‘Doctor Who: Stranded 1’ reviewed

❉ A bold new direction for Doctor Who and a remarkable achievement by Big Finish!

“It can’t be overstated how different Stranded is from anything Big Finish has tried before with Doctor Who. It’s entirely new territory for storytelling, and it’s also entirely new territory for Doctor Who in general with representational issues… particularly meaningful in light of current events”

The magic of Doctor Who, according to Third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee, wasn’t in the far-flung spaceships and distant past. No, the excitement of the series to him came from crossing that with the world we know and live in: finding a “yeti on the loo in Tooting Bec.” This concept has driven much of the show in recent years—there’s a reason companions tend to be from our time—but Big Finish has a whole new take on it with their new Eighth Doctor series, Stranded. This time, the Doctor’s on the mythical loo, and he’d really like to get out of Tooting Bec, or Earth in general.

The TARDIS has been totalled by the events of previous Eighth Doctor audio series, Ravenous, leaving the Doctor, 60s linguist Helen Sinclair, and far-future medic Liv Chenka stuck surviving in what’s proven to be one of the most overwhelming locales there is: Earth in 2020. Immediately, Stranded proves to be a sharp contrast to its predecessor, trading convoluted continuity for intimacy and a rich ensemble cast. Those looking for high-concept science fiction will be frustrated, but there’s plenty of that in the Big Finish catalogue. This is something boldly new for the company, and the series in general, and though there are a few moments of uncertainty, the direction has energized writers and actors alike to create something unmissable.

The first story, script editor Matt Fitton’s Lost Property, immediately makes a strong case for the range. Where Doom Coalition opened with a villain introduction, and Ravenous with a chase in the TARDIS, Stranded opens in the middle of the action: Helen borrowing an oyster card to get around London. That sets the tone for this whole story, focused more on the basic survival questions of how time travelers with no legal identity or possessions in the present day can survive, finding shelter and enough money for a nice pastry. While the plotting is light, with the sci-fi conceit of the episode not coming into focus until very late in the game, it’s deft, jumping elegantly between present and recent past to smoothly get the listener up to speed with the struggles the Doctor and his friends have been facing, as well as develop the appealing cast of characters populating their new world. Fitton suggests in the behind the scenes interviews that he wanted to capture the anxieties of moving into a new, unfamiliar city in this script, and it must be said, it absolutely nails that goal.

Rest assured, though: this new focus on contemporary, stripped-down drama does not mean these stories are free of Doctor Who continuity magic. Headlining this first episode is Tom Baker’s Curator from The Day of the Doctor, every bit as charmingly odd and enigmatic as he was in his scene there. He is the biggest of several gestures toward the future of the series, though not the most startling, as further twists drop over the course of the episode, including a fantastic cliffhanger. As with the previous two series with this team of characters, a plot arc is very much present, though the precise nature of it will probably take a couple more box sets to come into focus. For now, this nicely polished opening episode suggests a meticulous structure and pacing to events that will hopefully make for some fantastic fireworks down the line.

As the first episode, it also serves as our introduction to one of the largest ensemble casts in any Big Finish Who. Most prominent new addition is, of course, new companion Tania Bell, played with an effortless awkward charm by Rebecca Root. The writers all clearly relish the opportunity to have a thoroughly modern woman’s voice in the team, and it’s rare any line from her doesn’t sparkle. In particular, she contrasts very well with Liv’s more guarded, sardonic energies, and their rapport forms the heart of this set. She’s also, in a striking new representational step, the first transgender companion in any Doctor Who media, handled sensitively throughout. It’s refreshing to see this handled with openness and sensitivity throughout. Though Tania is a character with some fascinating secrets, her gender is never one of them.

Tania isn’t the only charming new addition to the cast, though: the Doctor and co wind up essentially landlords to a sharply drawn group of very different characters. Older married couple Ron and Tony offer up consistently welcome comic relief, and sisters Zakia and Aisha bring working class sensibilities and a healthy dose of skepticism to the stranger proceedings that erupt in their lives. Most successful of all for me, though, is the teenage Robin, whose strained relationship with his often absent parents fuels several of the most successful subplots in the set; I get the sense that the writers particularly enjoy working with him. Though every episode in Stranded 1 has its own contained plot, the real highlight is in the subplots for this ensemble woven in throughout. All get a moment or two to shine, and their presence will be very welcome over the next three sets.

