Well, I ran right into listening to “Zagreus,” the 50th audio in Big Finish‘s main range, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard, and I am so glad I did. Now, the ratings on Time Scales varies greatly for this audio: people either love it or hate it, and I can see why. It’s a very ambitious story, attempting to force the Doctor and Charley to separately navigate their own mindscapes to figure out what’s going on without losing themselves, and a lot of people are not going to like this type of psychological drama. However, I loved it. And it cemented for me a lot more of Time Lord lore and history, which is something I really love.
Now, there is really no way for me to discuss this audio without spoilers, so you’ve been warned. Heavy, heavy spoilers ahead. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m outlining the whole story below.
“Zagreus” (pronounced “zah-GRAY-us”, by the way – I never get these pronunciations right; I still have problems remembering to pronounce “Omega” as “OH-me-ga”) follows directly upon “Neverland.” In that audio, the Doctor foils a plot by the condemned Time Lords in the ant-time universe to destroy Gallifrey by exploding it with anti-time by having the TARDIS swallow the anti-time bomb before it explodes. However, the Doctor becomes infected by the anti-time and becomes Zagreus, a previously fictional legendary destroyer of worlds. Charley is also in the TARDIS at the time and knows about the infection, but gets separated from the Doctor.
“Zagreus” then deals with what happens next. The Doctor is left to battle this alternate personality who wants to destroy the universe, and he spends much of the first half of the audio trying to avoid or escape from traps set by it. (I’m referring to Zagreus as “it” to keep it separate from the various male characters that show up.) Meanwhile, the TARDIS appears to Charley in the form of the Brigadier. He creates simulations of three different time periods to show her some important events connected with Zagreus and the anti-time universe. In each one, Charley plays the role of someone involved in the events, but mostly as an observer. The first involves an experiment run by humans during the Cold War, in which Reverend Matthew Townsend manipulates the experiment so that it shows him the creator of the universe, or so he thinks. The experiment explodes, or course, and kills everyone present, but what he sees through it is not what he expected.
The second simulation was of Gallifrey before Rassilon created the Time Lords. Tepesh, a Council investigator, made his way into Rassilon’s foundry to figure out what exactly he was doing. He finds out that Rassilon was planning to create the Web of Time to lock the universe into the timeline he preferred, and in the pursuit of this, was creating regeneration so that the Time Lords would live longer. Rassilon had also discovered that a new race, which he called the Divergence, was going to evolve to become more powerful than the Time Lords, and so he locked them into the Divergent Universe so that the Time Lords would continue to reign supreme. This is the universe that Reverend Townsend saw through his experiment. And lastly, Rassilon decided that the Gallifreyan form should be dominant in the universe, so he seeded tens of thousands of planets so that their dominant lifeforms were forced into Gallifreyan shape. Meanwhile, Tepesh reveals himself to be a Great Vampire, one of the last existent, and explains that Rassilon had waged war to genocide his race by spreading propaganda to the Gallifreyan people that the peaceful Vampire race were malicious and evil. Rassilon then incinerated Tepesh and his companions.
The third simulation was of Walton Winkle, or Uncle Winkie, a carny devoted to creating amusement parks and animatronic creatures for entertaining children. He was put into suspended animation a short time before he was about to die from a heart condition, and when he’s brought back, he finds himself in the last version of his amusement park, built on the burnt-out cinder of a planet. He discovers that he was woken up at the end of the universe, and the dead planet he’s on is Gallifrey. He’s been kept this long because he’s the one person with the mechanical skills to… Sorry, I don’t remember exactly what it was he was supposed to do, but the whole point of all three simulations is that the Divergence is trying to come back into the real universe. At the end of this simulation, Uncle Winkie is also killed.
While going through their various trials, the Doctor and Charley separately come to realize that there are sinister things going on, more than just the Doctor becoming corrupted by anti-time. They aren’t just trapped in the TARDIS: they’re in the Matrix, where Rassilon’s consciousness has existed since he died millions of years before. Everything has been orchestrated by Rassilon: he took the opportunity of the Doctor becoming infected by anti-time to bring the Zagreus persona into existence, to use it to destroy the Divergence as well as to use it to secure his hold on the Time Lords and the universe. While Rassilon forces the Doctor/Zagreus into forging a weapon that will kill the Divergence, Charley finds herself with Matrix representations of Reverend Townsend, Tepesh, and Uncle Winkie, as well as President Romana, who, when she sees them, calls them Doctor – the men that Charley saw in the simulations have the forms of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. Together, they confront Rassilon and (after a few more twists and turns) cast him into the Divergent Universe to be dealt with by the beings Rassilon had been trying to kill. However, the Doctor, still infected by anti-time, chooses to exile himself to the Divergent Universe, to protect the real universe from the anti-time within him.
As you can see, it’s quite a complicated plot, and there are some very cool/disturbing things that happen that I haven’t mentioned – you’ll just have to experience them yourself. They managed to create a plot that’s part adventure (how is Charley going to survive those simulations?), part history lesson, and part psychological drama, and it’s successful for some people (I thought it was riveting) but not for others.
One thing that was extremely interesting was how they presented the guest characters. Reverend Townsend, Tepesh, and Uncle Winkie were depicted in the simulations and the Matrix as looking like the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors (and indeed possessed significant character traits of those Doctors), and as such were played by Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. But it’s also explained that the simulations presented by the TARDIS used faces that the TARDIS was familiar with, and so all of the other characters in them looked like old companions and were played by their actors (for example, Tepesh’s fellow vampire Ouida was played by Nicola Bryant). It was wonderful hearing all of these wonderful actors playing new parts, plus a few playing their regular parts (Lalla Ward as Romana, Louise Jameson as Leela, John Leeson as K9, Miles Richardson as Braxiatel). However, I can imagine that someone who bought the audio based on the cast list might be very disappointed to not hear an audio with a giant meeting of multiple Doctors and their companions and hate this audio just for that reason. Heck, the cover image up there implies this is a meeting of four Doctors.
Bottom line, I really liked “Zagreus.” I can certainly see why a lot of people don’t. Honestly, if nothing else, I’d recommend listening to it just to find out how corrupted Rassilon really was, because it really gives you a good sense of just how different from the other Time Lords the Doctor really is.