❉ This is a series that has set its sight on doing new things, writes Kevin Burnard.
“Stranded is the single most exciting thing Big Finish is doing with Doctor Who right now. The stories are starting to grow in complexity, but their focus on making space for emotional work and new representational conversations stays the same, and the drama that results is like nothing we’ve ever gotten before.“
We aren’t in 2020 anymore, and I think I speak for most in saying thank heavens for that. But the Eighth Doctor, his companions Helen Sinclair and Liv Chenka, and a whole host of friends are still stranded in that scary time, more or less. It’s been nine long months since we last heard from this team, and things have changed; the TARDIS is starting to work, and through fitful steps back into time travel, secrets are starting to bubble out within the Baker Street household they have come to call home. But one important thing hasn’t changed: Stranded 2 continues the first set’s determination to explore frontiers untouched by Doctor Who, and it’s all the stronger for it.
Things start on fairly safe ground in Matt Fitton’s Dead Time, or at least as safe ground as a glimpse into a post-apocalyptic future Earth can be. While there’s hints of something bigger going on, linked to various plot threads set up in the previous set about mischief with time, alien assassins, and a strange cult, this is mostly a good old-fashioned runaround through an imagined quarry pursued by robots. On a plot level, this can be a bit disappointing. There’s nothing you’ve not heard a hundred times before if you’re a sci-fi fan, let alone a regular Big Finish listener.
However, the magic of Stranded in the first set was never really in the strength of the plots themselves, but rather in the new character opportunities found in them. On that front, Dead Time may only be a modest win, but it is nonetheless a definite win. For a start, the choice to have Liv’s transgender girlfriend Tania, her Torchwood cohort Andy Davison, and the increasingly petulant kid Helen tutors, Robin, tag along opens up a number of opportunities. There are no other actors beyond these six, and most of the run-time isn’t spent on robot chases, but rather on putting them in different combinations and seeing how they respond to each other and to another time. The biggest beneficiary of this is Tania, whose dynamic with the Eighth Doctor proves to be a winner. There’s a scene where she asks the Doctor what it’s like to regenerate, which, coming from a woman of her background, hits in a very new and resonant way. Moments like that have stuck with me much longer than the plot itself.
But every episode of this set, bar the finale, is based on one or two of the supporting Baker Street tenants, and in this case, it’s really Robin’s story. He proves a bit more of a mixed prospect. There’s good drama in his use here, a neglected kid wanting to be a special adventurer and sneaking onto the TARDIS against all warnings, only to immediately run off and get himself in danger. His motives are entirely understandable, especially for, again, a neglected kid. But it can also all veer into the outright annoying. I would have liked a few more moments of him thinking of anyone other than himself, or a few moments of genuine wonder to show what kind of adventure he’s so seduced by, to help some of his behavior here be more sympathetic. As is, it’s hard to see why this kid is so obsessed with running around a quarry and nearly getting killed, and hard not to resent him for it. The ending beat to his journey – and every episode of this set has a whopper of an ending beat – is quite excellent and upsetting in an understated sort of way, but I can imagine other versions of this story where it might have hit harder. A wish isn’t a criticism, and this is a perfectly good story, but I am here to write my feelings, and I can’t help but wish for a little more.
The second episode, Roy Gill’s UNIT Dating, continues what works best about Stranded, using familiar Doctor Who trappings to tell stories about real people and issues that often don’t make it into the show. In this case, as the hilarious in-joke title implies, it’s taking gay sexuality into 70s Doctor Who, through the perspective of married tenants Ron Winters and Tony Clare. In places, this is just terribly silly and fun, from Andy going undercover as the flirtatious Jo Grant with an “eye for the soldiers” or jokes about how the hairy, muscular bodies of an Ogron could be seen as catering to a particular hot gay niche. But it can also be terribly honest about the historical reality of homosexuality, and achingly sad as a result. There are places in this story that are more frank and angry about these injustices than anything since Russell T Davies’ Damaged Goods, and it’s a much needed jolt to the system.
The structure of the plot cleverly gestures to this sifting through an often buried history by juggling two times, 2020 and the UNIT era, with Ron and Tony remembering how they got together to Helen and Liv while the Doctor and Andy romp about on the day itself and mess things up in the process. It’s a good format for audio, allowing a mixture of action and narration to jump back and forth and keep things escalating. Having the Doctor go back to his own UNIT past allows him to come to terms with his own behavior last time he was stranded, particularly in one touching scene with the Brigadier, as imitated by John Culshaw. But the strongest moments of this story are all the gay ones, not just in Ron and Tony’s burgeoning romance in a homophobic time, but in the personal secrets that dredges up for one of the characters. The ending of this story might just be the most important scene Big Finish has ever done with Doctor Who, at least for this reviewer, and it alone is enough to elevate UNIT Dating to a must-listen classic, let alone everything else.
