Two Universes of Angst (Charley Pollard Year 3)

“SEASON 3” (2003)
Only two Doctor and Charley stories were released by Big Finish in 2003, and while they continued into 2004 fairly soon after, I thought I’d look at these two separately because they represented such a massive change to the dynamic of the characters, and because the 2004 stories introduced a new companion.

50. Zagreus
Written By: Alan Barnes & Gary Russell
Starring: Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor), India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
Interesting Guest Star Alert: Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Anneke Wills, Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, Louise Jamieson, John Leeson, Lalla Ward, Sarah Sutton, Mark Strickson, Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred, Caroline Morris, Conrad Westmaas, Maggie Stables, Lisa Bowerman, Stephen Fewell, Robert Jezek, Miles Richardson, Don Warrington.

I found myself arguing with a friend recently that Zagreus could actually be an interesting model for the 50th anniversary Whatever – it takes place entirely in the TARDIS, has a strong focus around the current Doctor and companion, but also makes a place for multiple cameos and small but meaty roles for a huge number of returning Doctor and companion actors.

This three-disc extravaganza was made to celebrate Big Finish’s 50th play in the main range, and of course the 40th anniversary of Doctor Who itself. It was also two months after the announcement that Doctor Who was coming back, which means that the fandom who largely supported these plays would have been surfing a wave of nostalgia, delight, excitement, trepidation and extreme fear for the future.

Remember, we didn’t know yet that it was coming back good.

Zagreus is a glorious, messy celebration of everything that made Big Finish good in its first five years or so, and particularly “their” Doctors.

The premise is that the Doctor has been possessed by a Gallifreyan fairytale monster, Zagreus, and is fighting for his own identity. The TARDIS is likewise struggling with invasion, and deals with this by showing Charley a series of vignettes from the entire span of Gallifreyan history, including the first days of Rassilon’s success in turning mere Gallifreyans into Time Lords (with bonus vampire diplomacy and mystic sisterhood interference), a far future at the end of the universe where the animatronic characters of a defunct amusement park on the ruins of Gallifrey are fighting over the body of their creator, and most crucially, the moment when a group of well-meaning scientists broke a hole into a Divergent Universe and caused this whole crisis in the first place.

All this is tangled up with elements of a particular book which is significant to Charley herself: an edition of Alice in Wonderland given to her as a child. And yes, both the Doctor and Charley represent Alice.

Glorious, complicated, messy.

The pleasure in each of these three set pieces is that the TARDIS is using its memory banks to construct the scenes Matrix-style, and thus the parts are being played not by their original participants, but by past Doctors and the companions they travelled with. So we hear Peter Davison as a batty scientist with the people around him played by Turlough, Nyssa, Peri and Erimem; Colin Baker as an evil vampire lord with Peri, Evelyn and Mel playing the priestesses and vampire assistants around him (at least one of which gets eaten in the process of the story) and Sylvester McCoy in a deeply creepy turn as a dirty old Walt Disney type, woken from cryogenic sleep to see his beloved cartoon animals at war – with Ace, Bernice and Mel playing a variety of those cartoon animals and fairies. Yes, really.

See how this could be a way to bring in old actors to a 50th anniversary special on the telly?

Meanwhile, President Romana is approached by an older and mysterious Leela, whom she has never met despite them both residing (mostly) on Gallifrey – Leela has been living among mystics outside the Capitol, and has a message of great import. The relationship between these two women, so very different in every regard except their history with the Doctor, is a wonderful aspect of this story. The civilised politician and the emotional savage clash constantly, and yet learn to respect each other’s way of doing things so that we are left at the end with a hint of the relationship that would make the Gallifrey series so enjoyable.

Other cameos that pop up include Anneke Wills and Elisabeth Sladen as Charley’s mother and headmistress respectively, in a sequence that takes her through what the response actually was to her disappearance when she stowed away on the R101 airship. Conrad Westmaas who was shortly to become the new Eighth Doctor companion at Charley’s side plays the Cheshire Cat.

Most delightfully of all, eight years before The Doctor’s Wife, Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier plays the personification of the TARDIS, kindly and helpful to Charley at first, but beginning to crack under the pressure. Because, frankly, after forty years of serving the Doctor as faithfully as she can, the TARDIS herself has rather a lot to say about, for instance, being sacrificed to save Charley in the previous story.

I think that you would need to either have a very strong knowledge of Classic Who OR have listened to a lot of the early Big Finish plays in order to really enjoy this one, but both is probably not required – I certainly listened to it very early on in my Big Finish adventure, and I don’t believe it makes MORE sense now that I’ve listened to nearly everything they have in their archive.

