Big Finish Productions
Zagreus: Wonderland
Disc 1

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. (Part 1)


"All in the golden afternoon..." by Stephen Maslin 20/1/16

(with apologies to Lewis Carroll)

It goes without saying that Doctor Who's 40th anniversary was a radically different beast to its 50th. The latter was understandably gung-ho and more than a little full of itself but, back in 2003, a Doctor Who fan's calendar-watching was a much more private matter. The September 2003 announcement that the show would be returning to our screens may still have been ringing in our ears, but the fortieth anniversary was, to all but a select few, a bit "so-what". Yet with the possible exception of Doctor Who Magazine, audio folk Big Finish Productions did more than anyone to try and make the 40th anniversary something special: the sheer number of releases that year were testament to their commitment. Alas, most of their regular monthly schedule in 2003 fell well short of the high standard of the previous year. (The Dark Flame, Creatures of Beauty, Master, Full Fathom Five and Exile were real stinkers, with three or four others that weren't much better.) However, the handful that did succeed went some way to helping make the year something to remember: Jubilee, Omega, Davros, the first two Unbound stories and especially the remake of Shada were worthy of any anniversary celebration.

'"I wish I hadn't cried so much!" said Alice, as she swam about, trying to find her way out.
"I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears!"'
And then there was Zagreus: the second-largest Doctor Who project for twenty years or more. We had been waiting nearly eighteen months for the resolution to Big Finish's glorious run of Eighth Doctor stories that formed 'Season 2002' and expectations among the cognoscenti were such that Zagreus was (if not in terms of world renown, then definitely in terms of scale) going to be BIG.
'. . .she was now about a thousand times as large as the Rabbit,
and had no reason to be afraid of it.'
Okay, that being said, why just review disc one of Zagreus and not the whole thing? Why only concern oneself with Wonderland and not with discs two and three, Heartland and Wasteland? Simple: Wonderland is the only part of Zagreus that's consistently any good. It is helped in this regard by coming first: it does not have to explain itself or tie up any loose ends, thus making it easier to get away with scatology and non sequitur. Yet it is also better written, better performed and at times startlingly original. Anyone expecting some multi-Doc fest akin to The Eight Doctors novel (or, heaven help us, Dimensions in Time) would have been properly wrong-footed. For eighty minutes or so, we were experiencing the best anniversary story since the show's inception (The Stones of Blood doesn't count). Alas, with the exception of some of the deranged second half of disc two and the chemistry between Lalla Ward and Louise Jameson on disc three, the rest of Zagreus falls foul of every multi-Doctor cliche in the book, with the added twist of making Doctors Five, Six & Seven come across as bumbling incompetents: The Five Doctors morphed with the Three Stooges.
'"How puzzling all these changes are!
I'm never sure what I'm going to be, from one minute to another! "'
What is it that Wonderland does right but that Heartland and especially Wasteland do not? Simply put, it doesn't try to be an anniversary celebration at all: such references that there are to the show's more distant past are subtle, rather than heavy-handed. It also gets the basics right. The "Previously" section that precedes Wonderland proper is not only necessary given the long wait, but really well done and, from the very start, the incidental music is superb, flipping between menace and quirkiness, matched by some of Big Finish's best sound design. When Paul McGann and India Fisher are still at centre stage, the drama does not let us settle: it is edgy, worrying and compelling. Slowly, wider insanity creeps in, with many fine moments: Charlie's mother ("Eat your carrots!"), the revenge of Schrodinger's Cat, the Third Doctor in the TARDIS library. . . (It is a shame that Big Finish decided to put Jon Pertwee's image on the CD inner, as the surprise of his posthumous inclusion could have been a real showstopper.)
'"I told you butter wouldn't suit the works!"'
Then, suddenly, no longer treading in the footsteps of Lewis Carroll, we find ourselves in a very different space: a Cold War space, Cold War Cardington to be precise, where Charlie's adventures with the Doctor began; peopled with many familiar Fifth-Doctor-era voices but in a very alternative reality. It goes without saying that Peter Davison is superb as the Fifth Doctor's alter ego, the Reverend Matthew Townsend, but so is everyone else: Mark Strickson's permanently exasperated Captain Neil MacDonell; Sarah Sutton's starchy Miss Foster; Nicola Bryant's marvelously dotty Dr Stone and Caroline Morris' sweet but vulnerable Mary Elson. There is not one single poor performance. There is also a tragic inevitability about all we hear, and it all builds to a genuinely unnerving climax.
'"Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?"'
I can't have been the only one who was left gasping for breath, disorientated beyond belief as the Fifth Doctor version of the Who theme came crashing in at Wonderland's end. . . only then to be severely let down by the dreary and ultimately inconsequential first half of disc two. Worse than that, by the time we got to disc three, we were merely replaying The Five Doctors (and replaying it very badly), mixed in with an extended trailer for the forthcoming spin-off series Gallifrey.
'". . .it's hardly worth while finishing the game."'

A clue here is how well (and subsequently how badly) Nicholas Courtney fits into the frame. In Wonderland, he is avuncular with just a touch of enigma. Yet as Zagreus progresses, he is increasingly miscast. ("I thought you were a 'she'.") The revelation of his true nature is in fact rather embarrassing and his demise, instead of sounding triumphant, comes across as rather cruel: not the necessary vanquishing of an implacable foe against all odds but merely pushing an old man into a vat of something unspeakable. (As unpleasant as having your own grandfather cast in a remake of Vengeance on Varos.) Another clue is provided by how well the eponymous anti-hero fares: during Wonderland, McGann does a superb job in making Zagreus a sinister, unknowable villain. Two discs later, he is a rather tired thespian bellowing some truly awful dialogue.

'. . .there they lay sprawling about,
reminding her very much of a globe of goldfish she had accidentally upset the week before.'
Wonderland sounds like the first disc of a very good two-disc set, as opposed to the first disc of a slowly failing three disc set, which is what it actually is. Had Wonderland been followed by the second half of disc two (without all that tedious vampire business) and then by a drastically edited disc three (without the Five Doctors reboot), Zagreus would have made a far more satisfying whole.

Wonderland: 9/10


'with all their simple sorrows'

Heartland: 4/10

Wasteland: 3/10