The Doctor has defeated Rassilon, the architect of Gallifreyan society, in his attempt to destroy the world that he helped make. He has also repelled the sentient forces of ‘anti-time’ as they threatened the entire universe. He also saved the life of his friend Charley, who could have been killed by Rassilon, the anti-time energy or the Gallifreyan Supreme Council as she was the living conduit through which destruction operated. The Doctor and Charley also expressed their love for each other which prevented the Doctor from sacrificing Charley. He did all of this, but at a price. Infected with anti-time, he vowed to depart from the universe he knew and never return. He asked Romana to take Charley back to Earth, to her home just before she was meant to die, and he left in his TARDIS, an exile.
Unknown to the Doctor, Charley had found a secret entrance to the TARDIS (with Leela’s help) and stowed away. But when she announced herself, it was revealed that the Doctor’s infection had transformed him into something else, the mythical force of evil known by the Time Lords as Zagreus. The Doctor was mad and determined to spread havoc throughout reality… if his best friend failed to stop him.
That may sound like a great story but… it’s the first two minutes of this three disc adventure. The remainder is absolutely absurd (and not in a good way). Assisted by the TARDIS, Charley is sent on a series of adventures throughout time and space, bearing witness to instances when anti-time threatened to break through into the positive reality. Playing the voice of the TARDIS is Nicholas Courtney, a lovely addition that brings a sense of comfort to the tale. However, that tinkly ‘magical moment’ music precedes nearly every line he has making what should be touching saccharine sweet.
The TARDIS also attempts to straighten the Doctor out by putting him in contact with his previous self, represented by sound bites of the late Jon Pertwee. This could very well be the worst of all the horrible ideas in this story. Pertwee’s dialog is barely audible and nonsensical. Never for a moment are you unaware that this is found audio material squeezed into the production.
The Doctor spends almost all of the three discs literally talking to himself and attempting to converse with entities that won’t reply. This means that McGann, who had just wrapped up an impressive run of adventures that endeared him to a fan base that finally had their 8th Doctor, was reduced to screaming ‘I am Zagreus!’ ‘Cat???!! CAT!!!??’ or ‘Ship!!! SHIP???!!’ over and over. It’s painful to witness.
Additionally, the adventure of Zagreus is mainly a psychedelic trip that gets more implausible as it progresses. The cast consists of nearly every voice actor who had featured in a Big Finish production for the Doctor Who series, all playing bizarre characters. This is the only saving grace of the entire incredibly long story. Nicola Bryant plays a thigh-slapping mad scientist, Peter Davison plays a religiously conflicted experimental genius, Maggie Stables plays a crazy high priestess of the Sacred Flame and Sylvester McCoy plays some kind of weird Walt Disney-type creator, alone on a planet populated by his creations who are engaging in a centuries long war in his name.
All that said, it makes absolutely no sense. After the Doctor engages on several soul-searching quests and Charley travels from 20th Century Earth to ancient Gallifrey and finally to the middle of a cartoon animal global war, the TARDIS is revealed to be the real enemy. Not only that, it pisses and moans about the Doctor’s many female traveling companions leaving their dirty pants in the hallways.
That really happens. Is it worse than the Doctor’s Wife? No… but after being given such a humanized representation of the TARDIS, it’s painful to hear it talk about women’s underwear.
In addition the incredibly impressive performances, there are some other bright spots. The first story about the exploration into the rift in anti-time is almost interesting but the middle story about ancient Gallifrey is actually incredibly interesting. If Gary Russell and Alan Barnes had jettisoned the other two ideas and stuck with this, the only one that made any real sense, Zagreus might work. In this part, Charley finds herself in Rassilon’s laboratory as it is invaded by one of the Great Vampires and a Holy Mother of the Sisterhood of Karn.
Loads of information is dropped about regarding Rassilon’s creation of another race called the Divergence, a powerful threat that could eclipse the Time Lords given the chance. The Great Vampires and the Sisterhood of Karn are eager to humble Rassilon by destroying his foundry but end up getting caught in its auto destruction. In the ensuing confusion, Charley witnesses anti-time slipping through, represented by a tribal war cry.
The debacle reaches a nadir of badness when the Doctor ‘dies’ and meets his previous selves (well, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy) who bicker like old women about their lives and how they died. Then the Doctor somehow returns to life. Realizing he was manipulated by Rassilon to become Zagreus and destroy the Divergence, the Doctor and refused to play along and cast Rassilon into the pocket universe where he had hidden the Divergence.
The day is saved and the Doctor is with Charley again, but they are in a different universe where time and space do not flow in the same way that the Doctor is familiar with. New and truly alien threats face the pair in this alternate reality, but they will face them together.
I should note that I had to listen to this story three times (not in a row) to feel comfortable reviewing it. I think I deserve an award… or therapy. Whichever.
A bloated product overcome with terrible dialog (Krotons, Yeti and Drashigs? Oh My! Not Drashigs! Anything but Drashigs!) and worse ideas (the Doctor having an actual conversation with himself that amounts to an empty experience in fannish continuity references), Zagreus is the point when many fans of the Big Finish line jumped ship and never came back. I can truly understand why as this was a celebratory anniversary story that was hoisted on a large body of previous work. Not only is it badly made, it feels crass and in bad taste at times (the McCoy character repeatedly tries to force himself om Charley). It makes The Five Doctors look like The Third Man in comparison.
I can say from an informed position that this is not the end of Big Finish’s high quality output, just an unfortunate mis-step. A really unfortunate one.