Gary and Alan sit down together, trembling at the task ahead of them.
‘So’ says Gary, nervous to let the name pass his lips ‘Zagreus.’
Alan takes a deep breath and lets his mind relax, wondering how on Earth they can do justice to the climax of second season of McGann audios. ‘How about –‘
‘Continuity!’ screams Gary. ‘Anniversary tale, 50th Big Finish adventure, longest Doctor Who story of all time…I want continuity. Give the fans what they want!’
Alan’s brow furrowed. Not again.
‘Well’ he sighed, ‘We could explore the different 8th Doctor’s…you know across the different medias?’
‘Hmm, perhaps as a throwaway gesture. Give me more.’
‘We could explain away regeneration?’
Gary looks excited. He gets to his feet and slaps down his fist. ‘More!’
‘Turn Rassilon into a ranting villain?’
‘Make the TARDIS the villain of the piece? Have a physical representation of the ship and have the Doctor’s torture it?’
Gary punches the air with delight. ‘More…’ he purrs.
‘The Great Vampires, Romana, the Brigadier…’
‘Oh yeah. More…’
‘The Tomb of Rassilon, the Matrix, Daleks, Yeti, Quarks, Drashigs…’
‘More damn you! More!’
‘The Death Zone, Borusa, Florana, Omega, Morbius…’
Sweat breaks on Alan’s brow.
‘Anneke Wills, Elisabeth Sladen, Conrad Westmaas, Mark Strickson, Sarah Sutton, Nicola Bryant, Caroline Morris, Maggie Stables, Bonnie Langford, Robert Jezek, Stephen Fewell, Sophie Aldred, Lisa Bowerman, Miles Richardson, John Leeson…!!!’
They both fall to their chairs, red faced and panting.
‘Now that’s what I’m talking about!’ cried Gary. ‘But lets throw in a line towards the end that we are entering a continuity free zone. Lets not take the piss.’
And thus Zagreus was born…
What’s it about: Beats me.
Breathless Romantic: Quite possibly the worst characterisation of the Doctor we have ever seen. It’s appalling and over its three and a half hours length it gets worse and worse. I honestly didn’t think it could get any more dire than the Doctor ranting his way around the TARDIS like a moustache twirling villain but then he started to chatting away with representations of his former self for almost an hour I had to concede defeat. These scenes are irrelevant to the plot, utterly nonsensical and McGann really struggles to give them any kind of meaning. Worse still is when the Doctor starts actively torturing the TARDIS, words I never thought I would write because they are so wide of the mark. Then he ceremoniously dumps (in the romantic sense) Charley after telling her loves her in the last story and breaks her heart and walks away into the Divergent Universe spitting and cursing Gallifrey and with the biggest chip on his shoulder. Good riddance to him. I just hope we don’t have to follow him in there (We do? Oh shame). Seriously though after all the superb work done by both Alan Barnes and Paul McGann in Neverland turning the underrated 8th Doctor into a witty, dynamic Doctor it is like a knife in the heart to watch him fall from grace so spectacularly. You wouldn’t think that one story could change the fate of a character so dramatically but considering this story is the length of an entire season lets take this story as the series that stuck two fingers up at McGann and poisoned a lot of listeners against his Doctor. A round of applause please.
The Doctor needs the TARDIS and he prefers books to people on the whole. He’s fairly certain that he wasn’t responsible for assassinating Kennedy. The Brigadier is his oldest friend and very important to him. He’s a man with so much to offer the universe. His pain as the TARDIS commits suicide is palpable. He’s been everywhere, done everything (guess this is about the right time to pop into another universe then?). You can’t take him to parties because it is name drop hell! He does not kill because he is the Doctor. The Doctor admits that he and Charley has grown so much together and she has made him smile more than anyone. Zagreus is still inside him and he is scared that he will destroy everything he has ever loved so he tells Charley to go. Both the Doctor and Charley are alive after death. Why would he want to return to our universe when all of his heroes are so disappointing? He doesn’t want to see or hear from Gallifrey ever again (be careful what you wish for) and wishes Romana luck in her inevitable corruption. What an ass.
