Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Muse of Fire

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Last month Big Finish released two Doctor Who stories in its main range. While Colin Baker's The Hunting Ground was a more traditional piece of Doctor Who (though still very strong - see our review here), Muse of Fire was something slightly different. Reprising her Big Finish role as rogue Time Lady Iris Wildthyme, Katy Manning joined Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor in a new tale with Sophie Aldred's Ace and Phlip Oliver's Hex.

Written by Paul Magrs and directed by Jamie Anderson, Muse of Fire is available on the Big Finish site here and goes on general release at the end of the month. Here's the synopsis... 

Oooh la la! It's been a long time coming, but the Doctor is about to be reunited with Iris Wildthyme! They're both in 1920s Paris and everyone's flocking to Iris's salon.

But wait...! What's that noise..? Thud thud thud...! It's the soft, approaching feet of a small and acerbic Art Critic Panda...!

THE REVIEW...

There’s Doctor Who, and then there’s Paul Magrs’ Doctor Who. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Magrs was one of the key writers who, when the show was dead on TV, not only kept the show alive but kept it moving forward. In BBC novels and Big Finish audios, while Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts wrote stories that expertly recreated the style and feel of TV Who – thus positioning themselves perfectly to write for the eventual TV revival – others such as Magrs, Kate Orman and Lance Parkin aimed to expand the horizons of the format and the character.

It’s safe to say that Magrs’ take – often postmodern, serial-comic fairytales populated by characters at once even larger than life and yet earthier than usual in Doctor Who, starting with daffy, flighty rogue Time Lady Iris Wildthyme – won't be to everyone’s taste, but if you give it a chance it can be like nectar. And while recent years have seen Magrs experimenting with a more grounded style in stories like The Peterloo Massacre and The Lady of Mercia (downbeat-sounding historical which I have to admit I haven't heard), Muse of Fire is very much a return to the earlier mode. And to my mind, it’s a triumphant one

Iris Wildthyme, at once a deliberate female parody of the Doctor and a proto-River Song (their encounters with each other are always temporally out of sync and she has a persistent crush on him), was a recurrent feature of Magrs’ early stories and even his non-Doctor Who novels (though she isn't characterised as a Time Lady in those). Despite this, in this ‘cinematic universe’ age in which everybody gets their own spin-off, she’s that rare quantity: a relatively under-exposed character (despite the fact that she does actually have her own intermittent spin-off series).

Magrs’ 2001 Fifth Doctor audio Excelis Dawns had actress Katy Manning first bring her to life: a smart piece of casting which played on the popularity of the actress  (in those days still based in Australia, and unwilling or unable to reprise her more famous Doctor Who role as Third Doctor companion Jo Grant) while allowing her history with the series to enhance the feeling that Iris and the Doctor go way back.  Since that point Manning has owned the role, and yet Muse of Fire is only the third time she has actually appeared as Iris opposite the Doctor.

Her hyper-Coronation Street vowels and dialect (“Don’t worry about me, I’ve fettled far worse”) seem even more perversely appealing than before, in a story which positions her as a patron of the arts in 1920s Paris, and Manning’s performance pumps with an energy you wish you could bottle and sell.  Her TARDIS, a cluttered London bus (“It’s like a charity shop in hell” comments Ace on seeing the interior) that’s smaller on the inside than the outside, is just as out of place in this setting, and almost as delightful to encounter.

In previous stories, the presence of Iris has always brought new shades to the Doctor, and the best out of the actor playing him.  Just as Manning’s Iris brought Peter Davison’s Doctor to new heights of exasperation, and Colin Baker’s to uncharted areas of vulnerability by probing him about his experiences on trial, here she galvanises Sylvester McCoy’s version of the character.  He’s delightfully playful and silly when gadding about the city with Ace and Hex, but then when confronted with Iris he switches into a ruthless mode very reminiscent of his later television stories. 

It’s perhaps not surprising that this Doctor, who mercilessly blew up the Daleks’ home planet and annihilated a fleet of Cyper warships, has the least patience with Iris.  In fact, he largely talks about her as he would about the Master.  Their relationship is a chilling counterpoint to the whimsy of much of the story, and very nimbly performed by Manning and McCoy.

The plot in a Paul Magrs story is rarely the point, more the hook on which to hang a depiction of a dreamlike setting, a series of rum characters, one or two utterly left-field ideas, and a hugely quotable array of fruity, intricate dialogue.  Muse of Fire’s plot, in which American poet Kevin (an enjoyably exuberant turn from Gethin Anthony) is possessed by an alien muse which inspires him to blurt fountains of passionate nonsense (“Fructify the existential taps!”) gives the writer especial scope for the latter.

For this reason I suspect Muse of Fire will sustain re-listening as well as earlier Magrs efforts such as The Stones of Venice (one of my personal favourites, in which Paul McGann proves effortlessly capable of fielding the most gorgeously improbable lines of dialogue that the writer can throw at him) and The Wormery.  And in the mad ideas corner, we get an extra-terrestrial explanation for why Picasso painted people the way he did. 

Of the other actors and characters, no-one lets the side down but a particular star is David Benson, who plays Panda.  I hadn’t encountered Panda before; he’s literally a talking stuffed panda (I understand he is Iris’s sidekick in her spin-off adventures).  Benson (currently touring the country in a two-man recreation of Dad’s Army) surprised me with his choice of voice for the character; he’s not at all cutesy, giving the character pomposity, anger and a hint of yearning, and it’s very engaging. 

Nineties TV star Christine Kavanagh plays Dora Muse with a delicate French accent and a subtle sense of mystery.  And Rebecca La Chance brings a brittle realism to her role as Isabel, fiancé of the moonstruck Kevin, who is the only one able to see that his poetic ambitions are doomed.

As the Doctor’s companions Ace and Hex, Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier bely the fact that they’ve been playing these characters for decades (Aldred is now in her 32nd year of playing teenage Ace, which makes Olivier still seem the newcomer with only 14 years on the clock) by bringing great chemistry and dexterity to the roles.  A subplot in which the guileless Hex is befriended by Iris and finds unexpected work as a nude model brings provokes some mock-rivalry and jealousy between the two, while effectively adding a charming and straightforward layer of farce to proceedings.

The fact is, I don’t need to tell you whether or not Muse of Fire is actually any good.  Based simply on a summary of the ingredients contained within, you probably have a good idea of whether or not you’ll like it.  (The only thing here that I have a real issue with is the CD cover artwork – I understand that it’s meant to evoke the Cubist art that’s central to the period and the plot, but it’s very ugly.) That’s the wonderful distinctiveness of a Magrs story.  If you’ve never encountered his work before, but like the sound of being whisked away to a slightly bonkers, slightly dreamlike world that might somehow be just down the road, I urge you to give him a try.  And Muse of Fire would be as good a place as any to start.

THE EXTRAS...

Muse of Fire features the array of cast and crew interviews usually provided on a Big Finish release.  It’s valuable to hear Magrs expounding on his approach to writing for Doctor Who; he explains that he was particularly keen to fashion a story that could easily sit in the early days of Ace and Hex’s friendship.  You also get director Jamie Anderson (son of the esteemed Gerry) express enthusiastic trepidation about realising some of Magrs’ more out-there ideas.  It’s evident from the cast interviews that the actors were buoyed by the material.  You even get Gethin Anthony reading the credits in character as Kevin, which is worth hearing by itself.

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