4 years, 6 months ago
and continuity, everyone at least got to do celebrated party pieces. Were they pale imitations of what they had actually meaningfully accomplished in the past? Yes, but at least it was celebratory. It’s at least perfectly easy to sit down with The Five Doctors and have a good time. Whereas with Zagreus you just get four hours of listening to people putting in far more effort than the material deserves.
The person worst served in this regard is Paul McGann. And as with much of Zagreus, the worst part is the nagging sense that people are sincerely trying for quality. McGann spends virtually the entire story talking to himself, or, in other places, talking to a random set of sentences recorded by Jon Pertwee for a fan film mixed so as to be virtually unintelligible. It’s all very amnesia and uncertainty as to who he is, and it gives an awful feeling that the point of the exercise was to really give Paul McGann a chance to act. But like Minuet in Hell there seems to be a bit of confusion about what acting is: it’s not actually the practice of saving a poorly written scene. Yes, McGann is good enough to save most, though not all of the scenes he’s in, but it’s dreadful to hear him set on the task in the first place.
Yes, there are moments of real charm through all of this. The Alice in Wonderland stuff is a great idea. But even with that there’s a horrible cynicism to it. The story flirts with deciding that Doctor Who is really Carrollian before having Romana declare it all a lot of nonsense. Similarly, there’s obvious promise in the idea that maybe we’ll deal with a Doctor/Companion love story, except that Charley is characterized as being in love with the Doctor with all the complexity and subtlety with which Orllensa was characterized as the Russian one in Embrace the Darkness. It consists of nothing so much as Charley delivering the line “I love you” in a variety of different tones of voice. And that’s before we get to the TARDIS becoming a creepy jealous lover who tries to take revenge on Charley because of the Doctor’s loyalty to her. And, of course, almost everything to do with Uncle Winky feels a hair’s breadth from brilliance.
But let’s look at why it’s so bad. In particular, let’s look at the story’s central idea, the absolute duality between time and anti-time. We gave this idea a pretty thorough hiding back with Neverland, but there the objection was largely political. And, well, let’s face it, there’s still a fair chunk of Doctor Who fandom that wants to insist that the series is apolitical, so let’s switch gears and make the more straightforward objection: the time/anti-time dualism is just boring. It’s one of the oldest sci-fi tropes imaginable. It has no meat left on the bones. There is nothing whatsoever interesting to say about it. Absolute dualism is, in fact, so boring that when given it as a story premise back in 1978 Robert Holmes rebelled and wrote The Ribos Operation instead. The ensuing quarter century has done the concept no favors, as it happens. It’s still a dumb cliche.
Actually, the call back to the Key to Time is fitting. In the Mary Whitehouse entry right after The Talons of Weng-Chiang I noted that there’s a fairly linear chain of causality from sacking Philip Hinchcliffe to 1989. There are a lot of reasons for this, but in many ways the biggest one is simple: it’s the point where the BBC made an active decision that Doctor Who’s actual quality wasn’t a priority in making it. That Doctor Who lasted over a decade after that decision is, frankly, incredible. But there’s still a line in the series that happens there between the period of its history that made it a cultural icon and the period of its history that progressively squandered all of that goodwill.
It’s telling, then, that Zagreus engages almost entirely with the latter. That only Davison through McCoy appear in it is, of course, inevitable - the only other living Doctor was Tom Baker, and he wasn’t playing. But Tom Baker’s era is still tacitly represented through Romana, Leela, K-9, and the status quo of Gallifrey: in other words, the Graham Williams era. The Hinchcliffe era remains almost completely effaced. And anything before that is represented purely by Jon Pertwee as a ghost in the machine. Yes, the availability of actors limits that, but it’s not as though actors from the pre-Williams years weren’t available. Liz Sladen and Anneke Wills make brief appearances, and of course there’s the Brigadier. But the Brigadier is here in his role of “persistently recurring character,” which is a Nathan-Turner invention. But more to the point, there’s really no compelling reason why more actors from the series’ first fourteen years couldn’t be hired. There’s next to nothing in Zagreus that pays any conscious homage to the series’ roots.