Edwardian Adventuress: Poor Charley. I really do like her and think India Fisher is a good little actress but sometimes she is saddled with duff scripts to hold up with her bare hands. I’d rather listen to her narration of Masterchef than this. She tries vainly to work her way through the story, suffering surrealist dreamscapes and Gallifreyan history before finally being well and truly shat on in the last half an hour. Can you imagine anything more cringe worthy than the Doctor asking one of his companions to leave and her turning around accusing him of dumping her? Imagine all the hideous theatrics that come with that sort of scene, melodrama that Eastenders would consider overcooked (Charley even says the immortal line ‘It’s not you, it’s me.). It’s horrible and destabilises the character in a very final way. After this nothing will ever be the same again. Sarah Jane had a similar departure without any of the soap operatics. They came later, and were handled far more maturely. ‘Are you dumping me?’ indeed!
Charley is a dreamer and talks nonsense. She was given the Alice Compendium at Christmas by her Nana. She was a real disappointment to her mother, Lady Louisa Pollard. Her sisters are Margaret and Ceclia. She has been travelling for some time now and she knows when the TARDIS is in flight. In a very sweet moment Charley suggests taking on the anti time so the Doctor can find a cure. Her take on Rassilon is hilarious (‘Have you the courage to face me in single combat?’ ‘Erm no, not really. Well probably…next week perhaps?’). After the Doctor hit her she could no longer trust him. She does love him and when he asks her to kill him she figures that he never meant it when he said that he loved her (huh?) so she stabs him. She has always been true to him. Charley tells him there is no cure for a broken heart after he asks her to leave but she sneaks back on board anyway.
Great Ideas: There are some good moments in Zagreus. I know, don’t faint. Most of them are captured in the ideas that are tossed about aimlessly throughout the story. What is really annoying is how good some of these notions are and how little they are explored, investigated or even used in a dramatically satisfying way. The concepts are revealed and shrugged off casually, like throwing away a coat. Zagreus is a smorgasbord of delicious ideas and reprehensible ones and separating them was the hardest part of this review as they are wound so tight around each other.
I loved the idea of discovering A Brief History of Time, its pages blank. The TARDIS is scorched, burnt out, hollow. The ship is unstable and it is creating projections that can be stepped into. By absorbing Anti Time into his craft the Doctor has brought Zagreus into reality. The defences are cracking and it is growing stronger. In one fabulous moment the Doctor sees himself as a comic strip creation in Oblivion, as a novel creation with his heart plucked out and even Gallifrey destroyed. All these realities are real and primary to their inhabitants. Schrodinger’s Time Lord, a cat puts him into a lead lined box with a capsule of cyanide! The Sisterhood are described as science buried beneath pagan symbolism and artifical superstition. The Foundry of Rassilon is where all of his secrets are kept. Rassilon destroyed the Sisterhood’s heritage, outlawed their religion and ridiculed their magicks. The Great Vampires were systematically hunted down over a thousand years, never touching a single sentient soul until they were pursued. Rassilon researched and actioned regeneration, intending for it to be only available for the Gallifreyan elite and inputted a limit of 12 regenerative cycles to avoid decay. All futures coalesce into one Web of Time; free will is not a possibility. There is an interesting explanation for why so many planets inhabitants are humanoid; Rassilon sent bio molecules to rearrange the cellular makeup of 69,000 worlds to take on Gallifreyan physiology. The Divergents are creatures from the birth of the universe that tried to stop Rassilon’s biological terrorism and he bottled them off into their own Divergent Universe. They would have restructured all matter to their design and none could have challenged them. They would have cast the next web, one to encircle Rassilon’s own. The trapped creatures are due to escape at the end of our universe. Romana’s presidency has been no worse than those of the past Presidents. Kasterborous had a neighbour that Rassilon didn’t care for so he had it removed. Is Rassilon the sculptor of the timeline itself? The TARDIS commits suicide, jumping into a smelting work and is reduced to slag. Rassilon wants the Doctor to murder the Divergents, using his Anti Time infection to assassinate them, cut them out of time. Zero Matter from the TARDIS concentrates the mind. His last request to Romana is to take Charley back to the moment before she stepped on to the R-101 and make her miss her ride. The Doctor heads off into the Divergent Universe; never to return less Time itself is destroyed. It is a new, young universe and Romana wants the Doctor to look after although she cannot imagine how they will get along without him.
