For many a Whovian, the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann, is easily the most mysterious of the Doctor’s incarnations. This is not because of his personality, however. It is merely because of how elusive he is to the television screen. He has only had two TV outings: the 1996 TV movie (which I covered here in Part 1 of this recap series) and the 2013 minisode “The Night of the Doctor”, showing the beginning and ending of his life, respectively.
“The Night of the Doctor” made a major contribution to Doctor Who canon, however. By mentioning Eight’s audio companions by name, this Doctor’s many adventures from Big Finish Productions are officially…well, canon.
While Big Finish started releasing Doctor Who audio dramas in 1999, it wouldn’t be until January 2001 that Paul McGann’s first outing with the company was released. Unlike the other Doctors Big Finish had at the time, the Eighth Doctor’s stories were typically released in chronological order as seasons, with Season 1 being released from January to April 2001, and Season 2 starting in January 2002 and ending in November 2003 after a seventeen month month gap following a cliffhanger.
Of course, one of the first orders of business for McGann’s Doctor was to give him a companion, and thus he was given Edwardian Adventuress Charlotte Pollard (Charley to her friends), who would play a much bigger role than just a companion.
It was on the British airship R101 during its final voyage in October 1930 that the Doctor met Charley, who had been posing as a male steward. She had accidentally exposed herself vocally to Tamworth, Minister for the Air, and the Doctor had helped to hide her from the authorities on the ship. She was taken to his eccentricities, such as his claims of having played tiddlywinks with Vladimir Lenin.
As it would turn out, Charley was part of the upper class. Her family lived in a manor and had their own servants, but Charley was not particularly fond of the well-to-do, early twentieth century lifestyle which had been presented to her. As previously stated, she saw herself as more of an Edwardian and had stowed away aboard the R101 for two things: adventure, and to meet a man in Singapore, as the Doctor would learn later.
After their encounter with the Triskele, which ended with the destruction of the R101 (as per history), Charley would join the Doctor as a traveling companion, a prospect which worried him. She was meant to die aboard the airship, but here she was, alive. He, somewhat reluctantly at first, welcomes Charley as a companion, and they head back to the TARDIS.
The rest of the Eighth Doctor’s first season doesn’t really build up to anything grand. For the most part, it is simply three more adventures with Charley in tow. They face the Cybermen, visit Venice in the future, and become embroiled in a Satanic conspiracy surrounding the 51st state of the United States of America in the early twenty first century alongside Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.
The second season was where the story arc which focused on Charley really started to ramp up, and it is also where it saw its conclusion. Throughout their adventures together, the Doctor and Charley begin encountering people and situations which range from strange (well, stranger than usual) to downright impossible, and he can’t help but feel that Charley may be the reason for it all.
William Shakespeare seems to have been wiped from history. The paradox of Charley’s state of existence gives life to the lifeless. The man Charley was planning to meet in Singapore has been ripped across time and claims to have killed the Doctor. And, as finally confirmed by Lady President Romana of Gallifrey, it is all because the Web of Time is about to break as a result of the Doctor saving Charley’s life, as now anti-time was seeping into N-Space. This weakening of the very fabric of reality will give the never-people, an eldritch species of transfigured Time Lords who had been erased from creation and sent to another universe of anti-time, the opportunity to return to N-Space. This would cause untold chaos to unfold, and the only way of stopping it seems to be to kill Charley, as the never-people will be using her as a gateway of sorts.
Charley is fully prepared to sacrifice herself, and declares her love for the Doctor, which he reciprocates before running back to the TARDIS, alone, to materialize it around the anti-time casket which was integral to the never-people’s plans, fully expecting himself and his TARDIS to die. It promptly implodes with the Doctor at the center, and the Web of Time is restored to a stable state which incorporates Charley’s current state of existence into it, as without her paradoxical influence the current Web could not exist.
When Charley returns to the TARDIS, however, she finds that the Doctor isn’t dead…sort of. His body lives, but he has been infected by the anti-time virus Zagreus who, despite not having mentioned him before in this recap, had plenty of foreshadowing in not just the Eighth Doctor stories released up to that point but also in several other main range releases.
