A note about spoilers: I’ve been wrestling with the idea of spoilers in these reviews for some time. The versions I post over on the /r/Gallifrey subreddit are abbreviated to remove the plot summaries, which provide the bulk of possible spoilers here. It’s a difficult balance; I want this site to be a resource, much as the TARDIS wiki, the Doctor Who Reference Guide, or the various Discontinuity Guides, and so I want to continue to include the plot summaries–but at the same time, many readers want to find out for themselves.
With that said, there is unfortunately no way to obscure text here, as with Reddit’s spoiler-tagging system. This means that I can’t guarantee you won’t see spoilers. What I can do is this: I can tell you where they will be, always. With only a few exceptions, all my review posts open with a uniform introductory paragraph–the “We’re back” etc.–which will give you the major actors, authors, format, etc. or some combination thereof. After that will always come a spoiler warning, and the cover art of the work in question. From there, you’re in spoiler territory; the plot summary comes next. In the past, I’ve sometimes included multiple pictures within the plot section; but from this point forward, I won’t be doing that. Instead, pictures will serve as content dividers. After the cover art and spoiler warning, you’ll be in spoiler territory until you reach the next picture. After that, you’ll be in the review itself, and should be (mostly!) safe from spoilers. I usually conclude with another picture, as well, if relevant art or screencaps are available. And, if you simply can’t risk spoilers at all, you are always welcome to follow the link in the sidebar to the /r/Gallifrey subreddit; everything I post here will also appear there, sans spoilers. Soon I will post a stickied post to this effect, but for now, I’m including this notice here.
One exception to this plan: My series of mini-reviews for the Seasons of War charity anthology will include spoilers in both locations. This is by design, as the book only had a limited print run, and will not be released again; most fans will not have the opportunity to read it, and so I set out to summarize the stories in each case. Thanks for understanding, and thanks, as always, for reading!
We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #33, Neverland, featuring the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and Charley Pollard (India Fisher), with a special appearance by Romana (Lalla Ward). This story concludes the informal second “series” of Eighth Doctor stories in the Main Range of audio dramas, and leads directly into the fiftieth entry of the Main Range, Zagreus. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
Historical events are being recited; but the narrators can no longer retain the proper memories, and are going mad. Elsewhere, the Doctor and Charley are talking about their recent victory over the Daleks, who remain caught in a time loop; the Doctor expects the Time Lords under President Romana will eventually release them, as history sometimes hangs on their actions. It won’t be soon, however; Romana has her own score to settle with the Daleks. Meanwhile, a fleet of Battle TARDISes materializes around the Doctor’s TARDIS. He recalls that this happened once before in recent memory; this time, it seems they are coming for him and for Charley. Further, Romana is among them, accompanied by Celestial Intervention Agency Co-ordinator Vansell. He tries to escape again, but one of the other ships fires temporal torpedoes; if he dematerializes, they will snatch his ship from the Vortex, and if he stays put, the torpedoes will strike and freeze his TARDIS—and everyone aboard—in time for a few centuries, allowing the Time Lords opportunity to get inside. Just before the torpedoes strike, a wave of time distortion sweeps by, tearing seconds from the web of Time; the Doctor rides the wave and escapes the Battle TARDISes via a complicated path.
Once free, the Doctor presents Charley with an invitation to a rather extravagant party—a thousand-year party inside a pocket universe—allegedly so that she can celebrate her birthday. She sees it for what it is—a transparent attempt to get her off the TARDIS for a time—and deduces that he is going to find out what the Time Lords want. She knows the answer already: her rescue from death on the R101 airship has somehow broken the web of time. Determined to be mature and do the right thing, and grateful for the six extra months the Doctor has given her, she hits the fast return switch, sending the TARDIS back into the path of the time torpedoes.
