.  Unaware that Chen was exterminated by Daleks once his usefulness had run out, and that her original self died thwarting the Dalek invasion, the “ghost” of Sara has been left for a millennium with no closure.  In a way, the original, “real” Sara met with a more merciful fate.  Yes, she died a horrible death when the Time Destructor was activated, but at least now she is at peace.  The copy of her, however, the “spirit” possessing the house has been left for a thousand years with unresolved guild and unanswered questions.  Marsh brings across all of this torment and anguish with palpable emotion in a riveting performance.

Niall MacGregor also does a fine job as Robert.  It is no accident that Robert is a sort of priest, because Sara is quite clearly confessing her sins to him, in search of absolution.  Robert can only try to point out the good that Sara has done during her travels with the Doctor, the lives she has saved.  He regards her as a heroine who has repeatedly been ready to sacrifice herself to save the innocent.

Guerrier ends The Guardian of the Solar System on a striking note.  Sara, who has argued to Robert that she has never had any choice, is finally presented with a clear-cut opportunity to change, to decide her fate.  Restored to corporeal, mortal form by Robert, who has taken her place as “the ghost in the machine” of the house, Sara is now free to choose what she wants to do next.  And, granted this freedom for the first time, she is left undecided.  What happens when someone whose whole life has been mapped out for them is given the gift of choice?

The trilogy was directed by Lisa Bowerman, best known for playing Bernice Summerfield in the Big Finish audio plays.  Bowerman did a superb job, getting riveting performances from Jean Marsh in all three stories.

Each disk included brief behind the scene interviews.  I enjoyed these, as they provided Marsh’s thoughts on reprising the role of Sara.  Interestingly, Marsh indicated she would be open to playing Morgaine from “Battlefield” in an audio story.  Considering the end of that story left her fate up in the air (how exactly does one “lock up” a powerful extra-dimensional sorceress?) there could be potential in having her return in a Big Finish sequel.

In any case, these were very good productions.  I’ve always liked the character of Sara Kingdom, based upon viewing those two episodes from “The Daleks’ Master Plan” and reading the novelization.  It was great to have her appear in new stories.  Sara was so unlike the majority of female companions from the 1960s, who would usually scream their lungs out when confronted by the monster of the week.  She was sort of a futuristic Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, tough as nails and no nonsense, but with a caring, sensitive side buried under her hard exterior.  Sara was very much ahead of her time.

I was glad that Simon Guerrier brought back Sara Kingdom in these three audio plays.  Marsh subsequently portrayed Sara in several other Big Finish releases. I had hoped we might get a story in which the revived Sara would travel the Doctor in one of his later regenerations, as there’s the potential for some poignant drama out of a reunion of the two.  How would the Doctor react to Sara’s return, and how would Sara cope with the knowledge that her original self had died long ago on Kembel?  Would the Doctor be able to grant the absolution that Sara had sought for so long?  The storytelling possibilities are tremendous.

Of course, it’s quite possible that Marsh, now 87 years old, has retired from acting, in which case the likelihood of her returning to the role of Sara Kingdom once again is very remote. But at least we did have the opportunity to hear her perform in several memorable Big Finish productions within the past decade and a half.

Doctor Who reviews: Timelash

Recently, Michele was working on a paper for school that examined how H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine influenced Doctor Who.  It was an excellent piece of writing.  I cannot believe that I’d never before noticed how significantly Terry Nation had borrowed from Wells when writing the first Dalek storyline, i.e. the Daleks equal the Morlocks, the Thals equal the Eloi, etc.

So, as she’s working on this paper, I happen to casually mention to Michele that on one occasion the Doctor actually met H.G. Wells.  Oops!!!  Suddenly she wants to see this story.  I tried to explain to her that “Timelash” is not a well regarded Doctor Who serial.  In fact, one commentator went so far as to point out that the title is an anagram for “lame shit.”  Michele was amused by this, but undeterred.  So I popped “Timelash” into the DVD player, and we watched it.  She ended up laughing at most of what came up on the television screen.

As I’ve written before, I am a big fan of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, and on the whole I find his brief tenure on the series to be very enjoyable.  Even so, I will readily admit that “Timelash” is not an especially good story.  That said, I will argue that it is rather underrated… which basically translates to my saying that is nowhere near as awful as most other people claim!  Certainly Baker himself is in fine form, bringing his brash, argumentative, authoritative Doctor right to the forefront.  It definitely suits this story, given that he is handed a pair of larger than life adversaries to verbally fence with in the forms of the Borad and Maylin Tekker.

