“Zagreus” was produced to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Doctor Who, to resolve the cliff-hanger ending to “Neverland,” and to take the series back to the basics – re-establishing the Doctor as a wanderer who doesn’t know where the hell he’s going or what to expect! This ambitious script had the added responsibility of having to cater for every Doctor and every companion who has ever appeared in a Big Finish audio – no small task. Fans expected much from this story, and Big Finish delivered something very different from your usual run-of-the-mill multi-Doctor story. The result is far longer than I personally would have liked, though I do tend to complain if stories go much beyond the 90-minute mark! With each individually titled episode (back to basics again) approaching that length, listening to the story, let alone trying to make sense of it, was a daunting prospect, but it was nevertheless one I found immensely enjoyable.
Although the ride is a long one, it is a fascinating and surreal experience for the most part. Rather than have a contrived “Five Doctors” experience, Barnes and Russell take the regular actors and place them in unfamiliar roles within the dreamscape of the Matrix, where poor Charley finds herself. I found the best way to look at “Zagreus” is not as an anniversary story, but as a regular eighth Doctor story with one hell of guest cast. When looked at in this light, it is far easier not only to understand the important elements of the story, but also to enjoy it. In essence, this is Charley’s story. If “Alice In Wonderland” is the primary theme of the first two episodes, then Charley IS Alice.
So the Doctor has become ‘infected’ with anti-time and is rampaging around the TARDIS trying to kill Charley, proclaiming himself to be the mythical destroyer Zagreus. The TARDIS itself has become infected with anti-time and has manifested itself corporeally in the form of a holographic Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. In “Wonderland,” we follow both the Doctor and Charley separately. Charley is immersed in several surreal scenarios, guided by the Brigadier / TARDIS, including meeting up with Reverend Townsend (Peter Davison) in a fairly dreary sequence. The Doctor, meanwhile faces riddle after riddle as he fights an inner battle between his true self and the Zagreus / anti-time infection. Very much grounded in Lewis’ “Alice Compendium,” the first episode is quite easily the worst of the lot. Although I liked Charley’s strange adventures, they weren’t making sense quite yet as the exposition is still yet to come at this point, and Paul McGann was faced with the difficult task of trying to convey the duality of his character which is difficult enough on audio, but next to impossible without someone to constantly play off. We have a nice cameo appearance by the long-dead Jon Pertwee, which is quite easily the most nostalgic touch in the story, but other than that nice little feature “Wonderland” is nowhere near the standard of “Neverland” which is where it should have been picking up the momentum from.
“Heartland” is a different story all together. I thought it was brilliant. Within the Matrix, Charley finds herself on Gallifrey, mistaken for Cardinal Rassilon by Tapesh (Colin Baker), one of the Great Vampires (as we know from “State of Decay” the ancient enemies of the Time Lords.) This part of the story doubtless annoyed many people as it’s very self-referent; in this one sequence alone we have references to the Great Vampires, the Sisterhood of Karn, Omega and Van Der Kerian – we even have the concepts of regeneration and Gallifrey’s chronological continuity explained quite plausibly. The way it was presented – as if these events were actually happening in reality – felt like we were getting a glimpse of ancient Gallifrey, of Rassilon’s exploits, and I loved it. I also admired the writer’s gall at challenging some of our assumptions, especially regarding the ‘evil’ Great Vampires.
I was less keen on Sylvester McCoy’s ‘Winkie’ character, and the whole idea of the animatronic war. I did like seeing Bonnie Langford in a villainous role – it seemed strangely appropriate as she’s probably by least favourite companion ever. The cliff-hanger ending to “Heartland” was superbly ominous, one of the best features of the story. Tapesh, Townsend, Winkie and Charley find themselves seemingly in the Death Zone on Gallifrey. We hear that familiar horn from “The Five Doctors” and it’s a wonderfully evocative scene. This is where the story starts feeling like something special.
“Wasteland” is the only episode in the story which I thought was exemplorary; it was so good that it lifts the rest of the entire story up. So far, the heart of the story has been about Charley and the Doctor. This final part brings in three other characters who all have major roles to play; Romana, Leela and Rassilon.
