Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 050. Zagreus by Alan Barnes & Gary Russell (November 2003)

Never has the word “bloated” been more apt; never has so little been said in so many words, and yet so many individual nuggets been contained within. The seven-minute “previously” teaser – yes, that’s how much we need to be brought back up to speed – highlights how much is wrong with this knotty continuity. I loved Neverland but it was the archetypal problematic Part 1, terrifically exciting but setting up a very difficult job for the writers of Part 2. Zagreus is not just the resolution to the plotlines of June 2002, but finally delivers on the Zagreus rhyme teased way back in Project: Twilight in August 2001, and indeed closes the Charley arc which started way back in Storm Warning in January 2001. In other words, a lot of different things are riding on this finale: two seasons of McGann continuity need a resolution, plus the demands of writing a fun anniversary celebration in its own right. Is it any surprise it doesn’t work very well?
I mean, let’s be fair. Doctor Who anniversary stories are usually, if we’re being honest and objective, not all that great as pieces of drama. The Three Doctors is pretty good fun thanks to the performances but the plot is mostly dire, The Five Doctors is a mess of enjoyable set-pieces, we don’t even talk about Dimensions in Time… really only The Day of the Doctor is a triumph in my eyes, and that had the benefit of an enormous cinema-sized budget to paper over its cracks. Frankly, Zagreus was never going to be a masterpiece. Anniversary stories aren’t – they’re big and daft and messy and remind you why you enjoy the programme in the first place, so that you can get back to the more “regular” run of stories for the proper meat of things.

And there are definitely some charming, wonderful things about Zagreus. The Alice in Wonderland as an alternative to “boring stories about etiquette” is nice (the Jabberwocky is good fun) and it carries on from the Peter-Pan tone of Neverland rather well.  Davison, Baker and McCoy fare rather well in their alter ego roles, which are reasonably well chosen: Davison has just the right temperament for a youthful chaplain, Baker has “Lordship” written all over him and McCoy was born to play “the creator of Winkle’s Wonderland”; and they work terrifically together as you’d expect (and the idea that other people and other eccentric figures might be aspects of the Doctor is rather wonderful). In much the same way, Maggie Stables is terrific as the imperious Great Mother of the Sisterhood of Karn. I also really liked the Schrödinger’s Cat scene; Alice in Wonderland whimsy coupled with one of the 20th century’s most important principles of physics feels just right in Doctor Who, even if I wouldn’t want to see it often. The animatronic Wonderland is another great part of the story, a Gaimanesque dark fantasy, even if it is best enjoyed as a mini-adventure on its own rather than as something feeding into the main plot. And India Fisher, who gives one of her best performances throughout all this to anchor the entire thing, most notably her rallying the various Doctors, which is terrific.

Unfortunately Zagreus doesn’t *just* charm and delight us with random, messy cameos and a plot that doesn’t quite hold together – Barnes and Russell (and given I’ve liked Barnes so far, I can only imagine this is mostly Russell’s input) make some purely random and bizarre creative decisions, to wit: casting every actor to have ever appeared in Big Finish (well, that’s what it feels like) as characters other than the beloved ones we know them as (why? Why would you do that?); taking the worst technobabble excesses of Neverland and enhancing them tenfold; trying to explain regeneration as a quirk of Rassilon’s experiments; making the TARDIS the Doctor’s enemy, right down to it torturing him whilst in the form of the Brigadier, which could potentially be a very dark and gripping story but is awfully mishandled here; falling back on the anniversary-story banality of “Rassilon is evil but isn’t the Death Zone awesome”, as per; and the whole TARDIS/Doctor/Charley love triangle, dodgy as anything.

They also make the bizarre decision to let the thing run to four hours. Four sodding hours.

Perhaps worst of all, the writers dump a terrible burden on the great Paul McGann, giving him endless strung-out nonsense to play, mostly as a generic villain; and McGann just can’t do it. It’s a valiant effort but he sounds so confused and struggling with the material a lot of the time (how many times will his Doctor lose his memory and need to reclaim his sense of who he is?!). The scenes where he converses with the Zagreus part of himself are pretty poor and as the alleged main character he simply has very minimal engagement with the main story. It’s the prime example of letting one’s ideas and “what if”s take over any sense of how to actually structure a story properly. Things improve in the final third act, as he finally gets some meaty and dramatic scenes wrestling with his conscience, and there’s some good stuff opposite Charley, but he should have had stuff like this all the way through – McGann’s Doctor has been poorly served enough; he deserved better.

Zagreus is a dense stream of images, memories, snatches of scenes, a Salvador-Dali-esque cocktail of surreal fantasy and magical fiction, Lewis Carroll meets Salman Rushdie, draped in an atmospheric score – but not quite as good as that sounds. There’s nothing wrong with a nonsensical dream-scape and a fantastical sequence of images, but it needs to go somewhere, it needs to have some emotional resonance. In its drastic conflation of fictional worlds (see the Cheshire Cat and other Carollian things, for instance) it reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s brilliant Thursday Next novels – but it doesn’t have quite the same self-awareness or the wit. Sure, it’s not as bad as Minuet in Hell or Nekromanteia – there’s nothing here really to get offended about, nor is there sufficient material to write a 4,000-word essay about like Neverland. It’s not really good enough for that, and yet it’s also too fun to properly dislike. It just feels fan-made, amateurish and shoddy, admittedly with the added benefit of some excellent professional actors. Which, to be completely fair, is what Doctor Who can be at times, even when it’s being made professionally. Zagreus is oddly and curiously interesting, rich in ambition and boasting a wackily surreal sheen, even if it’s far too long and messy – faults all good Doctor Who shares at some point or another. So, no, I don’t hate it. I can see it’s a pretty poor show, but I can’t bring myself to dislike it.