Three hundred frozen years later, the TARDIS is invaded by CIA agents Levith and Kurst. They transfer the awakening Doctor to President Romana’s TARDIS: a massive Time Station, similar to the one aboard which his sixth incarnation stood trial. In his absence, they install Charley into a space-time converter device while she is still disoriented. Aboard the Time Station, Co-ordinator Vansell tries and fails to interrogate the Doctor, who invokes the Archetryx Convention and demands a fair trial. Romana assures him that Charley is safe; she explains that the time distortions appear to be caused by particles of anti-time, which has always been considered both theoretical and absurd, but now seems to be real. The Doctor doesn’t believe it at first; he recounts a legend of Rassilon, which states that Rassilon pinned creation down to one continuity when creating the Eye of Harmony, and in the process created both positive time and a universe of anti-time. Such a universe would have no continuity—no past, no future, just a chaotic present. He doesn’t believe it exists, but the strain on the Web of Time says otherwise; it is near to breaking, and many changes to history have been noted, all stemming back to his rescue of Charley. Her rescue created a living gateway through which anti-time can flow from the mirror universe. Gallifrey, a bastion of positive time, remains as the universe’s last stable point, and Romana has given the Matrix over to retaining a memory of the true history of the universe—and even this is failing. To prove her point, she forces the Doctor through the Eighth Door into the Matrix to see a projection of what is to come.
The Doctor finds himself on a ruined version of Gallifrey. A sad, elderly man tells him this was once Gallifrey, but is now the empire of Zagreus, the mythical monster from Gallifreyan nursery rhymes. In the former Panopticon, Romana—now ruling as Imperiatrix—presents to the people the trapped Daleks, who beg for mercy and freedom. Instead, she obliterates them completely, removing them from history. The Doctor protests, and the crowd turns on him. Vansell pulls him out of the projection, bringing him back to the Time Station. He is shaken by what he has seen, but still refuses to allow Romana to return Charley to the R101 to die; but Romana tells him it would make no difference anyway, as anti-time is already present. Instead, they will track the anti-time backward to its source and stop it there, in the other universe—and to do this, they will use Charley as a gateway. Already she is inside the Doctor’s TARDIS, hooked into the proton accelerator which will transform her into the living gateway she is. Kurst activates the machine, sending her writhing out of time and space. It’s only temporary, however, and Romana intends to free her when the anti-time is stopped; therefore the Doctor allows it. Levith informs them the gate is open, and the Time Station begins to follow the TARDIS through. However, the TARDIS console overloads, causing the ship to be pulled out of control through the breach into mirror universe, and the Time Station follows.
Charley reverts to normal as the power level drops, though she is shaken. Levith and Kurst discover that the sensors are not producing proper data, and they cannot isolate their temporal co-ordinates—it seems they are truly outside the universe of time. Still, they have landed somewhere; Levith takes the others outside, and sets up a beacon for the Time Station. Meanwhile the station’s sensors are likewise useless; it’s not a mechanical problem, as the Doctor points out, but a problem of the frame of reference. Their sensors are calibrated to require the passage of time, and there is nothing like that here. Only one fixed point can be found: a nearby planetoid, from which the beacon is emanating. The station approaches, but the beacon vanishes, indicating it is being affected by time distortion.
Charley and Kurst see a forest of metal spikes nearby, and Charley goes to explore while the others work to repair the beacon. Something speaks to her, using her own voice, and she meets an apparition that looks like her. More phantoms appear, calling themselves the “people who never were”. Kurst and Levith fire on the phantoms, and Charley escapes, but the phantoms reappear and consume Kurst, devouring his life energy. As Charley and Levith flee, the ground splits ahead of them, and the TARDIS—with the beacon—tumbles into the chasm. Aboard the station, the Doctor realizes that the TARDIS they are detecting is not his TARDIS. Defying Vansell, he seizes control and pilots the station to the surface, unwittingly allowing it to crash into the metal forest. Vansell takes a concussion in the crash; in his delirium he quotes a poem about Zagreus. The Doctor notes it, and wonders why this mythical figure keeps coming up today.