Through the course of their adventures in the Death Zone, it becomes clear that Tapesh, Townsend and Winkie are somehow imbued with some of the Doctor’s personality traits and memories. We even have a re-enactment of that “easy as pye” scene from “The Five Doctors.” The mysterious observer who spoke with both Romana and the Doctor in “Neverland” was indeed Rassilon, and here he draws Romana into his secret part of the Matrix and wants her to relinquish her role as President to none other than Zagreus / The Doctor, now Rassilon’s puppet. Rassilon is portrayed magnificently as the great founding father of Time Lord society – the great founding father who is completely ruthless and paranoid to boot – perfectly in line with how he has been portrayed in previous works such as “Lungbarrow” and “The Five Doctors.” Rassilon trapped an alien species known only as the ‘Divergence’ in a pocket universe at the end of time because he feared their power. It is this Divergence that is trying to break into our universe, to seek vengeance upon him, and perhaps on all creation. Only Zagreus / The Doctor has the power within him to stop it.
The TARDIS, personified by the Brigadier and infected with anti-time, has defected to serve Rassilon. There is a wonderful scene between McGann and Courtney about the nature of friendship, and the nature of love, and it seems that the TARDIS has become jealous of Charley, and is angry about the way the Doctor used it to contain the exploding Time Station at the end of “Neverland.” Courtney plays the menacing TARDIS well as it stalks Charley, Leela and Romana. I suspect he had great fun playing the bad guy for once, and it shows.
The ending of the story is spectacular. The banter between Romana and Leela is highly entertaining stuff, and it’s interesting to watch it develop into a mutual respect by the story’s end. Rassilon ‘kills’ Tapesh, Townsend and Winkie (who now realise that they are, in a sense, ‘Doctors’) and in a brilliant twist the Doctor / Zagreus asks Charley to kill him… and she does! It mirrored the touching scene between the two in “Neverland,” though this time around Charley is hurt and confused, reasoning that if the Doctor really did love her, then he wouldn’t ask her to kill him. As Charley runs the Doctor through with Rassilon’s knife, for a split second he wants to die, so the regeneration process is not activated. As darkness descends, in his mind the Doctor is reunited with his three most recent previous selves, and they reason the only way for the Doctor to survive is to embrace the anti-time infection and become Zagreus! It’s a brilliant scene, ending with all four Doctors joining hands chanting “I AM ZAGREUS!”
After the TARDIS / Brigadier is seemingly destroyed by Charley, Leela and Romana, it reappears at the end to save the day. The Doctor / Zagreus sends Rassilon to the Divergence’ universe to be dealt with, and in a very “Alice in Wonderland”-esque scene the TARDIS / Brigadier gives the Doctor a potion to drink labelled “Drink Me” which helps him to control the anti-time infection. With that, the TARDIS reconstitutes itself into it’s familiar old form.
Although the action ends, the heart of the story is far from resolved. The Doctor knows he must leave for the Divergence’ universe, as even though he is currently in control of the anti-time infection, eventually it would get out and destroy all the universe – past, present and future. Moreover, the Divergence’ universe should counter the effects of the infection whilst he remains there, so he will be the Doctor once again.
In my favourite scene of the story the Doctor tries to say goodbye to Charley, which she construes as “being dumped.” After all the characters have been through together you feel like banging their heads together as Charley accuses him of “using the anti-time infection as an excuse to be rid of her,” and the Doctor doesn’t even entertain the notion of taking her with him.
The scene between the Doctor and Romana is almost as powerful, the Doctor occasionally slipping into ‘Zagreus’ mode and calling her “pathetic” as well as ranting about the corruption of the Time Lords (Borusa, Omega, Rassilon, The War Chief, The Master, The Monk, Morbius…) Worryingly, it’s hard to tell who is speaking there, the Doctor or Zagreus! There is also the undercurrent of Romana threatening to kill the Doctor if he stays in her universe – or ever returns. It’s an uncomfortable position for her to be in, and the Doctor realises this, but the Zagreus inside him is angry, and although it’s hard to tell who is who within him it seems to me that the Doctor has become very bitter about his people and his home. He even says “I hope I never see Gallifrey again.” Careful what you wish for, Doctor.
Satisfyingly, Charley stows away on board the TARDIS, having been shown the back door by Leela! Unaware of her presence, the Doctor goes through the dimensional gateway to the new, young universe, and we are left with a surprisingly beautiful speech by Leela about the Doctor…
“Zagreus” is very enjoyable if you like the eighth Doctor and Charley and have followed their adventures through their first two seasons on audio. It very appropriately feels like the end, but also the beginning, not only for the direction of the series but for the two characters. It’s going to be very interesting to see where their relationship goes now. Will they cross the line of friendship? Will they break the series unwritten rule? The whole Charley / Doctor story has been handled brilliantly well by the Big Finish team, it’s certainly one of the strongest Doctor / companion relationships to date.
