THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
Zagreus

Written by Alan Barnes Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2003
Continuity Pretty much everywhere.

Starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann.
Also featuring Sophie Aldred, Lisa Bowerman, Nicola Bryant, Nicholas Courtney, Stephen Fewell, India Fisher, Louise Jameson, Robert Jezek, Bonnie Langford, John Leeson, Caroline Morris, Stephen Perring, Miles Richardson, Elisabeth Sladen, Maggie Stables, Mark Strickson, Sarah Sutton, Lalla Ward, Don Warrington, Conrad Westmaas, Anneke Wills

Synopsis: The Doctor experiences flashbacks and mental battles as he deals with Zagreus.


Reviews

Twenty Plus Twenty by Andrew Wixon 30/11/03

It seems to me to have been too-little commented upon that Big Finish are very, very good at springing surprises on their listeners. Presumably being a small, tight-knit bunch helps, but even so - they've managed to come up with some startling plot twists in the course of their first 49 main releases and that's even before we get onto the surprise reappearances of the Master and the Nimon...

And now they've topped the lot with Zagreus. There's a photo of the groovy sleeve design in the current (at time of writing) DWM and it's not until giving my copy of the play a good examination that I appreciated the time and effort that went into posing and then (one presumes) editing the picture so as not to spoil two of the plot's big surprises. Suffice to say I nearly spilled me pint when I first opened up the pack down the pub. I will, of course, say no more about the substance of the revelations - except to say: very devious, I presume...

But anyway, all that is really just the icing on a very substantial cake, a big birthday cake for DW and its fans. Let's face it, anniversary stories haven't exactly got a fantastic track record, to say the least, and I suspect that's partly the nature of the beast - how do you summarise and celebrate the whole of Dr Who all in the space of one story? Even with a running time well on the way to four hours, Zagreus stumbles occasionally. A direct continuation of Neverland, the plot draws from and is reminiscent of several things - Inside the Spaceship, in its' revelations about the TARDIS, The Five Doctors (although not in the way you'd perhaps think), and - oddly - The Sirens of Time.

It's more than that this is another multi-Doctor story: one of Zagreus' two main story strands is very similar to Sirens, in that it comprises three linked mini-adventures that ultimately come together at the finale. These are all interesting, even if the 1950s Earth segment is a tiny bit dull and the far-future one rather affectedly surreal (reminiscent of bits of Red Dwarf and Meet the Feebles, too). They're intercut with the other strand, concerning the rather abstractedly surreal battle between the Doctor and his anti-time opposite, Zagreus. Altogether this is a tale only really distinguished by its epic length and scope - in terms of simple story, there's not much very new here to new BF listeners.

But half the appeal of anniversary stories is in the nostalgia, and Zagreus satisfies. All the featured Doctors give hugely enjoyable performances and interact winningly (and it is really so satisfying to hear McGann slot in alongside his predecessors so seamlessly, if you know what I mean), even if - doubtless inevitably - poor sound quality renders the dialogue of one of them slightly distorted. There's a huge raft of other regulars here, who, if we're honest, don't all get the material one might like. Lis Sladen, the greatest companion of them all, gets about thirty seconds - but I suppose it's all down to availability. Looking on the bright side, Louise Jameson, Lalla Ward and John Leeson are terrific together.

In the end though, Zagreus' most genuinely affected and impressive moments are the same as those in Neverland - simple, human moments of emotion between the Doctor and Charley. McGann and Fisher excel, as usual, and while I'm not necessarily wild about the new direction BF's Eighth Doctor continuity seems to be taking, one couldn't ask for better actors to execute it. Zagreus is good as a celebration of the show's past, but great at demonstrating the strength of its present and possibilities of its future.


A Review by Rob Matthews 9/12/03

At long last, the Big Finish fortieth anniversary story! The Four Remaining Doctors, if you will (Big Tommy B again avoiding the birthday bash, just like he did in 1983) - does it live up to expectations?

Well, it does, but only in the sense that your expectations for this sort of thing are pretty mixed. It could easily be indulgent tripe saturated with rehashed continuity - the words 'by Gary Russell' on the cover bode ill -, it could just as easily be yet another piece of outstanding Who from a company that couldn't have done a better job of carrying the torch. In the event, it's sort of both.

In what might be termed the Iffy column it has the Dark Tower of Rassilon, Ancient Bloody Gallifrey Again, and what appear to be snippets from Jon Pertwee's answering machine shohorned in. In the plus, it has some brilliant, ingenious surprises, it has Colin Baker and Maggie Stables, and best of all it's a direct follow-on from Neverland (the words 'by Alan Barnes' on the cover bode well), with the Doctor and Charlie's relationship proving once again central to the proceedings and ultimately pointing us in the right direction - the future, not the past. Oh, and it has John Leeson as K9!

Disc 1 proves the biggest disappointment of the three, giving an immediate sense of deflation after that astonishing cliffhanger to Neverland. It's just a lot of pissing around in the TARDIS, about as engaging as that runaround in Invasion of Time ep 6. The fairy tale surrealism grates, Paul McGann sits around talking to himself for a bloody eternity, and poor Jon Pertwee is forced to give an uncharacteristically weak performance by producers who didn't accept his pitiful excuse for not showing up at the studio ('Sorry, I'm slightly dead'). The grave-robbery is easily the worst thing about Zagreus, a product of far too much nostalgia and far too little sense. I know Pertwee is everyone's second-favourite Doctor these days (except for yours truly, with whom he ranks about eighth, though even I'm quite fond of him now), but there are limits to idolatry, you know, especially when this audio-rape just serves to insult his memory.

It's irritating at first, too, when Doctor-actors turn up as characters other than the Doctor - but Peter Davison's very good as the conflicted vicar and, come disc 2, Colin Baker is Colin-Fucking-Baker! (a new synonym of mine for fantastic) as a vampire with the hump, and then Sylvester McCoy is... in it as well, so ultimately you get used to the against-the-grain casting and start to enjoy it. And thanks to a bit of character-morphing, related to other unfolding techno-plasmo-gubbins in the plot, they do get to play their own Doctors too, in the end, for a bit.

Still, the first half of disc 1 does feel a bit like it was added on afterward to pad this adventure out to to its required XXL size. If there has to be padding, good to get it out of the way upfront I suppose.

Disc 2, as I've mentioned, is where things get moving. This is thanks largely to committed performances from Baker and Stables, which breathe previously undetected signs of life into the thing. The unlikely scenario of having Charlie wing it as Rassilon helps too, and revelations about the true activities and motives of the big man himself feel like a satisfying - dare I say it - conclusion to his saga, no matter how long overdue. I mentioned in reviewing Dead Romance a while back that I never liked the TV show's use of Rassilon from Invasion of Time and State of Decay onwards... Well, this is the most damning rejection of Rassilon-as-big-bearded-hero-and-part-time-genie as you can get. This just feels right to me because, you know, absolute power and all that, and it's entirely in keeping with master Who scribe Robert Holmes' cynical (realist?) vision of the Time Lords.

In fact after events here and in Neverland, I also reckon Lawrence Miles could sue. (Wasn't the reimagining of the Eye of Harmony as anchor-of-continuity for the entire universe his idea?). In any case it's clear by disc 3 that both BF and Miles owe a great debt to Holmes - that 'neither flux nor wither' line has unwittingly become one of the most important part of the Who mythos, and here it's used with great intelligence to create one of the most devastating, insidious forces in Who - a man who wants to impose his petty will on the universe, but who unlike Davros actually has the know-how to do so, and has done so so well that it took millennia for anyone to even realise it. It's exhaustingly large-scale stuff (again, a bit Lawrence Miles-like), but makes for another hefty nail in the Time Lord coffin. Does leave you feeling the need to come up for air afterwards, though. Like the Doctor, you'll probably never want to hear the word 'Gallifrey' again by the time you're done.

(though there's a hint that the War and all that is upcoming for Romana - honestly, they're making Lars Pearson's job too easy for him)

Performance-wise, McGann and Fisher come out on top, tied with Baker and Stables of course. Nicholas Courtney's presence is somehow reassuring, but his character - a tricky one to play, I'll grant you - not as believable as it perhaps should be. I liked him better as Wolsey... Nicola Bryant is great in part 1's 'base-not-under-siege' segment, and Louise Jameson slips back into Leela's chamois leathers with ease. As a non-Time Lord she's actually used quite logically and ingeniously as part of the plot - though there's not much clue what she's been doing on Gallifrey all these years. (Still, on the upside there's nary a mention of Andred!)

Overall this is the landmark story it wants to be, and so I do recommend it, but with a sigh of relief that we only have to go through this sort of thing every ten years, and with the proviso that you must listen to Neverland first.

When we have a birthday bash for the fiftieth, though, let's not invite the Time Lords. As the Doc rightly pointed out in Neverland, they're a right bunch of killjoys anyway.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 27/12/03

Big Finish did not want to do a traditional celebration story, in the vein of previous multi-Doctor stories. This, therefore, is a deliberate attempt to do something very different. Script editor extraordinaire Gary Russell takes on greater writing duties - with Alan Barnes called upon to carry on what he began in Neverland (and even further back in Storm Warning).

Zagreus starts with an 8 minute recap from Neverland. Bearing in mind that it's been nearly a year and a half since the last part of the 8th Doctors audio adventures, this was probably necessary, but I was keen to get to the meat of the drama. I knew Paul McGann would be equal to the challenge of a split personality - and his scenes aboard the TARDIS are quite wonderful. The surprising voices emitting from the ship was a bonus, and I had to rewind a few times just to make sure I had recognized THAT voice correctly - another surprise to go with all the others I was to find on this 3 CD story.

The length of Zagreus is a bit daunting. It comes in just under 4 hours - it's not the longest DW story ever told, but it's close. I'm rather surprised that it is only split into 3 75 minute approx episodes. Six 35 minuters would have provided a better natural break for the listener. I much prefer the old style of episode length, because I usually listen to them 1 25-30 minuter at a time. I listened to Zagreus over a whole week, in 6 different listens - and couldn't wait to put the CD in the player for the next part. It's good to space these things out. It helped me mull over the previous episode, before embarking on the next. That's the way I like to get the most of Big Finish Audios.

