Doctor Who: Stranded 3 retains its personal touch even as it dives into galaxy spanning conspiracies
The Eighth Doctor’s most recent series of adventures moves into a new and dangerous phase with its third volume. Stranded 3 doesn’t just continue the arc of the badly wounded TARDIS depositing the Doctor in London in 2020 but refocuses it beyond its initial domestic concerns. Last time the Doctor and his friends discovered that someone had overwritten all of future history. In these four stories they set out to explore this new reality and find the point of diversion. Despite this apparent spreading of Stranded’s wings its core themes continue to anchor the narrative.
Although the TARDIS has recovered enough to be able to struggle her way to bringing them where they need to go, the fact that it’s still too weak to divine the cause of the problem is a major plot point. And the Baker street tenants and their lives remain a key part of these stories. Their histories and worries are more real and ordinary than normal in Who, even in the Russell T Davies years. Stranded 3 may have an intergalactic scope and a time span covering millennia. But everything ultimately comes down to the personalities of the people living in the Doctor’s Baker Street town house.
Three parallel tales unfold in Patience, introducing the theme of the importance of storytelling
Opening story Patience reflects this with exploration of alien worlds in a style more like The Martian or Solaris than Doctor Who. Experienced pro Liv and new boy Andy find themselves on one planet, and similarly mismatched Helen and Tania on another. One a world of dust and sand, the other a world of watery depths. They only have vague memories of being dispatched by the Doctor on a long term mission to discover these planets’ secrets. And they settle in to building new lives on these deserted worlds, in scenes reminiscent of life in lockdown.
This domestic approach to seeking out strange new worlds is encapsulated by a lovely scene of Andy enthusing about an alien chair. Sure, he’s dealt with spaceships and alien monsters, and rifts in time and space. But an alien chair in an alien house on an alien planet, where an alien probably sank gratefully after an exhausting day of work in an alien job, is something else. The mundane underscoring the strange.
For his part, the Doctor is on yet another planet, climbing a mountain to tell its inhabitant a story. A story which he has to tell to save his friends. The parallels between his tale and the events on the other two planets, which also echo each other, function as part of the dreamlike logic of Patience. It echoes those 1970s movies of space explorers going slowly mad with the endless routine of survival. And it’s this which makes Patience such a beautiful piece. But the Doctor’s narration also introduces a key motif of Stranded 3 with the importance of storytelling.
Compelling and pure, Twisted Folklore sets the power of myth at war with itself
Twisted Folklore continues to develop this theme with a smart and insightful story of two competing mythologies battling for a planet’s soul. In one corner is the mysterious figure known only as ‘the Doctor,’ prime architect of the mighty Earth Empire. He’s now spinning fairy tales for a newly subjugated world. Stories which emphasize the importance of bending to authority and never straying off the scripted path. Meanwhile, another Doctor, breaks through the transmissions of sanctioned propaganda with his own tales of free thought, imagination, and standing up for others. But whose message will the people of Rarkelia ultimately cling to as the truth?
Other elements of Twisted Folklore make unexpected bedfellows of 1984 and Doctor Who’s own Full Circle. The people of this world, originally from the marshes, are supremely adaptable and capable of extraordinary changes within a single generation. And it’s this that the Earth Empire leverages to try and seize the hearts and minds of the society’s children. More than that, they’re steadily turning them against their own parents, like the Junior Spies of Orwell’s novel. And every night people go to bed terrified of their own offspring as every day those children stand a little straighter, speak a little softer, and look and act and think a little more… human.
It’s a strong enough idea that it makes the latter scenes involving a doomsday weapon seem a little unnecessary. Though it does help underline that notions of a ‘kind’ conquest as put forward by Angela McKintosh’s all too plausible Professor Wilkins are always a false front for dominance and cruelty.
