STORY TAKES PLACE
THE BIG FINISH AUDIO
ALAN BARNES &
BIG FINISH CD#50
RELEASED IN NOVEMBER
The Doctor IS NOW possessed by the
known as Zagreus.
As a result, he's
the TARDIS trying to
kill poor Charley
Pollard. And if he
gets out, the universe
has met an old friend
who explains THAT
Zagreus isn't the
only problem the
universe faces. Right
now, hammering on
the other side of a
are the Divergence.
You see, this used to
be their universe, and
they want to come
(3 80-MINUTE EPISODES)
1. WONDERLAND 2. HEARTLAND 3. WASTELAND
Zagreus was produced to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who,
to resolve the cliffhanger ending to last year’s Neverland, and to take the series back to basics in re-establishing the Doctor as a wanderer who doesn’t know where the hell he’s going or what he’s going to find when he gets there! This ambitious script had the extra responsibility of having to cater for every Doctor and companion that has ever appeared
in a Big Finish play – no small task, to put it mildly. Naturally hopes were very high for this historic story, although with each individually titled episode almost filling an 80-minute CD,
to some just listening to this one - let alone trying to make any sense of it - was a daunting prospect. Nevertheless, it was a prospect that I relished.
Though the ride is a long one, it’s a fascinating and surreal experience. Rather than concoct a contrived Five Doctors–type tale, writers Alan Barnes and Gary Russell take the regular actors and place them in unfamiliar roles within the dreamscape of the Matrix where poor Charley finds herself lost. It’s therefore probably better to view Zagreus as a regular eighth Doctor story with one hell of guest cast as, when looked at in this light, it’s far easier not only to understand the crucial rudiments of the story, but also to enjoy it. After all, this is Charley Pollard’s story - not the Doctor’s. If Alice in Wonderland is the primary inspiration for the first two episodes, then Charley is Alice.
“I hold the last vestiges of the most awesome power ever imagined.
Imagined, yes. How much better if I should take my title from a work of imagination;
a creature willed to power by the undying anger of an unreal race!”
As the first episode, Wonderland, begins, the Doctor is rampaging through the TARDIS, infected with anti-time and calling himself Zagreus. The TARDIS has become infected with anti-time too, which has manifested itself in the form of the holographic Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. The narrative follows both the Doctor and Charley separately - Charley is immersed in several illusory scenarios, guided by the TARDIS, which eventually bring her to a meeting with the Reverend Townsend (Peter Davison); the Doctor, meanwhile, faces riddle after riddle as he fights an inner battle between his true self and the Zagreus / anti-time infection.
Heavily grounded in Lewis’ Alice Compendium, the first episode of Zagreus is, in some respects, the least compelling of the lot. Though Charley’s strange adventures entertain, as the exposition is yet to come they aren’t easy to decipher, and Paul McGann is left without somebody to constantly play off, struggling to convey the duality of his character without just nattering away to himself. Nevertheless, courtesy of some rather clever editing of dialogue lifted from the fan production Devious, deceased Doctor Jon Pertwee is at least able to lend the episode a suitably reflective touch through his post-humus cameo.
Overall though, Wonderland isn’t even close to the superlative standard of Neverland, which is where it really should have been picking up the momentum from. The second episode is
a different story altogether though. Within the Matrix, Charley finds herself on Gallifrey, taken for Cardinal Rassilon by Tapesh (Colin Baker), one of the Great Vampires. Satiated with references to the Sisterhood of Karn, Omega, and even Van Der Kerian, here Barnes and Russell have plainly taken great delight in wallowing in Doctor Who’s extensive mythology, clearly and cogently explaining delicate concepts such as the inception of regeneration and Gallifrey’s chronological continuity. Furthermore, the way that the episode is presented - as if these events are actually happening – feels like we are actually getting an illicit glimpse of ancient Gallifrey and Rassilon’s exploits, which I’m sure that I’m not alone in appreciating. You have to admire the writers’ gall too as they challenge our preconceptions about the ‘evil’ Great Vampires.
Sylvester McCoy’s ‘Winkie’ character I was much less taken with, and his “animatronic war” doesn’t set the world alight in the way that an ancient Gallifreyan flashback does. It is fun to see Bonnie Langford in a villainous role though; perhaps even strangely appropriate.
And the cliffhanger ending to Heartland is supremely foreboding: Townsend, Tapesh, Uncle Winkie and Charley find themselves in the Death Zone on Gallifrey. We hear that distinctive horn from The Five Doctors and the scene is set for the stunning final instalment…
Wasteland is the only episode in the story which I found to be exemplary. Thus far, the heart of the story had been about Charley and the Doctor. This final part, however, brings in three other characters with major roles to play - Romana, Leela, and Rassilon. The initially hostile banter between Romana and Leela is tremendously entertaining, and it’s very interesting to watch it develop into a mutual respect by the story’s end. Lalla Ward and Louise Jameson spark off one another beautifully; it’s a real shame that their two characters never crossed paths on television.
The mysterious observer who spoke with both
Romana and the Doctor in Neverland is finally
revealed to be Rassilon, and here he draws
Romana into his own, secret part of the Matrix
and asks her to relinquish her Presidency to
none other than Zagreus / the Doctor, who is
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 always been portrayed in previous stories. Here we learn that 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’s now trying to break into our universe to take vengeance upon him, and perhaps on all creation, and only Zagreus / the Doctor has the power within him to stop it.
