Doctor Who – “Zagreus”

Zagreus sits inside your head.

Zagreus lives among the dead.

Zagreus sees you in your bed.

And eats you when you’re sleeping.

Paul McGann is the Doctor in Zagreus.

Paul McGann (Zagreus)
India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
Peter Davison (Reverend Matthew Townsend)
Colin Baker (Lord Tepesh)
Sylvester McCoy (Walton Winkle)
Lalla Ward (Romana)
Louise Jameson (Leela)
Don Warrington(Rassilon)
Nicholas Courtney (The TARDIS/Brigadier Image)
Jon Pertwee (The Doctor)
Anneke Wills (Lady Louisa Pollard)
Stephen Perring (Receptionist)
Elisabeth Sladen (Miss Lime)
Conrad Westmaas (The Cat)
Mark Strickson(Captain McDonnell)
Sarah Sutton (Miss Foster)
Nicola Bryant (Stone/Ouida)
Caroline Morris (Mary Elson)
Maggie Stables (The Great Mother)
Bonnie Langford(Cassandra/Goldilocks)
Robert Jezek (The Recorder)
Stephen Fewell (Corporal Heron)
Sophie Aldred (Captain Duck)
Lisa Bowerman (Sergeant Gazelle)
Miles Richardson (Cardinal Braxiatel)
John Leeson (K9)

Written By: Alan Barnes and Gary Russell
Directed By: Gary Russell

Trailer –


And I thought The Holy Terror was a strange bird…

Back in late 2003, two important Doctor Who milestones were established. The first was that, after a sixteen-year hiatus, the BBC announced that Doctor Who would be returning to the airwaves. The second, while much less important to the wider world but still of major interest to Whovians, was the release of Zagreus, the resolution of an EIGHTEEN month cliffhanger set in motion by the events at end of the previous Eighth Doctor serial, Neverland. For this story, the fiftieth Who release from Big Finish, the company pulled out all the stops by enlisting as many former actors and actresses from the show’s classic television run to serve in supporting roles, from First Doctor companion Anneke “Polly” Wilkes all the way to Sophie “Ace” Aldred, the final companion with the Seventh Doctor. They even went so far as to enlist three former Doctors to serve in the cast; not as the Doctors, but instead playing vital supporting roles. With three years and forty-nine serials in their credit and a slew of veteran actors, the question was whether or not Big Finish could put together a huge spectacle, a story that would resolve the story of Eight and Charlotte Pollard in a grand and satisfying manner.

Did they?

The answer from the fandom was a firm and resounding “We have no freaking idea.”

Zagreus is both a celebration of Doctor Who and a tangle of mythology overload and continuity snarls. It’s old home week for a variety of familiar voices and a slight on the memory of one of the franchise’s cornerstones. It’s a richly dense story that goes on for way too long. It gives a new layer to the relationship between Charley and the Doctor while making listeners go “what the hell was that?!?” It’s a story firmly set in the Doctor Who vein that ends up being radically different from anything that’s come before. And in the end, it’s a story that a listener will either deeply enjoy or end up throwing across the room.

