In the days since it’s release, Big Finish has been retweeting a lot of praise for Stranded from listeners. Much of it has likened the Earthbound boxed set to how Derrick Sherwin reinvigorated Doctor Who in the 1970s by exiling the Third Doctor to Earth and then handing over to Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. And yet, that comparison feels reductive.
Stranded is a much different proposition. There are no nefarious corporations doing great harm to the planet, no dodgy drilling operations, no Mars probes. The worst that the Doctor has had to contend with is an armed robber, the rest of the time it’s dodgy tellies, spotty Wi-Fi and dilapidating kitchens.
The Doctor is no longer a scientific advisor, he’s a landlord, a member of a community, and that’s clearly taking a toll. Indeed, in this closing story – David K. Barnes’ Divine Intervention – the Doctor states that his current exile is more of a struggle because he doesn’t have UNIT to work for, given that they’ve been defunded. As an aside, Chris Chibnall’s gag in Resolution that UNIT has been mothballed due to a lack of alien invasions is hands down the greatest, most incisively satirical moment of his tenure. It gets funnier as we get further away from it. All you have to do is look at the various cutbacks Trump and Johnson made to their pandemic response teams prior to COVID-19 to see just how perfect that gag is for our current time.
As Divine Intervention opens, the Doctor has come up with a new plan to repair the TARDIS that involves winning TV gameshows and making some shrewd investments with the prize money. As a plan, it sounds like an amazing Doctor Who story, but it’s shot down fairly quickly by a frustrated Liv and Helen. To make matters worse, he soon finds himself the target of some alien assassins intent on protecting themselves from a terrible future. Meanwhile, Helen and her new charge, the young, continually-abandoned Robin are accosted by Divine Intervention – a strange organisation offering direction and purpose to today’s disaffected youth and are also the most transparent Scientology allegory since Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Some time has passed since the cliffhanger to Must-See TV and, as such, a confusing pall falls over the first ten to fifteen minutes until Mr Bird’s message is re-addressed. I had to quickly jump back and reassure myself that the previous story wasn’t a two-parter to which I’d missed the conclusion.
So with alien assassins, warnings from the future and a tantalising mystery for the Doctor, it’s here that the series arc properly arrives. However, with the mysterious Mr. Bird, the mysterious Tania, the mysterious Ron and Tony and the mysterious Divine Intervention, it’s becoming a little hard to see how all the pieces fit together.
Which is the main issue with Divine Intervention, there are a lot of dangling threads left hanging, which will presumably be tied up in the following sets but don’t make for a particularly satisfying closing story to Stranded 1. For good or ill, this is very much audio Doctor Who for the Netflix generation with overarching stories, cliffhangers and mysterious characters all enticing you to click preorder on Stranded 2.
That said, whilst it has very different concerns – placing character, relationships and emotion over alien invasions and mad scientists – Stranded has reinvigorated the Eighth Doctor range in a way similar to the Pertwee era, purely in changing the types of stories that can be told. It’s certainly provided a welcome change of pace from the Gallifreyan lore heavy trilogy of Dark Eyes, Doom Coalition and Ravenous. I still have some niggling concerns over the need to include Torchwood (the SERCO of alien incursion solutions) in a prior doctor’s story, and whilst it’s terrific to have such a rich cast of characters at Baker Street, there is a worry that a few residents are starting to become surplus to requirements. Hopefully, none of them will have to sit out a future story with a migraine.
Overall, Stranded is a bold step in a new direction for audio Doctor Who that suits the Eighth Doctor very well indeed. Pertwee’s second series introduced the Master as the personification of the Doctor’s dark impulses, I wonder if Stranded 2 will lean further into just how far the Doctor is willing to go to repair the TARDIS. We’ve had glimpses and warnings here, and the signs for our hero’s psyche aren’t good…