When it launched towards the end of 2006, Torchwood was described by creator Russell T Davies as “The X-Files meets This Life“. For this reviewer it never came close to the quality of either of those shows, however, Davies’ description could easily be applied to Big Finish’s Stranded. Nevermore so than in Lisa McMullin’s Must-See TV, which deftly balances sci-fi shenanigans with petty politicking between the housemates.
Some time has passed since the end of Wild Animals – Liv and Tania’s relationship is blossoming and the Doctor is making more of an effort to integrate now that his old room is occupied by the (overly?) helpful Mr Bird. Paul McGann gets some really lovely little moments in this, the standout one being a heart to heart about childhood loneliness with Robin, again abandoned by his father. It calls to mind a similar moment for Patrick Troughton in The Tomb of the Cybermen whilst also containing the romanticism and wonder that has defined McGann in the role. He also brilliantly plays the Doctor’s jealousy and suspicion of Mr Bird, his begrudging deference to his new neighbour’s lemon drizzle cake is one of a number of hilarious one-liners peppered throughout Mullin’s script.
Is the Doctor right to be suspicious of his new neighbour? If you’ve been watching, listening and reading Doctor Who for a while then you probably know the answer to that. That said, Clive Wood plays the character with such ingratiating charm that you do wonder if the Doctor’s still looking for problems to keep himself occupied. Soon enough, the televisions in the building start malfunctioning and the Doctor, his companions and his tenants are soon thrown into a plot involving alien surveillance technology and a shadowy company that specialises in furnishing rental flats. It’s the sort of Doctor Who story you could imagine RTD writing in an era of Alexa and algorithms, and Lisa McMullin’s script really delivers on the comedy and creepiness that you would expect from that period. The creepy atmosphere is achieved by both Benji Clifford’s sound design – all electrical fizzing and popping – and Jamie Robertson’s discordant music.
Must-See TV is proper stripped back Doctor Who that again shows what’s possible with the new set-up. So it’s disappointing to find Torchwood’s Sergeant Andy Davidson knocking at the door of Baker Street. This is maybe the reviewer’s own bias, but Andy was never the best character in Torchwood (no mean feat in a series that had Owen Harper in it) and he’s just as much of an irritant and an obstacle here. Having not listened to any of Big Finish’s continuing Torchwood series, it’s difficult to figure out why they’re so interested in the Doctor again. It feels like the Torchwood Institute of the 2006 series, though in 2020 they seem a bit more coy about amorous relations than Captain Jack and his bed-hopping team ever did.
This is the first of a two-part story that will bring the first boxed set to a close, so perhaps it’s unfair to question the merit of including Andy and Torchwood in the ongoing Stranded arc at this early stage. Big Finish has taken a much freer “timey-wimey” approach to their storytelling in this post-MCU period which can often yield interesting results. (Legacy of Time‘s Third Doctor and modern UNIT story being an absolute belter, for example) With the Torchwood Institute, however, there is the suspicion that we’re going to have 13 hours of Doctor Who in which everyone stops talking about Torchwood when the Doctor walks into a room.
It would certainly be a shame as Must-See TV is another fine example of what Doctor Who can do as a flat-share comedy-drama. It occurs to me that, if McGann had gone to series, something like Stranded wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 90s TV landscape of Friends, Coupling, This Life and Cold Feet. The added benefit of it taking place in the 1990s would be that bloody Torchwood wouldn’t be knocking on the door. Early days though, and I hope to be proved wrong as we reach the closing story of the set – Divine Intervention.
To Be Continued…