Zagreus is a crazy, surreal, delightful romp, with the Doctor’s very identity at stake. It contains such marvels as a scene in which the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors await the spirit of the Eighth after he has apparently died, and speculate upon what the next regeneration will bring, assuming there is one at all.

At the end, though, of course, the story is about the Eighth Doctor and Charley, and the crisis that brought them here in the first place. She is a paradox, he is a Time Lord, and someone has to sacrifice themselves to stop the Divergent Universe from destroying our own.

Guess who?

52. Scherzo
Written By: Robert Shearman
Starring: Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor), India Fisher (Charley Pollard)

This is the one I didn’t want to listen to again. Sorry, Rob! It’s a masterpiece, but it’s utterly horrid, and every minute of it is uncomfortable to listen to. This isn’t a criticism. I’m entirely sure that every disturbing layer of horribleness is intentional.

The Doctor is free of the Zagreus possession but still seems to be suffering through a mental breakdown. He sacrificed himself for his own universe, exiling himself to a whole new universe which may well not even have the right stuff to support him as a life form. Never mind oxygen and gravity, this universe doesn’t have time and certainly does not have any possibility of time travel, and that has driven the Doctor over the edge.

Charley, not willing to let him go into exile alone, has stowed away aboard the TARDIS. But the TARDIS herself has become dangerous and unstable in this timeless universe, and the Doctor and Charley have to abandon her, stepping out into the unknown.

If you have ever complained about the lack of realism in science fiction which always assumes that the alien planet will have breathable air and other convenient life supporting networks, and how easily they all communicate with each other… well. Never has an alien planet been more alien. Together, Charley and the Doctor walk through a light so bright that they cannot see, and gradually realise that they are being robbed of all senses but sound.

Sound is the villain here, the alien menace, and it wants to know what makes them tick.

Worst of all, their friendship has irretrievably fractured, with the Doctor resenting Charley for making his sacrifice meaningless, and Charley resenting the Doctor for claiming her loved her without necessarily knowing what the words meant to her.

What they have to do to survive is awful, repulsive, and confronting. If you have a problem with body horror, gruesome consumption of raw meat and, well, gore, then you may struggle with this. I certainly did. It also has what has to be, hands down, the most disturbing possible Doctor-companion kiss. Of all time. Never to be beaten.

The whole play is intelligent, beautifully written, and conveys the idea of ‘alien’ in many different ways. Its use of the audio format, of sound to terrify and to comfort, and its explosion of nearly every Doctor Who/science fiction trope of all kinds is all brilliant.

I still hate it. Yes, it ends with friendship renewed and a sense of hope in this utterly alien universe ahead of them, but I still had to bribe myself to get through every episode. It’s good, I’m not sure Doctor Who has ever been this good before, but it’s so sad and menacing and unsettling that it made my teeth hurt.

Great science fiction, but it scars the soul.

Charley “Season One” reviewed here: Airships, A.I. and Alastair Gordon You Know Who
Charley “Season Two” reviewed here: Chimes, Time and Gallifreyan Rhymes

2 replies on “Two Universes of Angst (Charley Pollard Year 3)”

  1. Rob Shearman says:

    Scherzo is a hard child to love, I think! I’d never go as far as to say I *regret* writing it, but I think it’s something of a failed experiment. I wanted to see if I could push Doctor Who into a real alien environment – not only fictionally, but structurally, to see if I could do something that was truly minimalist. And I think you *can* do that, but I’m not sure I found out why it was necessary. Going minimalist means you make the drama so introspective you can do nothing but be navel-gazing – and navel-gazing ain’t fun, and shouldn’t Doctor Who be fun?

    In my defence, I had to write it about a year before Zagreus was written, so I was pretty much feeling around in the dark! I had no idea what the tone of Zagreus would be, and I don’t think it follows on well. In all honesty, Scherzo takes the series up a rather uncomfortable blind alley. It has lots of fans that respect it (which is terribly gratifying) – but I’m not sure there’s much point to it, and I don’t want to hear it again either! (Mind you, I don’t want to hear *any* of the stories I’ve written again – but that’s just usual squirmy hatred of old material stuff!)

  2. TansyRR says:

    Hi Rob!

    I think the play works quite well in that it plumbs the absolute depths of raw emotion and makes no one, least of all the Doctor and Charley, want to return ever again!

    I wouldn’t class it as a failed experiment, though that’s not for me to say – you’re the one who knows what you were trying to do with it! It actually does a brilliant job of expressing a thoroughly alien environment but it also stands, I think, as a really good argument to not do such things very often.

    Scherzo is definitely not fun, but I don’t think you should regret it at all.

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