The fun to be had throughout is recognizing the actors/actresses playing the parts. As each Doctor arrived on the scene so a cheer went up - and I was intrigued as to how this would all come together. I knew the TARDIS was recreating images for Charley - but why previous Doctors and companions in these roles? Was it simply following patterns for what it knew? I was intrigued throughout, but I also found the new roles fascinating. I also figured that the different scenarios would combine somehow - and that question echoed around my mind for that Zagreus week.

For my money it is Peter Davison who benefitted most from these alternative personas. The Reverend is a fascinatingly complex character, and Davison carries it off with aplomb. Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy play less conventional roles, which are rather left of centre, so to speak. I couldn't really relate to either, to be honest, even though both put in fine performances (sufficiently different from their Doctor roles, but still with glimpses of the Time Lord in there). Together for the final disc, there was plenty of the witty repartee the actors enjoy together - different than usual - and for that Zagreus deserves a great deal of credit. It has done something celebratory, but different than anything else in the catalogue.

Saying that, there are plenty of references, as usual for a Gary Russell script, to other stories - particular anniversary stories. There's plenty of quotes taken directly from Five Doctors, for example. Hardly original, but keeping things nostalgic and celebratory. Most of the time these glimpses into the mass of previous Doctor Who brought a smile to my face, rather than made me sigh with unoriginality. It's essentially Doctor Who, and that will always be recognizable, and partially repetitive.

The mass of companions who turn up is a credit to Big Finish (as is the many Doctors present). It's tempting to pick out who isn't there, as always with these collaborations, but I prefer to focus on the performances of those present. A few companions are given dual roles, but most have just the one character (somebody not turned up for recording?). It's nice to hear those familiar voices, in unfamiliar roles. Sort of like when a Who actor/actress appears in some TV programme, and you beam in recognition! Of interest too is the gang of President Romana, Leela and K9. Rarely have 3 characters been more diverse - yet the whole works very nicely indeed - promising for the upcoming Gallifrey series.

The story itself would benefit (as most of these plays do) from multiple listenings, but after the initial listen I found it rather straightforward and easy to follow. I quite often find myself lost on first listen, except in the most traditional stories. There was a few confusing bits and pieces though - The anti-time strand, with its Gallifreyan legend mumbo jumbo left me scratching my head. When we were in familiar territory (army barracks, Death Zone) I was more comfortable - and there's plenty of that. The separate strands of the story (as represented by the Doctor actors) are extremely diverse. For my money the Davison strand works the best, but it is the one most identifiable to our world. The C Baker strand is full of Gallifreyan mythology, that stuff takes me a while to get my head round. The McCoy strand is the most bizarre, and really the only part of the whole thing that doesn't work too well (I just hate this talking animals stuff - hated Watership Down!).

Pulling all these strands together is Charley and the Brigadier. A most appropriate guide the Brig is too, and one of the few playing his usual character. Charley and the Brigadier interact superbly. Special mention must go to India Fisher who I think has the biggest part of the whole play. Again she brings Charley to the top of the companion popularity tree. With sheer charm and downright likeability, she carries the story. Charley, and India Fisher, is one of the main reasons I enjoyed Zagreus so much.

I'm looking forward to listening to Zagreus again. On the whole it's a different, but fine, celebration of Doctor Who. 8/10


Happy birthday! by Joe Ford 10/1/04

Oh boy have I been looking forward to this one! Can any of you remember that moment eighteen months ago when Neverland finished, when the Doctor slapped Charley and declared, "I have become Zagreus!"? I was numbed by such a brilliant cliffhanger. And every time listen afterwards I still got the same goosebumps. It truly is one of the best shock moments in Who history. Making us wait all this time to hear the conclusion was cruel but understandable, I bet sales of Zagreus will go through the roof! My boyfriend Simon brought me the disc the other week and I excitedly put my headphones on.

Aural garbage would be an understatement.

But before I have fun dissembling this nightmare of an 'anniversary' story I should mention the few redeeming features in Zagreus. Pretty much all the performances are good and as Rob Matthews pointed out in his far too kind (but we've already debated this!) review of the story with Colin Baker and Maggie Stables adding that bit more than everyone else. India Fisher (God bless her) wades through all the muck she's given with that infectious enthusiasm she is famous for and makes Charley as delightful as ever.

Plus I was thrilled (but not shocked since she appears on the back cover) to hear Louise Jameson back in action as Leela, one of my all time favourite companions. Her lines are embarrassing and frustratingly overdone but she still manages to imbue Leela with some pluck and aggression. Her partnership with Romana is one of the few things the story gets right, Leela's woman of action complimenting the patronising Time Lady. It is the only thing from the story I am glad is being followed up, this new series Gallifrey featuring these two should be a giggle considering their chemistry here.

Even smaller performances like Lisa Bowerman's Sergeant Gazelle, Bonnie Langford's Goldilocks and Lis Sladen as Ms Lime are great fun, even if the roles are atrociously written the actors acquit themselves well and struggle to find something fun for us to listen to. Praise to Nicola Bryant whose Professor Stone is a laugh riot, I spent the whole day at work screaming "I don't care if the whole of bloody England hears it!"

Unfortunately the genuinely appealing performances cannot excuse the fact that this is one of the worst ever scripts to be written under the Doctor Who banner, slipping between Time and the Rani (which is infinitely more fun than this!) and The Underwater Menace! Poor old Alan Barnes, he has been torn down from his cloud of greatness and forced down to Gary Russell's level of mediocrity. I honestly thought He Jests at Scars would be the all time worst we would hear from Russell but he has managed to scrape the bottom of the barrel this time.

Disc one is the worst thing Big Finish have ever released. I was so excited to listen to this and within fifteen minutes I was snoozing like a tabby. For some reason Big Finish seems to think that bigger means better and Russell and Barnes have spread this rather thin story over 220 incredibly long minutes. Thought Silver Nemesis was padded? Geez, this story has humongous sections of nothing but padding and disc one is the worst offender. It wouldn't be quite so bad if we knew what the hell was going on but when disc one finishes we are still none the wiser, the Doctor has spent forty minutes babbling to himself, Charley and the TARDIS are forced to rub shoulders with Britain's finest from the War but there is no reason for any of it. The story splits off all the time so characters can chat away about the plot but it never confirms anything. Charley is comepletey in the dark until the middle of disc two and so are we and listening to inexplicable ramblings (and not very entertaining ones at that) for over an hour is not fun.

All that potential from the end of Neverland wasted. It is a crime, really it is. The first disc also has the added insult of Jon Pertwee popping up and giving advice to Zagreus/the Doctor. An appalling insult to the great Pertwee's character, we cannot even hear a word he is saying it so distorted! To think this is his last ever performance in Doctor Who is terrible disservice to a man who has provided the show with some of its greatest moments. How Gary Russell thought this was anything but an affront is beyond me. It contributes nothing to the story and is just another of there attempts to be 'cute' (like putting Colin in a scene with Maggie, Bonnie and Nicola and saying "Right now we're all here..." sigh).

Worse still they manage what I would have thought was impossible, to make Paul McGann's 8th Doctor boring. I love this Doctor; between Big Finish and BBC books they have created a wonderful character and easily my second favourite after Colin Baker's sixth Doctor. But having to listening to the Doctor walk around the TARDIS mostly talking to himself is surely the dullest thing they could have done with this sinister Zagreus character. He strolls about, Alice in Wonderland-like and meets people who teach him important lessons. He doesn't even meet up with Charley until the end of the second disc, that's over two hours of talking away about discovering himself. Jesus, tedium at its finest. I was tempted to skip all the McGann bits and head onto the Charley stuff, which at least had old faces cropping up in new roles. If they had excised all these endless monologues down to perhaps one or two I think the story would be at least a third shorter and much more accessible. I envisaged Zagreus heading out into the universe and causing trouble, Charley and Romana having to stop him and clean up the mess, you know some REAL drama instead of people just talking about it.

Roll the words Gary Russell around your mouth a few times and what do you expect to taste? Continuity, continuity, continuity. I am sick of it. Absolutely sick! Even season twenty wasn't this bad! Big Finish has been so up Doctor Who continuity's arse this year and it is high time somebody put a stop to it. Yes it is fun to OCCASIONALLY be reminded of the TV series and its glory moments but after this, He Jests at Scars, Davros, Master, Omega, Shada, The Wormery, every single Benny audio drama I would be pleased to have ten years of completely original stories and never hear the words Skaro, Valeyard and Rassilon ever again. There was one scene in disc two where I was maddened with the continuity, three characters stand around discussing Gallifrey and in a quick fire succession manage to bring up everything we've ever learnt about the planet. Is this supposed to be funny? Clever? Maybe all the continuity in this story would be impressive if you hadn't spent the last twelve months wallowing in it already. In no ways, especially with the continuity, is Zagreus the 'special' it is claiming to be.

Bloody Gallifrey! Did the BBC Books get rid of that accursed planet for nothing? Do you guys really want more stories set on this incredibly dull planet? The Doctor spent his childhood desperately trying to get away from this tedious backwater and now I can see why! So am I! I honestly believe giving the Doctor a huge backstory, a planet and its corrupt rulers has ruined the wonderful mystery that surrounded the first two Doctors. It was never the same again after The War Games, each production team adding more and more until we reach the New Adventures who give the Doctor a home and a family... ENOUGH! The whole idea is to have an enigmatic character wondering the universe righting wrongs, this is why the BBC 8th Doctor is such a joy these days, all that Gallifrey baggage torn away and he is a magical, mysterious and engaging character again.

So even if we do have to put up with all these people trying to give the Doctor a fixed identity it would help that the revision they make are imaginative or clever but Zagreus takes entirely the wrong route. Rassilon, wonderful as a terrifying mythical figure, is reduced to a stereotypical bad guy (albeit the BIGGEST BADDEST bad guy ever, apparently). Zagreus reveals Rassilon's 'plans' for the universe and what they had been all along, stretching back through the years to the time of Omega. Oh Whoopedido, a grand scheme to manipulate and control the universe. Never seen that before then. He who seemed all powerful in Neverland has been reduced to a one-dimensional cliché and not a very interesting one at that. A shame, he was the only thing about Gallifrey I liked.

