Chronic Hysteresis (Zagreus)

(37 comments)

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

Comments

Lewis Christian 4 years, 6 months ago

If someone can re-arrange the entry to 'normal', it'd be appreciated. Until then, I'm sure this is another top quality piece, Philip :)

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Scott 4 years, 6 months ago

Actually, compared to some of Phil's experiments with the form (I'm looking at you "Interference" article), this one's comparatively straightforward.

A hint to help things along, though; picture a snake eating its own tail.

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Phil 4 years, 6 months ago

This is what 'normal' looks like for this entry, though. It's clearly been written as a loop, with no fixed beginning or end, but is otherwise completely linear.

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J Mairs 4 years, 6 months ago

“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 this is why it’s so brilliantly funny. Townshend, Tepesh and Winkle are obvious mirrors of the Doctor.

Each is a savage deconstruction of their era –

Townshend, who comes across as spiteful and unfeeling because he doesn’t acknowledge the need for his niece to mourn the death of her father (and his brother) which is a sly joke about the Ainley Master, Planet of Fire, and the fact that, as you kept pointing out, Nyssa . His curiosity leads to the death of everyone around him. Frankly, I think they missed an obvious opportunity when he ripped open that rift – now he’ll never know if he was right!

Tepsesh – codified thoroughly as a villain, yet is the hero. Potentially abusive relationship with Ouida – and he his throttling of Rassilon is… well… another era injoke.

Winkle, the children’s entertainer who is thrust into a world of eldritch abominations, who is made the victim of a world-ending scheme only to reveal at the last minute he’d already had a plan that scupper's the villain's machinations. The man who stepped out his box to die (in a suit he had made for his death, no less!) – and who oversees the end of the universe. If you fight like animals, you’ll die like animals!

The timeline created by Rassilon is essentially the show’s history – and the entire story is about moving past the TV show. Embrace the divergent forms of DW media and all their glorious contradictions and accept that there is no longer one single master narrative of what Doctor Who is anymore.

Zagreus rips Doctor Who to shreds using it’s own continuity references, and each of the Doctors are deconstructed as inadequate, ineffectually, same with the available eras on show - but then it puts the show back together again and reafirms we love it so much: Because the one thing we never do is we never ever give up!




Now my fannish moment: The Divergence are a different type of history, so as you point out, link back to the War in Heaven arc --- however they no longer full under the scope of Rassilon’s evolution experiments. Well, the Daleks are the “final evolved form” of the Kaleds, and are distinctly non-humanoid so Davros obviously managed to circumvent Rassilon/The Time Lord’s status quo – the Daleks are connected to the Divergence. Free Will is not a possibility... All universes will converge into one…

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Ross 4 years, 6 months ago

The story flirts with deciding that Doctor Who is really Carrollian before having Romana declare it all a lot of nonsense.

If it were properly Carrollian, the narrative would just look at Romana and say "Yes. Yes it is. Tea?"

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elvwood 4 years, 6 months ago

On the typo front, I like the idea of a story called Auld Morality...

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elvwood 4 years, 6 months ago

The title "Chronic Hysteresis" was a clue to the form, and I just ran with it. These format experiments usually add a little spice to an entry, and - even though this was about as simple as you can get - it put me in a good mood to start reading. Though it turned out the entry was much more interesting than its subject! (To me; I know Jane will disagree here.)

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J Mairs 4 years, 6 months ago

“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 this is the point of Townshed, Tepesh and Winkle. Each of them is a savage deconstruction of their Doctor. They’re taking to pieces, savaged with their own continuity and then it slowly reaffirms why we still like them so much.

I think you’ve got the angle on this story all wrong – I never got the sense that it was “spitting in the face” of the other ranges, in fact I think this is a pretty direct commentary on the state of Doctor Who at that time.
Rassilon’s history is the history of the show, right down to McCoy’s Doctor overseeing it’s end. Ultimately, Zagreus concludes that we have to put this behind us, accept that it’s never coming back, and we have to embrace the divergent forms which the show is now taking.
They wanted to do something radical with their story – and throw McGann into an entirely new universe, the biggest shakeup to the DW status quo since the Pertwee Era – having a line in the story making it clear that the other stories are still able to go off in their own directions “each real and primary to their inhabitants” and “sharing moments” is no more mean-spirited than when the Star Trek reboot stopped for about a minute to pat their fans on the head and assure them that this was an alternative continuity.




