Doctor Who: Stranded 1 — what do I really think?

Doctor Who Stranded 1
Stranded 1

I’ve been thinking (on and off) about the Stranded 1 boxset. While I believe I understand why the new approach, I’ve had some niggling doubts about the set as a whole. Plenty to enjoy, yet a sense of is that it? when I got to the end. It’s also a long wait for the next batch of stories.

Several spoilers follow. Before I get into it, I don’t think it’s a bad set, but… and there’s a but. And a long post!

London 2020 (according to Big Finish)

In a strange parallel world, with no Covid-19, it’s business as usual for the extended Doctor Who universe. Well, if you count being stranded sans TARDIS in London. Cue four rather different tales:

By April 2022, (current timetable) there will be 4 boxsets; 16 stories; 18-20 hours to listen to one time. And a cost of £79 as a download bundle (the cheapest option). As pure value for money, the investment (up front) is around £4 per hour. We’re talking not even a coffee and pastry for an hour of great acting, production, post…

Is it worth it? Ask me again at the end. But is it worth it? To be honest, I’m not certain. Big Finish audios are clearly a luxury item, and lockdown perhaps changes one’s normal perspective. Stranded 1 comes on the back of Ravenous about which I have many complaints (Helen had too little to do for most stories, it’s really just another big outing for the (excellent) Eleven, what were the Ravenous? Yet another old time lord legend mixed with some magic powers and a big ending.) Apologies if I’m too negative today! It’s the nature of criticism to gloss over good bits!

I have doubts about two aspects:

  1. The Doctor
  2. The structure.

The Doctor

Given the set is meant (we assume) to focus on the Doctor, that’s a problem. To be fair the Eighth Doctor can be passive, try it and see and leave plenty of space for others. There are plenty of large performances in other boxsets (River, the Eleven, various Masters…) so Paul McGann not being centre stage all the time is not new.

As part of the setup, the TARDIS is defunct. No sonic, little tech, little money has left this Doctor without a foe and without definition. By the end of four stories I felt it hadn’t developed far enough. There’s a Big Finish Fifth Doctor story where the Doctor is in prison — in one morning he makes dozens of major changes to all kinds of aspects of prison life. In Stranded 1 the Doctor switches off. There’s no anger as we saw at the start of Dark Eyes, just a depressed fugue. I assume it’s deliberate. There could have been a mild comedy angle (eg the Doctor becomes and avid fan of daytime TV), instead he just searches (Don Quixote like) for a big challenge.

The writers do what the can; John Dorney adds some comic elements when the Doctor tries to outdo the police, but it goes nowhere.

The other characters

It’s not in my list of two, but it fits here. My thoughts are mixed: too many new voices, not enough definition, some ideas with potential (the Curator, Tania Belle, Sgt Andy Davidson), but others not enough (yet). It’s a side-effect of budget / production — you don’t pay an actor to turn up for a day to deliver six lines (normally!)

My reaction to various characters is:

  • Liv — still as strong a character as ever, some difficult moments for her character and a new romance with Tania Bell. It’s all very well thought out so far
  • Helen — a lot more to do, practical, pragmatic and happy to tell the Doctor what to do. She’s gluing together a lot of the story lines. I think there is more to come, and she’s the gateway to…
  • The Curator — Tom is a scene stealer, yet did we need the character? Fun (and fannish) but what is it saying about the show? I think Big Finish will pull off something interesting here, personally I’d have not followed this thread
  • Tania Bell — a great mix of vulnerability and hidden secrets. She’s connected to if not part of something else (spoilers) so plenty of development in the relationship with Liv when the truth emerges
  • Sgt Andy Davidson — now very much part of Torchwood, he has secrets and missions. It’s great hearing him try to avoid the Doctor and fail, and any thoughts I had this might be an idea too far are dispelled
  • The rest of the house — I need a lot more definition. I’m sure it will emerge. We know some have information we need, but a few more hints would be nice
  • The villains — a random shadowy fear thing in the first story, a lodger with access to advanced tech as well as an organisation prepared to do anything (?) to achieve their utopia. But none of them is more than a sketch. I think they’ve been undermined by the structure of the boxset.

The structure — no doof doofs

Radio Times Dimension in Time

My main gripe with Stranded 1 is the four stories feel insufficiently joined up. I know Matt Fitton had a lot to introduce (or so it was decided) and others just introduced some key characters, but it feels a little fragmented. Of course we can see any design at the end, but it’s nearly a year until the next instalment. What will we remember by then? It’s not easy releasing a bit arc over two years, so some of my so-called flaws are a natural side-effect of the publishing cycle.

My resolution to the structure problem (as I perceive it) is to not the following:

  • The recent Fifth Doctor announcement for the main range tells of having to structure two main range releases as eight shorter pieces
  • The recent Torchwood Soho Parasite boxset announcement is for a set of short episodes
  • Writer Lisa McMullin (she wrote Must-See TV) has also written for Eastenders.

Put it all together and I wonder if there’s a better presentation (and we probably need a little more science fiction) by splitting these stories up. Key moments could be the cliffhangers (what Eastenders aficionados know as doof doofs thanks to the drum intro to the end theme music). As a for example:

  • There’s a shooting in a shop
  • Sgt Andy suddenly appears at the doorstep
  • The Curator appears for the first time.

Imagine if we had shorted chunks; there would be 32 episodes (perhaps not released en bloc [yes this ignores CD buyers]). We get fewer characters in each part, little glimpses of bigger mysteries, and so forth.

I’d like to know how workable this is. There’s a lot to like about Stranded 1, but I feel there’s an opportunity for better storytelling. A little more mystery might also help.

I reserve the right to revisit this next year after Stranded 2!

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