Doctor Who: Stranded 4 (Big Finish Review)

Big Finish’s love of stories is matched by its love for character-driven drama. Stranded, and indeed The Eighth Doctor Adventures more broadly, under David Richardson’s all-seeing eye is one of the company’s best examples of engrossing, character-centric storytelling.

Stranded 4 is the end of an era, and to a greater degree than usual. Not only is this four-boxset saga coming to a close after two years, but the sixteen-part epic scale that has characterised the past decade of Eighth Doctor tales – from Dark Eyes through Doom Coalition and Ravenous to Stranded – is being shaken up with the arrival of a presumably standalone three-part boxset later this year.

These final four episodes put the Doctor (Paul McGann) and companions Liv (Nicola Walker), Helen (Hattie Morahan), Tania (Rebecca Root) and Andy (Tom Price) through the emotional wringer as they grapple with living in an aberrant timeline that threatens all existence. Spoilers follow.

You can read our take on the previous Stranded volume here.

Crossed Lines

An abnormally vulnerable Doctor – never a comforting notion for characters and listeners alike – decides to jump back in time, accompanied by Helen, in an effort to reach out to Robin (Joel James Davison) after he leaves Baker Street at the end of Stranded 1. Future-Robin is the one responsible for the death of all humanity, and the Doctor of course feels responsible. Things are complicated by Helen bumping into a past version of Tania; the ‘crossed lines’ of the title start to become apparent. Interfering with the past was rarely a straightforward idea in Doctor Who

Helen’s interference in Tania’s personal history causes present-day Tania to experience temporal contusions, or a state of mental anguish as newly created memories start cropping up out of nowhere. In the absence of the Doctor, Liv decides to take her to the one other person in that time zone who she thinks might be able to cure her partner’s ailment: the Curator, but not the one they were expecting. Topping it all off is the promise of immense and all-consuming temporal cataclysm if the wrongs of this paradox-filled timeline are not righted.

“So a mysterious stranger with an indeterminate identity took you through a magic door through time?”

Mr Bird is back for the first time since the first set’s Must-See TV, and we finally get some much-needed background: he’s been jumping back and forth across time, tweaking events to suit his purposes and guide the Divine Intervention organisation from tech start-up to world-dominating force. The rationale for this? It turns out he’s actually a much older version of Robin himself, aged thousands of years and still attempting to emulate the Doctor, to extreme and twisted lengths.

Listeners might not be as familiar with Robin as they are with characters like Tania, which is a shame given how significantly the plot revolves around him. But this episode provides a crash course in all things Robin and Mr Bird, and McGann’s earnest and thoughtful acting sells the emotional heft at the centre of that dynamic.

Colin Baker’s iteration of the Curator – whose altered appearance is described as a by-product of the changing timelines – is also the one to provide an eye-opening explanation as to why Earth’s future has been broken so badly, and why the events of 2020 as presented so far in Stranded have differed so significantly from real-life happenings: the TARDIS’s initial crash landing at the very start of the first boxset severely fractured the real timeline and created numerous false offshoots. This soft retconning of events – COVID wasn’t a thing when the first set was being produced – nicely weaves reality back into the course of events.

Get Andy

The premise for Get Andy is simple: the Doctor is struck by a sudden desire to save the police officer’s life after he apparently perished in a spaceship explosion at the end of the previous set. The execution, by contrast, proves a little more complex plot-wise, as it inevitably must.

After a recap of Andy’s demise, we pick up on the Doctor’s risky plan to get him back, by materialising the TARDIS around Andy a moment before impact. But things could never be that straightforward: the Doctor’s impulsive action to save Andy puts both of them in strife, and Mr Bird’s meddlesome ways leads him to interfere once more, this time inadvertently bringing Andy to an alternate 2020 where wolves and robots stalk a desolate landscape.

The result? Get Andy is perhaps less conceptually demanding (though not by much) than the opener due to its acute focus on Andy and the Doctor, but, with its introspective treatise on death and endings, proves no less thrilling or thematically rich. As always, McGann gives it his all, pulling off some incredible vulnerability and emotion as the erstwhile and very human Eighth Doctor.

The Keys of Baker Street

In the third story, the Doctor attempts to reverse-engineer a “less objectionable” version of Robin by altering his personal history and preventing Robin’s father Ken from meeting his mother in the first place. His interference triggers a destructive Void wave that leaves the Doctor, Liv, Helen and Andy stranded once more inside their Baker Street flat while everything outside succumbs to darkness.

The cataclysm triggers a series of time windows to be opened into different periods of Baker Street history – “an amalgam of different versions of the same house”, one in which glimpses of Tania and Robin, alongside Zakia (Avita Jay), Aisha (Amina Zia) and Tony (Jeremy Clyde) exist. The challenge for the team is getting out before the ever-encroaching Void reaches them, while also discerning the identity of the culprit responsible for designing this house of horrors.

“Brave heart, Andy. Baker Street’s our lifeboat.”

Despite the potentially convoluted plot setup, The Keys of Baker Street is yet another engrossing dissection of character. The Doctor, a stalwart of strength and virtue, has his moments of weakness like any other; Liv’s touching confession of love for Tania cuts through her usual sardonic temperament; Helen is an eternal voice of reason; and Andy leavens the situation with humour. They’re all clearly defined and relatable people.