And even worse, much, much worser than the pointless dribble from disc one is the premise of 'Bad TARDIS'. Was that you Russell? What an appalling concept from any angle. The TARDIS is one thing you just don't piss around with; it is out one constant in the Doctor's travels, that trusty old blue box. But by giving it a personality that speaks and one who 'betrays' the Doctor to Rassilon because he almost blew it up in Neverland, well that is just a step too far. We are forced to endure horrid scenes of the TARDIS (ably played by Nick Courtney despite the obscenity of it all) having a go at the Doctor and explaining why he hates him. Oh bleah. Who honestly wants to hear that? Add in the scene where the TARDIS maliciously starts throwing out the Doctor's collected treasures just to hurt him and you have a story that betrays everything Doctor Who has built up up to this point. It's just wrong, sick and I never want to hear it again. They have taken one of the greatest (timeless) concepts of the show and cheapened it, turned the gloriously imaginative TARDIS into a back stabbing bully. Unthinkable.

I was astonished to hear Gary Russell saying in his interview in the Living Legend CD that at the time The Five Doctors was acceptable as a way of celebrating the anniversary but that people expect something a bit more sophisticated these days. This? Sophisticated? Explain how? Instead of having all the Doctors and companions come together for a jolly romp (which he criticised) you have all of the Doctor Who actors come together for an overlong, childish 'romp'. Yeah, well sophisticated man. Putting down The Five Doctors is a bit rich two when one of your shock (read: groan) moments was the sudden arrival in the Death Zone! And then three very Doctor like characters fight together to get the possessed 8th Doctor back... Terrance Dicks should get on the phone for this blatant plagiarising!

And besides this whole idea of Doctor Who actors all bunching together and playing new roles would be quite a treat had each of them not done it a couple of times already. Bowerman (Whispers of Terror), Sladen (Walking to Babylon), Anneke Wills (The Sandman), Maggie Stables (Just War), Colin Baker (Birthright)... the list goes on and on. It was fun the first time but its all a bit trying now. Oh well maybe I should lighten up considering it is Who's 40th but if this is how Big Finish want to celebrate it I am not sure I agree with their methods.

The story has other flaws that must be addressed before all the other fans gush on about how wonderful this almost pornographic continuity is. The direction is all over the place, some of the dialogue is un-hearable and yet others are gripping and well played. For once Gary does give the important moments some real oomph but at other points he lets the actors ramble on so bloody fast it is impossible to comprehend a word they are saying (probably not a bad thing). He's got all the sound FX about right (although I could have done without the Death Tower fog horn of death!) but the music is so repetitive. There were about four different snatches of music, all of them fairly good but they are repeated ad nauseum throughout the story to a point where you're thinking "If I hear that 'dink dink dink' comedy music played once more I'll chuck myself out that window!" Andy Hardwick is a sterling composer but he clearly hasn't has enough time to write enough music for the entire twelve hour length (he exaggerates). He is so desperate he steals bits of music from his earlier Project: Lazarus.

Plus the whole section at Mr Winkie's fun palace (or whatever it's called) is such an insult to the memory of Gallifrey I could not believe this was the best they could come up with. A fairground taking residence on the greatest most powerful planet known to man! What is Gary Russell on?

To say I was not impressed would be an insult to anyone who has managed to reach this far into my rant. The story gets bogged down in too much extraneous material, the science involved is ludicrously complicated and the continuity bristles from every branch. It is a bloody awful script whatever way you look at it and instead of reminding me of how great Doctor Who is it has had precisely the reverse effect. This is how low Doctor Who can sink when it tries to pander to its fans, to achieve too much, to push the boundaries too far and when there is nobody with a critical eye who realises just how much fanwank is being produced. Disciplined script editor urgently required!

Plus I never, ever want to hear that Zagreus rhyme ever again. Talk about being beaten to death with it!


Some thoughts arising from Zagreus (or, Stop me if you think you've heard this one before) by Phil Ince Updated 12/4/04 Originally 18/3/04

Emptiness, emptiness, all is emptiness ... there is no new thing under the sun.

Donkey's years ago, I played The Smiths' newly-released Bigmouth Strikes Again to a friend. Insanely, it left him cold.

How could this be?, I wondered. And he quoted:

"If you like a band, they've got character. If you don't like a band, they all sound the same."

So, if:

"Love's not love that alters where it similarity finds"?

then - do I not like Doctor Who?

Is spotting and plotting the same stories being told - over and over again - just the next phase? An ascent or a descent into an introverted, self-referential universe of fiction?

When I first heard Zagreus at the time of its release, I was roundly impressed and voted it a 6 on the delightful timelash site.

OK, the "Rassilon is really the most wicked man in the universe" is disappointingly Saward-ian; the usual slack, paranoid downer in the (for want of a better word) 'style' of Fat Eric. But overall Zagreus seemed to me to be full of diverse invention and complexity.

In retrospect, that was only to be expected.

It appears to derive much of its style and substance from many people and most particularly Lawrence Miles.

Although the audio version is called Zagreus, this is substantially a re-issue of a prose form from 1999 called Interference - Book One: Shock Tactic.

Although aware of them, I hadn't read Miles' Interference books and the Compassion/War arc that follows but having done so by chance in March 2004, I find that Barnes and Russell appear to have come up with a startling number of similarities.

What's the message? What gives?

Can it be suggested that Zagreus is plagiaristic? Can it also be suggested that one man's plagiarism is another man's re-telling of a myth? It seems so. Does it matter?

Let's explore the plagiarism. Together. Coming?

Since continuity reference is historically a prime feature of the authors' writing, knowledge of DW's substance and detail is demonstrated and proven by the authors themselves; such sources are the basis of their writing.

The next question is, Were the authors aware of the detail and substance of Interference specifically? Do Miles' books constitute a prominent entry in the DW mythology and therefore is it reasonable to assume that the authors of Zagreus were aware of Interference and the War? What's the balance of probability?

If an author's knowledge in a field is great enough that the knowledge is routinely exploited and displayed, doesn't a very heavy obligation automatically fall?; an obligation to guarantee that he or she is not plagiarising those sources in giving out others' thoughts and writings as their own?

I'd suggest it can be construed that the responsibility has not been met. Whether or not the plagiarism is intentional - conscious or unconscious -, Zagreus is an assemblage of pre-existing style and substance given a collective name.

It doesn't present itself as a re-telling of pre-existing myth.

It shrouds itself in secrecy before release. Why?

To keep the Uncle Winky/Walt Disney sections under wraps? That can be the only explanation because the rest has very clearly, effectively and memorably been done before.

If you want to stimulate deja vu in yourself, listen first to Zagreus and then read Chapter 12 of Interference - Book One, Faster than the Speed of Dark.

If you haven't read it but have heard The Big Z, does any of this look familiar?

Throughout the first Interference book, Sam experiences a form of induced hallucination wherein people with whom she is familiar are not simply what they seem and she comes to recognise these as guides, using their enactments to piece together what is going on.

At page 203, there is a chapter subtitled "Ancient Gallifrey: The Mini-Series".

Sam is 'shown' a succession of events on which she observes:

SAM : This is ancient history, isn't it? Back before the Time Lords were Time Lords.

Rassilon is shown to her - through a sort of interactive, self- conscious drama where figures both are and are not the people they seem to be; it's something more than the holographic ploy of Zagreus but it is an unreal representation of events in Time Lord history and Rassilon's encounter with ... well read this.

Rassilon is attempting to create the black hole on which time travel will depend. However ...

... when the star is detonated...

QUOTE: "We hear a howling, screaming noise ... worryingly, the screaming continues" - the Divergents, anyone?

THE ENGINEER: Something's wrong ...

RASSILON: It's unstable, tell the rest of the ships to ...

THE ENGINEER: No. No, it's not unstable. There's ...

[A look of sheer disbelief crosses his face]

THE ENGINEER: ... life signs. (The arrival in the Antiverse from Neverland, anyone?)

Scene 24: The Gallifreyan Ship

[The screeching sound continues, almost drowning out the words of the two men on the bridge] - (Zagreus - end of part 1 and after; the Divergents, anyone?)

THE ENGINEER: They're screaming. Rassilon, the Faction was right. These are ... Paradox creatures ... (Celestis/Anti-Time, anyone?)

[The scream seems to fill up the Universe, the howl of something that's been trapped since the beginning of time ...] (the Divergents, anyone?)

MARK: I'm saying the Cold isn't a thing. It's an anti-thing. (The Anti-verse, anyone?)

THE ENGINEER: There, that's the last one ... we've cut off their way in. (Rassilon in Zagreus sealing up the Divergents in 'their' universe, anyone?)

I'd suggest it can be construed that the responsibility has not been met.

A rider to this can be given, though, and my own ignorance here allows it.

Perhaps DW in the last 10 years has become so self-referential, perhaps its audience - of which its authors form a part - is so tolerant of repetition within it - indeed desirous of repetition, that a bald duplication of the substance and detail of one work in another is unremarkable, acceptible and even to be expected.

[NB If Interference is republished at some stage in the future, perhaps it ought to show a prominent, capitalized 'WARNING' on its covers: "SPOILERS for ZAGREUS"?]

Does it matter?

I'd argue it this way.

For my money, if Zagreus DOES constitute plagiarism, then it really doesn't matter, it's just a lesson learned. My ignorance of Who mythology misled me to suppose that Zagreus contained elements which were original but it appears - to say the least - to be a well-trodden path.

If Zagreus DOESN'T constitute plagiarism, then it might matter a lot.

It matters because, if it doesn't amount to plagiarism by the standards of Who-Land (TM), then what on Earth does?

How repetitious is it possible for a thing to be and still be regarded as new?

How close to identical can two things be and yet still be seen by their listeners or readers as different?

It doesn't matter that it's unoriginal and derivative in so many ways - events, authorial devices, names, motivations and even sound effects! -, a lack of invention just makes it standard poor stuff.

What matters is that it's so much a repetition in these ways and yet its audience seem to regard it as new.

Genuinely, that startles me.

There should have been another way? Well, there is ...

Here's a different interpretation of the apparant or self-evident similarities between Zagreus and the War.

I can imagine Paul Magrs enjoying this play.

A story (Z) is a repetition of another story (I) which story (I) is the dramatic realisation/representation of a philosophical and media-cultural theory (MCT) propounded in the original (I) and by doing so fulfilling the prophecy of the theory (MCT).

Fiction as a literary equation. It's probably been done before but then - the equation itself predicts that.

Perhaps Big Finish are presenting us with a very elaborate and intellectually-aware 'literary' joke?