After a thankfully included eight-minute recap that catches listeners up on the eighteen month gap between Neverland and Zagreus, the story opens with the Doctor infected with a large quantity of anti-time, referring to himself as Zagreus, an evil being from a Gallifreyan nursery rhyme, and attempting to harm Charley. One loud explosion later, a confused Doctor/Zagreus, unsure of his true identity (yes, folks, the Eighth Doctor has amnesia. Again), finds himself stumbling into the TARDIS library, while Charley finds herself on Harley Street in early 20th century London, being taken by her mother to see a doctor about her “condition.” From there, the Doctor slowly makes his way through the TARDIS, finding a part of his ship where the anti-time infection is suppressed and allowing him to talk to Zagreus directly. Zagreus shows the Doctor a variety of timelines and alternate universes and states he looks forward to destroying each and every single one. Meanwhile, Charley meets the TARDIS itself, in the form of a holographic projection of the Doctor’s long-time friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. While the Doctor finds himself wandering from the suppression room and into a meeting with the Chesire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, Charley and the Brigadier/TARDIS experience a series of projections through time and space, from the British Army barracks are Cardington in the 1950’s, to a confrontation between Rassilon and vampires in the Time Lord’s secret foundry, to an amusement park at the end of the universe’s existence where animatronics fight to wake their Walt Disney-esque creator. Each projection tells one piece of a much larger and darker secret. There is another universe out there, populated by a race that Rassilon named the Divergence. The Divergence would, given enough time, have evolved to surpass the Time Lords and take their place as the most powerful species in the universe. Rassilon wouldn’t stand for another race surpassing his, so he sealed them in the other universe, trapping them inside of a chronological loop to ensure they never served as a threat to the legacy of the Time Lords. And ever since then, the Divergence have been trying to break into this universe to enact their revenge and take their rightful place at the top of the food chain.

And when Romana is woken up by K-9 because Leela has broken into her apartment to deliver her a message from Rassilon, things get REALLY weird.

When an audio’s script has been penned by Gary “Minuet in Hell” Russell, that’s usually the first warning sign that there might be some legitimate concerns. Minuet in Hell suffered from a multitude of sins, and one of the majorly glaring offensives was that the serial just had way too many plot points jammed into its bloated run time. It’s no surprise that Zagreus suffers from the same fate and then some. A story such as Zagreus, which brings to an end a huge story and character arc for the Doctor and Charley as well revealing the purpose and nature of Zagreus, who had been teased for over two years before this serial’s release, along with being a milestone release for Big Finish, deserves an epic feel. But there’s “epic feel” and then there’s “everything including the kitchen sink as well as the washer and dryer.” When one realizes Alan Barnes, writer of the first Eight/Charley story Storm Warning and also Neverland, was at Russell’s side, the script for Zagreus makes a lot more sense. I get the sense that Barnes focused more on the part featuring Eight and Charley while Russell turned his attention to everything else. The pair give us a script that, once recorded, clocks in at almost FOUR hours! It’s very hard to make any entertainment engaging for almost four hours, and sad to say, Zagreus doesn’t come close. There are interesting moments, of course, but there’s also padding. Seriously, there’s an outrageous amount of padding involved. Zagreus is much, much, much longer than it needed to be in order to tell its story. A good portion of the first episode, for example, is the Doctor wandering through the TARDIS, talking to himself and trying to figure out what is going on with his mind. It’s a series of sequences that could have easily been cut by a third or even a half of its length and not hurt the direction of the story in the slightest. Many of the other scenes throughout the story could have been trimmed as well; a line here, a small conversation there, and it soon adds to a real reduction in runtime. Zagreus simply doesn’t need to be as long as it is.

The last sentence is also true based upon the sheer number of plot points and Time Lord mythology Russell and Barnes lace through the story. Take the various settings from The Sirens of Time and multiply it by roughly, oh, a dozen or so. The TARDIS, Charley’s adventures on Harley Street, in the barracks at Carrington, in Rassilon’s foundry, in an abandoned amusement park, the Death Zone, Romana, K-9, and Leela on Gallifrey, Rassilon’s secret foundry once more…and all this wrapped up with each setting holding a unique cast of characters. And then there’s mentions of the Great Vampires, the Sisterhood of Karn, Omega, and even Van Der Kerian and the BBC. Oh, and why not throw in the beginnings of Time Lord regeneration and then try to explain Gallifrey’s chronological continuity. And most of the above is superfluous to the plot, not a vital part of it and easily could have been trimmed away without any effect on the rest of the story. I just see Russell and Barnes pulling concepts out of a hat and then trying to fit them together into a massive but uniform jigsaw puzzle. The funny thing is, underneath everything, the plot itself is pretty simple; the Doctor is infected with anti-time, the TARDIS and Charley are trying to save him, and from beyond the grave, Rassilon is once again pulling the strings to ensure the Time Lords remain triumphant. But it’s all tied up in one big ball of twine that’s wrapped and knotted tighter than anything Gordian could have come up with. Oh, and did I mention that, once again, Rassilon’s purpose and characterization are changed and rewritten for another story? The story of the TARDIS and Charley trying to save the Doctor and Rassilon’s attempts to take advantage could have been a solid story with a few embellishments, but instead Zagreus gives us vivid imagery and out-there plot locations that, instead of dazzling and engaging the listener, only serve to frustrate them.

