❉ Full of emotional resonance, this is exactly the kind of story Doctor Who should be telling in 2021.
“This is Doctor Who tapping into political anxieties of the present moment, and telling stories about people who rarely get the chance to be seen. I mean, where else do you get a story about a bi woman and her trans girlfriend weathering the rise of fascism and hate in the present day?”
When Big Finish’s Doctor Who line Stranded began, it was in a very topical place: the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and his friends Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker) and Helen Sinclair (Hattie Morahan) found themselves stuck living day to day in 2020. That was more resonant than anyone could have guessed, with the first volume dropping in the midst of a pandemic stranding everyone in their own homes. But as we ease into the future, 2021 fading soon into a memory, it’s only natural to look forward, and Stranded 3 keeps the modern heart of this storyline by turning its gaze into the future. What it finds is alarming, but it’s also exactly the kind of story Doctor Who should be telling in 2021, more than anything else. This is the franchise putting its best foot forward into now and beyond.
That sense of unease looking forward haunts the first episode, Tim Foley’s Patience. No, you haven’t missed anything, no, you haven’t forgotten how the last set ended, something strange is going on, with the TARDIS team stranded on two future worlds destroyed by the future Earth Empire. How they got there will take some exercising of that skill given in the title, but the story makes that uncertainty its strength for as long as possible. At its heart, Patience is actually quite a simple plot, covering some very basic narrative groundwork for the arc and reestablishing the new status quo, but by its choice to play rough with the listener’s understanding, it becomes stylish and engrossing.
In that way, Patience typifies the strengths of this box set. Stranded as a series has defined itself as a rule with fairly simple plots filled instead with groundbreaking character work, and this set runs with that to the next step, making the telling of the simple stories more complex to heighten the emotional impact. With a striking framing device of the Eighth Doctor narrating a story of old Gallifrey—a particular treat for fans of the Wilderness Years novel lore—and some strange images of time in a muddle and cards telling the future, Patience becomes more than what it already would have been. At its heart, it’s really just some time to catch up with the emotional lives of the characters by sticking them into some new pairings, with Liv spending time with Torchwood’s PC Andy (Tom Price), and Helen spending time with Liv’s girlfriend, Tania (Rebecca Root). That’s good enough for a story, but by throwing a layer of mystery and magic on top, Foley makes this episode into something properly great.
The second episode, Lizzie Hopley’s Twisted Folklore, is probably the most straightforward of the set, going back to a fairly traditional Doctor Who plot structure—but its choice of what kind of Doctor Who plot to run with is a sharp one. Having seen the damage the Earth Empire wreaks across the universe, Twisted Folklore shows the TARDIS team traveling back to an earlier point in the empire, embedding themselves into a colonized society, and getting their revolution on. Carrying shades of other Doctor Who highlights such as Big Finish’s earlier masterpiece Live 34, this is a nuanced, meditative story about oppression, colonization, and the power of things like art and love to fight back, as the Doctor and Tania plot rebellion and Helen and Liv blend into ordinary lives.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the script can be too meditative at times. It’s quite a somber affair, and that tone can be stifling; I will confess my attention has wandered during the middle on both listens. It could use a few quirkier moments or a bit more of the mystery Patience had to reel the listener in, but it’s a very rewarding script all the same. Really, there’s too many wonderful moments to list without me spoiling the story, from an engrossing opening monologue performed by Nicola Walker to an all-time great moment of bravery from Helen at the climax to a truly beautiful, poetic concept driving the story’s resolution. This is an episode that has things to say and has thought in great depth about them. I hope in future I will be in a better state of mind to fully hear them out, because what I have managed to pick up from this script utterly deserves it. I suspect on future listens it might become my favorite Big FInish script yet by Lizzie Hopley.