When Vansell recovers, he is furious, and threatens to remove the Doctor from history, until the phantom in Charley’s form arrives. He deduces its nature as a being of anti-time, a “Never-person”, and is shocked to learn it has been to his universe, where it consumed Lucy and Richard Martin. Other Never-People appear and begin to devour the time energy pouring from the station’s damaged Time Rotor. Vansell tries to chase them off, until the lead phantom tells him that what he seeks is in a grotto nearby. Vansell immediately leaves, and Romana persuades the Doctor to follow, telling him that the station has the power to repair itself. Nevertheless, she hasn’t told him everything; and as Vansell well knows, the Doctor won’t like the truth.
Outside, Charley and Levith join the group, and Levith makes her report. The Doctor examines the metal forest and determines its spikes to be artificial; even the dirt consists of metal shavings. As an acid rain begins to fall, Charley and the Time Lords take shelter in a cave, but soon find it is actually an artificial corridor. Proceeding into the corridor, they find roundels on the walls, and a vast chamber with a hexagonal platform—it would seem, then, that the entire planetoid is a crashed TARDIS, with its internal structure mapped to the outside.
Vansell manages to feed in enough power to activate a few systems, and a hologram appears. The Doctor recognizes it as the old man from the Matrix projection. The hologram announces its various titles—among them, conqueror of the Yssgaroth and First President of Gallifrey—and declares himself to be Rassilon. The Doctor knows him to be long-dead, with his tomb in the Death Zone—but the hologram claims the legends are true. He accidentally created this anti-time universe upon establishing the Eye of Harmony, and battled the monster Zagreus. Though he defeated Zagreus, his TARDIS was wrecked, and he was trapped, but he lies in wait inside a Zero Cabinet nearby—and now his descendants and heirs will take him home.
The Doctor remains skeptical, but Vansell explains that Zagreus, with Rassilon, appears in the legends of many worlds, with similar events recorded. He suggests that the tomb of Rassilon on Gallifrey is false, with Rassilon still alive in the Zero Cabinet—and poised to lead Gallifrey to greater achievements if returned. The Neverperson in the form of Charley returns to negotiate the release of the Zero Cabinet; it opts to negotiate only with Vansell, who is more than willing to cooperate. In exchange, the Neverpeople want freedom to explore the timestream of the normal universe in order to gather the temporal energy on which they subsist. They demand, as a show of faith, that one of the Time Lords remain behind until the pact is finalized. The Doctor objects, as this will mean leaving Charley here as a continual gateway—but Vansell agrees with the Neverperson, and nominates Romana to stay behind. The Doctor realizes that all along, Vansell has intended a coup, with the aim of installing Rassilon in power once again—and of course placing himself at Rassilon’s side. Vansell’s guards return the Doctor, Charley, and Romana to the surface, where the ground disgorges the Cabinet; the Neverpeople transport Romana back under the surface. The Doctor stumbles into the chasm, and despite his protests, Vansell lets him fall in, before escorting Charley and the Cabinet back to the Time Station. His guards bring the converter device to the bridge, and place Charley inside.
Romana is taken to an amphitheatre filled with Neverpeople. The Charley phantom introduces two of them as Rorvan and Taris, friends from Romana’s childhood, but she cannot remember them. The phantom questions her about a device called the Oubliette of Eternity. The device, belonging to the CIA, is a molecular dispersion chamber, used to remove criminals from all of time and space by dispersing their molecules through the timestream. The Doctor arrives and overhears this, and realizes that the Neverpeople are former Time Lords who were destroyed in the Oubliette; they somehow arrived here. This is why Romana cannot recall Rorvan and Taris; after their dispersal, they had never existed in the first place. Their crime was accessing classified documents, and for this they were erased. Meanwhile, the Neverperson with Charley’s form reveals that she is Sentris, the 217th (and now former) Co-ordinator of the CIA. Once responsible for overseeing what she believed to be only very rare uses of the Oubliette, she was appalled when the records in a time-protected vault revealed that she herself had overseen over two hundred such executions—which she now could not remember, because the victims never existed. In severe guilt, she committed suicide by leaping into the Oubliette, but found herself here, with her former victims. Thus she leads them toward the normal universe for revenge.