Also – fannish moment ahoy! It’s very easy to connect the Divergence to the Enemy HOWEVER!! It’s made clear that thanks to Rassilon’s template, the intended development for all lifeforms is humanoid…. But Davros re-engineered the Daleks to be the Kaled’s final evolutionary form and they are distinctly non-human.

All timelines coalesce into one…

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jane 4 years, 6 months ago

The form also sums up the structure of the Divergent Universe, an Eternal Return of "revolution stories."

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elvwood 4 years, 6 months ago

Good point - and once again it makes me sorry that Philip's stopping before The Natural History of Fear. "Dormir comme un sabot", and all that. I think I'll say some stuff about that one in the post on The Creed of the Kromon. That'll stop me being entirely bilious there...

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Jesse 4 years, 6 months ago

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back...

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jane 4 years, 6 months ago

When you put it like that, you make Zagreus sound like the Timelash of Big Finish. But Zagreus is so much better! Because it has a fusion of polarities -- it's not just going for the deconstruction and leaving it there, it then reconstructs and actually launches into something new. And there's a lot that's new here, from the old stalwarts playing new parts, to the Divergent universe and jettisoning of prior continuity, to the emerging love story between Charley and the Doctor and their escape into a new Universe.

Oh, Charley. Phil's right that this part of the story is not fleshed out well at all, but that's entirely due to how poorly she's been characterized over the past couple years. She's the Edwardian Adventuress, and that's pretty much it. But when you've got decent performers playing the parts, you automatically get more dimensionality. It's to India Fisher's credit that Charley comes off as well as she does, and it's a damn shame that BF didn't have the guts to continue this storyline, bringing in the wretched C'Rizz to drown this aspect of the relationship before it could flourish.

I'm a bit surprised there's no commentary on the ancient Greek myth of Zagreus. He's an alchemical god, born of Zeus (above) and Persephone (below) who captures animals rather than killing them. And yet Zagreus isn't a singular god -- he is likened to both Hades and Dionysus. Zagreus is put in the care of the Titans, who surprise him by showing his likeness in a mirror. Zagreus assumes many forms in trying to escape; as a bull, he's caught and rendered into pieces, which the Titans eat -- except for the heart, rescued by Persephone and delivered to Zeus. Zeus eats the heart and becomes past, present and future in one, a snake eating its tail with the power to smite the Titans. Their ashes are used to form mankind.

And so the alchemy proceeds anew, light and dark fused. Which is what, I think, the BF story shoots for, even if they don't quite have the chops to fully pull it off. But they do have Davison, Baker and McCoy re-enacting the dark shadows of the Doctor, and they linger like Jedi-ghosts at the end, giving a tacit blessing to their latest incarnation before he goes off on his Orphic journey.

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jane 4 years, 6 months ago

Yes, Natural History really deserves some attention, and Caerdroia, too.

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William Whyte 4 years, 6 months ago

Good to hear about your future plans. Looking forward to the Pertwee book and Rose entries, and good luck with the site migration.

I'll gladly contribute to the Kickstarter for the second edition of the Hartnell book if you finally cover It Happened Here...

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Aaron 4 years, 6 months ago

This. Exactly this.

"Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk"

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Daniel Tessier 4 years, 6 months ago

I'll be buying the Hartnell 2nd edition primarily to read your views on 'A Big Hand for the Doctor.' I presume it won't be very favourable.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 6 months ago

He caun ne'er be bothered but maun e'er be waked. If there is a future in every past that is present Quis est qui non novit quinnigan and Qui quae quot at Quinnigan's Quake! Stump! His producers are they not his consumers? Your exagmination round his factification for incamination of a warping process. Declaim!

Joyce was clearly writing about Zagreus...

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Scott 4 years, 6 months ago

"Ultimately, Zagreus concludes that we have to put this behind us, accept that it’s never coming back, and we have to embrace the divergent forms which the show is now taking."

Oh, the irony.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 6 months ago

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.

I don't know - it seems like the Virgin years had their own thing going, at least for a while there, while Paul Cornell was setting a positive direction.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 6 months ago

Also, speaking of epics: I remember seeing a summary of this story years ago, and thinking it seemed like a lot of comic book stories that want to be epic but end up producing a story where the VAST HUGE STAKES end up entirely self-contained, affecting nothing but this single story, leaving no place for anyone else to hook in, a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 6 months ago

Basically, yes. Zagreus isn't *about* anything, in any real way. There's no story there at all. And it's a shame because the 'villain trilogy' that led up to it was pretty great (well, except for the last part of Master, which was the worst kind of fanwank, but the first three-quarters of it was superb).

