Zagreus sits inside your head.
Zagreus lives amongst the dead
Zagreus sees you in your bed
And eats you when you’re sleeping.
Zagreus was certainly in the first five Big Finish releases that I listened to. When I started to seriously listen to their output, I was working nights in retail with nothing to keep me amused except for music, podcasts and audio drama and having enjoyed The Light At The End, Big Finish’s release to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary, as well as being a fan of multi-Doctor stories, I opted to purchase this story. Anyone who has worked night shifts will be able to attest that the experience is thoroughly discombobulating, so my initial reaction was probably one of disorientation and confusion. Having given it multiple chances since then, I can only conclude that Zagreus is disorientating, a bit frustrating and nasty in places. Whilst there is nothing wrong with Big Finish experimenting, here it feels overly indulgent and a waste of the superb build-up from the previous story.
Zagreus is definitely an outlier when it comes to anniversary stories, as it certainly feels different to The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors and The Day of the Doctor. Whilst it features more returning actors than any other, very few of them are playing the roles for which they are best known within the universe of Doctor Who, including three of the actors who play the Doctor. The story mechanic that allows this is the holographic projections that the TARDIS uses to protect Charley from the anti-time infected Eighth Doctor, originally based around an Alice in Wonderland compendium and evolving into a search for the history of the Divergence and their universe, whilst also delving into Gallifreyan history. It is almost as though there are too many different ideas here, and none of them are really strong enough to justify a near 4 hour running time. Gary Russell and Alan Barnes feel as though they have thrown not only the kitchen sink into this story but the contents of most of the house as well, with allusions to a multiverse including content from the Eighth Doctor novels and comics added to the mix. In a way, it’s no surprise that it can feel like a self-indulgent piece of fanfiction – which is being kind considering some other comments towards it that I’ve come across. Unlike say, The Day of the Doctor, which feels like a love letter, it feels like Zagreus doesn’t like Doctor Who at all at times, especially anniversary stories like The Five Doctors. There are some quite bleak scenes here, like the TARDIS shell being melted down to create a sword which is used to kill Reverend Townsend, Tepesh and Walton Winkle and the TARDIS image of the Brigadier torturing the Eighth Doctor. This is certainly not a story aimed at the younger end of the show’s audience and certainly feels as though the writers think its more impressive than it is. Gary Russell even states that he regards it as being more sophisticated than The Five Doctors, which in my opinion will always be a better story! The story is also lacking largely in moments of humour, despite attempts at parody, such as the character of Walton Winkle and his theme park acting as pastiche for Walt Disney and Disneyland but it is largely unsuccessful.
This story certainly has a villain problem, with the titular villain being demoted to a lackey for Rassilon. Even Rassilon himself is a bit more generic than he was in the previous story, but is perhaps more recognisable to those familiar with the character from the modern series. Like Omega and Borusa before him, Rassilon turns out to be just another corrupt Time Lord, leaving the Doctor disenchanted with Gallifreyan heroic figures. Warrington does well with the material that he is given, however, and is quite menacing in the scenes that he is in, but it is disappointing that the father of the Time Lords is in the same mould as it makes the Time Lords seem more one dimensional. Then we have the Brigadier avatar, representing the TARDIS’s anti-time infection, which seems ultimately flawed in its characterisation and ultimately redeems itself. The story even goes so far to misunderstand and misinterprets the Doctor-TARDIS relationship, with the faithful ship being portrayed as jealous of the Doctor’s companions.
With a large cast of Who alumni, most of whom are playing different roles, with the companions taking part in the holographic projections built around their respective Doctors. There is a sense that some of the actors are enjoying the chance to play different characters, however, none of them are fleshed out enough and they are all ill-fated. Elisabeth Sladen and Anneke Wills are here to act as representatives of the early era of the show. While there is a feeling of all the cast putting in their own, they are let down by the script. Possibly the most noticeable of these is one of Bonnie Langford’s two roles here, playing Cassandra, where she is basically there to spew exposition before being killed by vampires from State of Decay. The weak script means that it is difficult for the majority to really shine, but Nicola Bryant manages it whilst playing Doctor Stone in her natural speaking voice and Nicholas Courtney seems to relish playing the anti-time infected TARDIS image of the Brigadier, even if he has one of the worst lines about the companions leaving underwear over the ship’s floors. It is a shame, considering that some of the actors here are no longer with us, that we don’t get a story where they all get to play their original roles and it is certainly a relief when Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson and John Leeson turn up at the end of Heartland playing their original roles. In fact, Jameson gets one of the few moments of humour when she believes that the Brigadier avatar has mortally wounded her, only to reveal that the gun shots have only winged her.