Contrary to popular opinion “Zagreus” is not ‘crap.’ It’s ambitious, self-referential and nostalgic. It’s fantastic!
Big Finish did not want to do a traditional Celebration story, in the vein of previous multi-Doctor stories. This, therefore, is a deliberate attempt to do something very different. Script Editor extraordinaire Gary Russell takes on greater writing duties - with Alan Barnes called upon to carry on what he began in Neverland (and even further back in Storm Warning).
Zagreus starts with an 8 minute recap from Neverland. Bearing in mind that it's been nearly a year and a half since the last part of the 8th Doctors audio adventures, this was probably necessary, but I was keen to get to the meat of the drama. I knew Paul McGann would be equal to the challenge of a split personality - and his scenes aboard the TARDIS are quite wonderful. The surprising voices emitting from the ship was a bonus, and I had to rewind a few times just to make sure I had recognized THAT voice correctly - another surprise to go with all the others I was to find on this 3 CD story.
The length of Zagreus is a bit daunting. It comes in just under 4 hours - it's not the longest DW story ever told, but it's close. I'm rather surprised that it is only split into 3 75 minute approx episodes. Six 35 minuters would have provided a better natural break for the listener. I much prefer the old style of episode length, because I usually listen to them 1 25-30 minuter at a time. I listened to Zagreus over a whole week, in 6 different listens - and couldn't wait to put the CD in the player for the next part. It's good to space these things out. It helped me mull over the previous episode, before embarking on the next. That's the way I like to get the most of Big Finish Audios.
The fun to be had throughout is recognizing the actors/actresses playing the parts. As each Doctor arrived on the scene so a cheer went up - and I was intrigued as to how this would all come together. I knew the TARDIS was recreating images for Charley - but why previous Doctors and Companions in these roles? Was it simply following patterns for what it knew? I was intrigued throughout, but I also found the new roles fascinating. I also figured that the different scenarios would combine somehow - and that question echoed around my mind for that Zagreus Week.
For my money it is Peter Davison who benefitted most from these alternative personas. The Reverend is a fascinatingly complex character, and Davison carries it off with aplomb. Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy play less conventional roles, which are rather left of centre, so to speak. I couldn't really relate to either, to be honest, even though both put in fine performances (sufficiently different from their Doctor roles, but still with glimpses of the Time Lord in there). Together for the final Disc, there was plenty of the witty repartee the actors enjoy together - different than usual - and for that Zagreus deserves a great deal of credit. It has done something celebratory, but different than anything else in the catalogue.
Saying that, there are plenty of references, as usual for a Gary Russell script, to other stories - particular anniversary stories. There's plenty of quotes taken directly from Five Doctors, for example. Hardly original, but keeping things nostalgic and celebratory. Most of the time these glimpses into the mass of previous Doctor Who brought a smile to my face, rather than made me sigh with unoriginality. It's essentially Doctor Who, and that will always be recognizable, and partially repetitive.
The mass of Companions who turn up is a credit to Big Finish (as is the many Doctors present). It's tempting to pick out who isn't there, as always with these collaborations, but I prefer to focus on the performances of those present. A few companions are given dual roles, but most have just the one character (somebody not turned up for recording?). It's nice to hear those familiar voices, in unfamiliar roles. Sort of like when a Who actor/actress appears in some TV programme, and you beam in recognition! Of interest too is the gang of President Romana, Leela and K9. Rarely have 3 characters been more diverse - yet the whole works very nicely indeed - promising for the upcoming Gallifrey series.
The story itself would benefit (as most of these plays do) from multiple listenings, but after the initial listen I found it rather straightforward and easy to follow. I quite often find myself lost on first listen, except in the most traditional stories. There was a few confusing bits and pieces though - The Anti-Time strand, with its Gallifreyan legend mumbo jumbo left me scratching my head. When we were in familiar territory (army barracks, Death Zone) I was more comfortable - and there's plenty of that. The separate strands of the story (as represented by the Doctor actors) are extremely diverse. For my money the Davison strand works the best, but it is the one most identifiable to our world. The C Baker strand is full of Gallifreyan mythology, that stuff takes me a while to get my head round. The McCoy strand is the most bizarre, and really the only part of the whole thing that doesn't work too well (I just hate this talking animals stuff - hated Watership Down!).