Zagreus, or: A Four-Hour Romp That Tries to Do Way Too Much
Before starting this section of the recap, I would like to point out that Zagreus, Big Finish’s biggest contribution to Doctor Who‘s fortieth anniversary as well as their fiftieth monthly play, has a very split reputation and is nearly incomprehensibly dense even with context. Like everything else up to this point, I’m going to break it down as simply as I can and keep it to the main story beats, but even then there is so much going on that it can be hard to keep track.
Zagreus attacks Charley, who quickly runs deep into the TARDIS in an effort to evade him in his mentally shattered state. He goes back and forth between an amnesiac Doctor and the animal-like mythical monster as he stalks the corridors of the TARDIS, searching for Charley.
The TARDIS herself distracts Zagreus with various scientific and philosophical concepts, as well as with literature, projecting herself as the Third Doctor to do so. Meanwhile, she also projects herself to Charley as the Brigadier, who takes Charley through projections of significant events in Gallifreyan history, such as Rassilon’s stealing of regeneration from vampires, and one such revelation was of Rassilon’s spread of the Gallifreyan genome throughout creation in an effort to create a better universe through species whose genetic roots were similar to his own. One species, the Divergence, got the short end of the stick, as Rassilon cordoned off their branch of evolution from the rest of the cosmos and placed into a their own pocket universe in his basement.
Eventually, the TARDIS becomes sick of dealing with the stark-raving mad split personality of Zagreus and the Doctor, and simply quits and decides to join up with Rassilon, who has plans for her which involve the part of Zagreus infused into her from the imploding casket. Rassilon puts her in a new body, destroying the old one in the Foundry of Rassilon. The shock of this sight allows Zagreus to fully take over the Doctor’s body, and Rassilon convinces him to control anti-time for him as Zagreus was not actually an anti-time virus but the master of anti-time itself. As Zagreus begins forging a Vorpal Blade of anti-time from what little remains of the TARDIS’ body, it is revealed that Rassilon plans to remove Romana from office by any means necessary and put Zagreus in her place so that he may slay the Divergence and secure the Time Lords’ existence, as Zagreus is able to freely travel between the two universes.
This angers the TARDIS, who had learned the history of the Divergence through the scenarios she had shown Charley. She casts Rassilon out, into the Divergent universe, where she expects him to be torn apart by those who he had wronged eons ago.
While all this was going on, there were three individuals present from the scenarios Charley was experiencing earlier who began to receive memories of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors (played by Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, respectively). All three are slain by the Vorpal Sword while a Jabberwock runs about. The Doctor, still mostly overtaken by Zagreus, begs Charley to kill him with the sword. She does so, but as the sword had transferred the essences of the other Doctors’ personalities from those it had just slain into the Doctor, he begins to overpower Zagreus from within, as does the TARDIS.
Now that the dust has begun to settle, the TARDIS explains that she projected Charley’s memories of the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (which this story has more than enough allusions to) into the mind of Zagreus to confuse him, as the story was filled to the brim with so much senselessness that even anti-time itself wouldn’t be able to make sense of it.
The day is saved, but the Doctor knows that there is still some part of Zagreus left inside of him. Not wanting to put the universe in jeopardy, he leaves Charley and pilots the TARDIS into the Divergent universe to live out the rest of his days. But Charley sneaks aboard just as the old girl takes off into a universe without time.
Of course, the Doctor and Charley did have some other escapades in-between stories in their first two seasons together. Back in the day, Big Finish published a variety of books under the label “Short Trips” after acquiring the license to the name from BBC Books in the early 2000s. These books contained numerous short stories from multiple Doctors, and typically revolved around a particular theme. The majority of interstitial stories featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley originate from these collections, which began publication in 2002 and unfortunately came to an end in 2009 when Big Finish’s license to print the books expired after twenty eight volumes of original stories and one additional volume which acted as sort of a “Greatest Hits” of the series.
The Eighth Doctor and Charley certainly had a presence in these collections. While the Eighth Doctor would appear in the very first collection, it would be with companion Fitz Kreiner from BBC Books’ Eighth Doctor Adventures novels. In the second collection, Short Trips: Companions, the Doctor and Charley would come across one of the Doctor’s former companions from his distant past, Vicki, in “Apocrypha Bipedium”. The fifth collection, Steel Skies, sees the pair land on a colony ship in which the topsoil it was carrying sprouted during cryo-sleep and created a paradise in “A Good Life”. The story “Repercussions…” from the anthology of the same name sees Charley fall asleep aboard the TARDIS and wake up in an airship full of people in a proverbial limbo. And there are many, many more from these anthologies.