In a preface to Interference, Miles quotes and paraphrases J G Ballard and Marshall McLuhan.

Ballard suggests - Miles tells us - that "lives (will be/are) so ruled by fiction and advertising culture ... that original thought is no longer possible".

Just so. Zagreus therefore can be construed as a representation by repeptition in fiction of the Ballard idea. By seeming to repeat Interference/The War in Zagreus, Russell and Barnes are demonstrating to us the truth of Ballard's proposition.

Beyond that, by their repetition, they're fulfilling its prophecy. Clever stuff ...

... huh?

With dazzling and matchless irony, the authors of Zagreus are showing us that Miles is right; that "original thought is no longer possible", and that the "entire (Who) culture will collapse in on itself".

In writing Zagreus, they further the progression of (Who) culture towards a "single ultradense unit of (Whovian) experience".

I'd argue that if writers have a sufficient experience and awareness of original material to be 'influenced' by it, that they have an obligation as writers to self-awareness in their own writing and to create rather than simply restate it. Because otherwise, frankly, what's the point? Why write?

And, why read? Why listen?

There's a lot to enjoy in Zagreus and - despite what must be an unpromising prospect to you if you've heard the wretched Neverland - I'd urge you to give it a hearing. There are some lovely performances.

But it strongly resembles Interference, stylistically and otherwise.

It even resembles Interference's sound effects - which, I concede, is an original notion to me.

An audio drama so indebted to its antecedent in prose that even the sounds it makes are the same.

From Intereference... or the script of Zagreus?

QUOTE: "We hear a howling, screaming noise

[The scream seems to fill up the Universe, the howl of something that's been trapped since the beginning of time ...]


A Typical Anniversary by Phil Fenerty 6/4/04

Oh Great Prophet Zarquon! Where do you start reviewing a story like Zagreus!? Almost any meaningful review is going to include some kind of spoiler. There is over three hours' worth of material, spread over 3 CDs, with huge chunks of plot draped across them all, so that any discussion of Disc 3 will tend to reveal some of the story elements from Discs 1 and 2.

The best comparison we can make is with The Five Doctors. Big Finish have employed all the Doctors they could get their hands on, along with every companion who's played opposite them on the CDs (The notable exception to this is Katy Manning, who wisely keeps clear of the whole thing). There is another comparison to make to The Five Doctors, too (hint - pre-credits sequence). The end result is a badly over-written and flabby set of CDs which are only made this long because of the sheer weight of talent employed behind the microphone. CDs 1 and 2, especially, suffer in this regard, and serious consideration should have been given to eliminating some of the surplus material to create a leaner, fitter story.

Admittedly, the scenarios presented on the first two discs do allow for Messrs Baker, Davison and McCoy to be present at the denoument, but the whole rationale behind this is horribly convoluted and contrived. However, given Mark Strickson's terrible performance in the first mini-story (did they put his read-through on the disc by mistake?) and how wasted Bonnie Langford is in the Colin Baker segment, eliminating some of this stuff would be no bad thing.

Plus we gets masses of Gallifreyan lore liberally dripping across Discs 2 and 3, none of which really matters and could have been excised to improve the pace of the story no end.

In the plus-column, we get great performances from Paul McGann and India Fisher. McGann's portrayal of the schizophrenic Doctor/Zagreus combination is superb, injecting the right mixture of anguish and insanity into the competing personalities. Nichola Bryant's role in the Davison mini-saga is superb, allowing her to create a gung-ho British scientist and making me look twice at the cast list to be certain that I had read it correctly!

Bonnie Langford (in the Disneyland-influenced McCoy section) as a homicidal Goldilocks impresses greatly, illustrating (once again) what a fine actress she is. To her credit, she avoids allowing the character to relapse into the Violet Elizabeth Bott character she portrayed in the Just William TV show in her formative years. Her role is well-played and demands serious recognition.

And, combining well against all expectation, Lalla Ward, Louise Jamieson and John Leeson provide an entertaining trio as Romana, Leela and K-9. The exchanges between all three are excellent, with Romana coming out only just on top against the other two.

There are problems with the story. We get a reprise of the conclusion to Neverland, however it is reminiscent of the old Republic Films cliffhangers: at the end of the episode, you'd see Flash Gordon's spaceship crash in flames; the next week you see an extra shot cut in showing him donning a jet pack and flying from the doomed rocket. We have just the same effect in this section and it feels like a huge cheat.

Also, on Disc 1, Doctor Zagreus receives ephemeral help via a definite Voice from the past. This was a genuine surprise, although the illustrations on the CD box give a hint as to what is to come. However, in their haste to include this Voice, Big Finish have managed to find material of dubious quality which is barely audible above the rest of the soundtrack. Even the script makes reference to this! Things improve with the appearance of the Cat (Conrad Westermass in fine form), making reference to a character from the inspiration for Disc 1, a scientific thought experiment and the Cat's Cradle trilogy of Virgin NAs.

Baker, Davison and McCoy each get about half a disc on their own (with Charley popping up in a variety of roles along the way) to showcase their talents. Unfortunately, only Davison's segment (Strickson aside) is particularly engaging, and could have been an audio-format story in its own right. Colin Baker draws the short straw, being forced to indulge Barnes and Russell in an overlong examination of Gallifreyan mythology (which handily explains a minor plot point from the Davison segment). McCoy features as an entertainingly dotty theme park owner. His segment is by far the most redundant, and its premise shows little promise. Of all these sections, this is the one which could most easily be discarded.

In the manner of The Sirens of Time, all three "Doctors" combine together on the final Disc to assist Charley in determining the nature of the threat and bring it to its resolution. Charley plays a pivotal role in the climax of the story, the relationship between her and McGann's Doctor being put under the microscope. As with Neverland, this is the strongest part of the story, the way in which these two souls interact. Their actions at the end of the disc are both in character and consistent with what has gone before. The sacrifices that both characters make are moving without being over-sentimental.

Oh yes, and there's also a neat game which Russell and Barnes have slotted in: Spot the Quote. Baker, Davison and McCoy can often be heard uttering lines from other Doctor Who stories in subtly different contexts - collect the set! Another over-indulgence the story could do without.

So, what we find is a bloated, soggy mess with a few entertaining nuggets slotted in - a typical Doctor Who anniversary story, then (c.f. The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, Dimensions in Time). The highlights would be the second half of Disc 1 (the Cat plus the Davison mini-saga), anything with Romana and Leela in it, and the resolution of Disc 3. The remainder of the "celebration" smacks of padding and fails to engage the interest sufficiently.

The story wraps up with the Doctor facing a new, uncertain future (in a similar manner to the way The Ancestor Cell starts a whole new blank canvas). But on its own, this does not justify the previous 3 CDs worth of over-indulgence.

Overall: entertaining in parts, irritating in others, padded throughout.


It's A Better Ending Than I Ever Got - And That's The Truth by Ewen Campion-Clarke 21/6/04

After a knock-out second series of adventures for the new Doctor, a brilliant finale left us in silence for eighteen months before the Time Lord's adventures continued. But instead of lots of reasonable adventures, it was all in one indigestible bulk that cost a lot to buy in the shops and came with its own special cover like no other story in Doctor Who. The Doctor was good, bad, twisted and doomed at any given point, his companion missing assumed dead, faces from the past and future colliding like no tomorrow. And, as always, the Time Lords were being nasty and screwing up the universe, our hero losing any faith he still had in his own people. He faced the ultimate enemy and escaped barely, managing to slide past the menagerie of characters in the story and slide off in the TARDIS - a reassuringly traditional end to a story that was anything but. However, forces behind the scenes were working. When the Doctor next returned, he was no longer the Doctor we knew, mind and body changed as he entered a realm of adventures that did not even acknowledge this story existed, let alone exploit the fact. Fandom rounded on the story, and Doctor Who marched on with a new Doctor, a new companion, and a new agenda.

Anyway, enough about The Trial of a Time Lord. Onto Zagreus.

There is a sense of history repeating which is amusing considering this story bends itself inside out to ensure no other story is like it. Ironically, it evolves into a distorted mirror version of The Five Doctors, a story the authors were desperately trying to avoid when they commissioned this anniversary-themed story featuring most Doctors, most companions and, of course, the Brigadier and Rassilon.

But love Zagreus or loathe it, is there any other story in Doctor Who that so successfully became something you didn't see coming? Fans across the net had effectively written the story from the moment it was announced. Obviously, Zagreus would try and free the Daleks from their trap and use them to conquer the universe, the anti-time infection threatening the remaining Doctors, who would unite to fight him in lots of different time periods. Several hours into the story, we see the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors confront the possessed Eighth Doctor. For a minute. And then they get skewered and disappear like an extra in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bet you weren't expecting that.

A bit of personal history. When I got Zagreus, I had just finished work - as in, "That's it, back to the dole queue" - on Christmas Eve and was wrapping presents and dubbing the ads out of Farscape episodes as the hour of Christmas approached. I suggest to anyone who is able to try this. It makes Zagreus infinitely easier to enjoy, as demented plot twist piles on bewildering acting cameo and Ben Browder mouths along to India Fisher's dialogue. And, when you get really tired, a strange sense of acceptance passes over you. The sacred cows slaughtered every few minutes stops infuriating the fan in you, until you simply shrug and say "Hey, didn't see that one coming," if anything at all.

The strange, dream-like story lends itself well to this mindset. The Doctor-Zagreus-Jekyl-Hyde-Gollum-Nutter-Talking-To-Himself-In-Different-Voices explores the TARDIS while Charley wanders through ghostly realm populated by the JNT era, saying the occasional witticism but are clearly on their own quests. Despite the huge 20-minute Previously, On Doctor Who sequence which sums up Neverland, this story has little to nothing to do with Neverland. Sentris, Vansell, the Neverpeople, all have had their four episodes of glory and no longer affect our heroes. Even the amazing cliffhanger ending ("I AM NOT THE DOCTOR! I AM ZAGREUS!" in case you had forgotten) is all but forgotten. There, it appeared the Doctor had been effectively killed, his body possessed. Now, he was simply the less lucid of the pair as he wanders around, alternating between begging for help and snarling in hate.