Third in the set is James Kettle’s Snow, and oh my word. This is a standout. This is for my money the single best episode of Stranded so far. Once again, the Doctor and the TARDIS team, of Liv, Helen, and Andy in this case, venture further back in the Earth Empire’s march of terror, landing in the near future of the 2030s. And all of a sudden, all the work Stranded has done so far to develop the wider world of Baker Street in the 2020s pays off, as we see characters we’ve grown to care about broken down by time. Ron lives alone in the Baker Street house, mourning Tony’s passing several years prior. Tania is a freedom fighter, resisting the regime alone and left with nothing to lose. And Zakia has become a tool of the oppressive state, at odds with our heroes in a heartbreaking way. Faced with all that, the TARDIS team are left asking not only how the world fell apart in this way, but what the consequences of them leaving the people they care about it to time are.
I feel like I may have already given away too many spoilers, but there’s so much more to this story even beyond that. It’s a sensitive, emotional script with a real gut-punch of a climax, and though the ending pulls away from the worst of the tragedy, it never feels anything less than real and meaningful, thanks to deft scripting and use of Doctor Who logic by Kettle. It manages the all-important Doctor Who juxtaposition of balancing the fall of a society with two broken little love stories, and makes each feel as huge as the other, and it does all that with a hint of magic and impossible snow. This is the sort of story I fell in love with Russell T Davies’ revival of Doctor Who for, full of impossible things and magic but also an aching human heart. Buy this set for Snow. For everything else, too. But especially for Snow.
It’s been a long working backwards to trace the Earth Empire’s rise and brutal fall under the lead of an imposter “Doctor”, so John Dorney’s finale, What Just Happened?, literalizes that. No, your audio player hasn’t bugged up the track order, that is where this story is supposed to start. What Just Happened is the latest in Dorney’s recent string of scripts playing with narrative structure and order, unfolding entirely in reverse order, starting with the opening credits. This game with the listener pays off in the same way Patience did: it’s actually a very straightforward plot getting some necessary plot arc business sorted and off the table, so it does it in a willfully difficult way that makes you sit up in shock at the start and ride the whiplash the rest of the way home.
That doesn’t always succeed for What Just Happened? It does mean that the opening climax is far more interesting than the later portions of the episode, and that the biggest shock of all doesn’t get time to breathe the way it normally would. No, the promotional material hasn’t lied to you, not everyone makes it home here. But you’ll figure that out soon enough for yourself, and that’s not the real point. The point here is what this whole set has been about, stumbling into a tragic future and trying to piece together what choices lead there. Can you change them? Can you reset and do it again? That’s something this whole set has asked, and perhaps nowhere more chillingly than the final scene here, a mundane moment turned deeply dark with foreknowledge. What makes What Just Happened? work as well as it does isn’t just the audacious structure, but the groundwork done by the whole set, and indeed the whole arc to this point. Stranded has been a very thematically tight affair, but this third set more than any other, and having those resonances hang over this script makes for a rewarding journey back to the start.
2020 was a hard year. For many, 2021 hasn’t been much better. And when Stranded looks beyond, the course remains bleak, but it feels true. This is Doctor Who tapping into political anxieties of the present moment, and telling stories about people who rarely get the chance to be seen. I mean, where else do you get a story about a bi woman and her trans girlfriend weathering the rise of fascism and hate in the present day? This set is the darkest hour for these characters, and it meets it with meditative calm and emotional resonance. Maybe there will be a way out, maybe the small moments of resistance can snowball into big choices and better outcomes. Or maybe we’ll end up with the worms. Time will tell, and maybe not in the right order. Stranded 4 has a lot to live up to, but for now, Stranded 3 has a strong claim to being the definitive vision of what Doctor Who should look like here and now. And it’s brilliant.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The Eighth Doctor Adventures: Stranded 3’ is available now as a collector’s edition box set (on CD at the discounted price of £24.99) and as a digital download (at the discounted price of £19.99), exclusively from www.bigfinish.com . Big Finish listeners can save even more money with a bundle of all four box sets, pre-ordering the entire series 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.