Pulling all these strands together is Charley and the Brigadier. A most appropriate guide the Brig is too, and one of the few playing his usual character. Charley and the Brigadier interact superbly. Special mention must go to India Fisher who I think has the biggest part of the whole play. Again she brings Charley to the top of the Companion popularity tree. With sheer charm and downright likeability, she carries the story. Charley, and India Fisher, is one of the main reasons I enjoyed Zagreus so much.
I'm looking forward to listening to Zagreus again. On the whole it's a different, but fine, celebration of Doctor Who. 7/10
Just in time for the Fortieth Anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’, out came ‘Zagreus’, a BF CD promising four Doctors and a conclusion, of sorts, to ‘Neverland’.
At the best of times, people gave ‘Zagreus’ rather mixed reviews: some said it was too confusing, others said it was too rambling, many said it was nothing more than a sugar sweet homage to Lewis Carroll’s book ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’; a fair few said it was a cop-out ending after the tireless complexity of ‘Neverland’. They were the nice reviews. The bad ones said it was pretentious, dull, up-its-own-behind continuity-wise, and that the inclusion of Jon Pertwee’s ghostly voice was irritating because you simply couldn’t make out what he was saying.
Why is it, then, that I enjoyed it?
Well, I’m no stranger to enjoying stories others on the whole dislike- ‘Pyramids Of Mars’? Overrated. ‘Dragonfire’? Jolly good stuff!
You get my point, I’m sure, so hopefully it won’t be considered too unusual for me to quite honestly declare that I preferred it to the aforementioned ‘Neverland’- sorry, but there you have it.
There were several moments of ‘Zagreus’ which quite literally had me laughing out loud- Doctors five through to seven describing their various deaths; Charley’s ridicule of the idea that Pi could solve the Chess Board Trap in the Dark Tower of Gallifrey; Paul McGann and the metaphorical forest (complete with virtual reality cat, of course); Charley being force-fed carrots. The list goes on.
The plot of ‘Zagreus’ was quite an interesting one, and unlike many I felt it served its three CD format well.
The acting was, as per usual, superb- Bonnie Langford’s sadist Goldilocks has to be heard to be believed- as was the production. I agree that at times it was a little annoying that Jon Pertwee’s voice was difficult to understand, but in many ways that added to the confusion of the beginning of the play, and you really did feel that it was a ghost-voice, struggling to be heard. In that respect, it was almost quite moving.
Why did I enjoy ‘Zagreus’ so much? Maybe because it’s shameless in wearing the show’s history on its chest; perhaps because, for a play so long, it uses the same musical cues endlessly, enriching the sense that in amongst something so epic, there’s really just something rather small going on- Charley coming to terms with her love for the Doctor; quite possibly it is because the play tries so damn hard to be memorable, epic, clever, witty and down right enjoyable.
Perhaps it didn’t tick all the boxes for some people, but for this ‘Doctor Who’ fan, it succeeded.
The eighteen-month wait between the cliffhanger ending of 'Neverland' and its resolution in 'Zagreus' was quite exciting. With little advance publicity and no proper trailers available, the internet Doctor Who communities were buzzing with speculation about what the fortieth anniversary extravaganza would have in store, but one thing we did now was that all every actor to have played a Big Finish Doctor or companion would have a role. This was rather worrying, since both previous multi-Doctor anniversary stories were, in my opinion at least, fairly dire, but Gary Russell assured everyone that he had learned from the mistakes of the past and that 'Zagreus' wouldn't be 'The Four Doctors' in all but name. Such an idea would be far too fannish and self-indulgent; instead, I got the nasty surprise of a story just as fannish and self-indulgent but in new and unpleasant ways. 'Zagreus', it transpired, was absolutely diabolical.
'Zagreus' starts badly and gets progressively worse. Episode One, titled Wonderland, opens with a lengthy recap, which is probably fairly impenetrable for anyone who doesn't actually own 'Neverland' and unnecessary for anyone who does. The story proper then begins, but like 'Neverland' there isn't actually enough plot for the story's bloated running time and since writers Gary Russell and Alan Barnes unwisely decided to provide roles for all the Doctors and companions that they had available, they resort to a ghastly series of virtual reality sequences in which the cornucopia of actors are given other roles to play. The fact that most of these roles are utterly one dimensional and might normally have been filled by extras means that it becomes an exercise in companion spotting which is extremely dull. These sequences occupy the first half of 'Zagreus' and are justified in story terms by Charley and the TARDIS's quest to learn about the Divergence. Which we learn almost everything about in the second segment, making everything else padding. It all feels geared to exciting fans that are more interested in obscure references to the past rather than decent story telling, and it gets worse.