Romana insists that the Oubliette is a relic of the past, and that Gallifrey will not forget the injustice; but Sentris reveals that the CIA continues to use it to this day, although of course no one would know. She blames Vansell as well as Romana, but more than that, she blames Rassilon for establishing this system. The Doctor realizes that there were no personalities in anti-time before Rassilon established the Oubliette, meaning that the Zagreus legend is a lie, and therefore Rassilon is most likely in his tomb in the Death Zone—which means the Cabinet is something else entirely, and it is on its way to Gallifrey. Meanwhile, on the now-repaired Time Station, Charley realizes that Vansell’s voice has become distorted, indicating he is infected with anti-time, and is being manipulated. Under his orders, Levith—although she too realizes something is wrong—activates the device; just before Charley is transformed again, she realizes that Levith, too, is infected. On the planetoid, Sentris confirms the Doctor’s fears: the Cabinet contains a huge quantity of anti-time energy. As well, though Gallifrey is under quarantine, the Presidential ship will be admitted without question; and when it materializes, the Cabinet will detonate, destroying the Capitol with a flood of anti-time and breaking down the last anchor of the Web of Time, causing the chaos the Doctor foresaw in the Matrix. It will be the Empire of Zagreus. She releases the Neverpeople to consume the Doctor and Romana. However, the Time Station stalls out during materialization, failing to arrive; and Sentris pulls the Neverpeople away to deal with this new problem. As the Neverpeople are incorporeal, she sends the Doctor and Romana in the Doctor’s TARDIS to repair the Time Station; none of its now-possessed skeleton crew have the necessary skills. Sentris accompanies them, holding Romana hostage to ensure the Doctor’s cooperation. Romana manages to covertly tell the Doctor that she has a plan; if she can reach the Matrix door, she can change the station’s authorization codes and prevent it from landing on Gallifrey.
The TARDIS materializes on the station’s bridge, where the Doctor and Romana find Charley, and learn that the rest of the crew is infected and unable to break free of the Neverpeople’s control. The Doctor sends Romana to reset the flux patterns in the reactor, and gives her his sonic screwdriver; Vansell suggests an escort for her, and Sentris sends Vansell himself with Romana. He links the station controls to his own TARDIS so as to boost the power, but then Sentris threatens to have Levith kill herself in order to make him cooperate further. She orders him to slave the Cabinet to the self-destruct system, so that the station will explode upon materialization, spreading anti-time across the world.
At the reactor, the positive temporal energy draws Romana’s Neverpeople guards—Rorvan and Taris, as it turns out—toward the reactor. This allows Vansell to regain some control of himself; horrified by his previous actions, he swears loyalty to Romana. She enlists his help; by lowering the two blast shutters on the engine and raising its shield, she will expose Rorvan and Taris to the overwhelming energy of the core, and hopefully destroy them. However, Vansell’s shutter jams open; he lowers the shield anyway, sacrificing himself to destroy the Neverpeople.
With the boost from the TARDIS, the station’s time rotor revives, just as Sentris senses the deaths of Rorvan and Taris. She deduces Romana’s plan, and her possessed Time Lords activate the emergency bulkheads throughout the ship, sealing Romana away from the Matrix chamber. She uses the sonic screwdriver to override the bulkheads, and reaches the Matrix, but finds its voices are all insane now, ranting about the coming of Zagreus. She is unable to change the codes; and Sentris tells the Doctor that it doesn’t matter anyway—before leaving Gallifrey, Vansell had pushed through an order making it impossible to change the codes during a state of emergency. However, she taunts the Doctor by telling him that one option remains: he could kill Charley. This would close the gateway. Of course, he refuses, even when the possessed Levith gives him her staser. Charley makes an impassioned speech as to why he should let her die—knowing she is grateful for the extra time she’s had—but he cannot do it. As Sentris activates the gateway again, the station dematerializes, heading for Gallifrey. The Doctor realizes there is one more thing he can do, however—and he runs into the TARDIS and dematerializes. Confident of victory, Sentris lets him go.
