❉ In the concluding volume of this series, ‘Stranded’ continues to show there’s so much more you can still do with Doctor Who, writes Kevin Burnard.
“Roy Gill’s The Keys of Baker Street serves as the climax to the entire series, and… captures both the strengths and weaknesses of the Stranded approach for me, now that we can see the series as a whole take form. On the strengths side, it’s unlike anything Doctor Who has done. It’s about people, especially marginalized people, and showing compassion to and learning from them to prevent a darker, perhaps even fascist future.”
Are we ever going to get away from 2020?
I mean, what a year. The history books are going to have to have big long sections on just how much a number that year did to us. A global pandemic, lockdowns, massive waves of protests, a tumultuous US election, the TARDIS crash-landing and trapping the Doctor on earth… well, one of those things doesn’t quite fit with the others. But now, in the middle of 2022, at least the Eighth Doctor gets to escape from 2020 for good in Big Finish productions’ concluding volume, Stranded 4. First, though, it’s got to take the Doctor on one last adventure through one of the biggest years in history, and the uncharted territory of the world outside our door.
Stranded, as a whole, has been a unique experiment: what happens if you take the Doctor Who elements out of Doctor Who and dropped it in a house on Baker Street in 2020? Each set of the four has responded to that differently, from the domestics and even sci-fi free plots of the first to the use of time travel to expose personal secrets in the second and the far-future musings in the third of where the decisions we make now are taking the world. This final set, though, is one that could only exist in the world we are now in, in 2022. As finales often do, this looks back to take stock of how things have panned out, both for the stories and for the world, and gets its strongest material from seeing how far we’ve come.
The opening story, Matt Fitton’s Crossed Lines, literalizes that when Paul McGann’s Doctor travels back into the events of earlier in the series to try to prevent catastrophe. Former Baker Street tenant and child genius Robin (Joel James Davison)’s fate lies in the balance, as the Doctor faces off against another time-traveller to determine whether he’ll go on to be an immortal fascist murderer who wipes out humanity. Meanwhile, companion Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker) and her girlfriend Tania (Rebecca Root) respond to time changing in their 2020 present, while other companion Helen Sinclair and an earlier Tania chase the Doctor and try to sort things out. And there’s a fellow called the Curator in the mix, looking suspiciously similar to the Sixth Doctor and played by Colin Baker. Suffice to say, there is a lot going on.
As it’s progressed, I’ve seen Stranded attract some criticism for veering away from the grounded domestic drama and into more standard convoluted Doctor Who plotting. Crossed Lines is very Doctor Who. If it takes cues from anything unique to Stranded, it’s the previous set’s odd experiment Patience, especially in how it builds its themes around a story narrated by the Doctor to tie together a number of disparate sci-fi plots. And come together it does, the climax to this episode is beautiful and poignant, with rich things to say about mortality and choosing to do the right thing. But the journey there may frustrate some listeners, as it races to tie together a number of odd sci-fi story details from the past three sets and get the board cleared for the final thrust of the story. For me, it encompasses the greatest strengths and weaknesses of this run as a whole. The character drama and themes are rich, but the sci-fi arc plotting can overpower at times and feels like an intrusion on the more interesting things going on.
On the other hand, Lisa McMullin’s following episode, Get Andy, is nothing but bonkers sci-fi adventure and is probably my personal favourite episode of all four sets, so maybe I’m just talking rubbish. McMullin has been one of the most exciting recent additions to the regular Big Finish writing stable, but this is another step up for her, easily the tightest script I’ve yet heard her do. When the Doctor resolves to undo the tragic climax to the previous set and save Andy Davison (Tom Price) from an exploding spaceship, things escalate to absurd proportions. It’s the sort of script that captures everything I love about Doctor Who, with a wicked sense of humour and humanity driving it through hairpin tonal shifts: one moment, you’ll be laughing, and the next, it’ll grab you by the heart. Tom Price, of course, excels in it, a character like the hapless Andy is exactly who you want to startle you with a shift from laughs to sudden emotional truth and he can knock a performance out like that in his sleep at this point. But, surprisingly, it’s Paul McGann who gets the meatiest material of all, as the comedy hijinks give way to one of the best explorations of what death means to the Doctor yet spun into a story. And all that while trying to pick up Andy from certain death and grab milk on the way. A masterpiece.
While Get Andy has all the sci-fi fireworks, it’s The Keys of Baker Street by Roy Gill that serves as the climax to the entire series, and it’s a decidedly smaller affair. Quite aptly, the episode’s core conceit is to trap the cast in the house once again, and force them to talk to each other. As with Crossed Lines, this scaling back comes with a sense of hindsight, as the cast are haunted by flashbacks to various recent times to showcase how far they’ve all come. It’s a smart choice. This may be a finale, but the big shocks and epic moments are nowhere to be seen: this is pure emotional work, with a light touch of fantasy, playing into Gill’s wheelhouse with ease. It’s the antithesis to something like the behemoth continuity-fest of Ravenous’ concluding The Day of the Master, and comes off as an improvement in pretty much every way. That’s not to say there aren’t big moments for the fans here. The conclusion to the Curator’s Stranded arc in particular is dripping with fannish continuity tidbits while providing Colin Baker with some fantastic material. But that comes alongside a much smaller, easier resolution than most big Doctor Who plots get, everything coming down to people working things out with compassion and communication.