'Zagreus' is full of trite continuity references. Assorted self-indulgent jokes include Charley's comment on the Death Zone, which is "It looks like Wales" and we get quotations from past stories, with the TARDIS quoting the Fifth Doctor from 'The Five Doctors' (the "Time Lords even more so" line) and Winky quoting from 'Destiny of the Daleks' ("Arrow A"). Stabbed by Rassilon, "Townsend" gasps, "Is this death?" in a painful nod to 'The Caves of Androzani'. There are references to Daleks, Yetis, Quarks, and Drashigs and towards the end we learn that the Doctor's heroes, all of whom turned out to be corrupt, include Omega, Morbius, Borusa and Rassilon. There are matrix recreations of bits of 'The Five Doctors' as Charley and Winky, Tepesh and Townsend find themselves in a virtual Death Zone, and find themselves confronted with the same chessboard trap that the First Doctor and Tegan faced in that story. There are numerous smug lines such as the Doctor's dialogue about alternate realities, which is an obvious and rather irritating attempt to acknowledge disparate strands of continuity. The plot itself oozes "fanwank" like a sore oozes pus, with the TARDIS manifesting itself as the Brigadier, and yet another boring visit to Gallifrey that features not only Lalla Ward as Romana, but also Louise Jameson as Leela and John Leeson as K9.
Some of this works well; despite the paucity of the plot, Nicholas Courtney and Lalla Ward both put in fine performances, and Louise Jameson and John Leeson reprise their old roles effortlessly. The use of different theme tunes to reflect different eras of the series is ultimately pointless but inoffensive, but perhaps the most fitting nod to the past is the surprise appearance by Jon Pertwee, which was all the more surprising given the fact that he had been dead for several years. The inclusion of hitherto unknown Pertwee recordings doesn't work very well due to the poor sound quality of the source material, but it is the one genuinely touching aspect of an otherwise pompous and overblown anniversary story. Overall however, 'Zagreus' is so riddled with "fanwank" that it creaks beneath the weight of contrived references to the past and by the time of the inevitable team-up between recreated past Doctors as Winky, Tepesh and Townsend realize how they know things they shouldn't it's all become interminable.
As I've mentioned above, the actual plot isn't up to much anyway. Tediously, most of the first two episodes are turned into a third-rate rip off of Alice in Wonderland (which is mentioned numerous times) hastily repackaged into a dull virtual reality story and an excess of smug dialogue such as "You're my very own white rabbit, aren't you?" At one point the Doctor asks the TARDIS, "What is your obsession with this book?" which feels like a brazen attempt by the writers to head off criticism at the pass, but doesn't actually work. The Doctor's attempt to convince the cat that it is mad in order to convince it to let him out of the box is the kind of smug, self-indulgent sixth-form rot that permeates the entire play, with tired lectures on Schrodinger's cat and cod-philosophy ("I'm here and therefore I think"). The interminable virtual reality sequences show us the Divergence breaking into the universe, but it's something that could have been done far more quickly, in a far more interesting way and with rather less clumsy exposition. In fact, there is so much bad expository dialogue that it's hard to believe that Big Finish have learned anything since their early releases, which often exhibited the same flaw. The Doctor/Zagreus bellowing demands at the TARDIS works reasonably well, but later on, the Doctor starts arguing with Zagreus in his own head, allowing further, more contrived, exposition and making the entire story a tedious wait for good to overcome evil in very, very predictable fashion. The Doctor talking to himself in episode two is blatant exposition, culminating with "I've got to fight my own ship!" as he realises that the TARDIS is also Zagreus. Such dialogue is especially evident during the sequence with the fighting robot animal characters, a thinly disguised parody of Disney, and an excuse for some feeble wit, which results in lines such as, "I'm a mouse and you're a duck."