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Ross 4 years, 6 months ago

At least in part, I think one of the things that motivated both the Divergent Universe arc in Big Finish and the Amnesia arc in the EDAs is a creeping fear of being irrelevant. They both wanted their own way of saying "Doctor Who is ours now. We can do a Big Irreversible Thing That Changes It Forever, and then no one else will ever be allowed to ignore us because they will have to work forward from the new status quo we established."

Ironically, as we all know, it did exactly the opposite.

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Phil 4 years, 6 months ago

The second stretch of the wilderness years basically consists of people milling around and arguing about how to get out of the wilderness, while ignoring the fact that Paul Cornell had already drawn them a perfectly good map.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 6 months ago

Indeed. And then it turns into the Blair Witch Project, only it ends in a deus ex machina where a man shows up and shouts "Run!" and all the characters pile into a blue box. The final shot is the camera lying on the ground as the box disappears.

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J Mairs 4 years, 6 months ago

"Basically, yes. Zagreus isn't *about* anything, in any real way."

Sure - if you ignore the fact that it is setting up the Divergent Universe saga, which of course, was intended to go on for much longer than it did. :)

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 6 months ago

Setting up another (dreadful) series of stories doesn't mean that Zagreus, itself, is actually about anything.

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J Mairs 4 years, 6 months ago

"When you put it like that, you make Zagreus sound like the Timelash of Big Finish. But Zagreus is so much better! Because it has a fusion of polarities -- it's not just going for the deconstruction and leaving it there, it then reconstructs and actually launches into something new. And there's a lot that's new here, from the old stalwarts playing new parts, to the Divergent universe and jettisoning of prior continuity, to the emerging love story between Charley and the Doctor and their escape into a new Universe."

Sowi! I wrote a longer post that was a lot clearer on this point, but when I came back to read the site it hadn't posted... so I knocked this one up: I certainly didn't mean to make Zagreus sound like Timelash :P

And your right about the games it plays with continuity: this story is often criticized for it's liberal quoting of other stories - but it's pretty telling that the only characters who speak in references are Townshend, Tepesh and Winkle, the three facsimiles of the Doctor, so there is a rule there that the story takes care not to break.

"I'm a bit surprised there's no commentary on the ancient Greek myth of Zagreus."

I was gonna - but I thought I should leave it for you. ;)

I agree with you though that Zagreus was never provided the mythological clout he deserves, and actually becomes a more powerful figure when he pops up in The Next Life, when he actually gets to live inside your head, and gets to live amongst the dead and eat you when your sleeping.
(Although I have to say I did like the conceit that he could be the Doctor or the TARDIS, but only one at a time.)

This story also kind of simplifies the dynamic which Miles set on the the DW universe back in "Rational Planet" into Apollonian/Dionysian dualism, and the actual character of Zagreus himself had plenty of potential to be BF's Sabbath-like figure - particularly in The Next Life, a Doctor from an irrational universe, but I think the script ultimately misses the chief appeal of the Doctor and ultimately sets him as too intrinsically linked to Rassilon's Master Narrative.

Zagreus is still in the top three of my DW Eldritch Abominations though - even if all his potential was squandered and mostly because of what you point out, just what the story of Zagreus was supposed to be and just how great an idea that could have been - and for me that is the ultimate problem with the story Zagreus: there was no pay-off that was worth it.

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Aaron 4 years, 6 months ago

I know this is probably a discussion for Monday, but I don't really get why the divergent universe arc is all that bad. I mean, yes, the concept of no time makes absolutely no sense, and is frequently contradicted by nearly everything in the stories. But the stories themselves are quite good. Scherzo and Natural History of Fear are probably among the best Doctor Who stories in any medium, and I personally think Caerdrioia's a classic as well. Plus, the Last and Faith Stealer are generally well liked, and the worst you can say about Creed of the Kromon is that it's pretty generic. It actually strikes me as a very string run of stories. I'd take it over everything Big Finish has done since the Kingmaker, with the singular exception of Death In the Family.

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jane 4 years, 6 months ago

Despite the disappointing ramifications of Kromon, the Divergent Universe makes a bold step into a unified set of stories that plays to one of Who's classic strengths: Revolution. These are all revolutionary stories, in a revolutionary universe, and it's kind of exciting -- especially when that line of storytelling has kind of fallen off the radar in the Revival.

Natural History is quite simply brilliant. Twilight's weak, but it's central conceit is another hint of the Ouroboros structure of the Divergence. Faith and The Last are solid, and then there's Caerdroia, which manages to slip in a great character study of the Doctor into the mix, and is funny as hell.