Charley has also apparently forgotten the cliffhanger, and is utterly bewildered by what is happening, so the Brigadier turns up and explains things. Again. Except, it's not the Brigadier, just the TARDIS using an old holiday snap. Like a dream, they are superimposed in a WW2 science project, then a Gary Russell Fan Wank Before Time Remembered, and then the Revenge of Disneyworld, with Charley appearing to others as an army driver, Rassilon, and Mickey Mouse. True, summarizing like this makes it seem silly, but in the right frame of mind, each bizarre transformation makes more and more sense. The moment when the Doctor apparently breaks down the entire fourth wall completely by chatting about the BBC and Monty Python when being attacked by a Gilliamation should either have you laughing out loud, swearing violently, or perhaps both. But, like many things in Zagreus, the rules are suspended.

Finally, the plot coalesces and the story effectively kick-starts itself all over again as Romana and Leela are drawn to the aftermath of Neverland and the threat of Zagreus. The last disc is the more enjoyable as it has a point to it rather than a rambling stream of consciousness. To give the authors their due, writing down such a thing and performing it in the spirit it was (presumably) intended is a clever trick - but they do have plenty of other stories to do this trick in, and Unbounds for everything else. Jamming it into Zagreus seems like the quickest route to expand a four-episode story onto three whole discs. But, being fair, it gives such a dreamlike feel to the remainder that it feels perfectly reasonable for the TARDIS to turn nasty, Rassilon to reveal his true colours, for the police box to be melted down into a sword, and Charley teaming up with a vicar, a vampire and popular children's entertainer to save the created universe.

Then comes the moment when the Doctor, fighting off Zagreus, pleads for Charley to kill him. It's different to the situation in Neverland in several ways: not only are the roles reversed, but Charley's life was a RISK to the universe, one that the Doctor could conceivably find an alternative solution for (and, indeed, did); but also, while Charley made sure the Doctor knew she was at peace and ready to die, the Doctor manipulates her, winding her up so she does what she must. Thanks to the anything-goes atmosphere, the sudden, brief reunion of the last four Doctors before the regeneration starts seems perfectly sensible.

Ah-hah, the collective fan consciousness thinks in a range of emotions covering "calm" to "YOU CAN'T DO THAT YOU MAD BASTARDS!", this is where the story ends. Zagreus is gone, so is Paul McGann, Charley is off, and we'll return to the story when they've cast the new Doctor. The fact that there are four more stories set after this one does not immediately strike. After all, Big Finish have established that this little universe of theirs is just that: theirs. The BBC books, the Novellas, Death Comes to Time, the DWM comic strips, have their own continuities. If they want to regenerate the Doctor now, they have no bloody reason not to (bar contractual obligations, of course): we have the actors behind the NA range and the like appearing in this story, but that doesn't mean a thing. Nevertheless, there seems a slight homage to the EDA range as the Eighth Doctor deliberately creates a paradox surrounding his own death scene.

In the time it takes to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, the world is set to right. The nasty Rassilon is gone, the Doctor is back to normal, his companions are safe and are swapping stories. If the insanity before was The Five Doctors, it switches to The War Games. The Doctor is being exiled to one point in space and time for "good", losing all his companions and his ability to travel in time, and the fate should he try to change this will be very bad. Bet you didn't see that coming. Charley suddenly finds herself surplus to requirements in a scene that mirrors the usual departure for the companion: the Doctor heading back to the TARDIS for another adventure, only to be shocked that his best friend wants to stay here. There's a nice ambiguity over the Doctor's bitter farewell - does he really mean it? Is it a con to get her to go? Or is Zagreus closer to the surface than he'd like to admit?

Due to a little temporal paradox I'm sure the Doctor would find amusing, I got a load of "exclusive" behind-the-scenes stuff on Zagreus some months after I'd listened to the damn thing and was amazed at the DWM CD, as it seems to reveal crucial bits - the nature of the Brigadier, the truth behind "the Death Zone", the cliffhanger to episode one... Ah, well. That's another story. One thing not blabbed was the use of other Who themes - the Hartnell version and the Davison version open and close the first installment, the Trial of a Time Lord version and the McCoy version doing the second, and rounded off by the traditional theme and the McGann Mk 2 on the final episode.

Zagreus is exhausting by any standards, and, if you were to listen to this directly after Neverland, you can only sympathize with Charley, who is stressed to breaking point by the end of Disc 3. Her infiltration of the TARDIS is slightly freaky, like a psycho-stalker-fan refusing to be dumped by a boyfriend, but, after all that, who's to judge how anyone would react. Certainly, she's more sane than the man she loves, who is chatting quite happily to himself - four times over. Now, probably the one spoiler than deserved to be that: Jon Pertwee stars in Zagreus. Quite a feat, considering they can't get Tom Baker, who is, to be honest, a lot more mobile and chatty. Confined mainly to the first episode, Pertwee's contribution is a strange, guru-type guide to the dazed Paul McGann, using some snatches from Devious, the most amazing Doctor Who story you're most never likely to see. Frankly, I was quite happy with this, and could gloss over the fact that Barnes and Russell must have sweated blood trying to get a conversation out of these soundbites. I could not, however, cope with how muffled and unintelligible the dialogue is - why not use a decent TV story soundtrack? Also, the spoiler is slightly wrecked by the picture of the Third Doctor on the inside packaging - as if proving to the purchaser that this tri-CD monstrosity is worth their time only after they've opened it.

Is Zagreus a story I'd want to celebrate 40... long... years... of Doctor Who? Its massive cast list - Bonnie Langford appearing as three separate characters, has the world gone MAD?? - shows the history for at least twenty of them, and the rest is alluded to by the wonderful Doctor Who art of making a story by ransacking the works of popular fiction. 40 years ago, everything was turned upside down when we saw just what an old man was hiding inside his police box. Today, everything is turned upside down when we see that the sanctity of time and Rassilon himself, is as corrupt and evil as anything we've seen in between those two points. Zagreus' main purpose, however, seems to be a story so bad that the Doctor would rather take a running jump into a dimension gate than suffer Zagreus 2: Attack of the Killer Neverperson. And so, what are we left with?

A lonely, kind but vaguely sinister man travelling through a whole new universe in a police box bigger on the inside than out, accompanied with the only person in the universe that shares his starting point. Zagreus has reacted the Doctor Who universe before it first landed on Skaro, a fresh start for Big Finish, Doctor Who and heck, just the Doctor himself. For that alone, surely can't we give it an even break?


A Review by John Seavey 1/9/04

Just listened to it over the weekend (mostly in airports), and...

...there's a good story buried in there somewhere, I think, but unfortunately "buried" is exactly the word for it. Buried under a mound of padding, inside a coffin of forced symbolism, with a layer of sodding fanwank and, above all, a tombstone of muddy plotting that puts the whole thing in the realm of Dead On Arrival.

The padding is really the worst part, and I think it's what everyone noticed. (Certainly it's what all the negative reviews focused on.) There's lots of it, notably the entire first disc; the Doctor and Charley both lose their memories apparently just so we can re-recap the events of Neverland, which was pretty padded itself. The Doctor spends the entire first two discs wandering around the TARDIS gurning to himself, while Charley gets various scenes thinly connected to the plot demonstrated to her, 'Quantum Leap' style, by the TARDIS. (This makes no sense in light of later events, but we'll get to that in a moment.) Then, somewhere around the end of the second disc, the plot finally kick-starts into gear... which is where the real problems with Zagreus become evident.

Basically, the real problem with Zagreus is that nothing anyone does in it makes any sense in light of their motivation. The Doctor, for example, is split into two selves -- his usual self, which is struggling to think over the more powerful "Zagreus", and Zagreus, who wants to rip apart the Web of Time and sow the seeds of chaos and anti-time throughout all of existence. The TARDIS, likewise, is split between a normal and an anti-time corrupted self, one half of which wants to help the Doctor, the other of which blames him. Meanwhile Rassilon, who never seems to come off as being like Rassilon, wants to use the Doctor/Zagreus as a weapon to destroy the Divergents, mysterious beings from another universe whom he suspects will destroy Gallifrey (and him) someday.

That's the motives... but the actions? Zagreus, who wants to rip apart the Web of Time, is perfectly willing to help Rassilon preserve Gallifrey. Rassilon at one point declares that he wants Zagreus to be the new President of Gallifrey and orders Romana to step down. The evil half of the TARDIS shows Charley vital bits of information she needs to puzzle out Rassilon's plan. The good TARDIS, like the good Doctor, spends most of the time wandering around and gurning (in Jon Pertwee's barely-recognizable voice.) Oh, and the holographic projections all come to life as incarnations of the Doctor, for no sensible reason other than they're being voiced by Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, and if those aren't Doctors, then I don't know who is.

Ultimately, the whole thing's a complete mess. It tries for shock value with the "Rassilon's evil!" deal, except that every time we've ever seen Rassilon, he's always been at best ruthless in dealing with threats to Gallifrey. It goes for symbolism and surrealism with the "Alice in Wonderland" theme, but that never connects back to anything -- it's just zaniness for its own sake. It tries to have a big shock ending where the Doctor exiles himself from the universe "never to return", but even if we didn't know that the Ninth Doctor's going to be on Earth, and even if much of fandom hadn't set the audios in between The Eight Doctors and Vampire Science, it still feels like a temporary occurrence, to be cured/undone when Big Finish gets tired of doing stories with no old monsters. And really, most of the stunt casting is totally unnecessary.

OTOH, it's not total dross. Davison, Baker, and McCoy are all oddly suited to their parts (which, admittedly, were written for them -- but they all fit in a quirky, organic way that is a genuine delight.) Baker, in particular, gets to play a Doctor Who villain for the first time since Arc of Infinity, and you can tell he's loving it. Lalla Ward and Louise Jameson also fit well together as Romana and Leela (although this does show their first meeting together, which would seem to contradict Lungbarrow. However, given that Romana's timeline goes, Blood Harvest, Goth Opera, Happy Endings, The Apocalypse Element...I see no problem with it then going, Zagreus, Lungbarrow, and finally moving on to The Shadows of Avalon. Clearly, Romana's timeline is just plain out of synch with the Doctor's.) Oh, and Bonnie Langford makes a strangely wonderful villain.

So, the verdict? Good acting, shame about the script, but I think it'd be far more enjoyable if it had been trimmed down to two discs. It might or might not be better, but it certainly wouldn't have overstayed its welcome quite so badly.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 14/10/04

As a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who, it's questionable whether Zagreus actually works, as it often feels overlong and to a greater degree more often than not fanwanky. The biggest problem the story faces is that in spite of all the expectations, it doesn`t really answer the questions it poses. Hallucinatory images are all very well, if they`re told within the context of the story, however if unexplained as so many are here, then disappointment is the order of the day.