The Doctor quickly reconfigures the interior of the TARDIS, but is interrupted when time comes to a halt. He is visited by an apparition—the old man from the Matrix, now recognized as Rassilon. With time paused, the old man asks the Doctor to explain the course that led him here; he does so, beginning with meeting Charley on the R101. He insists he has considered every possible alternative; and at that, the old man allows him to proceed. He warns the Doctor that he must face the consequences of his decisions, but assures him that the Doctor has always made him proud. Time resumes its flow.
As the Time Station materializes, Sentris—through Levith—activates the self-destruct mechanism. However, the Doctor’s TARDIS materializes around the station. The TARDIS will contain the fallout until the Time Lords can fix it; and though the Doctor will die, he has won, saving both the Universe and Charley. The station explodes as Sentris screams.
Inside the Matrix, everything suddenly returns to normal, with history repaired. This time, it includes Charley’s rescue and all the events of the anti-time crisis, up to the Doctor’s sacrifice. Rassilon appears to Romana, and explains that Charley and the threat she represented to history are now a part of history. Her survival on the R101 ensured the Universe’s survival, thus meaning that her survival could never have been a threat to the Universe in the first place. It’s a paradox, but one everyone can live with. Rassilon expresses pride in Romana, and gives her the chance to return to Gallifrey; but if she does so, the future must be hidden from her. Still, she and Charley have a part to play, even if the future is dark. Romana leaves the Matrix, returning to Gallifrey.
Charley, too, has survived, and makes her way to the shattered console room of the TARDIS. She finds the Doctor in the darkened room, but he strikes her, knocking her down. He exultantly tells her that, with the breach closed, all the anti-time in the Universe is contained in him, as he absorbed it during the explosion. He is no longer the Doctor, but the embodiment of anti-time, the dark being known as Zagreus.
This “series” of Eighth Doctor stories has been up and down; but the ending exceeded all expectations. I understand that there’s considerably more to come—and the ending of this story leads directly into Zagreus, which I will reach in a few months—but it’s quite a satisfying story on its own. Had the Eighth Doctor’s adventures been televised, this would make a fine, and quite literally explosive, series finale, and probably would have resulted in a regeneration, as well as a new companion. It has the makings of a good finale: the end of not one, but two interrelated plot arcs (Charley’s survival, and the anti-time crisis); a fast-paced, high-tension resolution; a noble sacrifice for the Doctor, which has that crucial characteristic of providing a good overall ending should the series be cancelled; the return of an old enemy (CIA Co-ordinator Vansell) as well as an old friend and companion (Romana); and plenty of references back to previous stories, from this series as well as other times.
From the beginning, this story is different; instead of the usual four parts of approximately thirty minutes each, it consists of two parts of seventy-two minutes each. It was a good choice; this story doesn’t lend itself to a plethora of cliffhangers. There are few cliffhangers bigger than the ostensible return of Rassilon at the end of Part One, and it stands better without competition. (For anyone worried about spoilers, trust me; you don’t yet know the full story of Rassilon’s involvement here, and won’t be disappointed.) Keep in mind that this story was released years before the introduction of the Last Great Time War, and still more years before the return of Rassilon to the television series in The End of Time; therefore events seen here may contradict the television series—but not much. I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve heard more audios in this sequence, but I suspect that the audios here can be made to agree with the television series. (Rassilon here is played by Don Warrington, who reprises the role in several more audios, and also plays the President of Great Britain in the televised episode Rise of the Cybermen).
Romana’s appearance here is one of the highlights. The story follows up on her appearance in The Apocalypse Element; it is one of only three audios in which both she (as played by Lalla Ward) and the Eighth Doctor appear (the others are Shada and Zagreus). I am aware that she plays the role of Lady President in the Gallifrey audios, but I have yet to obtain that series; therefore this is my first encounter with Romana at the height of her power. Lalla Ward plays the part as well as always; it’s unfortunate that Romana, usually such a savvy character, is taken in by Vansell and by the plans set in motion by the anti-time Neverpeople. Her Time Station, the oversized TARDIS available to her in her role as President, appears to be similar to the station seen in Trial of a Time Lord, but doesn’t appear to be the same ship. It does, however, contain a Matrix doorway.