Lisa McMullin’s Baker Street Irregulars follows, and makes a perfect counterpart as another journey to the past to explore a marginalized experience. In this case, it’s sisters Zakia and Aisha’s turn to hop in the TARDIS and meet their own history, that of their grandmother Nisha and grandfather Adi’s time serving as Special Operations Executive agents for the British during World War II. The plot neatly divides itself into a few strands, with the Doctor and Zakia going over enemy lines to rescue Nisha, and Helen and Aisha managing things on the home front with Adi, and Tania and Liv defusing a bomb while having an overdue tiff about secrets, boundaries, and whether to get a cat. The plot pyrotechnics remain small-scale, but every one of these strands produces some poignant character moments.
There are places where this approach lands for me more than others. While I utterly adored Helen’s reflections on growing up during the War and seeing it again, and while Tania and Liv’s relationship continues to be one of the strongest developments of Stranded, I did find myself wishing for a few more spy thrills in the Doctor and Zakia’s side of the plot. For all Nisha is sold as a total badass operative, we never really get a chance to see her in action, which I think is a bit of a change. Would I trade the poignant conversations she has with a Nazi captor for action and adventure? Probably not, those scenes are amazing. But I’d love to see a version that could juggle both. Still, Stranded is committed to falling on the side of character over episodic plot thrills, and the ending to this story once again shows the strength in that. It’s a big beat for Zakia and Aisha unlike what would normally be done in the Doctor Who universe, but all the more startling and meaningful for it. Stories like this about women aren’t something this show usually does, and seeing it done with so much maturity and emotional intelligence yet again goes to show why this is one of the most vital things ever done with the Doctor Who brand.
The final episode, The Long Way Round, shows writer John Dorney back in showpiece mode, something he’s often been in with the Eighth Doctor, Helen, and Liv team. It might be a bit early to call now, but I’d be very happy to rate this alongside past successes like The Red Lady, Absent Friends, and Ship in a Bottle, and it’s easily one of the strongest Stranded episodes to date. A lot of it is elevated by its stylish play-like structure, in which each member of the TARDIS team goes through a personalized interrogation, one after the other. This allows at least one great character moment from the Doctor and all four companions here – Helen, Liv, Andy, and Tania – as well as a very strong arc for the interrogator, whose arc slowly unfolds as each character uses their wits to learn a little bit more while being grilled for answers. The core question they’re all faced with is simple: what kind of man is the Doctor? A hero, or a monster? In having to answer these questions, we learn a lot about the nature of their relationships to him and the state of themselves.
It’s all a bit of a puzzle box, especially since between each of these interrogations comes a wistful, cryptic scene of Tom Baker’s curator discussing magic tricks and vanishing police boxes to a precocious child. How it all fits together is far too rewarding to spoil here, but it does with panache and resonance. The plotting is incredibly tight – I was wowed on relisten to realize that a significant part of the plot here is given away in an offhand line in Dead Time – and proves that Stranded has earned its audience’s patience in seeing how the many, many strands will finally come together. The Long Way Round sends this set out on a high, and, yes, another whopper of a final twist to make the wait for the third set particularly agonizing. But it’s the swagger to it all, the sense of purpose, that has me really excited. This is a series that has set its sight on doing new things, but with a focus and planning that has me so excited to see all fall into place.
There’s a lot of unknowns left in the Stranded series, even after the revelations this second set has offered. But there’s more than enough here to know what the first set seemed to suggest: this is the single most exciting thing Big Finish is doing with Doctor Who right now. The stories are starting to grow in complexity, but their focus on making space for emotional work and new representational conversations stays the same, and the drama that results is like nothing we’ve ever gotten before. I maybe wouldn’t want all Doctor Who to be like Stranded, but the show has a hell of a lot to learn from this. Just like the TARDIS team do at the start of the set, this is a massive leap into the future.
Paul McGann stars as the Doctor, alongside Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka), Hattie Morahan (Helen Sinclair), Rebecca Root (Tania Bell), Tom Price (Sergeant Andy Davidson), Clive Wood (Mr Bird), Tom Baker (the Curator) and Jon Culshaw (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart).
❉ ‘Doctor Who: Stranded 2′ is now available as a collector’s edition CD box set (priced at £24.99), or on download (at £19.99) exclusively from the Big Finish website. Follow Big Finish on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
❉ 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.