And this is telling given how much of what is there is based on the series. To the point, in fact, where the material history of the series seems to speak through the narrative more than is intended. Unless the decision to have Davison’s character be the only one of the three pseudo-Doctors to contribute nothing whatsoever to the plot resolution and the decision to have Baker’s character be the evil one are actually deliberate swipes at their eras, in which case we’re back to the problem of the audio being breathtakingly mean spirited. But even if those are deliberate we’re stuck with the accidental haunting by the new series as Charley makes what was clearly meant as a joke about the location filming for The Five Doctors and declares that hell is apparently Wales.
And yet there’s no time for the early years of the series. Despite the fact that those were the ones in which it was a cultural icon. Those are the ones where its power actually resides. And yet all the wilderness years can do is pick over the corpse of the series’ decline. And, worse, pick over its own corpse. Even the worst of the Saward era wasn’t this petty and small-minded. Even Attack of the Cybermen had ambitions beyond fan politics. In this regard what is really telling about Zagreus is its basic premise: a multi-Doctor fortieth anniversary story that declines to have all the Doctors in it. The basic deferral of desire implicit in this just feels mean. “We know what you’re here for, and here’s something that’s conspicuously not it.” Yeesh.
For all that the wilderness years brought us tremendous innovations in Doctor Who, we’re left with this basic problem: they were built on sand. Their status as a post-traumatic era that was rebelling against the series’ cancellation put an upper bound on their overall quality. Because they were condemned for life to pick over the worst bits of the series in an attempt to explain and repair them, and were fundamentally cut off from the series’ actual strengths. It’s not, obviously, that everything after Season Fourteen was rubbish. There were grand moments there. But it is the back side of the classic series’ mountain: the period of steady decline as a cultural force until quality wasn’t even enough to save the show. There’s a sense of proper terror about the uphill part of that story. And a complete refusal to even attempt to match it. Not, obviously, in the sense of references to it, but in the sense of seeking the same aesthetic goals that the series sought. Instead we get the unsettling realization that in order to do a two-season run of McGann stories with no classic monsters and strange new settings Big Finish really believed they needed to do a big continuity wipe and shunt the Doctor into an alternate universe. Instead of, you know, just doing a run of innovative, exciting stories.
In that regard the best metaphor for Zagreus is probably its own: the strange and isolated projections that offer a distorted and corrupted shadow of what the series was. Visions of the series that are hermetically sealed, cut off from engagement with anything, trapped in an essentially hopeless cycle of almost-meaning. All Zagreus can do is chase its own tail, simultaneously demonstrating and rebelling against the way in which the history of the series destroyed it. There’s no way to fall out of this world. There’s no way forward from this point. There’s nothing that can possibly be done but to sweep the entire series away - to abandon the past entirely.
In other words, the only route that the series can possibly take in the wake of Zagreus is to stop treating Doctor Who as a historical object and to make Doctor Who for the present. This is inevitable: at some point history has to give way to the present. This, in fact, relates closely to this blog and the question of when I’ll end it. The answer is simple: whenever it catches up to the present of Doctor Who and I lose all trace of the lens of history. (So right now the blog’s last entry will be on The Snowmen, but as of tomorrow it’ll be The Bells of St. Johns) I mean, I don’t rule out a short return engagement at some point in the future once there’s a season or two banked that I can work through, but as a thrice-weekly feature this blog ends when it catches up to the present. I’m expecting it to be in the early part of 2014.