Tell the Doctor and I shall burst your eyeballs with my thumbs.Leela
Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy have a bit more of the focus than their companions, even if they are playing different characters for most of it. Davison and Baker fare better for most of it, as the sections at Cardington and ancient Gallifrey go on for a little bit longer than McCoy’s theme park. Davison’s Reverend Townsend has queried his faith and Davison imbues the character with charm and a believable desire to pursue science to explore God’s work. Baker is good as the world weary vampire Lord Tepesh, who gets to chew the scenery whilst investigating what Rassilon has got planned for the universe. Winkle is a bit more one dimensional character with hints of perversion, but there are hints at a tragedy in his younger life which I would have liked to have seen explored a bit more. McGann and Fisher are largely wasted by this story. The Eighth Doctor spends most of the story talking to himself – or a distorted Third Doctor – and screaming, which is not really playing to his strengths, whilst Charley is largely a passenger through the environments she experiences, not really offering anything to the story. I think both of them are trying but are not given much leeway by the script, which is perhaps best demonstrated by the break-up scene, which is one of the worst scenes in the whole story. The Divergent Universe arc is an interesting idea, with the Doctor told that there will be no way back for him – I know that the Eighth Doctor will eventually find a way back, but I’m intrigued to see what happens in this new universe. It can’t be worse than this.
Verdict: Zagreus sadly fails to deliver on the premise delivered by the end of Neverland. The cast give it their all, but they can’t save this mess. 2/10
Cast: Peter Davison (Reverend Matthew Townsend), Colin Baker (Lord Tepesh), Sylvester McCoy (Walton Winkle), Paul McGann (Zagreus), India Fisher (Charley Pollard), Lalla Ward (Romana), Louise Jameson (Leela), Don Warrington (Rassilon), Nicholas Courtney (The TARDIS/Brigadier Image), Jon Pertwee (The Doctor), Anneke Wills (Lady Louisa Pollard), Stephen Perring (Receptionist), Elisabeth Sladen (Miss Lime), Conrad Westmaas (The Cat), Mark Strickson (Captain McDonnell), Sarah Sutton (Miss Foster), Nicola Bryant (Stone/Ouida), Caroline Morris (Mary Elson), Maggie Stables (The Great Mother), Bonnie Langford (Cassandra/Goldilocks), Robert Jezek (The Recorder), Stephen Fewel (Corporal Heron), Sophie Aldred (Captain Duck), Lisa Bowerman (Sergeant Gazelle), Miles Richardson (Cardinal Braxiatel) & John Leeson (K-9).
Writers: Alan Barnes & Gary Russell
Director: Gary Russell
Parts: 3 (Wonderland, Heartland and Wasteland)
Behind the Scenes
- The 50th release of the Big Finish Monthly Range and released to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Doctor Who’s first broadcast. Despite being release number 50, it was actually released after the 51st release
- The cast includes every Doctor and companion who had worked with Big Finish at this time, though India Fisher, Lalla Ward, John Leeson and Louise Jameson play their original roles. Nicholas Courtney plays a TARDIS image of the Brigadier, while Paul McGann is credited as Zagreus only.
- Jon Pertwee appears thanks to his appearance in fan-made story Devious. Despite the appearances of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann, Pertwee is the only actor credited as playing the Doctor.
- Peter Davison, Paul MCGann, Nicholas Courtney and India Fisher are the only actors to appear in all three parts.
- The only full appearances of K-9 and Irving Braxatiel in the Big Finish Main Range and the first appearances of K-9 and Leela in any Big Finish audios. This would be Leela’s only appearance in the Main Range until Time in Office in 2017.
- The only appearance of Elisabeth Sladen in the Main Range prior to her death in April 2011 and her only Big Finish appearance in a story featuring a Doctor.
- The Eighth Doctor makes reference to John Polidori and events at Villa Diodati, which would appear in two Doctor Who stories: Mary’s Story and The Haunting of Villa Diodati.
- The second longest Big Finish release, with a 3 hours and 55 minutes runtime.. The longest is UNIT: Dominion, clocking in at 3 hours and 58 minutes.
You gave in. You gave up. And whatever we do, we never ever ever give up.The Sixth, Fifth and Seventh Doctors
Previous Eighth Doctor review: Neverland
Zagreus is available to listen to on Spotify, or to purchase from the Big Finish website.