05 October 2014

BF: Home Truths

This is the second review in my 2014/5 Big Finish marathon. Check out the whole list here.

I confessed in the last review (The Revenants) that I’ve seen almost scandalously little Hartnell era stories. It may be little surprise to you that Season 3 is real uncharted territory for me. The TARDIS team in Home Truths is, as you probably know, the First Doctor, Steven and Sara Kingdom. I’ve seen Steven in The Chase, The Time Meddler (about five or six years ago, I think) and The Gunfighters and none of Sara’s two extant episodes, or indeed The Daleks’ Masterplan. So this was basically my introductory story to this whole set of regulars, but I’m not a complete novice. Even though I’d never seen, read or heard any of Ms Kingdom’s adventures prior to this, I did know that she was an SSS agent, killed her brother Bret Vyon and was aged to death by the Time Destructor. These are just facts about her, and don’t tell me an awful lot about the person beneath the uniform. Suffice to say I was really looking forward to getting to know her.

The sixties were a period of both almost unrivalled inventiveness and formulaic tendencies. Simultaneous to pushing the boundaries, within each four episode block the same sort of pattern would often be followed. Simon Guerrier’s story is a complete departure from anything we might’ve seen in the mid-sixties but at the same time feels completely authentic. To say this doesn’t quite make sense would be unfair, as all the answers are presented in one form or another (aside from the final question posed) but it’s tonally a very different affair. It’s not abstract, but it is surreal, and done well unlike Neil Gaiman’s attempts over the last three years. This story – or at least its framing device – is entirely suited to the audio medium.

You may be wondering how it’s possible for Sara to tell a story when she met her demise when we last saw her, and this isn’t answered until the conclusion. Niall MacGregor plays Robert in this, and it’s not revealed for a long while who he is either. In fact, you’re thrown into this story with almost no information, which is actually really satisfyingly done. My idea of what time period this was set in kept switching all the way through, with mentions of time displacement and scrambling rubbishing each theory as it formulated. A mention of Hollywood being unknown in the contemporary world could’ve meant we were either side of it.

But anyway, Robert turns up at an old guest house in Ely, to hear the stories of an old woman and to apparently pass judgment, but we’re not given any indication what for. In the main narrative, the Doctor, Steven and Sara arrive in a perfect house in the opening episode – Dream Home. Having looked around, they discover an odd tap. I didn’t really get why Steven wouldn’t understand it at first, being from the future. It turns on when he waves his hands near it, a device we do have in twenty-first century society. I put this down to retro sixties futurism at first, but there is a much better explanation provided as the mystery of the House is revealed.

Before too long, the team find a dead woman in the midst of the luxurious living, and her husband upstairs. There’s no sign that they’ve ever had a proper job yet have everything they’ve ever dreamed of, literally. In terms of building tension, this is an exemplary opening episode, concluding with Steven disappearing. The reason for his absence, whilst admittedly convenient for the story, doesn’t feel like a stretch of the imagination considering all that’s happened. I don’t think I’d be able to pick between Dream Home and Home Truths in terms of quality; this never drops the ball once, both the main narrative and the framing device. The way in which they’re inextricably linked is genius and I loved the mystery unfolding for both stories at the same time. I don’t know how long Guerrier had been saving this one up, but what’s evident in abundance is that he’s given this a massive amount of thought.

I’ve read on some other sites that the final twist was quite obvious and that the reviewers saw it coming a way off. I tell you what, they’re a lot more perceptive than me. I had no idea. I had a suspicion that the House in the Doctor’s story was the guest house Robert and the older Sara were in, but I was mostly too absorbed in the brilliance of the writing and performance to theorise properly. I loved that the solution wasn’t fully explained, but did make complete sense, and it spread a massive grin across my face. This does seem to me to be a ghost story at its most ethereal, examining the nature of what it means to be a ghost from a number of perspectives. The arc Robert goes on over the seventy minute story is completely in keeping with Home Truths’ ethos.

I was instantly compelled to seek out more Sara and Steven stories once I got to the end of the disc. I’ve never experienced this pairing before, as already noted, but they were undeniably superb. Getting inside the former’s head and looking around (less metaphorically than you might think) was brilliant and I loved that she was a character with many layers, most notably in her envy of the dead with all their possessions and the pangs of guilt that follow. I always had a bit of an inkling that I liked Sara without knowing why – I knew nothing about her! – and Guerrier has only reaffirmed this. Her backstory is really intriguing, and I wonder how much of this is of the writer’s creation and how much is lifted from her televised episodes. It feels beautifully sixties and I really want to spend more time in the company of these characters. Teamed with the First Doctor, they really are a formidable squad. I’ve read whilst researching this review (yes, they really are researched, believe it or not) that there’s a period of six months between The Feast of Steven and Volcano where the trio went and had more adventures before encountering the Daleks again. I’m really keen to explore this period, and I intend to get Guerrier’s other three stories written for the team – The Drowned World, The Guardian of the Solar System and The Anachronauts – at the earliest opportunity.