In the process, it captures both the strengths and weaknesses of the Stranded approach for me, now that we can see the series as a whole take form. On the strengths side, it’s unlike anything Doctor Who has done. It’s about people, especially marginalized people, and showing compassion to and learning from them to prevent a darker, perhaps even fascist future. That has huge value, and The Keys of Baker Street keeps its focus on it. But the execution can be mixed in places. In this episode and Crossed Lines especially, it struck me just how many minor moving parts the series has had, and how many I’ve forgotten. For such a simple emotional story, there’s a lot of extraneous plotting detail. I would have preferred a more complex emotional journey to more plot details. And I’m not sure we got as much of that as we could have. Emotional developments and relationship evolution in Stranded has been less of an ongoing journey, and more as fits whatever an individual episode wants to do. Even the emotional resolution to the whole arc could have very easily happened earlier in the set, but doesn’t, because that’s left to this episode to do. For all Stranded has advanced Big Finish’s Who toolkit for the better, it’s not operating on the same level as some of the best emotional serialization out there right now… or even the Dark Shadows miniseries from Big Finish themselves, to pick a closer to home example.
This isn’t a ding against The Keys of Baker Street, or any episode in the series, really. The quality of individual scripts in this series has been quite high, and Keys is undoubtedly at home amongst them. Some of the emotional moments here are properly beautiful—I especially loved the villain of the piece’s final quiet scene with the Curator. The instincts are all right, the actors are on-point with their performances, and the writers all got the assignment of what sort of thing to go for. But I feel like it could have gone a step further into soap-land and really focused on how the characters evolve and challenge each other, and would have been not just a run of strong episodes, but a stronger whole, as well.
Still, Stranded knows what’s most important, in the end. That’s why the climax is such a low-key thing, and what’s more, that’s why there’s a whole other episode after it, John Dorney’s Best Year Ever. Dorney began the series with an attempt at a “pure historical” set in the present day, which I criticized for swinging to another genre from science fiction rather than capturing the world outside. Well, the benefit of hindsight is huge: 2020 has gone at last, and is just far enough in the rear view window that you can, in fact, do a historical story about it. Here we have a year’s worth of slice of life drama as the Baker Street gang live through 2020 for one more go around, presenting one final claim from Stranded to being Doctor Who unlike anyone has ever done before.
Does it work? That’s harder to judge. The slice of life emotional drama is wonderful. Much as I just criticized the series for not doing more with serializing these characters’ journeys, they are still wonderful characters, and their journeys do still resonate. Grounding this episode in the tension of what will happen to Tania and Liv’s relationship after is a particularly sharp choice, given it’s rightfully been embraced as one of the most important things in the whole series by fans! The stabs at the larger world of 2020 will invariably work better for some listeners than others, however. A lot of things happened that year, and while this story doesn’t even try to cover all of them, seeing anything gesture in that direction can be a bit rough. Series 11’s Rosa raised a few eyebrows when it aired as focusing on a historical figure who was alive even after Russell T Davies’ revival began! This is fresher and rawer even than that. And while it finds plenty to say in the mundane experiences, it has less to say about the larger scale; we might get a Stranded volume set far in the future exploring how the current moment could lead to fascism, but we’re not going to be so bold as to make swings like that set in the present! What Best Year Ever works best as is a low-key vibe, paying tribute to Stranded as a whole. We’ve come a long way since 2020 with these characters, and it’s rewarding to just sit with their lives and hear them grow for an hour.
Ultimately, that’s where my feelings on Stranded 4, and Stranded as a series, have landed. I stand by every glowing word I’ve said in past. This is vital, this is new, this is the Doctor Who that the world needs right now. That continues to be true, in some ways even more than ever. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect: the arc plotting proved to be less satisfying than the emotions and world, and I would have liked more emphasis on building a storyline along the latter stuff than the technobabble. It’s not quite a Doom Coalition in tightness, for me the gold standard of the box set era for the Eighth Doctor audios, in tidiness, and it doesn’t quite swing far enough to the other pole. But it does so much that’s necessary, and does it well, and that’s more than enough for a hearty recommendation.
From the sound of things, this will be the end of sixteen-part epics for Paul McGann’s Doctor, and rightly so, the formula has reached a limit. So at least they found one last way to break it on the way. Stranded has a couple warts here and there, but it’s also shown there’s so much more you can still do with Doctor Who, and a whole universe it’s only beginning to explore just outside your door. We’re still moving on from 2020. But there’s so much more out there, and I can’t wait to find out what. And if Stranded’s promise is anything to go by, I’m glad I’ll get to have Doctor Who keep growing with me.
DOCTOR WHO: THE EIGHTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: STRANDED 4
Director: Ken Bentley
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editors: Matt Fitton, John Dorney
Writers: Matt Fitton, John Dorney, Lisa McMullin, Roy Gill
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh–Ellery
Duration: 304 minutes.
Released: 06 April 2022, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The Eighth Doctor Adventures: Stranded 4’ is now available to own for just £24.99 (for the collector’s edition CD + download) or £19.99 (for the download only), 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.