The main saving grace of this third virtual reality sequence is that surprisingly, Bonnie Langford is rather good as a picture of childish evil. Unfortunately, whilst I'd like to comment on the other "companion" guest stars, I can't because they all play unmemorable roles, often with stilted dialogue and as such have no characterisation to work with whatsoever. The three guest "Doctors" on the other hand get rather more to do. Peter Davison is superb as the fanatical Reverend Townsend, one of the better examples of characterisation in the story; unsurprisingly, he's having a crisis of faith as religious characters always are in science fiction unless they're Bible-thumping psychopaths, but the fact that he isn't a creationist and that he wants to answer all the unanswered questions of the universe means he has a thirst for knowledge with a refreshing slant. His cry of "Go away! Leave me alone! Go away!" as the Divergence breaks through is superbly delivered. Rather less impressive is Colin Baker, which is largely to do with the material he's given to work with. The second virtual reality sequence is the most important in plot terms, but also the most painfully scripted. This is evident from the moment that Maggie Stables and Bonnie Langford are first heard exchanging dialogue such as "Great Mother, it is the time of chaos" and "As you know Great Mother, Rassilon now controls this planet and its people", which is clearly designed purely to provide a rather ham fisted information dump. Dreadful dialogue abounds, with "Are you not sworn to protect my interests?" just one example of the sort of cod-Shakespearean rot that even Stables cannot deliver well. In the midst of all this, Colin Baker is cast as the villainous Provost Tepesh, and decides to revisit his performance as Bayban the Butcher in the Blake's 7 episode 'City at the Edge of the World' and goes completely over the top. With lines like "Oh dear Cassandra, dear, dear sweet girl, that is just pish and tosh" and "And they call me an egoist. Me! Me! The greatest intellect Gallifrey has ever known!", I can't blame him. As for Sylvester McCoy, he's cast as the barking mad Uncle Winky, rolling his rs and exaggerating his diction with a total lack of restraint. Tediously, he gets to revisit old lines when he cries "If you fight like animals you'll die like animals" And is generally awful. He gets better when Winky learns the truth about the length of his suspended animation, veering into creepiness as he verges on madness, and he briefly shows convincing pathos when he mentions his dead daughter. Then he lapses again when presented with the dodgy line, "If I'd known the afterlife would have been full of young girls kissing me, I'd have chosen death sooner" and wallows in ham for the rest of the story.
The characters on Gallifrey are mercifully better utilized. Braxiatel gets little to do, but Miles Richardson puts in an excellently haughty performance, as he does in the Bernice Summerfield audios. K9 gets also does little, but Leela works well, retaining her savagery, but with an air of wisdom gained from her time with the Doctor and her time on Gallifrey. Her monologue on the Doctor, as she recounts how tales of him are told all across the universe, is one of the few really good bits in the story. Unfortunately, one of the many really bad bits of the story sees the incidental music grinding to a halt when Leela utters what she thinks are her final words only to be told that the bullet merely winged her, which sits very badly with the intended drama of the surrounding scenes.
And then there are the regulars. Paul McGann sounds suitably menacing at the start of Wonderland, and India Fisher sounds suitably terrified. For most of the story however, McGann gets little to do except wander about the TARDIS shouting at himself, until Wasteland, when he gets to alternate between the Doctor and Zagreus before finally and predictably learning to control his demons, at least for long enough to allow him to bugger off into the Divergent Universe. McGann does his best, but he can't rescue the story. As for Fisher, she spends most of the story slightly overacting as usual, and Charley is profoundly annoying here, veering from bossy defiance, to bleating self-sacrifice, to simpering declarations of love for the Doctor. The "Brigadier" pointing out that the Doctor's definition of friendship is actually a definition of love adds further irritating levels to his relationship with Charley and the moment when she asks him "Are you… dumping me?" is ghastly. Worst of all, the perfect opportunity for Charley to leave is squandered. With the paradox of her existence resolved, the Doctor leaves her in Romana's care and he's prepares to leave the universe forever, but rather than starting a new era with a new companion and leaving the baggage behind, the writers allow her to sneak aboard the TARDIS inflicting herself on both the Doctor and me for the foreseeable future.
Finally, there is the issue of the villain. Having secured the services of Don Warrington to play Rassilon in 'Neverland', Russell decides to maker further use of the character and decides to reveal that he is in fact just another megalomaniac scientist, who operates on a particularly grand scale. He becomes just another corrupt Time Lord joining Omega and Borusa amongst the ranks of Heroes that have Gone Bad and it's so terribly dull. It isn't even handled well; Rassilon laughs maniacally at the end of his first scene. "I am the sculptor of the timeline itself. I made history. What have I to be afraid of?" and generally boasts about his power, whilst the writers include such revisionist claptrap as the revelation that the vampires fed on mindless genetically engineered animals until Rassilon attacked them. The problem is, Russell and Barnes strive to portray him as a bigot obsessed with eugenics on a grand scale, but his actual motivation for exiling the Divergence from the universe is not well explored. According to Recorder Seven, the Divergence would destroy all life within the universe within ten thousand years, so his decision to remove them from the universe isn't quite as black and white an example of evil as the Doctor seems to assume; it could easily have been argued that he should have found a better solution to the problem, but his actions are nevertheless understandable from his point of view and this is never adequately explored. Is he just a xenophobe who trapped an entire species in a pocket universe because they threatened his personal power base, or did he stop a race of monsters that would have destroyed the universe? It's all left very ambiguous, which undermines his sudden conversion into a villainous madman, as well as rather spoiling one of the better scenes in 'Neverland'. Don Warrington brings a great deal to the role, but the script is still bollocks.
