Doctor Who: Stranded 3 (Big Finish Review)

Ah, the Eighth Doctor. Supremely empathetic, occasionally eccentric and always with his companions’ best interests at heart, this incarnation has been well served on audio. Every few years the character is given something of a renaissance, with a distinct new era and flavour of storytelling introduced to take both character and story world in new directions. This vitality of storytelling, combined with Paul McGann’s committed performance, makes any instalment in The Eighth Doctor Adventures among the most essential Big Finish listening.

You can join me over at our Doctor Who podcast The TARDIS Crew, as I join hosts Baz and Ben to discuss more about the Eighth Doctor’s Big Finish adventures.

The Stranded saga represents a major departure from what’s come before. This penultimate volume starts to draw together plot threads teased previously and pushes forward towards the conclusion next April. But first, a quick recap of the first two volumes for the uninitiated (skip ahead a few paragraphs for the main review).

Stranded 1 pitted the Doctor and his friends against one of their most feared adversaries – boredom. Off the explosive conclusion of Ravenous, the Doctor, Liv (Nicola Walker) and Helen (Hattie Morahan) crash land in London in a 2020 very unlike the one we experienced – COVID is yet to be mentioned in-universe, if it ever will be – yet the similarity was startling between the lockdown so many of us have experienced in the real world and this stranded group of fictional travellers. They get jobs, Liv starts a relationship with neighbour Tania (Rebecca Root), the Doctor goes stir crazy and Andy (Tom Price) of Torchwood enters the fray as a rare fourth companion.

Stranded 2 begins to detail a broader, though no less existential, threat to our quintet of protagonists: the future is broken. A gradually healing TARDIS enables our leads to travel in time but not in space, leading to both trips to both a (hopefully) alternate future, and dips into the past to explore the personal histories of other individuals living in the Baker Street flats, including genial old couple Ron (David Shaw-Parker) and Tony (Jeremy Clyde), and sisters Aisha (Amina Zia) and Zakia (Avita Jay), who we discover to actually be mother and daughter. The time-gone-wrong idea of this set is further explored in Stranded 3.

Patience

Don’t go into Patience expecting to immediately understand what’s happening; it’s one of those mind-bending Doctor Who tales that demand a modicum of, ahem, patience from the listener as the reality of the situation is slowly laid out and the twist piece by piece revealed. As the story opens, we discover the Doctor’s companions have been separated into two groups, Liv paired with Andy and Helen with Tania. Each pair finds themselves ostensibly alone on a different alien world, on the run from an unknown enemy, and lacking any contact with the Doctor, who we hear only in brief flashback scenes and as the narrator of a metaphor-rich parable – the latter functioning as a loose linking device for real-time scenes featuring either of the companion pairings.

Although the scope of the Stranded saga has expanded as time goes on, the quiet domesticity of earlier sets has not been lost. Just as the Doctor, Helen and Liv did after initially arriving in modern-day London, in Patience the characters fall back on established coping mechanisms as they wait it out in isolation. The ever-resourceful Liv finds a place of relative safety for her and Andy, who himself finds solace in games of Solitaire; Helen makes cup after cup of tea while Tania copes with a resurgent panic attack.

Abandoned by the Doctor, hunted by the Judoon (Nicholas Briggs) and struggling with distorted and incomplete memories, the quartet of characters are at the core of this story. Their unique responses to otherworldly phenomena, their different ways of theorising about events – there are momentous forces at play here, and it’s clear that something is wrong with time, but Helen, Liv, Andy and Tania are as central to the story here as they have been across this saga.

The eventual reveal of what’s actually going on – and the role the Doctor has to play in this miasma of disorientation – recall Human Nature with the depiction of the Doctor evading capture by activating a special Time Lord device and squirrelling himself away in a specific time and place. The context of his decision to do so in Patience, however, is one of significantly higher stakes, as Earth’s future timeline remains corrupted and in very real danger.

Twisted Folklore

Twisted Folklore is another tale that starts in medias res and gives little context to events until the back half of the episode. This makes the story, like the opener before it, an unconventional one for Doctor Who standards – admirable in its desire to do something differently, but potentially confusing if you aren’t actively engaging with the material. Indeed, in similar fashion to the events of Patience, we don’t actually hear the TARDIS crew’s initial arrival on the planet, and so – fair warning – it’s important to pay attention throughout.

