Having steadfastly refused to reprise her television role for Big Finish, Janet Fielding was finally lured back for a one-off appearance as Tegan, making Joseph Lidster's 'The Gathering' one of the most anticipated releases of the year. My initial opinion was that a Nyssa and Tegan story set between 'Arc of Infinity' and 'Mawdryn Undead' might have been better than reuniting Tegan and the Doctor after she's finished travelling on board the TARDIS, but as it turns out Lidster's script is sufficiently well-written that 'The Gathering' is pretty much flawless.
I've mentioned before that killing off old companions is often a lazy way of generating drama and controversy, so I greeted the revelation that Tegan now has a fatal brain tumour with some cynicism: against all my expectations however, she not only survives the story, but ends on a high, cheerfully preparing to carry on with her life, however long it may be. This is initially unexpected for various reasons: Lidster, a man ever interested in dysfunctional relationships, shows Tegan struggling to get on with workmates and potential lovers alike. Despite her blunt nature, Tegan seems lonely and socially awkward. She also has a lukewarm reaction to meeting the Doctor again, noting "If you're here in Brisbane, it means trouble's on its way. My friends are here, my family." Given her rather rushed and traumatic departure from the series, it makes sense to explore their past relationship, and Lidster does this very well: the dialogue very carefully establishes, subtly, the awkwardness between them: the Doctor seems determined to prove that life with him was better. She forces him to eat his own celery, which he doesn't like! He expected her to do more, and admits that he finds her new life depressing, but she quite reasonably asks him, "After I left you, what was I meant to do? Nothing could compare to that!" She's very embittered. Gratifyingly however, Tegan doesn't like James Blunt any more than I do.
Janet Fielding is very good, despite her long absence, and she instantly re-establishes a rapport with Peter Davison, who gets plenty to do here. Davison makes it clear how much the Doctor cares when he hears about Tegan's condition, and Lidster writes some interesting characterisation, such as the macho jealously going on between him and her ex-boyfriend Mike, since Mike clearly still loves her and the Doctor feels rather defensive. They start arguing over vehicles, and there's more cock-measuring later when they are trying to set a car alarm off, the Doctor boasting about Venusian aikido. Mike asks the Doctor "Did you consider the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, she might have been in love with you?", a sickening concept which Lidster turns completely on his head, despite Davies having conditioned me to expect such rot: The Doctor awkwardly asks Tegan about it, and she bursts out laughing. "I'm not in love with you, not then, not now, not ever." The ending, for both Tegan and the Doctor, is great: she gets back together with Mike and ends the story happy, optimistically deciding to see what the future holds, and telling the Doctor, "I have been happy being home. I've not been holding my breath, waiting for you to come back? Thanks to you, I've enjoyed every minute of my life." The final scene, as they make peace and part friends, is very rewarding.
As in 'The Reaping', Lidster also handles the other characters well, and is helped out by a strong cast. The unwittingly catty but not really malicious Jodi an example of very believable character, and Zehra Naqvi is well-cast in the role, whilst Jane Perry reprises her role as Kathy, who is terrified of the Doctor due to the deaths of 'The Reaping', which is also very realistic and conveyed by an equally believable performance. And the fannish Goggle Box attendant is great: he's a total fan, and is outraged that the Fifth Doctor is travelling alone, as "There's no records of you travelling alone!" He refuses to travel with the Doctor, obviously terrified of what might happen.
Bizarrely, 'The Gathering' ends with an enthusiastic monologue from Hex about the magic of the Doctor, presumably just in case nobody had made the connection to 'The Harvest'. This feels vaguely gratuitous, but is a very minor criticism -- and as it stands, it's my only criticism of the whole story.