When 'Zagreus' finally and fortunately reaches its end, the self-indulgent mining of the past does at least give way to the possibility of an exciting new era, as the Doctor and the writers are given the opportunity to explore a whole new universe. Unfortunately, what we actually got is one of the most rocky and controversial periods of Doctor Who to date…
I’ve read the reviews and comments on this story, and to be fair, they are mixed. Some like it and some don’t, but very few praise it as an outstanding story. It isn’t, and I think having roles for just about all the Big Finish Doctors and companions plus one or two more was a writing challenge equivalent to the one Terrance Dicks had in writing The Five Doctors. In other words, the casting requirements drove the story in many ways, rather than plot requirements, which is unfortunate. However, it is both remarkable and enjoyable to have so many Doctor Who cast members from different eras in this audio. Special mention needs to be made here of Jon Pertwee’s addition to the story, which was much appreciated, though it is difficult to tell what he is saying much of the time due to the voice modulation. He’s a comforting presence in Zagreus, a reminder of who the Doctor ought to be (as Pertwee in fact says at one point) since the eighth Doctor is not himself for most of the time.
Some spoilers follow.
Zagreus is a very long story. This in itself is not a problem as long as the plot keeps moving, but it felt as though this story went nowhere during the first two and a half hours. A lot of time is spent on Charley’s TARDIS-given visions that all relate to the Divergent, and very little is spent on the Doctor’s predicament, which was the plotline that interested me. Charley is shown three past and future events by the TARDIS, and these serve to introduce various characters that have had some contact with the Divergents. The individual stories and characters don’t always work very well. I found suspension of disbelief during the 50s segment difficult to maintain. The idea that a scientist would be able to build a machine to traverse dimensions during that era is absurd, even in the context of Doctor Who. And there are the seemingly obligatory swipes at religion, made by Peter Davison’s character of Reverend Townsend who cares less about human life than the mysteries of the universe.
The segment with the vampires and Rassilon was more interesting, and useful for setting up events on disk three, but the history revisionism that made the vampires innocent victims of Rassilon’s warmongering were irritating. A little retconning is acceptable in any given story if it makes sense, but here believability is stretched beyond credibility. Creatures who drain entire planets dry are hardly sympathetic.
The uncle Winky segment with warring animatronics in a dead theme park on a future Gallifrey seemed to have been written just for the sheer oddness of the situation. I was tempted to draw some parallels between Rassilon’s preference of the humanoid form over non-humanoid with the animatronic humans fighting the animatronic animals, while the one who started it all (Rassilon/Uncle Winky) slept through it. It didn’t make the segment any more believable. And I’m not sure anyone would survive billions of years in suspended animation.
Disk three is where the story proper kicks in, and it’s far better than the first two. After two and a half hours of waiting for something to happen, it finally does. Much of it still doesn’t make sense to me though. The three Doctors’ from the first two disks appear with Charley in the ersatz Death Zone, but I caught no clear explanation as to why they show up and no one else does. Romana is drawn into the mix for no apparent reason. Rassilon wants her to resign as President, but this plot point is never followed up. Rassilon’s intention seems to be for the Doctor to venture alone into the Divergent universe and kill the Divergents one by one with his anti-time knife, which seems like an insane plan. I suppose, given the literary allusions to Alice in Wonderland throughout the story, this is meant to be the vorpal blade slaying the Jabberwock. However, despite the flaws, loose ends are tied up, and a number of things are explained. Rassilon’s actions make sense on one level, but I prefer vagueness about his character. He’s reduced to just another twisted antagonist with his own insane agenda. He’s Parallax from DC comics, rewriting time and history so that it fits his vision, heedless of the consequences.
I have to give credit to the writers for not just ending the anti-time/Zagreus threat at the end of the story. It was a traumatic event for all concerned, and it ought to take a while to play out.