The Doctor’s cohort are continuing to scope out the lie of the land of the distorted future timeline. In Twisted Folklore, they integrate themselves into society on the planet Rarkelia, one ruled by Earth Empire but heavily influenced by Divine Intervention, the futurist group who, way back when, sent a pair of assassins back in time to murder the Doctor in the final episode of Stranded 1. Our protagonists are, once again, split up, as Helen joins a Divine Intervention thinktank, Liv takes up school teaching and Tania infiltrates the planet’s special forces; Andy does not feature this time around (the explanation for this being given in the following story).

In dealing with themes of narrative and storytelling, Twisted Folklore recalls the tone and content of certain instalments in the Ravenous saga – Better Watch Out and L.E.G.E.N.D., for instance. Interwoven with the future-timeline-gone-wrong premise, this too closely resembles what’s come before – including the preceding story – to feel completely original. What the episode does accomplish well, however, is clarifying the threat posed by Divine Intervention, explore the repercussions of the group’s quest to track down the rogue dictator who has stolen the Doctor’s mantle, and hint at the resistance movement fighting back against Divine Intervention rule – an element which becomes more prominent in the finale.

Snow

Snow is more straightforward than the previous two stories – but not by any measure a step down in quality. It marks the return of fellow Baker Street resident Ron and ex-resident Zakia, who has now joined Divine Intervention. By 2035, the organisation has become a veritable threat to society, with enforcers prowling the streets and people taken off to “custodial camp” if they diverge from established dogma.

Five years since the loss of Ron’s husband, snow falls inside the Baker Street back garden. The Doctor and co, having succeeded in amending damage done to the timeline in Rarkelia, visit a different time period to try again. Andy’s back here after taking a short break from universe-hopping, while Tania stays behind in 2020 after an argument with Liv. (As time passes and the TARDIS continues to heal, the moment for Liv to choose between staying with Tania or leaving with the Doctor and Helen is steadily approaching; Snow touches on this dilemma in a heartfelt way.)

There’s a little bit of everything here. Ron’s grief is gently done, letting us feel his immense loss without making things overly downbeat. Liv’s relationship with Tania, like anyone’s, has hit a snag as Liv ponders its future – considerations which become far more complicated when she encounters an older version of Tania, for whom it’s been fifteen years since their last meeting. Andy brings some welcome humour to the otherwise maudlin setup.

Of the four stories, Snow is the most introspective and closest to the heart of its characters – and, therefore, all the better for it. With its magical wintertime setting, it’s also the episode with the strongest sense of place. Eerie and modest, solemn and heartwarming, Snow is an enchanting treatise on grief, loss and love, and the sure-fire highlight of Stranded 3 so far.

What Just Happened?

What becomes immediately apparent upon hitting play on the final story is that this is not your average episode of Doctor Who. The production credits – conventionally the last thing you hear – are the first to play, followed by the end theme tune, before we ‘start’ with the story proper. What’s more, pull up the track listings and you’ll see they run back-to-front – first track fourteen, then track thirteen, and so on. These are nifty little ways of signposting the atypical, back-to-front nature of the story being told.

And what an atypical story it is. What Just Happened? is more or less told in reverse. (Sidenote: Why hasn’t a Doctor Who story ever been told in reverse before? Given the time travel premise, you’d think it would have been attempted!) We open with the Doctor, Liv and Helen reuniting with ‘current’ Tania in 2020 – with some bad news about Andy. Then we jump back five minutes – signposted by the Doctor’s “five minutes earlier” intertitle – to the Doctor’s final encounter with Robin (Joel James Davison), the disillusioned young boy and former Baker Street resident who he abandoned back in Stranded 2.

From there, we head back along a sequence of events that depicts, in reverse, the Doctor and his friends’ pursuit of the mysterious ‘Doctor’ figure – Robin himself – who has styled himself as a dictator and created a doomsday switch for inhabitants of the Earth Empire. What Just Happened? is a glorious experiment in storytelling, but not for gimmicky reasons – the back-to-front format makes complete sense in the context of Stranded’s warping timelines.

There’s no shortage to the superlatives that apply to the Stranded saga, and indeed The Eighth Doctor Adventures more broadly. I haven’t mentioned McGann’s subtly intelligent performance, and how he strikes that delicate balance between light and dark, wry and enigmatic, extremely well. Stranded 3 hasn’t lost its core focus on heart, humour and everyday life, but the foreboding future catastrophe first alluded to in Stranded 1 has finally taken shape.

