It’s taken me a while but I finally am getting back into some Big Finish listening. The presence of Christmas money hasn’t hurt, and my recent forays into podcasts and audio books have helped to inspire my interest in the medium again. So I decided to carry on my consumption of Big Finish’s main range of Doctor Who audios (it doesn’t hurt that they are really cheap), but I was almost put off by the next one on the list: Zagreus.
Zagreus was Big Finish’s 50th such release, and it was also their 40th anniversary story (coming out as it did in November 2003). This must have been a big deal at the time. It was still a while before the revived series debuted, it was the culmination of a big storyline that had been building in the Eighth Doctor audios that they had been putting out, and it included appearances by pretty much all the regular actors from the TV series that Big Finish had worked with at that point.
Its also incredibly long (three episodes which add up to almost four hours of material). I don’t know what people thought of it then but now it’s seen as a bit of an overblown, overstuffed, well-intentioned mess. All this meant I wasn’t looking forward to the story at all, especially because I hadn’t enjoyed the lead-in story, Neverland, at all.
Zagreus is not in fact terrible, but one’s ability to enjoy it may depend a great deal on how you experience it. If you are not in a rush, and content to just let it play in the background while you drive, shop, or fall asleep, then it’s perfectly passable. If you are really focusing in, though, and looking for a compelling story in the epic-runtime, then it may be more frustrating.
The story picks up with the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) suffering from a huge influx of “anti-time” energy thanks to his heroic sacrifice at the end of Neverland, which has brought to life an evil and destructive personality called Zagreus, named after a mythical being whose legend may have been seeded into history from the future, after it was called into existence. Both he and his audio-only companion Charley (India Fisher) are trapped on board the TARDIS. The Doctor wrestles with his inability to control himself, while Charley is taken by a holographic avatar of the TARDIS that looks like the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) on a holographic journey to learn more about the threat they are facing, by visiting holographic representations of times in both Gallifrey’s distant past and it’s far future, as well as earth in the 1950’s. This is all so they can learn about beings from another universe called the Divergence, who want Zagreus to set them free. In each setting, Charley adopts different personas and joins in with local events, including interacting with local characters who are played by previous Doctors, and indeed look like previous Doctors because the TARDIS is actually trying to tell Charley important information.
There are a lot of nifty ideas going on in Zagreus, maybe the best of which was the idea that the TARDIS itself had become infected with anti-time and thus had developed a split personality, making it (at least in part) the Doctor’s enemy. But these ideas get bogged down by the audio’s extended length and by some increasingly muddled storytelling. It’s sort of interesting listening to Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy play characters other than the Doctor, and all their performances are good, but there are so many different scenarios that they all inevitably suffer, and eventually the whole thing wears out its welcome. When things finally reach the end, I find myself ready for something more akin to a “regular” adventure with the Eighth Doctor and Charley (a pair I do like).
Some other observations:
• There is a lot about this story which anticipates the way some of the season-long storylines would end up working on the revived TV show, a few years later. The relationship between the Doctor and Charley is key, with aspects of unrequited love and the Doctor’s willingness to do almost anything for his companion. Charley has also been the centre of a big time-paradox storyline ever since she was introduced, and its resolution just before this story started reminds me of the way Clara’s “Impossible Girl” story arc was resolved just before the 50th anniversary.
• Back in 2003, it must have been a Big Deal to have Paul McGann appearing alongside his three predecessors here. Since then, we have the similar groupings in The Four Doctors and The Light at the End, both of which I’d say are better stories than this. So hearing Zagreus now doesn’t have the same sort of appeal.
• Pretty much everyone who had appeared in Big Finish up to this point as a Doctor or a Companion shows up in this story, although most of them don’t play their familiar characters. In addition to the Fifth-Eighth Doctors (already mentioned), you’ve got Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson and John Leeson playing their familiar roles as Romana, Leela and K9, and Nicholas Courtney plays an avatar created by the TARDIS that is clearly meant to look like the Brigadier. On the other hand, the similarities with their TV or previous audio characters is not mentioned when it comes to appearances by Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), Mark Strickson (Turlough), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Bonnie Langford (Mel), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Lisa Bowerman (Benny), Anneke Wills (Polly), Caroline Morris (Erimem), Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe) and Robert Jezek (Frobisher)
• Also, Jon Pertwee appears as a very distorted version of the Third Doctor, using material recorded for the fan production Devious, re-purposes for this story.
• Don Warrington plays Rassilon (a part he had played in several audio adventures previously). I am familiar with him now as the police commissioner in Death in Paradise.
• The three episodes of this story use six different versions of the Doctor Who theme music–a different one at the start and end of each episode. Episode 1 uses the original Delia Derbyshire arrangement to start, and ends with Peter Howell’s 1980’s version. Episode 2 starts with the Trial of a Time Lord arrangement, and then ends with the Seventh Doctor’s version. And Episode 3 starts with the 1970’s Third / Fourth Doctor rendition, and then ends with Big Finish’s own Eighth Doctor’s version.