However, in 2010 Big Finish revived the Short Trips on audio as short, half-hour audiobooks read by an actor closely associated with a story’s particular Doctor, with additional sound effects and music mixed in to enhance the experience. The first four series of the audio Short Trips were two-disc box sets containing one story from each of the first eight Doctors, with the second series featuring Charley with the Eighth Doctor. Since 2015, the range transitioned to a digital-only, monthly release schedule, which continues to this day. Two of these standalone Short Trips have featured the Eighth Doctor and Charley: Foreshadowing and The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Beyond the Short Trips, the Eighth Doctor and Charley appeared together in Enemy Aliens, the eighth story out of eleven in the Destiny of the Doctor collaboration between Big Finish and AudioGO for the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who in 2013. Also for the anniversary, Big Finish themselves produced The Light at the End, which featured every living Doctor whom they had the license to use at that point (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann) as well as impressions of the first three Doctors by William Russell, Frazier Hines, and Tim Treloar. Charley is the Eighth Doctor’s companion in this story.
There was also a single release from the Companion Chronicles range featuring Charley and the Celestial Toymaker, Solitaire, which takes place between Season 2’s Embrace the Darkness and The Time of the Daleks. Also somewhere during Season 2 is the free, half-hour story Living Legend, which was released as part of the fortieth anniversary celebrations ahead of Zagreus in November 2003.
Are these interstitial stories absolutely necessary to understand the first two seasons, the Eighth Doctor, or Charley as characters? Not at all; they’re there for flavor, really. Most of them simply expand upon the time they have spent together before their entire dynamic changes in the next few seasons.
Based on what I have read from fans since diving into Big Finish’s catalog, opinions of not just the first two seasons but the entire Charley era of the Paul McGann’s audio tenure seem to be split. For every person I find that adores and recommends starting here, I find another who dislikes the era and recommends starting with Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor Adventures range, featuring Sheridan Smith as companion Lucie Miller.
I personally enjoy the first two seasons, though they are not without their shortcomings. Storm Warning, for example, feels as though it was originally written for another Doctor but hastily rewritten to accommodate Paul McGann, but it does have its lighter, more amusing moments that give it its charm. Stones of Venice is intriguing in its premise but its performances tend to fall flat at times. Minuet in Hell is a drag to get through simply due to its extended length not doing the premise any favors; most of the characters are not given much of anything to do until the very end.
Season 2 certainly picks up in terms of quality. Invaders from Mars is an entertaining, farcical story that surprisingly was the first Doctor Who release of any kind to center around Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast and begins planting the seeds of the major story arc ahead. The Chimes of Midnight is often regarded as one of, if not the greatest Big Finish story of all time, a sentiment which I share. Seasons of Fear is interesting in that each of its four episodes takes place in a different time and place without losing its focus. The rest of this season is pretty fair, as well, but Neverland manages something incredible: it simultaneously reveals more backstory for the Time Lords and Gallifrey while making them more mysterious.
Zagreus, however, is a story of which I still do not have a solid opinion. It certainly is not bad in my eyes, but it is so bloated and self-indulgent that it can be difficult to keep track of what is going on over the course of its nearly four hour run time. However, it also delivers concepts and ideas that have never really been touched on in Doctor Who before then, most notably the tyrannical ego of Rassilon that would become a staple of his character in the revived series. Even the projections of the past Doctors in the story itself seem aware of how divisive the reception of the story would be.
I would still personally recommend starting with the Eighth Doctor here, though, as watching him toast his companions in “The Night of the Doctor” certainly has a greater impact when you know first-hand exactly what he had been through with the companions he names off. Each of the stories from his first two seasons are available on digital download from Big Finish for only $2.99 each (the CDs went out of print a few years ago). That is only about $33. Totally worth it.
Next time, we’ll be taking a look at the third and fourth seasons of the Eighth Doctor’s adventures in the main range, taking place in a whole new, Divergent universe…