What does life look like once you’ve stopped travelling with the Doctor? It’s a question that Doctor Who never really considered until its 21st century incarnation when it reunited Sarah Jane Smith with the Tenth Doctor.
School Reunion showed us that the readjustment may have been hard, but that Sarah is still continuing the Doctor’s good work on Earth. As she memorably notes in The Sarah Jane Adventures: “Life on Earth can be an adventure too – you just need to know where to look!” In this second episode of Big Finish’s new Stranded series, the Doctor and his companions learn the hard way about what happens when you’re looking for adventure in the wrong places.
John Dorney’s Wild Animals is about what it means to be the Doctor and his companions in a world where to quote Helen at the episode’s end, “there are no villains, only normal people making bad choices.”
The TARDIS crew are still adjusting to daily life in London – Liv, despite herself, is enjoying her new job in a local shop given that her futuristic med-tech training makes her a bit over-qualified for the NHS. Helen is enjoying winding Liv up and cooks dinner for the neighbours whilst the Doctor has taken to moping around Regent’s Park. There’s a palpable sense of unease during these opening scenes as you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop because this is Doctor Who and some threat or other is surely about to rear its ugly head. Sure enough, this relative peace and quiet are soon shattered by a brutal and shocking crime.
Real-world violence is always quite jarring in Doctor Who, think of poor Fariah being gunned down in The Enemy of the World or the great HMP Stangmoor massacre in The Mind of Evil. Shocking moments that often carry more dramatic heft than ray guns or tissue compression eliminators. It’s the same here, the abrupt snuffing out of life is all the more affecting because it’s not the sort of thing you’re used to in Doctor Who. As a result, it’s less easy for the Doctor to spring into action as the smartest guy in the room, his (admittedly very funny and Doctorish) attempts to offer his services as a consulting detective come across more like a grieving relative demanding justice than it does Sherlock Holmes. Paul McGann is the standout performer here, and movingly portrays our hero’s desperation to do something, anything to feel like the Doctor again. There’s also underlying guilt over how he’s still putting his companion’s lives at risk in the most banal environments.
Both Liv and Helen are reckless here, throwing themselves into dangerous situations without a second thought. It’s what they do, right? And yet, isn’t it much more dangerous to do that in a 21st century London where muggers lurk in bushes and gunmen roam the streets? There’s something fascinating about that dichotomy – why is it more dangerous for the Doctor’s companions to put their lives at risk on contemporary Earth than it is when faced with a Dalek or a genocidal Timelord? Perhaps because by removing the TARDIS from the situation, the magical, fantastical elements of Doctor Who have also been removed. This isn’t a silly old sci-fi show where everything’s going to find in the end, this is real life and it’s very rarely free of life-threatening danger.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are some light moments for Liv and Tania as their potential relationship steps up a gear. Nicola Walker and Rebecca Root have a great deal of chemistry together and play their roles with a good deal of tentative tenderness. The episode also ends on a brilliant gag which shows us that the Doctor hasn’t quite given up on righting wrongs just yet.
John Dorney expertly manages the tone of the story, so that the jokes and lighter scenes never undermine the more affecting drama of the piece. Dorney has been writing on the Eighth Doctor range for years now so by breaking down exactly who the Doctor and his companions are, and what it means to leave that life behind, he gives us the best example yet of the dramatic and creative potential of Stranded’s format.
That being said, I’m still uneasy about Torchwood’s PC Andy joining the team in the next story…
To Be Continued…