Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Complete Wildthyme V: "Wildthyme on Top"

It's been a long time coming, but the first Iris Wildthyme short story
collection is finally available. Whether there is ever a second one
obviously depends on the quality of this first offering and, equally
obviously, the resultant sales. I'm happy to say that, if there's any
justice in the world, sales should reflect the high quality of this set of
stories and a second collection should be guaranteed.

Compared to the main Who Short Trips collections from Big Finish, this is on
a different level entirely (it looks like a *real* book for a start, rather
than a TV tie-in). Where many of the STs rely either on an extremely
tenuous linking scheme to bring coherence to the stories en masse (or are so
ruthlessly edited that all the stories read as though written by the same
person), Paul Magrs seems to have edited this collection with a fairly light
hand, trusting the authors to do what they're best at and come up with a
group of well written, amusing and thought-provoking short stories. And, in
the vast majority of cases, they haven't disappointed in the slightest.

Most Horrid - Justin Richards

Starting the first ever Iris Wildthyme collection with a story from Justin
Richards seems a bit of a risk - if there's one writer here who doesn't seem
well suited to people's preconceptions of Iris, it would surely be Richards
who, in his previous work on Doctor Who, comes across as short on humour
(unless you find Daleks quoting Shakespeare funny) and big on workmanlike,
rather than inspiring or playful, prose and very traditional plotting.

The choice of title doesn't bode well either. It's presumably meant to
suggest the cheapo ghost-hunting show, Most Haunted but it reminded me of
that bloody awful Dawn French vehicle from a few years ago - neither option
struck me as particularly inspired. As it turns out I wasn't wrong - this
isn't the type of tale which is likely to draw the casual reader into the
collection, being a pedestrian ghost story/whodunit centred round the
filming of an episode of a crappy TV show very similar to Living TV's
ghostly offering.

There are a couple of good lines - the suggestion that a ghost murdered
someone for a pint of milk raised a smile, as did the presenter's inability
to differentiate between the sound of the wind and that of a ghostly
apparition - but other than that it's all a bit flat and lifeless. The
solution is evident from the moment Iris appears and none of the supporting
characters is written as anything more than either a caricature (Fliss, the
vain and somewhat dim-witted presenter) or a personality-free cypher
(everyone else).

One of the potential banana skins of an Iris collection is that whilst Iris
served a dual role as foil for, and reflection of, the Doctor in Paul Magrs'
Who work, there's a possibility when she has to stand on her own two feet
that she will end up as a Doctor-lite, with authors cutting and pasting the
name Iris into their manuscripts in place of the Doctor. Richards
definitely falls into this trap here - there is no point in the story in
which the Doctor and Iris couldn't be change round without problem.

In fact, Iris seems lacking in personality altogether and is more an amalgam
of 'Irisy things' than an actual personality - a character in Most Horrid
says her accent lies 'somewhere between Liverpool, Manchester and perhaps
Ilkley Moor' and everything else about her is similarly generic. There's
more to writing Iris than simply throwing in a 'chuck' or a double entendre
now and again, and this Iris appears oddly unlike her normal self. Would
she really have accepted that a woman slumped at a table with bruises round
her neck was simply sleeping or drunk? And run away from a man who jumped
out at her? In truth, Richards seems very unsure of Iris as a character and
too often comes across as trying too hard to fit her into his own inaccurate
preconceptions, with Iris pinching the bum of a cameraman and constantly
considering the relative attractiveness of every man she comes across, as if
the author is under the impression that her primary characteristic is some
kind of advanced sex addiction.

One final moan - there's a reference to the Third Doctor near the end which
would have been fine, except the pretext for mentioning him is down to a
large comedy nose which has no other logical reason for being in the story
other than to prompt the Doctoral reference. A disappointing start all
round.

Sleuth Slayers - Jake Eliot


Justin Richards could do worse than take lessons on writing Iris from the
next author up, Jake Eliot, who I have to admit is the only writer featured
whom I'd never previously come across.

His Iris is spot-on - funny, inquisitive, smug and with an over-inflated
sense of her own worth. Tom also gets fleshed out a fair bit and after his
Mike Yatesian shenanigans in Verdigris seems far more pleasant here, early on in his relationship with Iris.