I was never in any doubt as to Guerrier’s ability, having recently listened to his exemplary Shadow of Death, but he surpassed even that work. Not to do it down, but it was a traditional Troughton story that I hugely enjoyed. This really is in another league though, in tone and quality. Although it is part of a trilogy of Sara and Robert stories, I think this works perfectly well by itself. What others have called the cliffhanger I think would be a perfectly natural place to end. This really reminded me of a black and white horror story and they always end ambiguously. In every respect, this surpasses any goals that might have been originated at the outset.

Richard Fox and Lauren Yason have handled the score and sound design for this horrendously spooky tale and as you might guess, they do brilliantly (as always). Injecting chills with their piano-based soundtrack, their style seems to match Simon Guerrier and Lisa Bowerman’s intentions perfectly. The sound design is possibly even more impressive than the music though, setting you on edge if you weren’t already there. It’s not just the weird atmospheric stuff they excel at though; the more mundane pieces work just as well, such as with the running water. These two have a faultless track record with me, and I actively look forward to hearing more of their work, each addition to their CV reminding me of why I love them.

Jean Marsh gives the story a real edge. The story is mostly reliant on her performance, and she more than steps up to the plate, surpassing any expectations I might have had. Her aged vocal of the older Sara – she sounds remarkably younger in the extras – is an inspired choice, and totally fits with the narrative when considered in retrospect. Niall MacGregor is undoubtedly a major part of this story, but thinking about his contribution afterwards, he gets actually quite little airtime. The role required someone who could make an impact instantly, and as the mysterious but inquisitive Robert, MacGregor is arrestingly engaging. He and Marsh work well both together and separately, and both have (and use) intensely listenable voices. Lisa Bowerman is on top form here, not only in terms of casting but direction too. She proves once again that she has a firm grip on atmospheric stories, and it’s two for two in this category.

I’ve been intentionally vague so far, mostly. To be honest, you’re doing pretty well if you still don’t know what happens in this after all this time (as I didn’t). And why are you reading a review anyway? If you’re at this point and haven’t heard it, just skip to the score and you’ll see it reflects the general feeling surrounding Home Truths. Gone? Good. Now I can talk about my favourite scene, where Sara wills the Doctor not to be able to enter the TARDIS because she wants to explain the mystery of the House. The following events with the glass chamber and the Doctor’s forgiving eyes was just… brilliant. I usually listen to these for the first time whilst walking nowadays, and I actually had to stop on a bench and replay this scene, it was so dramatic and original  Seriously, there can be no question of Guerrier’s imagination following this Companion Chronicle.

That brings me onto a broader view of the story. I’m so glad that the producers decided not to make these similar to the Short Trips series – actors reading stories featuring their characters. Home Truths could easily be the tale of the Doctor, Sara and Steven exploring a mysterious home, but it’s really enhanced by the extra detail. The introduction of the second voice makes a massive difference, and elevates the series further. Although the last story was undeniably pleasurable, Home Truths steps things up a gear and where the frame was relatively loose last time, it is fully integrated perfectly here. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t ‘get’ the Companion Chronicles. After reading such good things about them for years (especially from that rogue Joe Ford) I built up my expectations quite a lot. As I’ve said, The Revenants was good, but it wasn’t phenomenal, as the reputation of the range has been built to in my mind. I’m happy to report that any bar I’d set was raised exponentially by Home Truths and I feel I’m beginning to get it now. I can’t wait to stick the next one on, quite frankly.

I must just mention Simon Holub's gorgeous cover. I'm generally a huge fan of his work (although I do feel it's got a little weaker in recent years) and his best art is undoubtedly in the Companion Chronicles. This is possibly his best though, and I've always been a fan of it. I love green covers and the composition, manipulation and colouring is just flawless here. It's appropriate that it should fit such a superlative release, and I don't feel the cover artists get enough credit in reviews normally. I think Tom Webster may be the new Holub, but nothing he's done yet has displaced the latter's CC contributions. Brilliant.

If you’ve not already guessed, I quite liked this one. The ideas presented here and the way they’re used is highly innovative and Simon Guerrier is rapidly becoming one of my favourite regular Big Finish writers. I look forward to his next in my marathon (The Prisoner’s Dilemma) very much. But praise should also go to Jean Marsh, Niall MacGregor, Lisa Bowerman and – last not but least – the audio aces Fox and Yason. I really have entered the range proper on a high, and I can’t recommend this one enough. Even if you have no experience of this era of the show, as I didn’t, this gripped me utterly. The leads are so good that I’m tempted to cue up the next in the series right away.

In a Nutshell: A sublime story that excels in every dimension, examining humanity is a brilliantly obscure fashion.

You can buy Home Truths here, or read Joe Ford’s review here.

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