Another problem is the huge and seemingly unnecessarily heavy cast, all too often the characters portrayed by various companions and former Doctors are little more than cameos. This aside, the strength of the performances are pretty solid, with Sarah Sutton (cast against type) and Sylvester McCoy really standing out. As to Paul McGann, he is somewhat wasted standing around in the TARDIS talking to himself; although the strength of his performance and indeed the effect of his modulated voice carries him through. Whilst the story does take things forward in terms of an overall arc, this alone is not enough to save Zagreus, which at times doesn`t feel like Doctor Who, but largely like a story that is trying too hard.


Picking up Zagreus, turning it upside down and giving it a good shake by Kathryn Young 17/12/04

"Zagreus sits inside your head and eats you when you're sleeping": The Time Lord Boogey Man

This totally puts a different spin on the bad head gear/huge collared Time Lords. They want you to think that they are all a bunch of stuffy badly dressed effete intellectuals who sit around all day contemplating higher mathematics, but this little rhyme shows they are as fallible as the rest of us mere aliens.

Every culture has myths and fairy tales. And Zagreus shows that the Time Lords are no different (everyone remember the whole "above, between below" thing with Rassilon's tower - now that one was kinky). So they came up with this little ditty about Zagreus to scare their little "time tots" or "loomlings" (depending on which particular canon shoots your balls).

I love the idea of Zagreus as this boogey man Time Lord monster who hangs around until you nod off and then gobbles you up. I get this wonderful image of a little Doctor sitting cross legged on his bed, (I am thinking Paul McGann complete with frock coat, but sucking his thumb) wide eyed as his giant mechanical badger slash nanny scares him witless with this rhyme just before bedtime... "so little Theta if you don't stop doing genetic experiments on the dog - and if you don't leave Cousin Ergain's goldfish alone - Zagreus will come along and suck your brains out with a straw."

Okay, perhaps the whole straw thing is my addition, but you must admit Zagreus just smacks of the monster under the bed.

How one can actually turn into a fictional fairytale character is a question that does puzzle me. But the idea isn't actually that far fetched. There was that terrible Tim Allen movie where he mutates into Santa Claus - and that was meant to be a comedy. So I am going to take the Doctor's rather strange resurrection with a grain of "suspension of disbelief" and not worry about it too much. As later audios have shown it doesn't seem to have done him any harm. In fact I think over at BF they all trying to pretend the whole thing never happened.

Can we stuff any more fanwank into this story?

I have this horrible admission to make. I LOVE FANWANK. Yes, yes, yes! Injokes, references to The Leisure Hive, self-referential humour that no one on earth could possibly get unless they have been to the 1987 Mondas Convention makes me Doctor Who horny in a very sick and pathetic way (and I wasn't even born until 1988, but that doesn't stop me). I would even marry Paul Cornell and have his little fanwank babies except for the fact that he wrote Scream of the Shalka and I just cannot forgive him for that just yet.

So why am I a fanwank wanky? Simply because it is funny. I adore taking the mickey out of Doctor Who and quite frankly fanwank is generally very amusing. And Zagreus is stuffed full of it. I was grinning from ear to ear as Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker went head to head about the respective horribleness of their TV costumes and who had the most ignominious death. [And all I have to say about that is "Colin - you could have come back for the regeneration sequence eh. But no, you didn't. You made Sylvester roll around the floor in a bad wig didn't you. So there is no point in getting all narky about it now is there?"]

And then of course anyone who had anything to do with Doctor Who, down to that bloke who visited the set in 1984 to fix the dodgy toilet, was offered a job in the story and every character is voiced by someone incredibly famous to Doctor Who history. Although personally I couldn't tell half of them from a bar of soap it is spesh isn't it? I can just imagine all those luvvies getting together:

"Owwww. I haven't seen her since The Five Doctors. She's getting on a bit init she? Wonder what's she up to?"

(conspiratorial whisper): "Panto."

(sigh): "Aren't we all luv... Aren't we all."

Some of the funniest are Bonnie Langford who plays a particularly nasty fairy (Tinkerbell's revenge) and Sophie Aldred, who gets to play... there is no good way to say this and I hope that her casting was not a comment on her acting ability or her career prospects... a dodo (Captain Dodo to be exact).

What if your car talked back?

I know what mine would be saying at the moment: Get the bloody brakes fixed you daft twonker or we are going to go right through the next intersection (edited to add - I did get the brakes fixed and everything's tickety boo and rest assured - I am in no danger of a hideous and sudden demise).

And this brings me to "the old girl":

Well that was a bit of a misnomer wasn't it? Unless there is something about Nicholas Courtney I don't know, the TARDIS is a boy. And quite a cranky one at that. This has to be one of the cleverest ideas to come out of Zagreus: Apologies, but I am listening to Cole Porter... It's delightful, it's delicious, it's a delovely idea to make the TARDIS a character and give it a voice. She, he, it is the Doctor's oldest friend and quite frankly I think it is time that it got to speak its mind. Perhaps it was having a nice nap and didn't particularly want to be nicked from Gallifrey and be made to gallivant around the universe willy nilly, getting into all sorts of trouble.

I have always enjoyed the gradual evolution of the TARDIS from a mere machine to a sentient being of some sort. It is like something we never speak of. No one has ever come right out and stated exactly what a TARDIS is, but throughout the series, the audios and the books the idea just kept getting built on until we had Compassion actually evolving into a TARDIS and the idea that TARDISes mate. Although just how a police telephone box has sex is a question I do not want contemplate.

And then - in this story - we have the Doc's TARDIS taking the guise of the Brig and wandering around complaining that he is not all that chuffed that the Doctor wrapped him around an exploding time ship and how come he wasn't consulted about it first because that sort of thing just was not included in his contract. What is next: TARDIS unions?

Paul McGann - spooky man!

This isn't meant to be mean, but Paul McGann really does a good crazy man. It is good that he is short and sweet in real life because he can do insane crazy weirdo lunging at you guy a bit too well. And in Zagreus he spends quite a lot of time lunging insanely around the TARDIS chatting to... sigh - how do I put this without giving too much away:

DOCTOR: Ship? Ship? It has to be here. The answers have to be in a library.

MYSTERY VOICE: Murgle burgle offle waffle.

DOCTOR: Hello? I can barely hear you. Split personality, getting angry. Accent becoming more pronounced. Why can't I see you?

MYSTERY VOICE: Oggle waffle dressserg. metallic teeth begin to grind.

DOCTOR: Who's there? Why don't I know who you are? Tell me or the frustration might make me overact a bit.

MYSTERY VOICE: Muffle gurgle traggle bruffff.. seek a truth they never find.

DOCTOR: I can just about hear you old man. Your voice seems familiar. Do I know you?

MYSTERY VOICE: I cross the void beyond the mind.

DOCTOR: I am in a bit of a state. I am going to have to take a deap breath and finish the entire line with it. I might have been watching that Anthony Hopkins' master class tape again. I think I might be losing my mind. Am I going mad?

MYSTERY VOICE: Find the light that glows so darkly in the night. Haruuun haruuuun haeruuuun.

DOCTOR: Stop it please. The noise is hurting me. But then again I do look gorgeous when I am in pain - or so my fans say.

MYSTERY VOICE: Within, outside, behind.

DOCTOR: That is no better. I may have to sayeverywordreallyreallyfastuntilIeventuallyhaveabreakthroughandlaughhappily.

MYSTERY VOICE: Who knows you say, but are you right?

DOCTOR: But who are you?

MYSTERY VOICE: I am the Doctor!

DOCTOR: I think it is only fair to point out that you are in fact confusing me and I am a sex symbol.

MYSTERY VOICE: Eternal wisdom is my guide.

DOCTOR: Perhaps I am mad. I am hearing strange disembodied voices talking nonsense.

MYSTERY VOICE: Empty space that circles time. Haruuun haruuun haruuuun.

And personally I thought it was rather tasteless. I think the dead should stay dead. ...

Just what are Colin, Peter and Sylvester doing in this audio?

Allow me to elucidate:

Well I thought it was sweet. Sometimes you just have to be reminded of who you are.


A Review by Kevin Guhl 15/1/06

I've been listening to the 8th Doctor audios in sequential order, way after they were released. I had mixed feelings about what I had heard through the first two seasons, however. Paul McGann's romantic take on the Doctor had made him my favorite actor in the part since I first viewed the TV movie in 1996 and it was unbelievably great to hear him in the role again. While McGann picked up right where he left off, some of his adventures were a letdown, thanks to shaky scripts. I had a few favorites, like Seasons of Fear and The Stones of Venice but stories like Embrace the Darkness and Invaders from Mars left me cold. The other adventures varied in quality, usually having good moments mixed in with questionable ones. I couldn't contain my curiosity about Zagreus, however. I knew it was a mega-3 disc anniversary special that involved all four titular Doctor Who actors under Big Finish's employ. I couldn't wait to listen to it and sought out glimpses of reviews but those I found were not too kind.

People thought Zagreus was a mess and a wasted opportunity. It didn't bode well for the future of the McGann audios for me, since I had prematurely listed to The Creed of the Kromon and was disappointed in not only the story but McGann's sedate performance, like he was bored with the role. I didn't realize that there was a reason for him acting that way and I came to appreciate and even enjoy it when I got there in the proper order.

So, I got to Zagreus and didn't expect much. Perhaps that had to do with why I thought it was so good. I didn't come in expecting something great like other people were no doubt expecting when this was originally released. Part of their problem might be that Big Finish has yet to produce a real, quality meeting of the Doctor's different incarnations. The Sirens of Time was a muddle and other meeting have involved one of the Doctors being a clone (Project: Lazarus) and others have involved cameos in which the Sixth and Seventh Doctors didn't actually meet. I do think Big Finish needs to get on the ball and produce a proper The Four Doctors for their upcoming 100th adventure but Zagreus actually has a very satisfying meeting, even if it is a manifestation of the Doctor's mind. It was odd having Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy spend much of the adventures in other roles but it built up my anticipation, because I KNEW they had to show up as their real selves at some point. And when they do, even briefly, the exchanges they have such as on the matter of who had the more impressive death and the moment in which they help the Eighth Doctor make his important decision are priceless. Zagreus handles the multi-Doctor meeting in a novel way, as all but one are already "dead." It left me very satisfied. There's also a surprise cameo by another Doctor that I thought was a very nice touch.