I feel for Paul McGann as the Doctor in this story. Once again, the Doctor has amnesia, and the wild-eyed improvising is reduced for much of the story to either a scenery chewing villain or a metaphysical philosopher. I get the sense that McGann was struggling to try to find some kind of meaning with the story, but a lot of his performance really came off like he was just reading the script and going through the motions, going “what the hell” and attempting to finish Zagreus and move on to the next story, the engaging and absolutely horrifying Scherzo. Even Minuet in Hell saw McGann at least try to work with the material during that story’s troubled production. Here, he gives his weakest performance so far with Big Finish, and I really can’t find fault with him for it. The dialogue for Eight was bloated and his treatment towards both Charley and the TARDIS were so out of character, they come off as shocking for the sake of being shocking. Even when McGann is trying to come off and anguished and slipping into insanity, it just doesn’t click or engage the listener. When the story contains nearly two hours of McGann just talking to himself… it’s the worst sin a Doctor Who serial can commit. In Zagreus, the Doctor is just BORING.

I also feel for India Fisher as Charley in this story. Ever since Storm Warning, the friendship between the Doctor and Charley has been forged in fire, to the point where the two proclaim their (platonic) love during the climax of Neverland, something that completely fits with the romantic Byron figure that the Eighth Doctor cuts. Now comes a story where their entire relationship is thrown to the ground and stomped on, first by Zagreus, then by the Doctor himself. Charley spends the entire run of Zagreus on the run, under the gun, or wondering just what the hell is going on. She’s not given a chance to breathe, only to act confused and continually ask about the situation at hand, even after it’s been explained. Again, I blame the long, unwieldy script, not the actress, for how it all turns out. When Charley, near the end of the story, has to choose between two terrible choices, much as the Doctor did in Neverland, it’s the only part of Fisher’s performance that carries any emotional resonance.

But the very end of Zagreus, where the Doctor and Charley part ways…the other day, I watched the farewell scene between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. The Fourth Doctor has been told that he can’t bring Sarah Jane with him to Gallifrey, and as such he has no choice but to drop her off back on Earth. The two characters are heartbroken, of course, but instead of being emotionally overwrought and stomping about, the final words between them are simple and quiet.

Sarah Jane – “Don’t forget me.”

The Doctor – *cue wide-eyed, big Tom Baker grin. Even when sad, he’s still amazing* “Oh, Sarah. Don’t you forget me.”

What we get when the Doctor says “goodbye” to Charley at the end of Zagreus is a teenage break-up. Shouting, “it’s not you, it’s me,” and Charley flat out stating “you’re DUMPING me!” It’s a major break in characterization between the pair after all the work put into it through the previous audios, and while the pair would still adventure together for years to come, the whole scene is a mess and goes against everything other writers, including Barnes himself, have done to define their friendship.