With its metaphors and time-bending phenomena, the episode requires your full attention when listening, but the payoff more than worth it. Couple this with some clever and subtle writing, plus an extended cameo from the Curator, and you’ve got a launchpad for a very different kind of finale.

Best Year Ever

When the pandemic began, television shows, films and other media had a choice to make: to reference or not to reference COVID-19. Some steered away from mentioning it completely while others tackled the topic head-on. When Stranded 1 was first released in the middle of 2020, no mention was made – and that was entirely acceptable given the series had been planned and recorded prior to COVID existing. (The trend continued when the Thirteenth Doctor visited a decidedly pandemic-free present day in Spyfall Part 1.) Later releases, too, continued to present the alternate take on the world in 2020.

But now, with Best Year Ever, we essentially get Doctor Who does COVID. The aberrant timelines have been culled and the proper sequence of events restored, which the Doctor, Liv, Helen, Tania, Andy and Robin are quickly forced to adapt to. Liv, ever the medic, helps patients at the hospital, Helen and the Doctor pivot towards baking, Andy braves the supermarket in search for toilet paper, and Robin makes amends with his dad.

As you might expect, it is exceptionally odd hearing the Doctor and friends reference the pandemic, however obliquely; it’s never referred to by name, although its impact acutely felt by all of Baker Street’s residents. The references to sourdough starters, Zoom trivia nights and shows likes Tiger King and The Queen’s Gambit, all make for a scarily real depiction of the present day.

Best Year Ever is another uniquely villain-less tale, but dramatic tension still rears its ugly head as the entire Baker Street crew grapples with having memories of two different timelines, the pandemic leaves its mark on the lives of all residents, and Tania and Liv face a reckoning in their relationship.

Told across the course of a whole year, the Stranded finale builds towards the inevitable departure of the Doctor, plus a new start for Liv as she decides to stay behind with Tania (although not without some wriggle room that allows for further stories for the Doctor, Liv and Helen in the TARDIS prior to her staying on Earth).

Stranded ends on a definite high, although the quality never really lulled. From start to finish its characters have been front and centre, and its diversion from the usual structures of storytelling has proven unconventional but thoroughly justified. If it ever needed saying, The Eighth Doctor Adventures remains compulsory listening for fans of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who: Stranded 4 was released in April 2022. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 May 2022, and on general sale after this date.

Extras

Behind the scenes, Paul McGann speaks to the thrill and privilege of finally working alongside Colin Baker, while Baker himself provides a tongue-in-cheek perspective on the Curator as the way to “pension off” old Doctors. He and Clive Wood share happy memories of working together on Macbeth in the 70s.

The human relationships and authenticity of setting are front of mind for Rebecca Root, while Ken Bentley observes the instant and continued rapport developed among the actors across all Stranded instalments. Lisa McMullin gives an interesting dissection of her original idea for her episode about refugees, and the point of divergence where that idea was adapted to more of an overt science fiction tale – although as she notes, the thematic undertones are still there.

Jamie Robertson’s music suite is the perfect accompaniment to the four stories, being at once exciting yet enigmatic, mournful yet hopeful, sweet yet saddening. My only complaint is that it doesn’t go on for long enough. And with that, Stranded is done.

Synopsis

After crashing in 2020 London, the TARDIS crew has found the future of the universe altered and the human race doomed.

As the Doctor tries desperately to unravel the paradox, all roads lead back to Baker Street, and the greatest test of all…

Crossed Lines by Matt Fitton

The Doctor interrupts a pivotal journey for young Robin, while Tania and Helen are caught up in events past and present.

As the timeline dissolves and the Void encroaches, the Doctor’s friends ask the Curator for help. But he is not the man he was…

Get Andy by Lisa McMullin

The Doctor resolves to make a difference and save one life in particular. But someone else is making a beeline for Sergeant Andy Davidson.

Mr Bird has something to prove, and he will go to any extreme to do it…

The Keys of Baker Street by Roy Gill

Homing in on the root of the problem, the Doctor attempts a risky solution – and disaster strikes. Soon, 107 Baker Street is all that’s left of reality, as the residents climb the floors to face their destiny.

Best Year Ever by John Dorney

What happens if the world is actually fixed? There are times when even the Doctor cannot help.

And whatever the outcome, Liv and Tania have a decision to make.

Cast

Paul McGann (The Doctor)
Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka)
Hattie Morahan (Helen Sinclair)
Rebecca Root (Tania Bell)
Tom Price (Sergeant Andy Davidson)
Avita Jay (Zakia Akhtar)
Colin Baker (The Curator)
Jeremy Clyde (Tony)
Alan Cox (Ken Bright)
Joel James Davison (Robin Bright-Thompson)
Clive Wood (Mr Bird)
Amina Zia (Aisha Akhtar)

Production Credits

Script Editor John Dorney & Matt Fitton
Written by Lisa McMullin, Matt Fitton, John Dorney & Roy Gill
Remote Sound Engineering Jack Townley
Remote recording dialogue assembly by Benji Clifford
Cover Art by Rafe Wallbank
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery & Nicholas Briggs
Music by Jamie Robertson
Producer David Richardson
Sound Design by Benji Clifford

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who: Stranded 1
Doctor Who: Ravenous 1
Doctor Who: Doom Coalition 1
Doctor Who: Dark Eyes 1

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