For it's length, Zagreus is rather simple and that aspect allows all of its guest stars to shine. It's a delight seeing these characters pulled out of the TARDIS databanks in what can be boiled down to the Doctor and the TARDIS fighting off the Zagreus infection they share, as well as each other with Charley caught in the middle. It never gets boring and has major implications, despite taking place mostly in a historical drama the TARDIS has created. Paul McGann also fires on all cylinders, giving us both the passionate and likeable Doctor he's known for and the mad and paranoid Zagreus. McGann shows his skills off even further in the next adventure, Scherzo, in which he has been left mentally scarred.

Some might say Zagreus was a wasted opportunity and it's true that it is by no means a traditional anniversary romp like one would expect. What it IS is a very creative and daring story that combines familiar elements of Doctor Who and uses them to shape something new. It's a listen that had me intrigued every second and it is now one of my favorites of the Eighth Doctor audios. Not to mention, it'll have you mimicking McGann and shouting "I... am... ZAGREUS!!!!!" with full, mad enunciation.


When will it end? by Thomas Cookson 19/8/08

I get the impression that Zagreus is seen as marking the end of Big Finish's golden age. The 2002-2003 period that gave us Spare Parts, The Chimes of Midnight, Jubilee and many more classics. Zagreus put a stake through its heart. Zagreus is the moment where Big Finish seemingly jumped the shark. Where the run of Big Finish came crashing down and, from then on, really good audios were few and far between.

Okay a lot of people would disagree, and jumping the shark is a difficult thing to qualify. It's not as if Big Finish started on a high. It was over a year before they hit their stride with Loups-Garoux, before then the only bone fida classic was The Holy Terror. Besides, not long after Zagreus, we still had outstanding stories like Arrangements for War, The Harvest and Natural History of Fear. Maybe they're just as much part of the golden age, or the last gasp of it.

All things considered, I'd at least say that, up until 2006, Big Finish was still going strong. Terror Firma and The Nowhere Place are amongst my favourites, and they're from the 2005-2006 period. The Gallifrey spin-off and I, Davros were brilliant from beginning to end. I must admit little that they've released lately has impressed or even intrigued me, but generally I've much preferred Big Finish to New Who.

So what's wrong with Zagreus?

A part of me thinks there was simply no excuse for it to have been so terrible. Neverland had created a hell of a backstory, a future Gallifrey turned fascist, the Daleks lying in a time trap waiting to escape, and the Doctor possessed by the evil anti-time entity. And Zagreus promised a team up of the Doctors. It had so much going for it.

The more I read reviews from people about what they'd anticipated after Neverland's cliffhanger, the more I realise just how much potential Zagreus had squandered. But even before reading those reviews I found Zagreus to be a disappointment and damn near unlistenable.

Zagreus is 3 discs in length. I could listen to a whole season of Dalek Empire or Gallifrey in a day and still be involved and riveted throughout. But with Zagreus I barely managed to get through the first disc in one go. In fact, I can't fathom why they devoted three discs to this. Even two discs would stretch the concept to breaking point. Hell, this makes the one-note joke stretched for over an hour of The Dark Husband look lean and mean by comparison.

Listening to the first disc a second time, I must admit bits of it were more interesting than I initially thought. Charlie's memories of her family, the Doctor placed in the Schrodinger's cat scenario. But everything is so far spread out, and one divergence is placed over another, few of which are interesting or get a chance to be interesting. More importantly, the directing and sense of drama is utterly flat. It's not surprising that I quickly found myself both lost and bored with Zagreus. Not knowing or caring what it was all meant to be about.

Sometimes, Doctor Who's desire to do something less conservative is its biggest downfall. Had Zagreus taken the expected route of having the Time Lords recall the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctor to vanquish the evil entity from their future self, it might have worked well as a story. Add the Daleks escaping and causing havoc on Gallifrey, that'd make a perfect anniversary story, especially since we know the inevitable outcome would be the Daleks let loose on the cosmos again.

I tend to think anniversary stories are a time for playing safe. I don't at all bemoan The Three Doctors for its coziness; in fact, I enjoy it for that reason. Likewise, The Five Doctors is one of the few genuinely fun JNT stories, thanks to its old-school feel.

I'll shamelessly admit that I am a rather traditionalist and reactionary fan. I'm proudly someone who'd gladly sacrifice all TV Doctor Who from The Leisure Hive onwards, if it meant recovering all the missing stories of the 60's and a completed Shada. The fact is most Doctor Who after Tom Baker left was crap; some of it was crap enough to nearly end my connection with the show for good.

Zagreus ultimately was such a confusing and boring mess that it became near impossible to see what it was actually trying to do or trying to be.

I think Zagreus was trying to do The Mind Robber on audio, and like The Mind Robber, it aimed to redefine the Doctor as just another fictional hero. But, ultimately, Zagreus didn't have the chilling sense of horror that The Mind Robber did, or any suspense whatsoever once it's established that this is fantasy and nothing can hurt the main characters. There was also simply no sense of wonder in its adventure through its fantasy world, and certainly no sense of going anywhere. It was more like being stuck on a bumpy, dizzying unending ride without a sick bag. It's rather like the difference between a 'fun' Williams story and a 'fun' RTD story. The former is an entertaining party of good company and real characters, the latter is like being gatecrashed by an obnoxious crowd of drunks that vomit over everything.

Basically, if you're expecting a multi-Doctor team up, you'd be mistaken. Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and even Jon Pertwee's answering machine appears (don't get me started on how badly that comes off). But they don't affect the plot in any meaningful way whatsoever. They're brought in to play a whole slew of random fictional characters created by the TARDIS's memories and dreams, same with the old companions. The result is quite simply a confusing audio nightmare, which was probably inherently incoherent before pen went to paper.

Zagreus could have involved the Time Lords in the same situation as in The Three Doctors. They can't enter the TARDIS because of the risk of anti-time contagion, but they can send in the most recent previous three Doctors, to join forces and mind link with the Eighth Doctor to bring him back to normal.

Actually, now that I think about it, something tells me that the story would be barely fifteen minutes long in that case. Sirens of Time demonstrated that, on audio, a multi-Doctor story needed to have the various incarnations separated until the final chapter. Maybe Zagreus was taking the only course open to keeping its story going.

But really it drowns in excesses.

For me, Doctor Who is at its best when it has a poetic cohesion about it. Occasionally though, it can be brilliant whilst being the complete opposite of cohesive, such as exercises in randomness like Revelation of the Daleks and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. But this is just a ghastly mess.

A question nags at me that maybe this is a narrative better suited for the EDA's and somehow found itself in the wrong medium. It just doesn't seem to work as an audio play at all. It feels like a collection of abstract and surreal interludes with overdone introspection. And its continuity excesses seems more suited to print form than audio.

And so I ask again why the writers of Zagreus felt the need to devote so much material to old continuity. I'm of the rather naive belief that the very nature of Big Finish makes it pretty difficult to go wrong. I've always maintained that what made Big Finish a success where the JNT era failed is that Big Finish is a permissive environment where each author has complete control over their own work. With Nicholas Briggs' stories, everything is his vision because he writes and directs. Unlike the JNT era, there isn't the detrimental, shopping-list approach, or a script-editor like Eric Saward adding extra bitching scenes and killings that ruin the story. So the results tend to be well-rounded, wholesome, brilliantly expressed, straight-for-the-jugular, cohesive and poetic. The beauty of Doctor Who at its best is that it allows writers free reign to write any kind of story and to really reckon with personal demons.

Well, so long as the writer chooses to tell an independent story. Gary Russell, however, didn't. He chose instead to make this an add-on to lots of other stories and incapable of functioning in its own right. And I do blame Gary for most of the dreck that this story ends up being.

I think Alan Barnes is a pretty decent writer. Certainly, I always felt that the charge that he tends to have characters over-verbalise visual details to be a bit of a pedantic complaint. Storm Warning wasn't particularly impressive or interesting, but if you look upon as a pilot, its genericness can be forgiven, for it does nicely sum up the Doctor Who mission brief where exploring the cosmos and exploring human nature are one and the same thing. I'll concede his first Gallifrey chapter was the weakest starting point, but I do honestly think Neverland was his finest work. It really did have a sense of wonder and moral outrage and cohesion, with not a single scene wasted. All things that Zagreus lacks.

So I do blame Gary Russell for the way this turned out. I've never read much of Gary Russell's work, but his bibliography hints at his fixation with retconning continuity errors. The Scales of Injustice puts an untelevised encounter between the Doctor and the Silurians to explain Warriors of the Deep's odd backstory. He Jests at Scars reopens the question of the Valeyard. Neither of which I've heard or read and I actually wouldn't mind checking them out.

The only other thing I knew about Gary Russell was that he was very outspoken in his distain for the Saward era. And I'd argue that contempt is the ruin of Doctor Who (hence why I should never write for Doctor Who). And I suspect that the approach here of doing something antithetical to the usual anniversary multi-Doctor reunion stories is also based more on smug contempt for the old anniversary stories than actually having a better idea.

Gary Russell and John Peel both seem to believe that the Williams and JNT era laid ruin to the show's sacred continuity and that it's up to them to "fix" it again. Never mind telling an entertaining, worthy story. And I think for this anniversary story, Gary Russell got especially zealous.

Up until this point, Big Finish was doing well to create its own mythology. The Knights of Veleyshaa, the Kar Charrat library, the Seriphia Galaxy and the Monans and Nekistani. All of which were used to excellent dramatic purpose and still allowed a story to function in its own right. Likewise The Mutant Phase, Spare Parts, Omega, Davros and Master only took what they absolutely needed from the show's back catalogue.

Zagreus need only have drawn on what Neverland established about both the Time Lords, the anti-time universe and the Daleks. Yet instead it suddenly started retconning the Vampires from State of Decay, the Hand of Omega backstory, and of course a return to the Death Zone, and seriously scraping the barrel over Rassilon. None of which needed to be in the story and served no purpose.

Speaking of retcons, unfortunately Zagreus shows War of the Daleks as being a masterpiece by comparison. Once you ignore the ret-conning, War of the Daleks is a fairly readable book. Sure, the dialogue is atrocious, but it's got Daleks in it causing big-scale havoc so it's still going to be entertaining.