We’re also, obviously, nearing the new series. We’ll cover Rose on May 1st, according to the current schedule. At the same time I’m going to move the blog to a personal website. The reasons for this are pretty simple - as this project draws to a close I’m going to want to transition smoothly to new things, and a more general website is going to make that easier. I want to start it along with the new series because I expect a traffic spike when I reach it. So the blog will be one part of a website that also contains, for instance, pages for all of my books because, well, I want people who are reading my blog to read my other stuff too.
This seems like a good time to update about some of those projects as well. The Pertwee book should be out towards the end of next week if all goes well - I've just gotten the last edits back, and am typesetting and doing the requisite fighting with Amazon's system. (Let's see if they accuse me of plagiarizing my blog again) The Wonder Woman book is halfway through my edits, and the decision on it is down to going with a small press or self-publishing, with that decision to be made within a few weeks. I don’t know the timetable on it if it goes out from a small press, but if I do end up self-publishing I expect late summer/early fall given the speed my copyeditor tends to work at. The manuscript for the book on the They Might Be Giants’ album Flood is due tomorrow, and to the best of my knowledge that’s out in November.
The next project I’m going to start work on is the second edition of the Hartnell volume. That will hopefully feature new cover art that matches the art on the Pertwee and Troughton volumes better, fresh copy-editing, a completely new essay on Galaxy Four, and new essays on a couple of books and audios - probably the first Destiny of the Doctor audio, A Big Hand for the Doctor, Auld Morality, and the John and Gillian comics. And, you know, a general looking over. I say hopefully because I’m planning on Kickstarting that project, since I don’t really have a great sense of the financials of releasing a second edition and pre-selling the amount that will cover my expenses would be helpful. If that falls through, well, we’ll figure something else out. After that I’ll start on the Tom Baker volume, or possibly volumes once I see the word count. (Given that The Deadly Assassin and Logopolis alone are as long as 1/4 of the Pertwee book, I have… concerns.)
I’m saying all of this now because we’ve reached a key point in the narrative. In September of 2003 the BBC announced that Doctor Who would be coming back as a television series run by Russell T Davies. That was the extent of the announcement at the time. Details were slow to emerge - as of September it wasn’t clear when, how many episodes, who the Doctor would be, or whether it was going to be a complete reboot of the series. The actual November 2003 issue of Doctor Who Magazine contained the first substantive interview with Russell T Davies about the series, where he revealed… basically nothing, save for the declaration that it was not going to be a reboot. News was thin enough that even after the announcement Doctor Who Magazine had an issue (339) that had no content related to the new series, simply because there wasn’t any.
Zagreus, meanwhile, came out in November of 2003 as Big Finish’s big fortieth anniversary piece. Ostensibly, at least, it was meant to be the big deal of the fortieth anniversary - four Doctors together, big epic involving Rassilon, everything you’d expect. But by the time it had been served up it was no longer the main course, the fortieth anniversary having morphed unexpectedly into the negative-second anniversary, staring puzzledly at the onrushing future and trying to figure out what it was. Zagreus thus becomes impossible to read in its own context, as it never arrived in its own context. It has always existed in the context of the new series, even when there wasn’t a new series for it to exist in the context of.
In another sense, we’ve reached the present. We’re less than a decade in the past now, and while historicization is not impossible it is, at the very least, getting harder. The world we’re looking at feels very close to the one we live in. It isn’t quite - there are still huge changes to both Doctor Who and the world set to take place. But it feels like the present, or, at least, close enough to the present that distance seems impossible. And so it seems time to throw away the illusion and to admit that from this point on Doctor Who starts to collapse into a single ongoing moment instead of an unfurling past.
