Doctor Who Companion Chronicles: The Guardian of the Solar System CD audio adventure, from Big Finish Productions
The Guardian of the Solar System is the final part of the trilogy of audio adventures narrated by the character of Sara Kingdom, played by Jean Marsh. Also returning is Niall MacGregor as Robert, the scholar to whom Sara is recounting her history.
Sara Kingdom, an agent of the Space Security Service in the year 4000 AD, was originally introduced in the twelve part Doctor Who serial The Daleks’ Masterplan, broadcast from November 1965 to January 1966.
Sara was manipulated into killing her own brother, Bret Vyon, a fellow SSS agent, by Mavic Chen, the Guardian of the Solar System. Bret had discovered that Chen, the most trusted and powerful man in the Earth Empire, was involved in a conspiracy with the Daleks to conquer the galaxy. Learning the truth, the devastated, grieving Sara joined the First Doctor and Steven Taylor in their efforts to thwart the Daleks and Chen. In the final episode, the Daleks’ own doomsday device, the Time Destructor, was turned against them, totally eliminating their invasion force on the planet Kembel. Tragically, Sara was also killed.
The Guardian of the Solar System, as with the previous two adventures in this audio trilogy, Home Truths and The Drowned World, is set during the sixth month gap between episodes seven and eight of The Daleks’ Masterplan. This six month period was devised by author John Peel when he novelized the serial in 1989, in order to allow for more adventures featuring Sara to be told. As we learned in Home Truths, a duplicate of Sara’s consciousness had been created by and took control of an ultra-advanced house built in the far distant future. It is this copy of Sara, this “ghost,” who recounts her past adventures to Robert.
At the end of The Drowned World, Robert brought 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 is warping the fabric of time & space. Exploring amongst the maze of giant gears and chains, watching a towering pendulum swinging back & forth, they observe a group of tired, stooped old men shuffling amidst the gantries and walkways of the cyclopean clockwork mechanism. The trio soon discover 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 plan of conquest 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 let Chen to collaborate with the Daleks in the first place.
Simon Guerrier, author of The Guardian of the Solar System, does a superb job writing Sara. He puts her through an emotional wringer, having her forced to see Bret alive once more, and then attempt to reason with Chen, a man she knows will very shortly betray the Earth Empire.
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, figuring out what they want, and knowing exactly what to say to get them to act as he wishes them to, without them ever realize 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.
Mavic 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’ Masterplan that are known to have survived, as well as John Peel’s two volume novelisation, 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’ Masterplan co-written by Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner 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, or rose to power through some other means. But it is quite clear that he holds tremendous power, and there are not any apparent political checks & balances against him. The agents of the Space Security Service are presented as possessing a “license to kill.” Indeed, throughout The Daleks’ Masterplan, 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’ Masterplan 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 sci-fi series Blake’s Seven, which presented a tyrannical, fascistic “Terran Federation” stamping out justice and independent thought.
In The Guardian of the Solar System, Guerrier takes some of these seeds that Nation planted in The Daleks’ Masterplan and runs with them. 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.
And, indeed, 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 concept 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.
(Truth be told, at first I was wondering why Sara simply didn’t just try and kill Mavic Chen. But considering just how important and powerful he was, his office must have had intensive security systems. So presumably Sara knew that if she made any kind of move against him, she’d be either arrested or dead in seconds flat.)
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, returning as Robert, also does a fine job. It is no accident on Guerrier’s part 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 director of The Guardian of the Solar System, as well as the two preceding installments, is Lisa Bowerman. She is probably best known for playing the Seventh Doctor’s companion Bernice Summerfield in a series of Big Finish audio plays. Bowerman does a superb job, getting a truly riveting performance from Jean Marsh in all three stories.
Although this is the last Sara Kingdom story written by Simon Guerrier, the behind the scenes segment at the end of the disk indicates that Big Finish plans to produce further stories with the character. Those certainly have potential, especially as Sara has been returned to the land of the living.
I imagine that she would be a wonderful match-up for the Sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker. It just seems like a team full of potential, and I’d really love to see Marsh and Baker work together. A good writer would really be able to get some serious, poignant drama out of a reunion between the Doctor and Sara Kingdom. 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. I hope Big Finish follows up on them.