Even though they don’t play the Doctors themselves, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy make their presence known through their supporting roles in the various holographic scenarios that Charley experiences. In Carrington, the British Army experiments with opening a gateway into another universe. Assisting with the experiments is the good Reverend Matthew Townsend, who balances his faith with a curiosity about human evolution. Davison portrays Townsend as a man of God who clings to his faith even as the evidence piles up against him. In the space of ten minutes, Davison is more believable and tells that story better than the entirety of Charles Darwin’s portrayal in Bloodtide, quiet until the chance to finally prove his beliefs once and for all drives him to fanaticism. Baker, as usual, is superb, hamming it up as the vampire Tepesh, eager to finally have his revenge on Rassilon for his species’ near destruction at the Time Lord’s hands. He takes it over the top, both in his arrogance and his anger, almost as if Baker was raging against the Time Lords as a whole…which, considering The Trial of a Time Lord, might not be too far of a stretch. McCoy embraces the child-like wonder of Walter Winky an older man who’s just a bit off with his love for children and his attraction to the ladies. It’s Walt Disney, complete with the cryogenic urban legend, turned up to 11 and then slightly underplayed by McCoy. When all three personalities end up in the Death Zone, their arguing back and forth and Charley’s exasperation with them shows more charm and chemistry than they did in the very first Big Finish story, The Sirens of Time. It was nice to see the actors together again and playing off each other, and the cameo they make later in the story as their Doctors is a great throwback touch.

The supporting cast is incredible, and to touch upon them all would take too much space. The various Who alumni are easily identifiable from their voices, from Mark Strickson’s sneering authority as Captain McDonnell to Lisa Bowerman’s wholehearted portrayal of the animal soldier Sergeant Gazelle. Even though Zagreus is full of fanwank and as much continuity as can be forced onto an mp3/audio CD, Russell and Barnes resist the urge to force familiar characters into the story, instead choosing to simply use the veteran actors themselves in minor-but-vital. It makes sense overall, as the TARDIS is showing Charley and the Doctor past residents of the TARDIS in order to guide them. All of the players do their part, adding to the story instead of distracting from it, and making the “old home week” enjoyable. The standout performances go to Nicola Bryant as Professor Stone, Lis Sladen as Miss Lime, and Bonnie Langford being absolutely terrifying as a psychotic Goldilocks that deeply disturbed me.

The primary supporting part goes to Nicholas Courtney as the TARDIS. It is always wonderful to see or hear the Brigadeir in action. Years before The Doctor’s Wife, the TARDIS chooses a familiar form to Charley; that of someone often considered one of the Doctor’s nearest and dearest friends. The Doctor uses the TARDIS to contain the anti-time explosion from the end of Neverland, and as such, Courtney’s portrayal of a TARDIS that is mysterious and a bit malevolent is the one character thread that’s interesting to follow throughout this story. He’s helpful to Charley, but disappears when she needs him the most. He’s charming and polite until he snaps at her, before becoming genial again. The reasoning behind the TARDIS’ actions are eventually explained, albeit in a weak manner…and then the Doctor, once again, acts against character with his response. Courtney is smashing and menacing as the TARDIS, but what he has to go through in the third episode is something that the Doctor would never, ever, ever do to the old girl, and is something that once again comes off as “shock for shock’s sake.” We get a resolution, but never a reconciliation, which makes what happens to the TARDIS in the upcoming Divergent Universe arc even more off-putting.

Three (four, if you want to get technical) important presences from the Doctor’s past play themselves in Zagreus. And it’s the “technical” one who comes off the best out of all of them! Has there ever been a figure who’s history and motivations have been re-written time and time again like Rassilon’s? The greatest of the Time Lords, the one who gave them time travel and regeneration, the one who led Gallifrey out of the Dark Times and into the depravities of the Time War. In the space of one audio, Rassilon goes from a mythic, all powerful figure who saves the Doctor at the end of Neverland to a mustache-twirling villain concerned only with using the Doctor as a weapon for his own ends in Zagreus. Don Warrington is a fine actor, but it’s very hard to reconcile his performance in Neverland with the one he gives here. As soon as he steps on the scene to confront Romana in his tower, the serial pretty much screams “BAD GUY!” Warrington’s given good performances before, so I’m going to chalk this one up once again to the bloody script. Rassilon was rumored to be overthrown by the Time Lords in The Five Doctors, wants to use the Doctor as a weapon against the Divergence in Zagreus, and now I have to ask how the hell he comes back in The End of Time. I think Barnes and Russell saw the Villains Trilogy of Omega/Davros/Master and decided to thrown in a serial called Rassilon, just under a different name.