Following Fitton’s opener is John Dorney’s Wild Animals, which, as is often the case for Dorney’s Eighth Doctor outings, it’s something of a showpiece. Described by the author as a “contemporary pure historical,” the episode contains no science fiction plot whatsoever, to startling effect. It seems likely to this reviewer to go down as the standout entry from this first volume, with an intimate story about mundane violence erupting into a series that’s usually content to brush off exploding spaceships and massacres by ray gun. Fundamentally, it’s a story about the Doctor, Liv, and Helen thrust into a world where they aren’t invincible science fiction heroes, with tragic and emotional results.

Like most “pure historicals,” the lack of science fiction plot doesn’t mean a lack of genre stylings, just that it uses different ones. In the same way classic stories like The Gunfighters or The Romans are riff on the Western or sword and sandal films, Wild Animals crashes Doctor Who into the margins of a cop drama, mostly to make a point of how strained a fit it is. I have some quibbles about that choice; I would have found other forms of mundane violence creeping into the story more emotionally believable, and though no fault of anyone making this story, the genre in general plays awkwardly in light of recent events. The title metaphor is also a bit forced, with an ending that works far better on a poetic level than a real world one. But just as with the story’s genre stylings, the emotional resonances of these choices throughout the script are phenomenal, and more than justify the exercise. It’s still one of the most unique and poignant Big Finish episodes in recent memory.

Third episode Must-See TV by Lisa McMullin introduces the fourth companion to this lineup, Torchwood’s Andy Davison, along with the most captivating sci-fi hook of this first volume, residents of the house seeing surveillance footage of themselves and each other on TV. Andy, for his part, feels surprisingly natural as a fit into this group. Though continuity quibbles remain to be sorted, and I’m sure they will, Tom Price is too enjoyable an addition to worry. Both the presence of Andy and the strange TV footage help to upend the relationships drawn between residents in the first two episodes, as suspicions grow and hidden agendas start to become exposed: Torchwood has its own interests in the Doctor’s world, as, it seems, does another, shadier force. McMullin mines her setup for the fullest possible character drama—and humour, particularly a scene involving dancing—overall producing the most straightforwardly fun story the set. With a strong ear for character drama, and tight plotting to mine the most from it, McMullin proves to have a strong handle of the goals of this range, and I hope to see more of her writing for these characters.

Things come to a head in the fourth and final story, Divine Intervention, by David K Barnes. Alongside his very well-received Doctor Who scripts, Barnes is the head writer of audio sitcom Wooden Overcoats, and his experience with the format translates perfectly here, a story about Liv’s dinner date going increasingly wrong as every other character in the ensemble turns up, alongside several time-traveling aliens. It’s tightly structured, tremendously funny, and full of some sparkling insight on the Doctor, Helen, Liv, Tania, Andy, and all the rest. Divine Intervention is a different kind of climax than Who fans might be used to, and any big plot revelations, such as the enigmatic cult referred to by the episode’s title, will have to wait for future sets. But it’s the perfect sendoff to what Stranded 1 has been about, a small scale story that upends the relationships between the ensemble and the Doctor and promises a very different playing field going forward.

It can’t be overstated how different Stranded is from anything Big Finish has tried before with Doctor Who. It’s entirely new territory for storytelling, and even for production, as the behind the scenes extras discuss how different and difficult managing the ensemble recordings could be. And it’s also entirely new territory for Doctor Who in general with representational issues, from a deftly drawn relationship between a bisexual woman and a transgender lesbian, particularly meaningful in light of current events, to the diverse backgrounds of the various tenants, all of which offering different and compelling voices to change our understanding this familiar world. If it has a few small stumbles in working out exactly what balance to strike between genre material and more mundane drama, they are entirely forgivable for the energy and ambition, which carries through into one of the freshest pieces of Doctor Who ever.

Stranded 1 is a remarkable achievement by Big Finish, and it’s clear there’s still so much more to learn about these events and the characters living through them. On the strength of this first set, I can’t wait to follow through the rest of their journey. Highly recommended.

Paul McGann stars as the Doctor, alongside Hattie Morahan (Helen Sinclair), Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka), Rebecca Root (Tania Bell), Tom Price (Sergeant Andy Davidson) and Clive Wood (Mr Bird).

‘Doctor Who: Stranded 1’  is now available to own HERE as a collector’s edition CD box set (priced at £24.99), or on download (at £19.99)Big Finish listeners can save even more money with a bundle of all four box sets, pre-ordering the entire series of Doctor Who: Stranded for just £88 as a collector’s edition CD box set or £79 as a digital download.

❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.

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