There are a number of Zagreus references here, capitalizing on the scattered references in earlier stories. It’s made clear that there’s a reason why so many worlds have Zagreus myths; and though the character is indeed a myth, myths have a way of becoming reality. One would think it’s the other way around, but this is a series about time-travel, and there’s no need for such concern over causality. The way in which Zagreus comes to be is reminiscent of the Bad Wolf entity, which claimed to create itself; and here, that makes perfect sense.
I don’t find much in the way of flaws with this story; but it is worth noting that the anti-time universe contains a TARDIS, reputed to be Rassilon’s. This makes no sense; its description makes it clear that it is a Type-40 or something near it, but Rassilon would never have had access to such a ship—early TARDISes were very different. As well—and I’m skirting spoilers here—there’s no good explanation given for how it came to be there. Certainly this is not a problem with the performance, but it’s a bit of a logical hole in the story.
Continuity references: There are many here. Frequent references are made to the R101 (Storm Warning) and the Daleks stuck in a time loop (The Time of the Daleks). Rassilon first appeared in The Five Doctors. The Doctor was surrounded by Battle TARDISes before, in Embrace the Darkness. He mentions the Nimon invasion of Earth (Seasons of Fear). Vansell mentions Charley’s presence in France (Storm Warning), the Vanguard (Sword of Orion), Venice (The Stones of Venice), Malebolgia (Minuet in Hell), New York (Invaders from Mars), and London (The Chimes of Midnight). Seasons of Fear showed the arrival of the Neverpeople (not named at that time), when they devoured Richard and Lucy Martin, who are mentioned here. Zagreus has been previously mentioned in Project: Twilight, Seasons of Fear, and the novel Instruments of Darkness (which, incidentally, was the first novel to feature a Big Finish-original character, Evelyn Smythe). The Library of St. John the Beheaded (All-Consuming Fire) gets a mention. Rassilon mentions the Yssgaroth (The Pit). Mount Cadon (Timewyrm: Revelation) and its silver-leafed Cadonwood trees are mentioned. The Doctor mentions his adventures in E-Space (Full Circle, State of Decay, Warrior’s Gate, and the audio drama The Invasion of E-Space). He also mentions an adventure with Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, 1816 (Mary’s Story). Vansell previously appeared in The Sirens of Time and The Apocalypse Element; he will be succeeded by Narvin (Weapon of Choice). The fast-return switch first appeared in The Edge of Destruction, and Charley discovered it in Seasons of Fear. The Monan Host and other time-travelling species appeared in The Apocalypse Element; the Archetryx Convention also stems from that story. The Oubliette of Eternity seems to be the same device as the molecular dispersal chamber from Sisters of the Flame/The Vengeance of Morbius, although it may be a similar unit rather than the same one. The Matrix, while recording history, mentions a number of events and people: The crash of the R101, Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (Timewyrm: Exodus), the abdication of King Edward VIII (Players), the invasion of Poland (A Blind Eye), the evacuation of Dunkirk (Timewyrm: Exodus, Fugitives), Peladon’s admission to the Galactic Federation (The Curse of Peladon), the election of Mavic Chen (The Daleks’ Master Plan), the Daleks on Kembel (Mission to the Unknown), the Cult of Morbius (The Brain of Morbius, The Vengeance of Morbius), the Doomsday Weapon and the Master (Colony in Space), Goth’s visit to Tersurus (Legacy of the Daleks, also mentioned in UNIT: Dominion), the disappearance of Etra Prime with Romana and the invasion of Gallifrey (The Apocalypse Element).
Overall: Quite a ride this has been! Perhaps it’s too soon to call the matter settled, but we have reached a point of some resolution, at least. We have also reached the end of Series Two of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, which in many ways paralleled this series. Both series ended on cliffhangers regarding the Doctor’s survival; and thus both give us something to look forward to. For now, though, we’ll take a breath and rejoin some of the other Doctors.
Next time: On Thursday, we’ll begin a series of the Fourth Doctor Adventures with Destination Nerva; and on Monday we’ll return to the Main Range. As I’ve already covered the next entry, Spare Parts–you can read my review here—we’ll skip over it and go on to …ish, featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. See you there!
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.