Friday, January 23, 2015

The Big Finale, after the other Big Explosive entry - Zagreus

Zagreus is... is not what I expected. After the epic that was “Sirens of Time” that started Big Finish, I expected their 50th audio drama celebration to match. Especially as they were now bringing in McGann so we had Doctors Five through Eight all together.

Except we don't. We have Eight and the TARDIS mad with Anti-Time power, calling themselves Zagreus with Charley somehow meant to stop them. So the TARDIS guides her, around time and space trying to understand the mystery of the name, with a rather interesting way of presenting those histories.

On one level it's a mid-season episode. A fun diversion taking place almost entirely in the TARDIS, dealing with the repercussions of the explosive finale of “Neverland”, and bathing in Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland.

But at the same time the whole thing is fan-wank at its height. Or it's a celebration of everything Who. Your Mileage might vary on that one.

Except what Charley goes through is pretty epic, and more than that she's the one in charge. The Doctor's struggling to keep his head together, going from stark raving bonkers, to realising he's out of control. Charley has to figure out what's going on, but she's has help from the TARDIS itself. Years before Neil Gaiman decided to anthropomorphize the TARDIS into the Doctor's Wife, Big Finish did it by turning it into the Brigadier. Partly the form is to ensure trust from Charley, the other is the TARDIS can only conjure images from its own past. Along the way we meet old faces so 'Charley can solve the problem' or it can figure out just where the most vulnerable moment of time is.

The Sixth Doctor, Peri and Evelyn are the final enemies of Rassilon. Ace, Mel and Benny as fighters in a storybook war, all set in motion by the Seventh Doctor as a Walt Disney stand-in. It even goes through the different variations of the theme tunes for each part. Hell, we even get the Third Doctor as a disembodied voice trying to help the Eighth Doctor (Pertwee's voice taken from some fan Who production). Which is a bloody great touch actually.

For me, it sort of falls right in the middle. The excuse is perfectly valid, the use of the four Doctors is well done, but it just goes too far. Big Finish pull every single long term actor they have for this and give them time to shine. To put it into perspective it's the final moments of “Day of the Doctor”, with all 13 Doctors teaming up to save Gallifrey. But that was two minutes in a 75 minutes presentation. This is the whole four hours.

It’s as if someone wanted to give all of the companions and Doctors their own episodes, when the same could be achieved with a scene or two. Certainly the McCoy section suffered the worst and the storybook/theme park angle was dragged out far further than was necessary.

To be fair though, the final hour drops most except for Romana, carrying on from the end of Neverland; Leela, another companion I have no idea about and her very presence on Gallifrey confuses me but that's my own failing; Rassilon; Brig-Tardis; The Eighth Doctor and the three aspects as performed by Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy who team up with Charley. Which sounds a lot, but it works, mostly because of the set-up we'd had already.

Obviously most people would feel cheated if three Doctors turned up without actually being the Doctor though. So they do get a chance. And we're eased into it. First the holograms are revealed to be aspects of the Doctor, which is fairly obvious. But they're quickly dealt with, but then we get what feels like the true end, and Eight gets to have a chat with them in a dream-like sequence. Importantly, we don't have a proper 5-8 team-up, which is something to look forward to.

The TARDIS face-heel turn is done wonderfully, and picking the Brigadier to be the voice of the TARDIS is genius. Everything is done to make you believe the Doctor is going evil-crazy battling the force of Zagreus, and it's him that's a danger to Charley and time itself. When it's revealed to not quite be the case you've been hooked into believing exactly what the writer's wanted you to be, and part of that is purely the casting choice.

Of course, Rassilon continues playing his evil turn here from 'Neverland', though his presence is kept quiet till late in the game. How this can match up with New Who remains to be seen, as again it continues on into what I'm calling 'season 2'. It does seem that the serial manages to paint it as completely feasible that the Matrix is to blame for this, and there's a version of Rassilon still sitting in the Forbidden Zone. Maybe. There's a little bit of wriggle room, but not really. We'll have to wait and see.

However, the reveal from “The End of Time” that Rassilon is a psychotic arsehole that got risen to greatness is made all the clearer here, and also manages to explain why ninety percent of aliens look fairly human. He not only stole regeneration from vampires, but wiped out any alien race that was too alien and seeded the Gallifreyan DNA throughout the universe so we all look a bit like them. That's one of those genius moves that excuse a lot of TV limitations. Oh, and the one race that couldn't be brought to heel got thrown into a pocket universe. The one the next season's taking place in. So it's a bit more understandable about his views on just wiping us out for Gallifrey.

“Zagreus” is a little long, and a little self indulgent. It does round things up nicely though. Once you hit the final hour I wouldn't change a thing. Just speed up the previous three. It does bring the 'first season' of McGann to a nice end, something that RTD would be proud of I think. But only because “Neverland” didn't finish properly, which would have been a more fitting finale. It also sets up the next season, with a totally new direction, and for my purposes, no connection to Classic Who, so post-Capaldi I can press on without any unfortunate Nimon-esque delays.

But it doesn't only set up McGann season 2 but also the Gallifrey mini-series. A show Big Finish does that follows Romana and Leela on the titular planet. Until I listened to “Zagreus” I didn't care about it, now I really want to listen to it. But I'm going to wait until I've actually watched some Leela.
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