Lalla Ward returns once again as the haughty, arrogant, high-handed Romana, with none other than John Leeson’s K-9 at her side. It’s very weird to hear Leeson’s voice and not see the little tin dog, but it works because we don’t have to see the “retro” 1970’s style casing and can imagine K-9 as an actual robot dog and not a cheesy prop. Romana has always, to me at least, come off as a bit of an ice queen that it takes someone like the Doctor to melt. We see the power and pride Romana holds as President of Gallifrey during her time opposite the Sixth Doctor in The Apocalypse Element. By herself, though, Romana comes off as very self-serving and smug, looking down on anyone who isn’t her. Without the Doctor to put her in her place, and in a way without Romana to put the Doctor in his place, the script for this story comes very, very close to making Romana incredibly unlikable. The only time hints of the old Romana shine through is when she’s seeing off the Doctor, saying that she’ll kill him if she sees him again. It doesn’t help when the same script problem put the noble savage Leela, played by Louise Jameson, opposite of Romana. Leela has been asked to deliver a message to Romana, which Romana immediately scoffs at…not so much the message as the messenger. With two characters who are opposites in every way, the script almost puts the two women, both intelligent and warriors in their own right, in as two people who respect one another. But the way Romana treats Leela as an idiot, and the way Leela treats Romana as stupid, means K-9 comes off at the smartest one of the bunch. For a script that prides itself on continuity and fanwank, reducing two of the strongest female characters to one-note pastiches is a huge disservice to both the fans and the actors. Luckily, the pair are the leads of the Big Finish spin-off Gallifrey, with Leela acting as bodyguard to President Romana, and the scripts and stories in that series serve them much better.

Jon Pertwee’s performance is the biggest surprise, as the producers and writers refused to accept his excuse for not showing up for the recording of Zagreus of being quite dead. During the first episode, the amnesiac Doctor is led through the TARDIS by a holographic projection of his own, one that he recognizes, even if he doesn’t quite understand what’s it’s trying to tell him. The dialogue for this project is none other than the recorded voice of the Third Doctor himself. The audio was taken from an unreleased fan-made story called Devious and added to Zagreus. Meant to show that the Doctor himself is acting as some kind of Zen-guru type in order to guide a future regeneration along the right path, it comes off solely as, once again, needless fanwank. Sure, it’s great to hear Jon Pertwee’s voice again, but the audio itself is incredibly muffled and in most cases completely garbled! Even after two listen-throughs, I could barely make out what he was saying and therefore just how what assistance he was providing the Doctor. If the audio had been cleaned up a bit so the listener could make it out, then I could understand the addition of Pertwee’s voice being a tribute. But by not being able to understand it, the added dialogue serves no purpose and therefore comes off as a bit of a slap in the face to Pertwee’s legacy, solely serving to show how awesome Gary Russell is by adding it to an already bloated story.

Zagreus could have something grand and great. In many ways, it is a celebration of classic Doctor Who told in what was then considered the “modern” style. It told a story about the Doctor’s sacrifice and its consequences, and of his companion’s efforts to save his life. And you can’t discount all the returning alumni and the roles they played. For a story meant to celebrate just over 40 years ofDoctor Who, however, the script is just too bloated with continuity, fanwank, and plot. Instead of celebrating the good times, it knots those moments together and causes the play to sink like a stone.

Synopsis – Too long, too dense, too fanwanky, and filled with too much mythology and major mischaracterizations, Zagreus is a poor ending to the first volume of Eight and Charley’s time together.

Next up – November 23rd 1963 proves to be a significant day in the lives of all eight Doctors. It’s the day that Bob Dovie’s life is ripped apart…

Tom Baker is the Doctor, Peter Davison is the Doctor, Colin Baker is the Doctor, Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor, and Paul McGann is the Doctor in…The Light at the End.

About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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