Eliot also realises that Iris moves in a slightly different universe to the
Doctor. Where Who fanboys ponder whether the Doctor and Blake's 7 exist in
the same universe, Iris fans know that the old lush is far more likely to
bump into John Steed than Kerr Avon. In Sleuth Slayers we can even pin down
exactly which Avengers episode it is she's interrupting, as Steed has Ms
Georgie Price-Jones in tow, the Emma Peel impersonator from the excellent
Girl from Auntie (which even leads to a joke for Avengers fans when Iris
asks where the usual girl is, Emma Peel having been kidnapped in the story
in question). Other plus points go to the nicely-drawn slew of fictional
detectives and do-gooders (including mention of Gervase Fen which further
demonstrates Eliot's excellent taste) and if the villain is made obvious by
the fact that there's not all that many people still standing by the end,
well, it's not a serious detective story.

The only slight niggle I had is that, for some reason, Eliot refuses to say
that the bowler-hatted, umbrella-carrying companion of Ms Price-Jones is
John Steed (or even just 'John'), but instead refers to him as 'the man'
throughout. Unfortunately, this conceit means that whenever Steed is around,
the phrase is over-used and each occurrence has a minor jarring effect,
especially in scenes where there was more than one man present.

Minions of the Moon - Philip Purser-Hallard

Philip Purser-Hallard's twin strengths in his published work so far have
been an uncanny skill for believable world-building and a flexible prose
style
dedicated to the needs of his characters (I know the latter sounds
like a bit of a given for an author, but you'd be surprised how many Who
authors can only do one style).

Minions of the Moon utilises these abilities to great effect and adds a
level of sheer lyricism which picks you up and sweeps you along to the
story's conclusion. With adjective-heavy descriptive passages and an
emphasis on colour, it's an absolute delight to read and visualise, and
minor details (like the fact that time on the Moon is measured in sevenths,
and each seventh has two different, suitably poetic, names) make lunar
society genuinely come to life, as do the diverse lunar inhabitants
themselves.

As with his debut novel Of the City of the Saved..., Minions is replete with
great sf ideas - nano-technology based on the medical knowledge of the
sixteenth century and the resurrection of the gifted dead on the Moon being
the two best here. That the main sf idea - of Elizabethans in space - is
the same as that of the recent(ish) Big Finish Unbound release, A Storm of
Angels
, is unfortunate, but just goes to show that great minds think alike
(and I'm sure that the author would have no objection to being compared to
Marc Platt in that respect).

Iris and Tom are both well served in Minions - a scene where Iris becomes
drunkenly maudlin at apparent sexual rejection and Tom attempts to console
her is a highlight, but both characters are handled with consistent and
obvious affection.

In almost any other Big Finish collection this would be a stand-out story, a
guaranteed gold medal winner - it's a measure of the quality on offer
throughout Wildthyme on Top, though, that Minions of the Moon only just
makes the podium here.

Beguine - Steve Cole

Unfortunately, for me this story seemed to have one section too many. It
starts very promisingly with a geriatric stripper getting her kit off for a
bunch of foul-mouthed pensioners, with the suggestion that young people are
hunting the old - sort of Logan's Run with old slappers. Perfect Iris
country, frankly, and sure enough she and Tom appear in front of one old
man, causing him to wet himself as he recognises her (and Tom in particular)
from 40 years previously. Youngsters burst in on the desperate old age
depravity and...the whole story slips into unnecessary and rather ordinary
horror territory. What looked like being a touching, if unusual, love story
(or stories) wanders off into live burial and other horror staples and the
jump in pacing derailed me completely. It's entirely probable that a few
more reads will improve the tale, but on a first runthrough it just didn't
gel as I'd hoped or expected.

Blame Iris - Stew Sheargold

After the luxurious prose of Sheargold's last foray into the world of Iris
(in his collaboration with Paul Magrs, It's Raining Again), I should have
realised that 'Blame Iris' would be good. In fact, it's packed with lovely
writing, unexpected imagery and cracking dialogue. The story of Iris and
Tom's exploits with Henry Miller, his wife June and Anais Nin and the
attempted invasion of Earth by aliens made of paper is so well-done that it
could easily be Paul Magrs writing under a pseudonym. A delightful piece of
work which perfectly captures Iris, Tom and the kind of threat she's best
designed to confront.

Came to Believe - Craig Hinton

Craig Hinton said of this story before it came out that he thought it was
the best thing he'd ever written. And, much as I'm a fan of his Missing
Adventures in particular, I'd have to agree.