Doctor Who: Timelash DVD
Doctor Who: Timelash DVD

The plot by Glen McCoy definitely has potential, exploring what happens when the Doctor returns to a planet several decades after he had a prior (untelevised) adventure.  We very rarely see the lasting consequences of the Doctor’s actions anywhere, so this trip to Karfel offers us a chance to examine how a previous encounter with the Time Lord can affect a civilization for good or bad.

The main villain, the mutant Borad, is actually a novel, intriguing foe, one who is well played by actor Robert Ashby, with an excellent make-up job realizing the character.  Considering the Borad survives the events of “Timelash,” albeit as a deposed despot left to spend the next several centuries swimming about Loch Ness, I’ve always hoped that one day he would turn up again in another story.  Given the generally poor perception of “Timelash,” I doubt that Steven Moffat will be dusting off this vintage baddie any time soon, but there are still the Doctor Who audio plays and novels.

I think the main area where “Timelash” fails is in the budget.  It definitely had a very cheap, shoddy look about it, with plain sets and very drab costumes.  One of the worst offenses has to be the inside of the Timelash tunnel itself, which looks horribly tacky and is so obviously a glittery Styrofoam wall.

I really cannot fault McCoy for any of this, though.  He was a relatively new writer who had never worked on Doctor Who before.  In this case, I think the lion’s share of the blame should be laid at the feet of script editor Eric Saward.  It is all well and good for Saward to bemoan the fact that producer John Nathan-Turner forced him to work with a succession of inexperienced writers.  But it was Saward’s job to look at McCoy’s script, point out to him what was not achievable on the limited money allocated to the show, and suggest other alternatives.  Saward seems to have abdicated his responsibilities, though, content to let McCoy’s ambitious vision be poorly realized on a shoestring budget, all the while blaming JNT for the substandard end result.

Paul Darrow Timelash
Paul Darrow takes it to eleven as Maylin Tekker

I was also extremely underwhelmed by how the Doctor’s companion Peri was portrayed.  Nicola Bryant, as I’ve observed in past blog posts, was often handed subpar material to work with.  But this has to be one of the character’s all time worst stories.  Except for a few scenes where she’s squabbling with the Doctor, poor Peri spends nearly the entire serial running from trouble, getting captured, being left tied up, and screaming for her life.  Makes me appreciate how the character has been handled on the Big Finish audio plays all the more.

As I mentioned earlier, the Doctor meets H.G. Wells in  “Timelash,” although for almost the entire story he is just a young man named Herbert.  It’s only in the very last scene that the Doctor discovers his full name, and realizes that he’s probably had a huge impact on the future author.  There was definitely — and again I use the word — potential to a fictional encounter between the Doctor and Wells, the real-life writer whose influence on the series cannot be denied.

Regrettably, the meeting between the two does not come off especially well.  For most of the story, Herbert is written as a naïve bumbler who is in way over his head, as well as a bit of a wet blanket.  I think David Chandler gives it his all, though.  I had always hoped, as with the Borad, that we would see another meeting between the Doctor and Wells, hopefully when the later was an older, more seasoned individual.  I think Chandler expressed interest in reprising the role.  Even though that never did occur on television, Wells does meet both the Tenth Doctor and the Victorian incarnation of Torchwood in the comic book special The Time Machination by Tony Lee and Paul Grist which was published by IDW in 2009.

H.G. Wells meets Torchwood in Doctor Who: The Time Machination
H.G. Wells meets Torchwood in Doctor Who: The Time Machination

Before closing out any look at “Timelash,” I would be extremely remiss if I did not mention Paul Darrow in the role of Maylin Tekker.  To say that it is a broad performance would be a vast understatement.  Reputedly this was inspired by Colin Baker’s appearance as a larger-than-life space pirate, Bayban the Butcher, on Darrow’s series Blake’s 7 a few years previously.  When Darrow was then cast in “Timelash,” he apparently wanted to see if he could out-ham Baker’s earlier performance.

I honestly do not know if Darrow’s over-the-top villainy should be considered one of the most risible aspects of the serial or if it takes a mediocre production and rockets it into high melodrama.  I will tell you this, though: I half-suspect the reason that that there’s so little scenery in “Timelash” is not the result of budget problems but due to Paul Darrow chewing it up.