Review by Jacob Licklider
Just over one year ago, in March 2021, the Main Range ended from Big Finish Productions as the box set format took root before being firmly established for 2022. Now, one other long running institution from Big Finish Productions is at an end, the 16 part, four disc set, Eighth Doctor miniseries which has been the format of Eighth Doctor releases for nearly a decade. Dark Eyes, Doom Coalition, Ravenous, and Stranded have all been released to acclaim and here we are with Stranded 4, the final set in this style.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for, and Stranded has come to an end. The seeds of the arc were there from the beginning, but it wasn’t really until Stranded 3 that a lot of threads came together, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting actor schedules, causing delays and rewrites which are at least mitigated by the talented writers behind each of these sets making Stranded 4 able to come together. It is a set which is able to bring around a beautiful conclusion, though a conclusion that left me conflicted which is why much of this review will contain spoilers (it’s why I’m writing this several days after release due to the time required to gather my thoughts). If you want to know if you should listen to Stranded 4 or Stranded in general, yes, it’s a great exit to the era and continues the miniseries’ track record of telling character driven stories for the Eighth Doctor and company.
The set opens with a story that is essentially using an old trick from miniseries format to deal with the fallout from a previous set by doing character introspection in a time travel style story. That’s exactly what Crossed Lines does. Matt Fitton creates two time periods, one on a train to Edinburgh with the Doctor, Liv, and Tania trying to stop Robin from becoming the evil dictator from the last set, whilst in another time Tania, Helen, and the Curator, played here by Colin Baker go to the Undergallery to adjust to the timelines changing while Mr. Bird, played by Clive Wood, builds things towards his own (and Divine Intervention’s) ends. Crossed Lines is doing a lot to course correction for the issues with the pandemic, this is the first time they’ve had everyone back physically in studios to record safely and you can tell. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact I’d argue that it’s what Matt Fitton does brilliantly because he has to, there needs to be a full explanation of Mr. Bird and a way to get all of the characters together. Stranded 3 saw the extinction of the human race, raising the stakes (perhaps a bit too high), and Fitton uses this as an opportunity to reign them in, moving things towards a conclusion. He does this through character interactions with Rebecca Root as Tania being at the centre of the story. Root gives this subtle difference to each of the Tanias’ when not having her timeline rewritten, that really puts the character as the focal point. The entire point is this attempt to find some sort of stability. It also would be remiss of me to not mention Colin Baker as the Curator, established here to be a potential future Doctor, and Baker is clearly having so much fun with the part. He’s cheeky and obtuse and you can just see how Baker moves in the role all done through his voice.
After the course correction, there’s the descent into hell, metaphorically. Lisa McMullin takes over writing duties for Get Andy, the big explanation for how Sgt. Andy Davidson makes his way back into the story after being very dead at the end of Stranded 3. There are points during Get Andy where you think it might be leaning into a farce and still maintains humour, but make no mistake this is a story about characters descending into hell to rescue themselves. Like Crossed Lines, this deals with attempts to change the timelines, something that by this point should be clear as is the main theme of this set. The Doctor finding ways to change things and he can do that by rescuing Andy. Mr. Bird throws a wrench into the system in getting Andy out of his fate first causing several Andy’s popping in and out of existence which helps create this atmosphere of an oddity. There’s a brilliant scene that exemplifies this is when Andy turns up alive on the door of Baker Street only to disappear and reappear again. It’s comedic in tone but that battles with this dramatic undercurrent, Andy is still the one who is in pain from dying and sacrificing himself. It becomes the emotional through-line of this particular episode and Tom Price is brilliant, especially near the end where there’s this extended monologue where he essentially lays out everything he’s gone through and how different his is from everyone else. He isn’t the typical Doctor Who companion and his character at least on the televised Torchwood was ancillary. Now, I have not listened to much of Big Finish’s Torchwood, so there may be things I’m missing, but his arc feels like an outsider which comes to a conclusion here and McMullin’s script is beautiful. Emotionally and tonally weird, but beautiful enough to bring tears to my eyes about a character I don’t have particularly strong attachments to and that is very impressive.
The Keys of Baker Street and Best Year Ever by Roy Gill and John Dorney respectively close the miniseries and deserve to be discussed together. The main threat of Stranded is dealt with in The Keys of Baker Street with Best Year Ever being the epilogue, an hour of character interactions focused on working through emotions of the conclusion while the timelines reset themselves back to the ‘prime’ timeline. The Keys of Baker Street draws on Gill’s experience as a horror writer, confining itself to 107 Baker Street which is stuck in a Void. The Void slowly is encroaching the house from the bottom up and in each of the rooms, un-lockable with keys, are flashes to the past with each of the inhabitants of the house at different times (and different timelines). It is slowly revealed as other inhabitants of the home make their way into the current situation, the Curator gets involved, and halfway the story shifts by placing parties in different timelines to eventually bring things back together for an ending that resets the timeline and as a side effect brings the COVID-19 pandemic into Doctor Who. The second half of the story is almost like a completely different story that Gill would have told in an hour, but compressed nicely into half the time by cutting out a lot of fat. This story and indeed all of Stranded 4 has less supporting characters outside of the “main” cast, and none of the other characters are new, all appearing in at least one of the Stranded sets (even though the Curator is now Colin Baker and not Tom Baker).
The big relationship drama here that deserves highlighting is between the Doctor and Robin, played by Joel James Davison. Robin has appeared in every episode thus far in his pre-Stranded 3 persona, but here we see the version of Robin who was a ruthless dictator. He is trapped with the Doctor in the back half of the story and Davison and McGann take on this mentee/mentor relationship. They’re essentially trapped in a kitchen and the Doctor is attempting to appeal to Robin’s humanity, which has been an undercurrent of the set. Robin as a character has been an interesting look at someone who doesn’t have connections to others due to his father’s work and has been manipulated by an outside force (in this case Mr. Bird) towards becoming the dictator. He’s someone who has exemplified the idea of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, and it’s this story where the Doctor can get through to him. It has the Doctor questioning where he is able to interfere and when it is right for him to actually do so, moving far away from the idea of not interfering.
Best Year Ever brings John Dorney’s reflections to the forefront, mainly of the COVID-19 pandemic and how that has affected the world through the analogue of Doctor Who characters. There’s reflections on lockdown, how frontline workers have been treated, the dread of losing a love one, actual losing of loved ones (in multiple effective but understated character deaths), and the existential dread of the pandemic. It gives quick flashes into a single year of the pandemic, ending with the Doctor leaving in the TARDIS and it’s the ending where my biggest critique comes through. Here’s one final spoiler warning for the ending of Stranded 4. Liv and Helen go with the Doctor, but the TARDIS immediately rematerialises, Liv steps out, deciding to stay behind with Tania to continue their lives. Now the script of the scene itself is beautiful, Nicola Walker and Rebecca Root as Liv and Tania have crafted such a good relationship, and having an Eighth Doctor companion with a happy ending is a breath of fresh air. It’s the matter of Liv leaving and coming back and Tania not wanting to be a companion, both feel like last minute changes to accommodate whatever’s coming next for the Eighth Doctor and there’s just this small part of it that feels off.
Stranded 4 brings things to a brilliant close, taking the focus right in to tie up a lot of character arcs for every character who has been a major force throughout the miniseries. The four writers are all brilliant at focusing in on small scale stories with far reaching implications and the character dynamics. It’s the highlight of the miniseries and while one character exit felt a touch off, is the best of the miniseries finales. 9/10.
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