Doctor Who: Zagreus (2003)
Gary Russell & Alan Barnes
Big Finish #50
Directed by: Gary Russell
Starring: Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, India Fisher, Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson, Nicholas Courtney, Anneke Wells, Elizabeth Sladen, Mark Strickson, Sarah Sutton, Nicola Bryant, Caroline Morris, Maggie Stables, Bonnie Langford, Robert Jezek, Sophie Aldred, Lisa Bowerman and John Leeson (amongst others)
You can guess from that cast list that this is something special. Not only is Zagreus the fiftieth story from Big Finish, it was released in November 2003, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who. Ostensibly the first in the third season of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor stories, and a conclusion to the Zagreus plot-line begun in Neverland (which ended with McGann’s Doctor consumed by and having become Zagreus), it soon encompasses five Doctors, including Jon Pertwee (who by this point had been dead for seven years!) and a whole host of former Doctor Who companions, including for the first time in the Big Finish range, Elizabeth Sladen, John Leeson and Louise Jameson. There is a caveat to all those names: none of them, apart from India Fisher and Paul McGann (and right at the end McCoy, Baker and Davison) play their ordinary character. Even McGann plays two roles. Zagreus, then, is an attempt to be big, bold and dramatic. But does it work?
The previous story, Neverland, made reference to Peter Pan. Zagreus makes reference to Alice in Wonderland. Charley Pollard, stuck and terrified aboard the TARDIS with Zagreus, is shown a moment from her past, a book, a copy of Alice in Wonderland, but not everything is as it appears. Zagreus, looking for a way out of the TARDIS, is drawn to the library, where the disembodied voice of Jon Pertwee guides him to a book that cannot be moved but by human (or Time Lord) hands. That book, yup, it’s Alice in Wonderland. So begins what is at times a truly ridiculous story, and at others a mind-boggling one. Charley is our Alice, and we follow her down the rabbit hole.
Charley is taken firstly to 1950s England, where on a military base a scientist is attempting to open a portal to another universe. Then she is taken to secret lab belonging to Rassilon, who was also attempting to open a portal to another universe, and where vampiric Time Lords await, and final to the end of time, where in an amusement park, robotic animals fight against nursery rhyme characters over the remains of their creator, a Walt Disney-esque figure called Walton “Uncle Winky” Winkle, before the heavens are torn apart by a portal from another universe. From even this concise a summing up, one can tell that Zagreus is pretty out there. Bonnie Langford playing Goldilocks, or Sophie Aldred as a duck – we got them all here.
Big Finish must certainly be applauded for attempting something so completely original for the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who – as I heard Alan Barnes and Gary Russell explaining in a making of, two or more Doctors teaming up to solve a problem has been done, and done to death, so something new was needed. Therefore having McCoy, Baker and Davison play new roles is entirely liberating: and I particularly loved Davison’s man of God, the Reverend Matthew Townsend, and he would make a great character in another story. Baker gets to overact wonderfully playing Provost Tepesh (in the making of he delights at the casting) and McCoy, well McCoy as Uncle Winky hints at such depths of weirdness I thought I’d wandered into a David Lynch audio-play.
So then, as a fortieth anniversary tribute – yes, it works. It gets the spirit of Doctor Who: Who has always been about myth and legend, science and faith, logic and instinct, and Zagreus plays on all of these, especially the first two. By ending in a world where fairytale battles constructed reality, having Charley Pollard become Alice, and having a monster, Zagreus, a monster that is entirely made out of myth, it allows Doctor Who to become symbolic, to become dramatic, and to become renewed.
As an opening for the beginning of a new season of stories of the Eighth Doctor – McGann must have been delighted to be getting such an opening, and such great lines (I particularly enjoyed they way in which the writers twisted an Alice in Wonderland trope into a discussion of quantum mechanics. The sort of thing you can only get away with in science-fiction. McGann seizes his dual role as The Doctor and Zagreus with relish, and proves again why he is and was chosen to play Doctor Who – and makes me yearn all the more for a chance to see him play the role on television again (he really would have been good). But it is in the final scenes, after Zagreus is gone, and The Doctor has changed because of the experience – that he accepted and yearned for death – that Zagreus truly comes to life. I had goosepimples listening to these final few minutes. At the time I was walking along a quiet beach, listening to this story, and I stopped, and watched the waves, and heard him say goodbye to Charley Pollard and it made me cry. I am sure that Russell T. Davies has heard this story, for its ending reminded me so much of The Tenth Doctors parting with Rose. Before Davies got there, Barnes and Russell have found a true emotional depth to Doctor Who.
With The Eighth Doctor off to explore the alternate universe, and forbidden to return by the Time Lords, a new beginning opens up for The Doctor. A new world of stories, a new world of legends…
But wait, who is that hiding onboard the TARDIS..? Charley Pollard, proving to be one of the great companions, just won’t take no as answer and isn’t quite done with The Doctor…
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