Standout Performance: As nonsensical as they are, some of the guest appearances by old Who stalwarts are amusing. My favourites were Nicola Bryant as the bally well, slap on the back for good measure Dr Stone, Bonnie Langford as the evil, taunting, spoilt Goldilocks, Colin Baker menacing away as the scenery chewing Provost and Sylvester McCoy who sparkles as Uncle Winkie, insanely verbose and utterly perverted! He just wants to put a smile on your face! The others I could take or leave.
Sparkling Dialogue: This story is three and a half hours long; it has to have some good lines!
‘Welcome to your insanity!’
‘I have accessed the records’ ‘You opened a dirty great book, its hardly rocket science.’
‘Who wants to live forever anyway?’ – Colin Baker excels as the tired vampire at the end of his life.
‘Have you heard of the BBC? Marvellous people, all of them!’
‘Daleks, Yeti and Quarks…oh my!’
‘Tell the Doctor and I shall burst your eyeballs with my thumbs!’
‘That has to be the biggest load of old rubbish I’ve heard in all of my lives!’ – oh boys you are just asking for trouble with that one!
Audio Landscape: Post production by Gareth Jenkins is of a very high standard, as is Andy Hardwick’s score. If only they had a good script to lavish their talents on. They have a lot of fun creating the dreamscapes that Charley finds herself in. Horses clip through a market with the traders crying out. Horses gallop furiously towards the Doctor as he opens a door in the TARDIS. The TARDIS steps squeak and creak in the library. Wind whistles. There was an almighty explosion in part one that almost threatened to wake me up! The enchanted forest with insects purring and owls hooting. Babble pervades the military mess hold. The creaking, tearing descent of a tree as the Doctor imagines himself cutting it down. Ouida eats Cassandra with a wet smack of the lips. A bubbling vat of smelly goo. The reality lock has a gorgeous voice. The hammering of the Divergents, smacking on our universe like hitting glass. The Doctor destroys rooms in the TARDIS and we hear them exploding out of existence. A Jabberwock roars hysterically. There is an impressive firefight with juicy SF blaster fire. The TARDIS opens its doors and we hear the Doctor’s possession being flung into the vortex, including a screaming Charley. Crackling thunder and rain. That fabulous horn of Rassilon really shook me awake. We fly on the back of a Jabberwock and descend on the Dark Tower. The Doctor bangs, forging metalwork. We can hear the Doctor’s double heartbeat until Charley stabs him.
Musical Cues: The music playing over the longest flashback in the history of the universe is sweeping and epic. Lovely to hear the swirling, ominous Hartnell theme again. Classical music plays in the Doctor’s waiting room. I really liked the cheeky bonk bonk bonk Charley down the rabbit hole theme. Whilst the scenes themselves are insomnia personified the Pertwee moments are treated to a gorgeous nostalgic piece of music. Foreboding music accompanies the Brigadier and Charley as they discuss the Doctor’s condition.
Isn’t it Odd: WARNING – NOT FOR THE FAINT HEARTED
· You could happily cut ten minutes of this story by excising that ridiculously long reprise of Neverland! I giggled from the get go with ‘Previously on Doctor Who…’ as thought I were watching The X-Files or Star Trek! Plus it is never a good idea to remind us how good the last story was when you are about to serve up something this shocking.
· Poor Jon Pertwee. What the hell was the point of that? I’m sure the great man himself would be appalled to think that his last appearance in Doctor Who was as a barely audible, riddle speaking disembodied voice! I had to really strain to hear any of his dialogue and I still don’t understand what the point of it was. Tying the third and eighth Doctor’s is very popular with spin off Who but this is no masterpiece of continuity destruction like Interference, its just bollocks. It came across as a cut price Ben Kenobi. Perhaps the idea was to make this story mythic by including him posthumously but it just comes across as disrespectful to Pertwee’s grand performance as the Doctor.
· I would have much preferred to have had the Doctor cross his different media streams – how awesome would that have been? Instead it’s just another throwaway idea. With all this time to spare you would think they might investigate some of this imagination.
· Part one is as far from the follow up to Neverland as I expected, over an hour of dull surrealism and exposition, nothing seems to happen and the dialogue is tangled, vacuous and senseless. When the Doctor was pretending to die of cyanide poisoning I was hoping it was true so this mess could be over. Two hours into this story and I still had no idea what was going on or if it was heading anywhere remotely worthwhile.