Heartfelt and bittersweet, Snow visits a dark future but focuses on the stories we tell ourselves to make it through the day
With Snow, the storytelling theme expresses itself in more subtle ways. As the TARDIS brings us to 2035 to explore how the sinister ‘Divine Intervention’ got started the stories people tell themselves to get through the day come to the forefront. Nowhere on Earth has seen snow for five years. Nowhere except one little garden on Baker Street where its one remaining resident Ron wakes up to a thick, beautiful coating of snow every day of every winter. () has built up his own fairytale logic to explain it. As the Doctor hmms and umms in the background, that he’s explains how the late love of his life Tony orchestrates the snow from the afterlife to comfort him. He even maintains a running conversation with his late partner as he putters around his daily routine.
Snow also sees Liv and Tania’s relationship begin to strain under the weight of Tania’s expectations. The sense that Tania may be in love with a version of Liv that only exists in her head crops up in Patience. And here it hits the reality of how unlikely Liv is to simply settle down in 21st century London once the TARDIS is fully working again. The friction this causes leads to some of Rebecca Root and Nicola Walker’s best work in Stranded so far. It also forces Liv to reassess their relationship and the type of woman she wants to be. These scenes are all the better for being more personal and profound than Doctor Who has usually dared before.
Stranded 3’s other developing theme deals with the unintended ripples of small, throwaway decisions
But Snow ultimately rests on what becomes Stranded 3’s other major theme. Inevitably, the focus of the snow on Baker Street and one of the Doctor’s old tenants is no coincidence. The unintended consequences of the Doctor’s actions and even friendship has long been a bone for various writers to gnaw on, perhaps best expressed by Paul Cornell in Joan’s rebuke of the Doctor at the end of Family of Blood. But Stranded 3 cuts deeper. Here it’s not just his grand battles to save the universe that causes collateral damage, but the smallest of actions, things he barely remembers and was scarcely aware of doing at the time. And we get to see the consequences mushroom out, effecting even the most ordinary of people.
The backwards narrative gimmickry of What Just Happened? distracts from a climax that moves Stranded into an exciting and dangerous new phase
What Just Happened? brings this front in centre as the Doctor’s team finally unmask and confront the ‘other’ Doctor at the head of the Empire. It’s been signposted for a while that there must be some connection to the Doctor to himself. However, the exact nature of it still comes as a surprise. And it results in a superior example of the familiar scene of the villain claiming it’s all the Doctor’s fault. It’s a notoriously difficult mark to hit but the revelations here both establish the role of the Doctor’s naive, careless, impact on other people and the irrational refusal of the villain to accept blame for their own actions.
The action in What Just Happened? unfolds backwards, beginning with the traditional closing theme, complete with middle eight, before we have that climatic confrontation. Each new scene picks up minutes, hours, or days before the preceding one, as we witness the events leading up to that fateful meeting. It’s an approach that can be very powerful, but here works against the drama. Admittedly it ties in to that element of unintended consequences for innocent missteps. But it’s a point underlined rather heavy-handedly, and which saps the twists and surprises one expects from Doctor Who. In fact, the requirement for regular reminders of the previous/future scenes and heavy foreshadowing of the next/past scenes occasionally begins to feel like the constant recapping of Love Island style reality shows.
This third volume never loses sight of what makes Stranded unique in Doctor Who, and points to an intense and powerful finale next time
Taken as a whole, though, these four stories succeed in finding new and fresh things to say about the Doctor Who universe. It’s something that shouldn’t even be possible with the show’s sixtieth anniversary approaching next year. (Yes, as of yesterday, next year!) And even as the TARDIS heals and the arc moves into a new phase, these character still feel stranded. Trapped by their own natures, by their dreams, and by a web of events that they seemingly can’t escape. And while the mystery has now been solved, the battle to save the future is just beginning.
Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Adventures – Stranded 3
Doctor Who – The Eighth Doctor Adventures: Stranded 3 is available to pre-order as a collector’s edition box set (on CD at the special pre-order price of £24.99) and as a digital download (again, at the discounted pre-order price of £19.99), exclusively from the Big Finish website.