But the problem is that continuity keeners like Gary and John tend to do more harm than good, and actually wreck the very continuity they think they're fixing. Also when you're demanding that the audience takes the show's canon as seriously as you do, they tend to realise when its forcibly put in front of their face just how easily it all falls apart.

Too many fans take continuity far too seriously. There are some fans who are still affronted by the continuity errors of Destiny of the Daleks even now (see Gary's Gallifrey episodes). What these continuity keeners seem to miss is that Doctor Who is, at its heart, televised theatre. So sometimes an actor will fall sick and be replaced by the nearest understudy, whether that be Edmund Warwick or Richard Hurndall standing in for Hartnel's Doctor, or Mary Tamm being arbitrarily regenerated into Lalla Ward. Some continuity keeners even have trouble with the fact that Davros' bunker now looks different. As if every stage play will always use exactly the same set and props every time they're shown.

Now I'm not saying continuity should be dismissed as a dirty word. The reason why serialised spin-offs like Dalek Empire and Gallifrey feel so vital is because of the sense that what happens in them has consequences that extend into other stories, that what happens in it really matters in the long term. But usually continuity is the domain of pretension.

Perhaps Zagreus is the reason why Big Finish started being rather more liberal and feckless with the continuity it had once respected. Why Dalek Empire III ended inconclusively with humanity's survival in doubt. Why The Juggernauts kills off Davros midway through his TV arc, and Terror Firma completely overwrites War of the Daleks. Perhaps the writers realised that continuity is a pointless waste of time.

Zagreus was not even entertaining; in fact, it was embarrasing in a way I never thought audio Doctor Who could be. The "war in Disneyworld" bit really feels reminiscent of Season 24. It's not just the naffness, but the way it earnestly demands that you treat the naffness as being somehow serious and poignant.

If there's one thing that Doctor Who has taught me, it's that presentation can make such a difference to a story or message. It's been said that the only reason fans come down harder on the Sixth Doctor killing a few Androgums, Cybermen and Varosian prison guards than they do on the Seventh Doctor blowing up planets is that you can envision the victims of the former because it's a smaller number to grapple with.

I'm dwelling on these points because I can't help but wonder if Zagreus might have made more sense or been more compelling in a different medium. If it was on TV and was directed by Alan Wareing, could it have been a 21st century Greatest Show in the Galaxy? Or if it was a book, might we have made more allowances for its long-winded tangents and excess characters to keep track of? Would it perhaps have been the epic it wanted to be?

I must confess to being quite snobbish about the books. I've never really bothered with them and I don't consider them canonical. Being honest, I don't really read as much as I should, so I've always preferred Doctor Who in a medium where I can simply veg out, rather than having to make an effort to read and concentrate. Audio is actually the best of all worlds because I can listen to it anywhere, whilst out walking or on the train.

But the main reason I never got into the books was because I found them too arc driven, and mired in continuity backstory. Or I would trepidly expect them to be. Big Finish, on the other hand, was always accessible. There's very few audio stories that the average listener wouldn't be able to follow if it was their first Big Finish CD. But Zagreus is certainly among the few.

There's also the issue of not wanting the approach of the books to contaminate the approach of the audios. I know of one fan who said that he nearly gave up on Big Finish after he heard Master. He'd liked how Big Finish had initially recaptured the fun, confident hero of childhood that the Doctor once was, and he felt betrayed when Master took the Doctor back down the same dark, introspective path as the New Adventures. And, listening to this, it feels like the book medium has invaded.

Some have dismissed the negative reviews as being down to built-up anticipations being inevitably disappointed. Certainly, I was disappointed when I heard ...ish, which was incredibly didactic and dull, after the trailer had made it out to be really scary.

But I only caught up with Zagreus recently, and I knew beforehand about its reputation, and how it leads to the Divergent Universe arc. I only expected it to be a bit overlong but a decent story, and I was still disappointed. Even on the basics of showing the possessed Doctor having an introspective crisis to rediscover himself, it didn't work; there was no centre to it. I just didn't get the point, which was lost and buried in continuity detritus.

A shame really, because Zagreus could have carried on the introspective debates from the preceeding villains' trilogy about what makes the Doctor the hero he is, and how close he could have come to being just like the Master or Davros.

Natural History of Fear is another good comparison. That had the main cast playing various multiple roles and a confusing surrealist narrative with satire about the BBC. But it stuck to its central plotline and concept and had an involving stake of suspense and emotion. It went somewhere, and paid off wonderfully. Who knows, maybe Natural History of Fear was only possible because Zagreus tried it out first?

Zagreus simply registers at the bottom of the pile for me, in terms of Big Finish. It has no redeeming features I can see. Most bad audios at least have momentun and flow. Zagreus didn't. I wanted to re-listen to it to make sure my review was a sober and fair judgement, but I just couldn't face its horrid horrendousness again.


A Wonder by Charles Berman 22/7/10

I confess to being doubtful before starting listening to Zagreus, mainly because it has Gary Russell listed as co-writer. I hadn't liked anything else very much from Russell's pen that I had heard or read so far, and giving him the opportunity to write a Doctor Who anniversary story sounded something like asking Pip and Jane Baker to write a story in which the Doctor encounters creatures from the Planet of Overwritten Dialogue: it plays to his most glaring and enthusiastic weakness (unnecessary continuity references).

Fortunately, though, to my uninformed ears, it sounds as if Alan Barnes did all the real writing here, and his writing seems to improve with scope; it far surpasses his previous stories in the Eighth Doctor line. Zagreus is in many ways an extremely daring script, and I think in almost all ways Barnes' courage in writing it and Big Finish's in making it pay off. Based on the cast - an encyclopedia of stars from Doctor Who's past - and the precedent set by other anniversary stories, Zagreus was going to be awaited with bated breath by the listenership, and the listenership was going to expect a fun, lighthearted romp looking back on forty years of adventures with nostalgia and in-jokes.

Zagreus has just enough nostalgia to it, and even goes a little heavy on the repetition of memorable lines from previous stories (though this does make sense within the story) and certainly has its share of humour and lightheartedness. Sylvester McCoy is recreated by the TARDIS as the amusingly eccentric but slightly creepy character of Uncle Winkie in a story-long parallelism with Alice in Wonderland that is amusing if baffling most of the way, but is then given a perfectly satisfying and hilarious explanation at the end.

Despite this, though, Zagreus is largely a very dark story, and while it plays the role of anniversary story it is far more a culmination of Charley Pollard's long story arc and her relationship with the Doctor. It does these rather wonderfully, actually, through quite the stress test. Chock full of familiar voices as this may be, it is unquestionably India Fisher's portrayal of Charley Pollard that really stands out and saves the day; she plays the part with a voice that makes you want to keep listening, and balances real range and the capacity for deadly seriousness with the sound of boundless enthusiasm. She has a couple of speeches at the end which are written and delivered such as to be unforgettable tearjerkers. In a way, she has to carry the story since, while many past Doctors and companions are back, they are almost all in unfamiliar roles, given faces and voices familiar to the Doctor in the TARDIS' simulation, and the Eighth Doctor is hardly himself, having been taken over by the anti-time creature Zagreus.

That was daring too: bringing back so many old friends but not asking them to play their old roles. It surely must have disappointed a number of people, and in a way it does mean they went to the tremendous effort of assembling so many Who alumni for what amounts to a nice touch, but I think it's better drama that way. Plus it also lends, for the experienced Who fan, an irreplaceable strangeness to the TARDIS-generated scenarios, full of people we know but don't. And structuring the story helps Zagreus achieve the delicate feat of being huge in its scope, yet still, in the end, feeling like rather intimate drama between a few people, just as it seems to have taken place across the universe whereas almost all of it occurred inside the TARDIS.

The plot sometimes seems to edge towards being a weakness; it sometimes takes a bit of working out or relies on vague terms and technobabble, but it does all come out comprehensible; the made-up terms are actually made better to some degree when they are nodded at near the end and become part of the story in themselves. The format and structure were something of a daring departure as well, Zagreus being a very long story made up of three almost CD-length episodes. For me, though, it works. The story feels like a vast landscape to explore, like Charley's wandering through the worlds created by the TARDIS or Alice in Wonderland. It never got dull or made me wish the pace would pick up, since it stayed enjoyable as I let the story was over me, and came to some pretty vast high points.

Romana and Leela have some wonderful scenes together, exploring their characters in very believable ways; both actresses feel like they are better in these roles than when they played them on television. Leela feels like much more of a character, and she has a great moment which quickly turns from very touching to uproariously funny.

Paul McGann's Doctor is put through the wringer here. McGann is very good as the conflicted and unsure Time Lord, turning to excellent when playing against Charley, Romana and Don Warrington at the end. The use of the late Jon Pertwee's voice from an unreleased fan video was controversial, but I found it to be handled well. It has its place in the story and the clips are meant to be cryptic and distant, so they do not sound forced in. Doubtless Pertwee would have agreed to participate had he been alive and hearing him only jars those who know that he is dead.

Creating a character out of an embodied TARDIS masquerading as the Brigadier is an idea as far-out as, well.... a time-travelling Police Box. It could have been embarrassingly bad, but it is not at all. Nicholas Courtney plays the TARDIS just right, the Brigadier but not quite, and the TARDIS has a real dramatic reason for coming to life, so to speak, and confronting the Doctor. The three previous Doctors are all really well used; by the end, Davison, Baker and McCoy all seem to be having a ball with their respective parts. Baker as the wittily named Tepesh teeters very entertainingly on the edge of threatening vampire and amusing blowhard, while Peter Davison has the kind of breezy but earnest part he can really fall into.

Zagreus is a vast, enthralling and entertaining story. It addresses bigotry, war and imperialism appositely in its treatment of Rassilon's plan, it takes all of the series' history somehow into its story, it wraps up Charley's story arc with spectacle, and it sets up the brand new story arc for Charley and the Doctor tantalizingly. It's not much like a typical anniversary/celebration story on the lines of the Three, Five, or Eight Doctors or The Sirens of Time, and it often isn't even very much like any other Doctor Who story. But it is a fascinating, excellent and unprecedented story. In the end, it is about friendship, love and trust, and what they mean to Charley and the Doctor, and that is what fuels its most involving, affecting moments.