This is easily the best and most thoughtful use of Iris as a character in
the collection and the one which best demonstrates that Iris can be used in
ways which are simply not possible when writing for the Doctor. Hinton plays
up the fact that Iris is a far more 'human' personality than the Doctor and
presents much the same set of foibles as Barry, the recovering alcoholic
journalist she is trying to help. As a result she slips into the clinic
with relative ease and, over time, is able to force Barry to reflect on what
he needs to do to recover, without once becoming anything other than the
usual Iris. It's really not possible to imagine the Doctor in the same
position (well it is, but the resultant story would be very different and,
frankly, not very good).

Of course, clever ideas and characterisation are all well and good, but if
the writing is rubbish then the whole thing falls flat. Fortunately,
there's some wonderful writing here and, for anyone who has ever been close
to an alcoholic, there's much that rings absolutely true and which brings a
lump to the throat. Alcoholism isn't the rather cool dissolution of 'Leaving
Las Vegas
' and Hinton gets that point over very well (without making either
Iris or Barry depressingly didactic mouth-pieces for abstinence) as the
various stages of degeneration are illuminated by the increasingly sickly
background characters who also inhabit the clinic.

And just when you think this story can't get any better - up pops another
Iris!

The highlight of the collection.

Rough Magic - Kate Orman


A bit of a pause for breath after Came to Believe, Kate Orman's Rough Magic
doesn't really stand out and is in many ways the most anonymous tale in the
collection. Don't get me wrong - it's professionally and well written, it
has a coherent plot and an interesting setting but for all that, the story
slips by in ten minutes, and the next day all I could remember about it was
that a magician was involved and that the ending was quite funny. None of
which is necessarily a condemnation - I enjoyed reading the story and will
no doubt read it again (which puts it up on at least one of the stories in
the collection) but in the company of Hinton, Blum and Purser-Hallard, it's
just not memorable enough to make more than a fleeting impression.

The Mancunian Candidate - Lance Parkin

Whereas this still had me involuntarily laughing to myself an hour after I
finished it. A razor-sharp spoof on CS Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, told as a
series of intentionally convoluted and interwoven first person narratives,
there are more jokes in its thirteen pages than in entire Big Finish audio
'comedies'. Hard to say which is the best joke, but having a three foot
high squirrel comment on the fact that Manchester has a thriving gay scene
was a 'choke on coffee' moment for me, although not the only one. I could
be picky and wonder why Lance didn't use Professor Cleavis, the CS Lewis
character from Paul Magrs other books, as his thinly disguised author but
let's not niggle - it's a very, very funny story.

Iris and Irregularity - Jacqueline Rayner

When I read the first line of this story I groaned and very nearly skipped
onto Jon Blum's closing tale. Anything which starts with a play on the
opening line to Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' should come with some
kind of kitemark which guarantees that's it's not the start of some crappy
sub-Pratchett wacky fantasy novel or an American self-help book.

Fortunately, Iris and Irregularity is neither of those. Instead, it's the
tale of what would happen if Iris had gotten her hands on the elder Bennett
sisters (cunningly disguised as the Grant sisters) before they were married
off. I wasn't a fan of Raynor's recent NDA and her previous Who work has
been patchy, but here she exhibits an unexpected lightness of touch and
razor-sharp wit which came as a very pleasant surprise. Again, Iris' role is
clear, makes sense and is about as unDoctorly as you could ask for.
Definitely a pleasant surprise.

The Evil Little Mother and the Tragic Old Bat - Jon Blum

This is the first fiction of Jon Blum's that I've ever read and, if this is
the general quality of his output, then I can see exactly why he gets
irritated when it's suggested that he got into writing Doctor Who on his
wife, Kate Orman's, coat-tails. This is truly top-drawer stuff, at once
grasping that Iris need not be even vaguely similar to the Doctor and that
things are rarely as black and white in Iris' corner of the Universe as they
tend to be in the Doctor's.

Both of the regulars come across very well - Iris at once madly scheming and
oddly fragile, whilst Tom undergoes a minor intellectual journey, which I
found very refreshing. One difference between the companions of the Doctor
and Iris is that in the latter case Iris rarely has the answers (although
she does here) and hence the companion is robbed even of the need to ask
'What's going on?' for the readers' benefit. In some of the stories in this
collection, there's been an understandable tendency to shunt Tom to the
sidelines a little, but here he plays an important role aiding reader
comprehension of the various archetypes on show and the real people on whom
they are based. This is a story worth reading a couple of times in order to
pick up the many smaller nuances on show, but even on first read it's a
treat.

Blum even manages to end the collection perfectly with plenty of scope for
another book to come, but even if he hadn't done that this would still be an
exceptional ending to an excellent collection.
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