The latest of Big Finish's Eighth Doctor boxed sets, Stranded is set to be another four-box series comprising sixteen linked stories which will play out over the next couple of years. I've let these slip over the last few years; Dark Eyes started very promisingly but carried on too long and lost focus, although it was enjoyable throughout, while Doom Coalition never really engaged for me. I haven't even looked at buying Ravenous, although the write-ups suggest some intriguing ideas.
Stranded, though, intrigued me from the start. Putting the Doctor in a new, self-imposed exile on contemporary Earth is irresistible. Indeed, I'm surprised the television series hasn't tried it for a year to mix things up while saving costs. Expense isn't such an issue for Big Finish - setting a story on Skaro costs the same as setting it in Croydon - but the dramatic potential is promising, and it certainly makes for a new direction for the series. And let's be fair, Doctor Who audios could do with some new and interesting ideas lately. The series features the Doctor living with Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker) and Helen Sinclair (Hattie Morahan), his now stalwart companions, in a converted house in London (amusingly converted to flats after his old companion Thomas Brewster sold it). The TARDIS, meanwhile, is just a police box, sitting on a street corner and turned into makeshift mini-library.
Of course, the Eighth Doctor's been here before, back in the BBC Books "Earth Arc." This is quite a different take on exile for him, though - the books had the Doctor living without his memories, spending over a century on Earth and very much alone. There are similarities, though - the Doctor searching for his old life (which he knew he was missing before, even if he couldn't remember it), feeling increasingly isolated, and occasionally almost crossing paths with other iterations of himself. This time there's no risk of him bumping into the Third Doctor during a previous exile, but the Twelfth Doctor's subsequent self-imposed exile is finishing around now. The Eighth Doctor's life was always marked by a complex timeline where past and future threatened to intercede.
Plus, it's 2020 now, and Big Finish are making a bold and deliberate move of support to the LGBT community by having a new companion who happens to be trans enter the scene, and engage in a same-sex relationship with an existing companion. This is good, important stuff, and I'm pleased we're seeing moves like this now, even though we're not quite there on TV (in spite of the attacks on "wokeness" the series is getting).
The big draw of this set, of course, was the inclusion of Tom Baker as the Curator. There's absolutely no ambiguity about his identity at all anymore - this is the Doctor, far in the future, although just how far is endlessly open to question. The Curator, it seems, spends much of his retirement tidying up after his earlier selves and keeping them out of trouble (shades of Merlin there).We meet Ron (David Shaw-Parker), who lives at the Doctor's house on Baker Street with his husband, and also happens to work at the local lost property office, run by an alien named Midge (Robert Portal). The Curator uses this as a sort of sorting office for the various bits of extraterrestrial bric-a-brac he and other travellers have left lying around. The Twelfth Doctor has given Midge a Pandora Bolt, a security device that instils fear and paranoia, which then comes into Ron's possession and affects those living in the house.
It's a slightly contrived set-up (like that's unusual in Doctor Who), but one that works very well as a way to introduce the various new characters that inhabit the Doctor's reduced world. In honesty, not much happens during the episode, but that's kind of the point. This is a mundane story - mundane as in worldly, rather than dull - concerned with the ordinary battles and relationships of everyday life. The Doctor, of course, is singularly inept in this area, so Liv and Helen are left to do much of the everyday work and engagement. There are a lot of characters introduced, just like it would be moving into a new flat in a busy house. Among the most notable is Robin (J.J. Davison), a teenaged boy who has just moved in with his dad and almost runs away. The Curator talks him out of it, and in time (over the course of the set) he develops a pleasant friendship with the Doctor.
Some of the best moments are between Helen and the Curator - hilariously, Helen theorises that he's an incarnation of River Song - and naturally between Helen and Liv, who are both more suited at Earthly life than the Doctor and lost in time. (Helen being from the sixties and Liv from the far future.) The little oddities of early 21st century life are fun to view through their eyes, but there's the ongoing theme that people really aren't all that different whoever they are.
While she's introudced in the previous episode, Tania's main involvement in the story begins here. Played by Rebecca Root, she comes across as a very ordinary but perfectly charming woman, and there's the beginnings of something close between her and Liv almost straight away. While Liv and Helen integrate into the household, the Doctor continues to struggle with a mundane (in both senses) life, and his sanity is already suffering. When someone is violently attacked in a local park, the Doctor sets it upon himself to solve the crime and bring the assailant to justice, which does not put him in the good books of the police. The Doctor is depressed and desperate for some adventure in his life, but even when it comes to crime and "real" adventure, he is spectacularly unsuited to human life. It's a rare story where the Doctor has to face the limitations of his abilities. There's some real tragedy in this episode, not least when Liv is shot in an entirely pointless altercation. On the plus side, in hospital she and Tania finally ask each other out, and Liv - being from a more civilised century - is entirely unphased to learn that Tania is trans.
Respect to Big Finish for not thinking that merely making a character trans was enough to autmoatcially make her interesting. While Tania appears like quite an ordinary person, she has a secret life, as evident from the end of part one. Tania, it turns out, works for Torchwood, and has been placed at Baker Street to keep an eye on the Doctor. Torchwood are well-informed enough to realise that the Eighth Doctor is too early in his timeline to know about them, and equally that this means he must be protected or their own existence could be compromised. She's assisted by PC Andy (Tom Price) who fits perfectly into the set-up and adds a solid comedic element to the story. After two episodes mostly concerned with the everyday problems of life on Earth, the sci-fi side picks up here, with the mysterious Mr. Bird moving in and tinkering with their tellies to undertake shifty surveillance. It's solidly entertaining, but least effective of the set.
This final episode starts off with the joyfully mundane, as the Doctor wins a ton of cash on a quiz show (and, wonderfully, thinks he'll be allowed to go back and do it again next week) while Liv and Tania plan a romantic dinner date, to which the Doctor then invites himself and the entire household in an attempt to build the community. It's fun sitcom stuff that sees the Doctor finally settling in, so naturally it can't last. His presence on Earth for so long has led a group of aliens from his own personal future to track him down, who intend to take him out before he can influence their timeline and cause their ruin. This is, of course, paradox on top of paradox, and that's just the sort of thing the TARDIS needs to provide a burst of temporal energy to kick start its regeneration. So, an end to the exile is in sight - in three boxed sets time, of course. The sudden intrusion of alien assassins during a major dinner is fun, and after the strained attempts to keep life "normal" in "Must-See TV" is effective, but the first two episodes, which were largely concerned with more realistic concerns, were stronger. "Divine Intervention," and the set as a whole, work, but I fear the promise of the original concept is already being lost. We shall see - it's certainly enough of a success to make me want to pick up Stranded 2.
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