Big Finish: Doctor Who STRANDED 4 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who STRANDED 4 Review

Matthew Kresal returns to 2020 one last time.
In 2020, the Eighth Doctor found himself Stranded. Alongside Nicola Walker's Liv Chenka and Hattie Morahan's Helen Sinclair, Big Finish's latest series of box sets for Paul McGann's Time Lord stuck the Doctor in one time and place just as we all were, thanks to Covid. Across the volumes that followed, slowly regaining the TARDIS abilities to travel in space and time, a threat against humanity's future and very close to home drove their adventures alongside the tenants of their Baker Street abode. Now, after three sets, Stranded 4 ends the series on a high note.

Matt Fitton gets things started once more with Crossed Lines, picking up from the gut-punch climax of Stranded 3. With the Eighth Doctor trying to intercede to change the future in-between episodes of the second set, temporal hijinks begin to affect Rebbeca Root's Tania, leading Helen to seek help once more from the Curator. Only he's wearing a different face and outfit this time, with Colin Baker neatly sliding in as another aspect (his choice of words) of this mysterious figure. There's a lot to juggle, even more with the re-introduction of Clive Wood's Mr. Bird for the first time since he seemingly vanished out of Stranded 1, bringing an ingenious twist that changes the course of the episodes that follow. It's a packed opener, to be sure, yet Fitton hangs onto the emotional core of Stranded along the way, using it to peel back motivations and themes of regret along the way.

Lisa McMullin picks up the baton and runs with it in the set's second episode, Get Andy. McMullin gets the unenviable task of answering the fate of Tom Price's Andy Davison, a lingering question since the finale of Stranded 3, with the Doctor going to the rescue. Except in the grand Doctor Who tradition, it doesn't go according to plan for anyone involved. Previous Stranded sets had found a way to combine SF storytelling with an emotional core and a focus on its character's emotional journies, with McMullin delivering a tour de force here. The Doctor's scenes, in particular, are some of the heartbreaking you're ever likely to encounter in Doctor Who, no matter the medium, and give McGann some of his best material in the role in Big Finish's long history. That Get Andy also deals with the fate of Andy, and Mr. Bird's role in events, along the way, is a testament to McMullin's skills as a writer.

Roy Gill, whose UNIT Dating was a highlight of Stranded 2, returns to pen what is, in effect, the finale of Stranded as a whole. The Keys of Baker Street starts as a simple tale, one more chance to nudge history in the right direction to avert disaster, only to lead to another catastrophe. One that makes the Doctor, Liv, Helen, and the tenants of 107 Baker Street face their pasts, presents, and futures. Like Fitton's Crossed Lines, Gill's script packs a lot of SF ideas and concepts around a solid emotional core, one that revisits many of the characters we've come to know over the run of Stranded. Gill's script is also full of characters' regrets, things left unsaid, and the potential for second chances, often functioning best with that simplest of dramatic formats: people in a room talking to one another. In the process, Gill closes off much of the strands of the 14 episodes that came before it with a highly satisfying piece of work.

If Keys of Baker Street is a finale, then John Dorney's Best Year Ever is Stranded's epilogue. Or, to use a very geeky analogy, it's what the Stargate SG-1 episode Threads was to that series' eighth season, picking up the emotional pieces left behind by the plot. More than that, Dorney takes the Doctor and the Baker Street clan into the real 2020, the one we were living through as Stranded began, unimagined when the first set went before the mics in December 2019. This episode is more than taking these characters through the familiar aspects of the events of two years ago, from toilet paper shortages and bread making to Zoom calls and "bubbling." For the Doctor, in particular, there are echoes of Dorney's own Wild Animals from the first Stranded, the sense of what happens to a man used to traveling headlong in time and space, very much stuck in the here and now. Dorney also goes to the heart of this strand of stories: the relationship between Liv and Tania, brought so wonderfully to life by Walker and Root, and what its ultimate fate will be. It's one last glorious return to a mix of Who elements in a familiar, down-to-earth setting that's been the hallmark of Stranded, and all the better for it.

One of these fantastic things about this set, especially, is how it gives everyone a chance to shine. McGann, always a reliable Doctor on audio, gets some of his best material in recent memory across these four episodes. There's a way that McGann plays the melancholy of this incarnation, often hidden behind a bouncy exterior, that comes across beautifully here. Morahan's Helen comes back to being the sensible and most grounded member of this TARDIS crew, often seeing the emotional connections others miss. The wider Baker Street clan, from Price's Andy to Jeremy Clyde's Tony and Joel James Davison's Robin, likewise get their moments in the sun, as does Baker as the Curator, bringing hints of the Sixth Doctor but also a sense of there being something far more to his character. Yet, the heart of this set, as it has been for much of Stranded's run, remains Walker and Root's chemistry as Liv and Tania, something that anchors much of the drama in the final episode. Brought together under Ken Bentley's direction and a music score from Jamie Robertson that could give Murray Gold a run for his money at times, it's a showcase for what Big Finish and Stranded, in particular, have done for the last two years.

In so many ways, though, this is the end of an era for the Eighth Doctor at Big Finish. Not only the end of Stranded but, as director Bentley discusses in the extras, the last of the four episodes by four sets run that has defined this Doctor since Dark Eyes became more than a one-off box-set nearly a decade ago. There's no need to shed tears, however. The Eighth Doctor's adventures will go on. And in the here and now, Stranded 4 represents the end of the best, most sustained run of Eighth Doctor stories since the second season of adventures with Charley Pollard nearly two decades ago.

Farewell, Stranded. It's been the best year ever.

Doctor Who: Stranded 4 is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 May 2022, and on general sale after this date.

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. His prose includes the non-fiction The Silver Archive: Dark Skies from Obverse Books, the Cold War alternate history spy thriller Our Man on the Hill, and the Sidewise Award winning short story Moonshot in Sea Lion Press' Alternate Australias anthology. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, or follow him on Twitter @KresalWritesHe was born, raised, and lives in North Alabama where he never developed a southern accent.

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