On another note, I can’t help but see this as Big Finish’s answer to the situation over in the EDAs with the destruction of Gallifrey and the Doctor’s amnesia as a means to alter the status quo. In Neverland, the situation is similar to Ancestor Cell, where an enemy is poised to take over and alter Gallifrey in such a way that the universe and the timelines will be forever affected. In both situations, the Doctor is faced with a hard choice and the consequences to himself for the choice he made are severe. In Big Finish’s universe, the Doctor is one who sacrifices himself rather than committing genocide, and removes himself from our universe rather than erasing the Time Lords from existence. The anti-time "infection" is far more believable and less clichéd than amnesia which is never resolved. In short, Big Finish got it right where the BBC books did not, in my opinion.
I’m not quite sure whether to recommend this story or not. I bought it because I wanted to hear what happened next after the cliffhanger ending to Neverland. It took a while to get there, but the events of that story are explained, and I’d rather have heard it acted out than just read about it in a review. It’s a decent story once you get to it, despite the flaws, and the "regeneration" scene with Doctors 5 through 8 is fun to listen to. In the end, for me at least, resolving the events of Neverland was worth sitting through a lot of the less interesting material, so consider the story recommended with reservations.
It was supposed to be the story to end all stories, the culmination of 40 years of infinite time travel, a celebration of those long years. It was supposed to be so much more than this “effort.” Even before its release Gary Russell, co-writer and producer, was adamant that the play would be condemned by fans for not being celebratory enough. Was this an attempt to disguise a lack of faith in his weak script?
How could Zagreus ever have been anything other than a disappointment, though? The climatic and iconic, groundbreaking cliffhanger to Neverland ensured that devotees would have a full 18 months of eager anticipation to endure. Could such a weak script really fulfil 18 months of building excitement?
No, it bloody well couldn’t!
The power that is Zagreus has done absolutely nothing save from shout a lot and throw some books around. Is the force to be left subdued, because if this is the case, that’s a huge disappointment? Not only has the cliff-hanger been resolved inadequately, it’s petered away into insubstantiality. One realises halfway through the story that the power that is Zagreus isn’t doing anything any more and McGann’s voice modulation has dwindled away. Zagreus simply fades away as if the writers have forgotten about that particular massive plot point. They’re just not interested in it any more.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the writers seem to begin the story of this new universe known only as the Divergents. This plot thread has just materialised and far from establishing it here, we just hear loud banging noises and the sole word: Divergents. The culmination of this new idea better be satisfying because if we’ve been put through this chaotic four hours for nothing I’ll feel more than a bit ripped-off.
The problem with Zagreus is that it spends too much time giving us bewildering and alienating hallucinations without offering any answers to what is going on. It seems wandering and undisciplined. Perhaps given that the three discs were allocated to telling this story a more strategic use of them might have been called for: Disc One solving the problem of the power of Zagreus, Disc Two establishing the Divergents, Disc Three answering some of the questions posed in Disc Two.
It feels like being spat in the face, after so long loyally following Big Finish, only to be given this “You’ve got to buy another twelve CDs for some answers” story.
Why the idea of teaming the Doctors up was shunned I’m not quite sure. It would have been the adventure’s saving grace, as the most enjoyable scenes are arguably those featuring the four doctor actors together. No, it’s not celebratory enough and yes, I am disappointed. If this weren’t a cause for celebration I’m not sure what could have been.
Using as many actors as possible in unfamiliar roles was a big waste too. I think every fan’s dream would be to have the companions and Doctors meet one another, if only to see what sort of interplay ensues. I can’t imagine Turlough having much time for Mel. As it happens, the actors aren’t even separated. The TARDIS teams stick together for their hallucinatory sections. WHY OH WHY?
Nevertheless, the performances are all excellent, Sarah Sutton being a highlight as the only actor really cast against type, despite what Big Finish would claim, as the bitch, Miss Foster. Paul McGann is hugely wasted, spending most of the time stuck in the TARDIS talking to himself or saying “I am Zagreus” over and over again, but never strays from the solid reliable performance he always gives. Sylvester McCoy actually puts in a better performance here than he perhaps does as the Doctor himself!
It is tragic that I feel the need to review this story so harshly. I feel like trying to find anything I can to salvage its dignity. It’s impossible. Zagreus is a clumsy, cluttered, indulgent piece of bad story telling. It doesn’t even have any charm. A crying shame.