Sorry this one is ‘slightly’ more than a week after my last BFAW – to make up for it I’m going to review the longest of all the Big Finish stories: Zagreus.
In 1973, when Doctor Who was ten years old, an anniversary story was shown which, for the first time, brought multiple incarnations of the Doctor together. It was called The Three Doctors but really should have been called The Two Doctors as it only featured William Hartnell in a cameo – he was very ill and didn’t have long to live. It was a rather risible story, with a terrible script only enlivened by the interaction between Pertwee and Troughton. It had a Time Lord as the villain, and featured Shocking Revelations about Time Lord history.
In 1983, there was a twentieth anniversary story. It was called The Five Doctors but really should have been called The Three Doctors as it only featured William Hartnell in a brief clip from an old episode – he was replaced by actor Richard Hurndall for the show – and Tom Baker refused to take part and was again only represented by a clip (from the then-unaired Douglas Adams scripted Shada). It was a rather risible story, with a terrible script only enlivened by the interaction between Pertwee and Troughton. It had a Time Lord as the villain, and featured Shocking Revelations about Time Lord history. (It’s actually rather fun, if you just like seeing Cybermen and Daleks and Yetis and the Master appear at random and be dispatched for no plot-relevant reason…)
In 1993 the show had been off the air for four years. Nonetheless, it was decided to do a multi-Doctor anniversary show. This one featured all the then-living Doctors (Hartnell and Troughton were represented by rather unconvincing busts) in a plot that featured a Time Lord as a villain. In a shocking twist, it had no Shocking Revelations – instead it was two ten-minute episodes that were done in 3D and were a crossover with Eastenders (a popular soap opera).
Yet for some reason, people were expecting Zagreus, which featured all four of the Doctors who take part in Big Finish’s range, was Big Finish’s fiftieth Doctor Who audio, and came out in 2003, to be good…
Zagreus is really difficult to review, because it’s so long (4 hours), and so convoluted, and based on the assumption that the listener remembers every detail of Big Finish’s previous Paul McGann audios, that it’s almost literally incomprehensible. On top of that it throws in in-jokes about how it’s not in the same continuity as the novels, and fanwanky references to earlier stories, especially The Five Doctors. I’ve listened to it five times , and I’m still not sure what’s actually meant to be happening. ( If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Wikipedia entry and see if the synopsis makes the slightest sense – it’s considerably more comprehensible than the actual audio is). Not only this, but large parts of the story merely rework bits of Alice In Wonderland (a wonderful book, but there should be a law against ever referencing it in anything ever again, it’s so over-quoted).
So we have a story in which almost everything that happens is an illusion created by the TARDIS, which has gone bad under the influence of Rassilon, and so Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy don’t play the Doctor at all, but rather holographic projections of historical characters from the Who universe that the TARDIS merely makes look and act like older incarnations of the Doctor. Meanwhile, Paul McGann plays the Doctor as possessed by Zagreus (a spirit of ‘anti-time’), so possibly this should be called ‘the no Doctors’ (although the late Jon Pertwee does cameo with bits of audio from a fan video flown in).
I don’t like to criticise anything as obviously ambitious as this, but it does show the problem with the McGann audios very strongly. McGann is excellent as the Doctor, and many of the stories have potential, but they’re all built on the modern (post-Babylon 5/Buffy ) model of science fiction as soap opera, structured much like the X-Men comics of the 70s and 80s where it’s expected you’re familiar with everything the character has ever previously been in. The McGann stories have several long ‘story arcs’, and unless you listen to every one in sequence you’re going to be totally lost.
To its credit, that is one of the few things that nuWho has actually got right – while there are nods to longer ‘arcs’ (the Time War, Bad Wolf, etc) they’re mostly thrown in as little extra bits for people to find. Each story is relatively self-contained, and while part of a larger series can stand alone (to the extent that any nuWho stories stand up at all, which is minimal).
It’s a shame, because so much of this *could* be good. Two of the three smaller stories (about a rip in reality in the 1950s, and about a race of vampires who existed at the dawn of Time Lord history) have the potential to be quite good if they were turned into longer, fuller stories (the third, about a war between animatronic robots in a theme park at the end of time, is not only bad in itself, but rips off a not-very-good episode of Red Dwarf which was in its turn heavily ‘inspired’ by Michael Crichton’s Westworld). Don Warrington gives a marvellous performance as Rassilon (an inspired choice for the part – for those who don’t know him, Warrington is roughly a British James Earl Jones, someone whose voice just oozes gravitas and importance, as well as being one of our greatest actors), and we have dozens of people who’ve appeared in Doctor Who in the past – but almost none of them are playing their usual roles, and the characters they’re given aren’t especially interesting ones.
It’s an ambitious failure, but it definitely *is* a failure, and I wish I could say more positive things about it.