|Starring Paul McGann and Tom Baker|
|Synopsis: The TARDIS is gone. Stranded in one time and place, the Doctor, Liv and Helen seek refuge in Baker Street. But the house has changed: they now have neighbours - not all of them welcoming. And someone has a dire warning for the future. The Doctor and friends face their greatest challenge yet: living one day after another, in 2020 London.|
Stranded In London by Matthew Kresal 13/4/21
For the last eight years or so, Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor has been a creature of the box-set. What started as "an era in a box-set" with Dark Eyes spawned not only three more titles under that name but eight more sets across the ranges of Doom Coalition and Ravenous, telling epic tales with potentially universe-ending stakes. That's without mentioning the Time War sets, featuring this Doctor toward the end of his life. So it's perhaps no surprise, then, that with the start of a new run of Eighth Doctor box-sets, they've chosen to bring the Doctor down to Earth and leave him, as it says on the box, stranded.
Matt Fitton's opening installment, Lost Property, has the lion's share of world-building duties. Bringing listeners who might have missed Ravenous (raises hand guiltily) quickly up to date, Fitton's script makes clear that while there will still be some sci-fi involved, this is going to be a more down-to-earth piece of work than has come before. Indeed, by starting the episode a few weeks after their arrival, we can already see how they're adjusting to life on Earth, with some doing better than others. It's also in this episode that Tom Baker's mysterious Curator makes his appearance (his sole one for the set), staying in the background for the large part, but interacting with some of our characters at just the right moment, and perhaps laying hints for what's to come. Launching a new set can be a thankless task, but Fitton does well at delivering what's fundamentally the pilot for the series with ample aplomb.
John Dorney, one of the company's most reliable writers, delivers the second story, Wild Animals. The themes of adjustment and developing connections get further exploration in this episode, but with a twist as tragedy strikes those in Baker Street. An event that sends the Doctor off trying to do what he always does: righting wrongs, solving mysteries. It's a story about things which Doctor Who doesn't explore much: consequences, and just how powerless we can feel at times of tragedy. Setting out to do what he terms a 'contemporary pure historical' in the extras, Dorney delivers the best story of the set and one that has, with recent events, taken on a greater sense of poignancy than Dorney or Big Finish could ever have intended.
The third story, Lisa McMullin's Must-See TV, combines the domestic with the fantastic. It brings in Andy Davison over from the Torchwood range into proceedings, something that offers plenty of plot complications, as do malfunctioning TV sets and the mysterious new resident Mr. Bird (Clive Wood). Though the shortest by some margin, Must-See TV feels like a story that is laying seeds as it goes along, opening up some possibilities for future storylines along the way. Importantly, though, McMullin tells a compelling story within all that, one that explores some of the intriguing dynamics and continuity issues raised by this TARDIS crew being where they now are.
David K Barnes closes off the set with Divine Intervention. Building on everything in the previous three stories, Barnes crafts an adventure that's one part character drama, one part comedy, and with a helping of time travel shenanigans thrown into the mix as an attempt at the Doctor buying dinner spins off into something quite dramatic. It's a mix that may look unlikely on paper but one that the assembled cast and director Ken Bentley pull off with apparent ease. It's a different sort of finale than listeners are likely to be expecting, or indeed used to, after a dozen box-sets. But, it feels perfect for concluding this particular set of tales, and a testament to both Barnes and his fellow writers.
Connecting the four stories is a large ensemble cast, headlined by the returning TARDIS crew. After eight sets together, one might think there might not be much new for these characters. Stranded proves that to be a mistaken belief, as each gets new ground to cover. From McGann's Doctor struggling to adapt to life without TARDIS travel and Helen becoming the sensible one who has to interpret this world for her companions to a blossoming romance for Liv, there's a lot of new ground covered for the trio across these four adventures. There are flashes of the past, often when the Doctor thinks he's onto something he can identify with, that can be heartbreaking at times to hear when things perhaps don't work out as either the character or listener might expect. Across the board, all three deliver as performers, bringing their A-Game to this set.
Surrounding them is a 21st-century equivalent of the UNIT family. There's Tania Bell, brought superbly to life by Rebecca Root, whose performance is endearing and heartfelt throughout, bringing a healthy dose of reality to the set. There's comic relief from the older married couple of Ron and Tony (David Shaw-Parker and Jeremy Clyde, respectively). There are sisters Zakia and Aisha (Avita Jay and Amina Zia) who bring a sense of real-world skepticism, a "is this really happening?" attitude, to the set in the more traditional companion mold. Rounding off the cast is Joel James Davison (son of guess Who?) as the teenage Robin Bright-Thompson, a young man with a frequently absent father (Alan Cox) who seems a bit adrift, wandering in and out of subplots, helping set some things in motion along the way. It's a massive cast, and one which gave director Bentley and producer David Richardson a formidable task of wrangling in terms of scheduling and recording as they discuss in the extras, but they prove up to the job of bringing this household to life.
For those seeking something new out of the Eighth Doctor audios or even looking for a jumping-on point, this first Stranded set comes recommended. It's a unique showcase for Big Finish's storytelling talents, one which sees them step outside of their comfort zone to deliver some unexpected tales of a Time Lord and companions in something akin to our here and now. And, perhaps, to find solace in a line Matt Fitton gives to Tom Baker's Curator in the opening episode:
"One thing I can guarantee: Things will change; the storm always passes."Words of wisdom for our time, if ever they were needed.