· What the hell is the point of these ridiculous dreamscapes? Oh right, an excuse to bring back a wealth previous Doctor Who performers! What a terribly dull way to celebrate this anniversary. If you gave a damn about any of the characters in the dreamscapes you are a better man than me, I was just bored and wondered when they would get to the point. Hilariously Gary Russell had the nerve to suggest that this is a more sophisticated anniversary story than The Five Doctors. Pah!
· Zagreus reminded me very strong of the NA Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible. Set within the TARDIS, which is damaged, uninteresting dreamscapes, a stand still narrative and impenetrable metaphors. And in true NA style the Doctor has a conversation with himself at the end – I hated it in the books and I hate it more now. It also strongly resembles the themes of Interference, which paired the 8th and 3rd Doctor’s, delved into ancient Gallifrey and featured some intriguing dreamscapes that dealt with Rassilon’s handling of the Vampire affair. Interference was written by Lawrence Miles, this was co-scripted by Gary Russell. Enough said.
· The most despicable concept I have heard in many a year is that of the TARDIS turning on the Doctor, betraying him, behaving in a childish, aggressive way, being jealous of his female companions and mocking him by resigning. Who thought that would be a good idea? I’m all for experimental storytelling but the whole idea and realisation of this is awful and painful to listen to. The TARDIS gets dialogue like ‘Stuff you and your wayward adventuring’ and ‘Dirty underwear all over my floors!’ which make you cheer when she finally decides to give up her life. Congratulations Gary, Alan – you’ve managed to make the Doctor, Charley and the TARDIS as unlikable as each other. Who honestly wants to listen to the Doctor being tortured by his closet friend? Even worse, and typical of a story that has hours to spare and not using them wisely, we don’t even get to see them reconcile.
· Did it really have to take three and half hours to get to the conclusion that Rassilon sneaked away the Divergents and wanted to murder them with Anti Time? This could have been handled very effectively in one half hour episode without all of the extraneous piffle tacked on.
· I don’t mind the odd reference to the past, really I don’t but this story takes it to extreme. In one scene alone we get the following quotes: ‘Is this death?’ ‘There should have been another way’ ‘Where there’s life there’s…’ ‘A better exit than I had, a bang on the head I ask you!’ ‘The moment has not been prepared for’ – Zagreus groans under the weight of continuity, it makes season 20 feel as continuity free as season 16!
· Why does bigger mean better? Can anyone justify this story’s 220 minutes?
· After Neverland took the time and effort to make Rassilon such a powerful and mythical figure Zagreus twists him into a pathetic one-dimensional super villain who seems to have had a hand in every single aspect of the universe and all others beyond. His last scene with Romana in Neverland was poignant and respectful, his last scene in Zagreus sees him being picked up by the Doctor and tossed screaming and begging into the Divergent Universe. Its just rubbish, isn’t it?
· The Doctor dumping Charley? Oh brother, even Russell T Davies never went that far.
· ‘The power is mine! The blade is Rassilon’s!’ – I genuinely had lost the plot at this point.
* And what is especially odd is how fans think this is where Big Finish jumped the shark! Admittedly this story is a knife in the back but still to come there is Charley and Sixie, Lucie Miller, the gorgeous Philip Olivier, Eddie Robson, the Klein trilogy, C’rizz’s death, Jago & Lightfoot, Gallifrey series 1-4, the Companion Chronicles…this company still has a lot more to offer. Don’t let one duff story put you off, even if it does take up two thirds of your lifetime.
Standout Moment: Don’t make me laugh.
Result: It’s not very good, is it? Zagreus fails on just about every level you can imagine, the script is dull, unintelligible, bloated fit to burst with extraneous material, the pace is languid to the point of standing still for hours, the characterisation hurts like a rotting tooth, the ideas are wasted and continuity ejaculates around you like an uncontrollable stream of fanwank. This is the anniversary story, it should be reminding me why Doctor Who is the greatest television/audio/book series ever made and instead it had the reverse effect, it left me wanting to turn my back away from the series and take a rest from it. This is what happens when you try and please your fans too much, JNT did it, so did Russell T Davies and Gary Russell has now joined the elite. There is nobody with a critical eye watching this spiral out of control, what is needed is a firm script editor who can say enough is enough. The biggest blow to Big Finish’s reputation yet: 1/10
Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/