Released November 2003
It had been eighteen months since the cliffhanger ending to ‘Neverland’ put the Eighth Doctor in a totally new and frightful position, and with no concrete information from advance publicity or trailers, nobody was quite sure what to expect from the fortieth anniversary special that was going to involve everyone who had ever played the Doctor or a companion. While there was undeniable trepidation that this would lead to an inordinate amount of fan service at the sacrifice of the story itself, writer Gary Russell assured everyone that would not be the case.
Following a quite lengthy recap of the events of ‘Neverland,’ the first half of ‘Zagreus’ is essentially a series of virtual reality segments as Charley tries to learn about the Divergence. This ultimately ends up being a bit unnecessary given that almost everything is more fully explained later, but this is also the device that allows so many actors from the television series to become involved in events, unfortunately not always in the most interesting or well-rounded of roles. The one exception here, surprisingly, is Bonnie Langford, who is absolutely stellar in her evil cameo. The continuity references- for better or for worse- only become more overt as events progress. The TARDIS manifests itself as the Brigadier, and the trip to Gallifrey brings back Louise Jameson as Leela, John Leeson as K9, and Lalla Ward and Romana. Matrix recreations of the Death Zone bring back the famous chessboard scene from ‘The Five Doctors,’ and references aplenty to the likes of Daleks, Drashigs, Quarks, Morbius, Omega, Borusa, and Rassilon pervade the audio.
The references to the past work to different effects. They are undeniably going to keep any casual listener or casual fan from fully enjoying or even understanding the story, and even for the most dedicated of fans they often seem present just to pad out the running time to create an epic release. That said, the afore-mentioned actors who reprise their actual characters are superb in the roles, as is Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. The singular aspect that will forever stand out, though, is the inclusion of Jon Pertwee- despite his death several years before- through previously unknown recordings. While the sound is a bit muffled and quiet due to the source material, this is a genuinely touching inclusion that does more than any other reference to the past manages to achieve. The teamup of the Big Finish classic Doctors- Peter Davison playing Reverend Matthew Townsend, Colin Baker playing Lord Tepesh, and Sylvester McCoy playing Walton Winkle- realizing why they know so much alongside Paul McGann occurs too late to save the story from itself and its burden of continuity.
One of the biggest complaints about Big Finish’s early releases was the overreliance on clumsy and protracted exposition, and unfortunately that rears its head again here for the first time in a long while. While the Eight Doctor/Zagreus yelling at the TARDIS is actually quite effective, the Doctor talking to himself and arguing with Zagreus inside his own mind is much less so, becoming even worse when the Doctor realises that the TARDIS is also Zagreus. The hardly-masked allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Disney throughout these scenes is too blatant and almost on the verge of parody. Surely there is a more effective and more concise manner of setting the scene than the dubious sequence of talking and virtual reality sequences presented here.
The three classic Doctor actors are afforded much more time in the audio than the past companions, each capturing the essence of his character while playing the previously mentioned different roles. Davison perhaps fares best as Townsend, a man of faith who is having a crisis of faith as he wants to understand the universe as the Divergence breaks through and arrives. Colin Baker, cast in a villainous role as Tepesh, unfortunately goes way over the top in his delivery, though that is as much down to the script and its pompous dialogue as the actor himself, a shame since, thematically, his sequence is the most important to the story as a whole. Sylvester McCoy’s sequence is also riddled with dodgy dialogue, though his makes him overplay the madness and corniness of Winkle with only tiny forays into more serious despair and drama.
Paul McGann and India Fisher do the best with what they’re presented as well, but even their great presences and chemistry cannot redeem the story fully. McGann, in particular, spends most of his time wandering about the TARDIS talking to himself and eventually alternating between the Doctor and Zagreus before entering the Divergent universe. Fisher as Charley is allowed to portray the full gamut of emotions from rebelliousness to sacrifice, and while the mystery of the paradox of her survival is resolved, she still manages to sneak aboard the TARDIS to join the Doctor in the Divergent universe for ongoing adventures.
Don Warrington reprises his role of Rassilon from ‘Neverland,’ and writers Gary Russell and Alan Barnes offer some revision and further insight into his history. There’s no denying Rassilon’s importance and power, but the script’s choice to have him so manic and corrupt differs from previous accounts quite substantially. To be fair, accounts of Omega prior to the Doctor’s meeting him were much the same, but Rassilon here is written as a hypocrite and bigot. Unfortunately, despite revealing that Rassilon exiled the Divergence from this universe, it is never explained properly if this is because the Divergent race threatened his own personal power or because they would ultimately destroy the universe. Knowing the motivation could have added much needed understanding to Rassilon’s conversion to extreme madness.
‘Zagreus,’ then is a controversial release, especially for a momentous anniversary special. It certainly manages to bring together past Doctors and companions alike in rather interesting circumstances, but the clunky exposition, overblown and contrite dialogue, and unexplained motivations of key characters all hinder it substantially. Still, the end result of sending the Eighth Doctor and Charley into an entirely new universe undoubtedly brings up exciting possibilities.