And how about the fourth and final instalment in Stranded, released in April – what does that have in store? A reckoning, to be sure, with Divine Intervention – time will, presumably, be healed once more, but the path towards that end point might yet prove disastrous for this TARDIS team. After all, Andy’s fate hangs in the balance; we hear him meet his demise early (or late) in What Just Happened?, but who can tell what developments may occur in the final volume? The stage is set for another exciting Eighth Doctor Adventures finale.

Doctor Who: Stranded 3 was released in December 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 January 2022, and on general sale after this date.

 

Extras

For additional Stranded goodness, catch around twenty minutes of music from composer Jamie Robertson, available as an extras download. The suite captures all the moments of threat, joy and melancholy of the four stories, and the only real criticism I have is that the tracks are so short; I could happily listen to an extended soundtrack of music from The Eighth Doctor Adventures with no complaints.

“The importance of storytelling for me is just to make sense of the world … All of life is a storytelling invention.”

It’s a lot of fun to hear, as Paul McGann puts it, “the band back together” for studio recordings after so long apart. As usual, there’s far too much in the interviews to cover succinctly, so here are some of the major highlights of the extras for Stranded 3:

  • The reactions of cast and crew at having won Best Audio Drama at the 2021 Audie Awards for Stranded 1, and rightly so!
  • Tom Price’s summation of Patience as if “Samuel Beckett has written an episode of Doctor Who.”
  • Rebecca Root’s amusing befuddlement when opening a Big Finish script for the first time, coupled with an appreciation for the down-to-earth humanity of the storytelling.
  • Lizzie Hopley’s praise for Robert Whitelock’s “morphic” qualities as a character actor, and joy at his many different roles in Twisted Folklore.
  • John Dorney’s explanation of writing a reverse-chronology story as “writing in both directions simultaneously” and the deconstruction of choices and payoffs within scenes.

Lastly, I’ll just leave here this quote from writer James Kettle: “I think if you don’t believe that Nicola Walker is the best actress operating in British TV right now, then I really think you’ve made a mistake somewhere.”

Synopsis

After crashing in 2020 London, the TARDIS is healing. It can now take its passengers through time and space – but the future has changed around them…

A sinister force steers humanity’s destiny, and as the Doctor and friends investigate the mystery they’re trapped inside, they may make the outcome even worse…

Patience by Tim Foley

The Doctor decides to investigate the limits of the paradoxical timeline in which he and his friends are stranded. 

But they find themselves hunted by a force of mercenary Judoon. It seems that Earth’s altered history has changed the whole universe…

Twisted Folklore by Lizzie Hopley

Tracking the course of the future, the Doctor and friends arrive on Rarkelia – where human forces rule. Earth – and Divine Intervention – are shaping the universe in their own image.

Helen, Liv and Tania embed themselves in society, while the Doctor starts a revolution.

Snow by James Kettle

Returning to London in the 2030s, the TARDIS travellers find a sinister elite taking hold.

Baker Street now has just one lonely resident – and what’s more, it is the last place on Earth where snow ever falls.

What Just Happened? by John Dorney

All actions have consequences. The path to victory or disaster is unclear unless seen from a different perspective…

With the lives of the entire human race at stake, the Doctor confronts a nemesis like no other. And not everyone will make it home.

Cast

Paul McGann (The Doctor)
Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka)
Hattie Morahan (Helen Sinclair)
Rebecca Root (Tania Bell)
Tom Price (Sergeant Andy Davidson)
Nicholas Briggs (The Judoon)
Aurora Burghart (Marifen)
Joel James Davison (Robin)
Avita Jay (Zakia Akhtar)
Anjella MacKintosh (Professor Victoria Wilks)
David Shaw-Parker (Ron Winters)
Sam Stafford (Baby Judoon)
Robert Whitelock (Kallure / Riggs)
Michael Wildman (Quinns / Lees)

Production Credits

Written by James Kettle, John Dorney, Tim Foley & Lizzie Hopley
Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery & Nicholas Briggs
Music by Jamie Robertson
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor Matt Fitton
Sound Design by Benji Clifford

Suggested Listening

 

Doctor Who: Stranded 1

Doctor Who: Stranded 2
Doctor Who: Ravenous 3
Doctor Who: One Mile Down

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