Released June 2002
Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor’s second Big Finish season comes to a close with ‘Neverland,’ finally dealing head-on with the ramifications of Charley’s surviving the R101 crash in ‘Storm Warning’ thanks to the Doctor’s intervention. From the outset with Vansell reporting to Romana that they are close to snaring the Doctor, there’s a sense of the epic to proceedings, and the stakes are soon revealed to be quite large, indeed.
Charely’s survival has created a rift in the universe, leading to a different universe composed of anti-time. It is through this rift that the Time Lords wish to pass in search of Rassilon, whom legends say did the same in order to confront the mythical Zagreus. The setup for the story is sound enough, but the revelation about the inhabitants of the anti-time universe and their vendetta against the Time Lords is truly shocking and speaks volumes about the Doctor’s race.
There are many positives to this story, but it sadly fails in some respects as well. The potential pitfall of any story like this- an epic looking to tie up many lingering plot threads from previous stories- is that it can risk sacrificing plot in order to serve its fans by including ultimately unnecessary references, and that unfortunately proves to be the case here. The introductory scene as the Gallifreyan Matrix appears to be faltering is the lengthiest and most egregious example, though by no means is it the only one. Additionally, the plague of early Big Finish audios that seemed to be resolved recently returns, as there is a surprising amount of expository dialogue throughout the story. The Doctor, Charley, and Romana all take turns talking to themselves and saying what exactly it is they are seeing.
Writer Alan Barnes has a tough task on his hands as events switch to the anti-time universe, a place in which the known laws of physics cease to exist. This is an abstract notion, and while it may be possible on screen to at least show some of the effects this has, describing everything that goes on with just words and sounds is an immense undertaking and, while it’s not done completely seamlessly, it’s hard to imagine any better way for the effect to be achieved. It’s instead a testament to the writing that the entire concept doesn’t fall flat.
By far the most successful aspect of ‘Neverland,’ however, is the characterization of the Time Lords, here portrayed at their most ruthless and detestable. In particular Coordinator Vansell, played again by Anthony Keetch in a reprisal of the role from ‘The Apocalypse Element’ is a particularly distasteful joy to hear. Once more eager to verbally spar with the Doctor and unafraid to point out that this entire situation is the Doctor’s doing, Vansell’s path as events shift to the anti-time universe is a fascinating one to behold. As he becomes infected with anti-time, his insubordination and ambition takes on an entirely new conceit as he turns on Romana, eventually sacrificing her to the Neverland citizens in exchange for what he believes to be Rassilon. This is all the more interesting since he still proclaims his loyalty- albeit a loyalty to his planet and people rather than to his President- is unwavering. Yet while Vansell does manage a modicum of redemption as he chooses to sacrifice his life once he realizes that he has become a key component in the destruction of Gallifrey, his misguided sense of self-importance is his downfall, and even though it’s clear that the Doctor will not miss him, future stories featuring Gallifrey surely will.
The surprising appearance of Rassilon works very well here, Don Warrington’s deep and dignified tones encapsulating what Rassilon stands for perfectly. His scenes with the Doctor are easily some of the most memorable, especially as he asks the Doctor to justify his actions. Though Rassilon has been seen so infrequently on screen, his importance to Time Lord society and to the Doctor himself make it genuinely touching when Rassilon decrees that the Doctor has honoured him after more recent events are discussed.
Each of the main characters also fares well in terms of scripting and performances. Lalla Ward returns to the role of Romana effortlessly, also returning to the role of true companion in a sense when Charley is held by the CIA. It’s clear that the Presidency and the severity of events are wearing on her as she seems more short-tempered than usual, but her enduring trust in the Doctor is great to behold, and her talking and planning with the Doctor provides a greater sense of nostalgia than any of the other story references throughout.
It’s the Doctor and Charley that form the heart of the events, though. As events unravel and it becomes clear just how much is going wrong because of Charley’s survival in ‘Storm Warning,’ India Fisher does a superb job in portraying the necessary emotion as she begins to understand and accept her fate. Her willingness to accept whatever the Time Lords choose is heartbreaking, even more so as she begs the Doctor to kill her to stop these events. The Doctor, of course, is unable to kill a companion he cares for so much even if it means saving the rest of the universe. While Sentris is quick to gloat that the Doctor has threated the very web of time because he is unwilling to bloody his hands, the Doctor instead chooses to make the ultimate sacrifice himself as he takes the anti-time casket into his TARDIS.
The ending makes good on the continued mentionings of Zagreus that have emerged in several earlier releases. Charley had earlier realized that the myth of Zagreus had pervaded many more cultures than just Gallifrey, certainly setting him up to be an almighty foe. And yet, despite the numerous times his name is said in ‘Neverland,’ it still comes as a genuine surprise when Charley enters the TARDIS only to find that the Doctor has become Zagreus. McGann’s Doctor is such an enthusiastic and calm gentleman that it’s incredibly effective to hear his voice filled with such power and ire. This cliffhanger is one of the most successful in all of Doctor Who’s history, and amply whets the appetite for further adventures and the eventual fortieth anniversary special ‘Zagreus.’
‘Neverland’ is not a perfect story by any means, suffering from too many continuity references and relegating many of its supporting cast to extreme background roles, but it’s also incredibly effective in managing the Charley survival arc and creating an exciting path going forward. Tales that set out to be epic often fail, but ‘Neverland’ is an incredibly engaging tale filled with strong central performances and intriguing central ideas.