The TARDIS, personified by the Brigadier and corrupted by anti-time, has defected to serve Rassilon. There is a wonderful scene between McGann and Courtney concerning the nature of friendship and love. It seems that the TARDIS has become rather 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 extremely ersuasively as it stalks Charley, Leela and Roman - I suspect he had great fun playing the bad guy for a change, and it really shows through in his performance.
The conclusion of the story is nothing short of stunning. Rassilon ‘kills’ Tapesh, Townsend and Winkie (who now realise that they are, in a sense, ‘Doctors’, having been imbued with some of the Doctor’s personality traits and memories) and in a brilliant twist the Doctor / Zagreus asks Charley to kill him… and she does! It mirrors the touching scene between
the two at the climax of 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. And as Charley runs the Doctor through with Rassilon’s knife, for a split second he wants to die,
and so the regenerative process is not activated. As darkness descends, in his mind the Doctor is reunited with his three most recent previous incarnations, and they reason that
the only way for the Doctor to survive is to embrace the anti-time infection and becoming Zagreus forever! It’s a brilliant, brilliant scene culminating in all four Doctors joining hands and chanting “I AM ZAGREUS!”
After the TARDIS / Brigadier is apparently destroyed by Charley, Leela and Romana, it reappears right at the death to save the day. The Doctor / Zagreus sends Rassilon to the Divergent 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 its familiar
old Police Box form and everything is back to normal.
Or is it?
Although the action ends, the heart of the story is far from resolved. The Doctor knows that he must leave for the Divergent universe as even though he is currently in control of the anti-time infection, eventually it would get out and destroy the universe – past, present and future. Moreover, the Divergent universe might counter the effects of the infection whilst he remains there, so he could at least be the Doctor again.
In my favourite scene of the whole play the Doctor tries to say goodbye to Charley, which she construes as “being dumped.” After all these characters have been through you really feel like banging both their heads together as Charley accuses him of “using the anti-time infection as an excuse to be rid of her,” and the Doctor won’t even entertain the notion of taking her with him. It’s going to be very interesting to see where their relationship will go from here.
The scene between the Doctor and Romana is almost as powerful, the Doctor occasionally slipping into ‘Zagreus’ mode and ranting about the corruption of the Time Lords. There is also an unsettling undercurrent to their conversation as, with her official hat on, Romana effectively threatens to kill the Doctor should he ever return. It’s an uncomfortable position
for her to be in – just as uncomfortable as the one that she found herself in in Neverland - and the Doctor must appreciate this on some level, but Zagreus 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.
Finally, Charley stows away on board the TARDIS, having been shown the secret “back door” by Leela. Unaware of her presence, the Doctor takes the TARDIS through the one-way dimensional gateway to the Divergent universe, and we are left with a surprisingly poignant speech by Leela about the Doctor…
“Everywhere you go they tell tales of the Doctor.
There are galaxies far away from here where children sleep more soundly,
knowing he’s out there, fighting off the demons. And the demons twist and turn in fear, knowing that their enemy awaits. So long as the stories are told, he’s never really gone.”
Altogether then, Zagreus is immensely enjoyable if you like the eighth Doctor and Charley and have followed all of their adventures. Very appropriately, it feels like an ending to their story, yet a new beginning too. However, if you’re a non-subscriber and you see a CD with four Doctors on the cover and plan to pick it up as a one-off listen then I’d have to say don’t - you simply will not get it if you haven’t at least heard Neverland too. But on the whole, and certainly contrary to popular opinion, Zagreus is not “crap”. It is ambitious, nostalgic, and -
by its end - absolutely bloody fantastic.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This story put forward co-author Gary Russell’s theory that whilst the Doctor Who television series is “canon” in any event, its various ranges of spin-off stories across the media each take place in their own little universe. Here the eighth Doctor glimpses the Horde (from the DWM comic strip Oblivion), a universe in which the Time Lords possess “terrible mind powers” (Death Comes to Time) and one in which one of the Doctor’s hearts was removed on Earth (The Adventuress of Henrietta Street), amongst others.
However, as you might infer from the site’s History of the Doctor moniker, we like to think that the Doctor we are reading about, or listening to, or watching on television is the Doctor - the ‘prime’ Doctor if you will – not some shadow thereof. We therefore take the view that the “parallels” that the Doctor experiences in Zagreus are just slightly deviant versions of what we consider to be his all-embracing life - the veiled references to the events of the novels (which we believe have yet to happen for the ‘prime’ Doctor) are referring to suspiciously similar parallel universes running slightly ahead of the prime Doctor’s, and the image of the Horde is simply
a slightly differing version of the events of Oblivion (which the prime Doctor has already experienced) taking place now in another reality.
Furthermore, here the sixth Doctor remarks that “a bang on the head” caused him to regenerate, contradicting both the later novels Spiral Scratch and Time’s Champion. Presumably Old Sixy is just embellishing for comic effect, and the “bang on the head” that he mentions was simply the last in a long line of injuries that triggered his regeneration. He also has a throwaway line about never having made it to Blackpool, which he patently did in The Nightmare Fair. Presumably he just meant on telly, shattering the fourth wall…
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