And yeah, The Next Life isn't all that special, another bog-standard epic to wrap things up, but at least it's weirdly prescient of the themes that are about to emerge on another Island, on the other side of the pond.

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Steven Clubb 4 years, 6 months ago

"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."

***

I think this is the kind of thinking that ends up being the bane of far too many publishers. It's like they recognize that they're not living up to the potential of their properties, but instead of sitting down and thinking "how can we make this better?" they opt for a big grand gesture... in the hopes that their creators will rise up to the challenge.

DC Comics has pretty much fallen victim to this every decade since 1985. Instead of building on what is working, they go for some big, grand universe altering cross-over event that is supposed to make everything right and provide the groundwork for genius to be built upon... which only achieves the random success here and there across their line as the handful of truly creative people on their payroll create exciting wonderful stuff... while everyone else continues to make the exact same mistakes that made the Big Grand Gesture necessary in the first place.

So Big Finish saddles the Eighth Doctor with a novel idea that, if released today, would have been a tightly plotted trilogy that came up with stories that made good use of the "there is no time" mandate of the Divergent Universe. And while there's some genuinely good stories in it, which make good use of the idea of time as something quite strange and alien, the saga is filled out with the usual sort of adventures which could have easily taken place in the regular universe.

Sort of like the E-Space Trilogy, which tried to get some drama out of the Doctor being trapped in an alternate universe where he's forced to wander around having random adventures and... oh, wait, it's exactly the same damn thing he does in the regular universe... guess it's time to go back home now :)

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J Mairs 4 years, 6 months ago

"Setting up another (dreadful) series of stories doesn't mean that Zagreus, itself, is actually about anything."

Um, yeah it does. "Setting up another series of stories" *is* something.

Plus it's fannishly about the DW Universe, and the previous eras of the show, continuity , memory and identity. Just because you don't like it, doesn't mean it isn't about anything.

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elvwood 4 years, 6 months ago

I am firmly of the opinion that the main problem with Zagreus is the length. If it had been a regular 2-CD offering and tightened up accordingly, it might make it as high as my audio mid-list; as it is, it languishes near the bottom, above only Creed of the Kromon and a few that I found hard to stomach such as Nekromanteia and Minuet in Hell. Having said that, Philip's comment about it lasting four hours made me realise that there is one TV serial of very similar total length: The War Games.

Detractors of each suggest that the story is nothing but a pointless runaround for the first 90% of the time, as the Doctor and friends struggle against the schemes of a villain who turns out to be an evil member of the Doctor's own people. This is then followed by the only meat, as the Doctor is exiled by the Time Lords, sent (on his own) to a place where he can cause no trouble. In fact he will meet an old friend there, and make a new one, but that's not part of this story.

This isn't surprising, really, as the forward-looking "purpose" of each story is the same, and this bit is effectively an epilogue in each case. What makes me a supporter of The War Games but not Zagreus is the 90% that comes earlier. J Mairs and Jane have crystallised what I was feeling about Townshend, Tepesh and Winkle, which does help a little; and I never got the swipe at the EDAs because I wasn't following them. But it just goes on, and on, with not enough of a plot to sustain my interest. Maybe if it had been broken up into smaller episodes it would have helped.

Incidentally, Philip, did you ever hear the "making of Zagreus" bit on the Living Legend freebie? A lot of it is the actors chatting, but Gary Russell and Alan Barnes do get to say a bit about what they were thinking, and why they didn't go for a traditional "meeting of the Doctors" storyline. Though Nick Briggs is going for just that with The Light at the End (and comments have made it clear that this decision is at least partly because of the backlash against Zagreus).

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Daibhid C 4 years, 6 months ago

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.

In the spirit of Hanlon's Razor ("Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity"), it's possible that Big Finish took the maxim "Give the audience what they want, but not what they expect", and just happened to horribly misjudge it.

Under this interpretation, they thought what the audience wanted was McCoy, Baker, Davison and McGann in one story, and what they'd was that this meant Yet Another Multi-Doctor Story. They didn't realise that the target audience wanted Yet Another Multi-Doctor Story, or at least something that was closer to one than this.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 6 months ago

Oh, should add, I haven't heard the "Making of" although I do have that CD kicking around somewhere, so if I'm just repearing what they said at the time...

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Daibhid C 4 years, 6 months ago

...Aaand just noticed the word "expect" seems to have been swallowed up by HTML tags in the phrase "and what they'd expect was..."

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