Other things:
Yay the Hartnell theme!
“Good to see you, Miss Pollard. Welcome to your insanity.” (Nicholas Courtney can make ANYTHING sound good, but fortunately that is a great line. The Brigadier gets a good entrance – and even if it’s a shame he’s not properly in the story, there is something rather lovely about the TARDIS taking his form in this hour of need. It’s just a shame the writers undo that later by making him “the evil side”.)
Jon Pertwee’s audio sample from Devious is a cool bit of nostalgia, but not much more, and to be honest it’s so difficult to hear you wonder why they bothered.
“Some say that we’re little more than a product of a lifetime’s memories. A Time Lord even more so.” (again, quite good, but basically just repeating the Fifth Doctor line to this effect – and there’s far too many lines like that in this script)
The parallel timelines thing doesn’t bother me too much – I didn’t grow up with the NAs like some people did. I can see why one might find it messy, though.
“He calls me mad, I’m insulted.”/“You’re the one who’s talking to a dead man!”/“You’re the one who’s talking to a cat.”
Nice nod to the Forge with the old “for King and Country” mantra popping up again.
“Trust me, you don’t want to be mad. I’m not enjoying it one bit.”
There’s seriously an anagram for “evil TARDIS”? I mean, that’s catastrophically lame.
The Divergence sounds interesting enough, I wonder what they do with them.
India Fisher’s enraged shout when she realises she’s a mouse: “BRIGADIERRRRRRR!”
Lisa Bowerman’s hilarious turn as Sergeant Gazelle is an unexpected highlight.
On the BBC: “Marvellous people, all of them. Well, some of them are a bit strange and they drink too much tea, which is a bit rich coming from me -”
“I’m more than just an animator, I’m a dream-maker, a master of dreams.”
“The children died out, along with their parents, aeons ago.”
On finding out Rassilon is to take over the TARDIS: “How? When? I think I would have found the odd memo or fax slipping between you.”
Romana and Leela’s meeting is a joy on every level, with some great dialogue. “The Other Mistress, Mistress.”/“Oh, of course, you must be the savage. Lily? Lulu?”/“I am Leela, of the Sevateem. I can run faster than your guards. I can swim deeper than a pack of spielsnapes. I know all the words to Daisy, Daisy.”/“Very impressive. K9, have you been in contact with one of your other models?” – but of course they make their peace by the story’s end.
“If I’d known the afterlife would be full of young girls kissing me, I’d have chosen death much sooner!”
“Reverend Townsend, what are you doing here?”/“Being dead, mostly.”
The jokes about the quarry in which this story would be filmed if it were on TV being in Wales are pretty funny. That horn of Rassilon is great, too.
“Hell isn’t Wales, I’ve decided. Hell is other people.”
“You’re already dead. What is there to be afraid of?”/“Dying again!”
“A sort of whiffling sound.”/“More of a burble…” – Colin Baker’s fear of the Drashig at this point is hilarious.
“If the jaws and claws don’t get us, the halitosis will!”
I don’t normally list double entendres like DiscCon do, but “Three Doctors. One at a time is more than enough” was irresistible.
Nicholas Courtney gives a fantastic speech about “friendship”, both as the TARDIS, the “friend-ship”, and as the Brigadier himself on a more meta-fictional level. It’s not as good as The Doctor’s Wife, but still effective stuff. Unfortunately, the dialogue they give him where he complains about “dirty underwear all over my floor” and, effectively, bitches about the Doctor’s companions who then taunt him back, is just awful; it’s reductive of all the people involved and makes them all much pettier.
I’m sorry, but no one who rages at Moffat for the Cyber-Brig concept can possibly let Gary Russell off lightly for having the Brigadier as an evil TARDIS avatar who gets melted…
“Whatever will the critics say?”/“Derivative.”/“Overlong.”/“Melodramatic.” Indeed…
“We never ever ever give up!”
One of my favourite Alice in Wonderland-esque moments: “That has to be the biggest load of old rubbish I’ve heard in all my lives!”/“Exactly! I wouldn’t have it any other way!”
Charley attacking the Doctor for his name-dropping habits, his arrogance, is absolutely fair enough.
Wait, wait, wait, the TARDIS has a back door?!
Frankenstein – a recurring theme with this Doctor, wasn’t he reading that in Storm Warning?
And so Charley and the Doctor are headed into a Divergent Universe, one totally unlike our own. I look forward to finding out what awaits them there and have high hopes for McGann’s third season.

The Making of Zagreus: an interesting little featurette, revealing that what happened in Zagreus wasn’t planned in Alan Barnes’ mind when he wrote Neverland! I can’t say I’m surprised. The various interviewees all sound enthused and keen – it’s wonderful to think of many of the same faces popping up in ten years’ time for the big 5-0. “I think it’s good policy to leave people wanting more” is commented at one point – which I’m sure they did for 18 months! Anneke Wills is cheeky as ever (“I know quite a few imperious ladies”) and Lisa Bowerman is terrific, commenting on how she trained with the army and spoke to gazelles to prepare for her part. Colin Baker says, “Basically I’m a vampire” with great relish, and his rapport with Sylvester McCoy about McCoy’s slightly perverted character. The writers make some interesting points about the actors getting to do things they’ve never really done before, and about the nice dichotomy between Romana and Leela as pretty much antitheses of each other – and a hint about those two working together in the future Gallifrey series, which sounds exciting. 

No comments:

Post a Comment