Obviously we’re still a full month from the new series. We’ve got quite a bit to do still: three more audios to wrap up our look at Big Finish’s main Eighth Doctor line, two after that to look at their Lucie Miller line, a long overdue look at the Doctor Who Magazine comics, the dying end of the BBC Books line, Scream of the Shalka, and a check-in on the whole Faction Paradox spin-off. But this scattershot approach to March mostly serves to highlight what the last days of the wilderness years were like - tying up the loose ends before a whole new cultural vision of the program came and washed everything else away. Certainly this is the same point that Happy Endings was for the McCoy era - the period where Paul McGann’s Doctor is at once the series’ present and its past. McGann’s Doctor, never as well-established as McCoy’s, was already fragile. He was already being unseated in November of 2003 by Richard E. Grant, and now he was being eaten by the future. Fittingly, he never even gets a regeneration scene, the only Doctor to just fade away into the past.
Of course, Zagreus hardly seems like stable ground to begin with. It was always hobbled by several obvious and significant problems like “being written by Gary Russell.” But even beyond that there’s something crushingly, awfully disappointing about Zagreus. It is, in its own way, even worse than Dimensions in Time, which at least had the decency to know that it was a naff comedy sketch. Zagreus, on the other hand, seems unsettlingly convinced that it is actually a serious attempt at a suitably epic anniversary story that’s been built to for nearly two years.
What’s puzzling, though, is that all the pieces seem in place. A story structured around the memories of the past instead of just name-checking things arbitrarily, a character arc based on actual emotions, a sense of whimsy and the fantastic, tons of great comparisons between Doctor Who and the classic tradition of British children’s literature, unabashed sentimentality and romance. On paper you should need to work to make this go wrong. And yet somehow it manages.
Perhaps what is most striking among Zagreus’s myriad of flaws is how mind-wrenchingly petulant it is. With The Ancestor Cell, at least, we have only Lawrence Miles’s word that Stephen Cole nicked large chunks of it from Lawrence Miles. This time there can be no such ambiguity. Zagreus is transparently and blatantly an attempt to do the War arc “right” and to show how the Eighth Doctor Adventures “should” have done a continuity reboot. So we have a predicted future war against an impossible to understand enemy that represents a new concept of time and history, Time Lords seeding their DNA through history so that evolved beings throughout the cosmos resemble them, Romana being corrupted by the Presidency, sentient and humanoid TARDISes, and what can broadly be described as a story based around big ideas. And on top of that, it isn’t even subtle about its beef. Neverland went out of its way to reference the Yssgaroth and Dronid, and Zagreus explicitly condemns the Eighth Doctor Adventures to an alternate universe from the Big Finish ones, actively and decisively forking the lines and spitting in the face of anyone who wanted to reconcile them.
More than anything, this gets at the problem with Zagreus. It’s using the big fortieth anniversary slot to write a gigantic “fuck you” not only to the other major Doctor Who line and to anyone with the temerity to enjoy it. That’s its idea of celebrating: picking fights with other fans. But this is hardly surprising, because at the end of the day that’s the bulk of what Zagreus is about. This is a story that has completely bought into the notion that the point of Doctor Who is big theories about the nature of Doctor Who. And…
Look, there just comes a point in a person’s life where they no longer give a damn about the nature of Rassilon. There comes a point when you’re just over that. Zagreus assumes that everybody is still desperately looking for epic accounts of the Time Lords, and it’s just… impossible to care. Instead one is left feeling sorry for everybody. There are scattered people who seem to be having fun - Nicholas Courtney and Colin Baker both enjoy getting to do villainous turns. And everybody is giving it their all. But listening, one just feels bad for the fact that actual people with lives are wasting them recording this. It’s like that awkward moment at a convention where someone asks a rambling and fanwank-laden question of an actor and the actor puts on their best professional face so as to not accidentally re-enact the William Shatner Saturday Night Live sketch. Except stretched out. For four hours.
It’s one thing when you’re doing fanwank in novels. Those, at least, don’t have any bystanders. But somehow it all gets sadder and more unfortunate when there are non-fans involved. I mean, everyone is getting paid, so that’s nice, especially for actors who aren’t exactly working full time, but the fact remains that it’s just embarrassing to hear everyone trotted out for their turn in this. I mean, even with The Five Doctors, a towering monument of froth
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