Doctor Who: Muse of Fire

Doctor Who: Muse of Fire – Starring Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Philip Olivier, Katy Manning, David Benson, Gethin Anthony, Rebecca La Chance & Christine Kavanagh. Written by Paul Magrs & Directed by Jamie Anderson – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)

For the past five months, we’ve enjoyed the longest consecutive run of Seventh Doctor stories in Big Finish’s history. The regular trilogy of stories featuring Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, along with Ace and Mel, began in August with Red Planets and continued through October with The Dispossessed and The Quantum Possibility Generator. These were followed up in November with both Warlock’s Cross, the finale to this year’s multi-Doctor trilogy (featuring the return of Elizabeth Klein and UNIT), as well as the first Seventh Doctor New Adventures Box Set, featuring companions Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester. Which brings us to this December’s Muse of Fire, which sees not only the return of companion Hex (alongside Ace), but also the machinations of trans-temporal glamour goddess Iris Wildthyme.

Writer Paul Magrs has written some wonderful stories since exploding on the Doctor Who scene decades ago. Most recently, his spectacular The Peterloo Massacre has taken its place as one of the best “pure historicals” Big Finish has ever released. He has created some delightful characters as well, including Mrs. Fenella Wibbsey, the housekeeper of Nest Cottage and ongoing companion to the Fourth Doctor. Although not a Big Finish creation, Mrs. Wibbsey was the main supporting character in the BBC’s three series of Fourth Doctor audio adventures: Hornet’s Nest, Demon Quest and Serpent Crest.

But it is Iris Wildthyme who remains Magrs’ most enduring and well-known creation. Iris first appeared (on the Doctor Who scene, at any rate – she had a life in non-Who-related stories before then) in the short story “Old Flames” before her first full-fledged novel appearance in Magrs’ The Scarlet Empress, one of the BBC’s Eighth Doctor Adventures. Finally, in 2002, she appeared for the first time in a Big Finish audio, Excelis Dawns, voiced by Katy Manning, previously known to Doctor Who fans as the actress who portrayed Jo Grant. Manning quickly made her mark on the character and soon both her voice and her likeness were irrevocably attached to Iris Wildthyme, to the point where her image often appears on the cover of Big Finish audios, as well as novels and short story collections, most of which have been published in the last several years by Obverse Books.

So, who exactly is Iris Wildthyme, and how integral is she to the Doctor Who universe? It’s not an easy question to answer, given that her story has evolved much in the same way that Lawrence Miles’ Faction Paradox universe did, following the end of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. Originally, she was presented as a travelling Time Lady, whose TARDIS had taken on the form of a London double-decker bus; the number 22 to Putney Common. Her solo adventures were often seen as pastiches, if not outright parodies of, many of the Doctor’s adventures. But as time passed and her universe grew, it soon became apparent that there was much more to Iris’ story. Nowadays, her background is much more fluid; she still seems to take on the characteristics of one of the Doctor’s own people when it is convenient (i.e. when she appears in a Doctor Who story proper), but in more recent years she has made continued claims to being from a parallel universe called the “Obverse”, a distinction designed to separate her, at least partly, from the Doctor Who universe.

But in Muse of Fire, she is quite definitely back in the Doctor’s influence. And, as usual, sparks fly. They’re just not necessarily the same sparks we’ve seen in the past.

The TARDIS arrives in 1920s Paris, the very centre of the modernist movement and home to such critical artistic and literary figures as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Salvador Dali. Except…it’s not. Many of the aforementioned figures are actually in the process of leaving Paris, their dreams shattered in the wake of devastating comments from a mysterious critic. At the same time, a new mysterious benefactor conducts a nightly salon in an apartment on the island overlooking Notre Dame…

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Iris alongside the Doctor, and Muse of Fire marks the first time on audio that we’ve seen her alongside his seventh incarnation. It’s a very interesting mix; although the Doctor makes it very clear that (in this incarnation) he refuses to suffer Iris’ shenanigans, the fact of the matter is that she is still as disarming as ever. And in many ways, it seems to be Iris’ contention that she, too, will not give this Doctor the same relaxed leash she has afforded previous incarnations. Both time travellers appear to run circles around each other, and (as usual) it slowly becomes apparent that Iris’ plan is much more complicated than it originally seems. Iris as a character has always taken a good deal of inspiration from the Doctor she is playing opposite, and Muse of Fire is no exception: this Iris is more calculating, more likely to play a “long game” if necessary. Sylvester McCoy’s performance is also delightful; one can tell that his “chessmaster” version of the Doctor is a little uncertain where Iris Wildthyme is concerned. And although he’s willing to give this confrontation the old Dunkirk try, it’s a lot of fun to see him just a little bit out of his element. As for Iris, some of her best scenes involve her interactions with Hex; there’s a kind of “Mrs. Robinson“ dynamic between the two characters, and Katy Manning milks it for all it’s worth. 

A word about Hex. It’s so wonderful seeing Philip Olivier back in the fold, doing what he does best. The character of Hex has finally reached that point where he can come back and do the occasional guest spot, much as previous television companions do. It doesn’t mean we’re necessarily continuing his story; it just means that we’ve been given the opportunity to dip back into his timeline, much as we do with most non-Big Finish-original characters. It’s a shame that the audio company hasn’t done the same with other original creations; it would be so lovely to hear some “lost stories” featuring the likes of Charlotte Pollard, Erimem, Thomas Brewster or Lucy Miller (although, to be fair, Brewster has actually resurfaced a number of times, Charley is due to reappear in both Ravenous 3 and The Legacy of Time, and Lucie Miller will be back in The Further Adventures of Lucie Miller.) But with Hex, it’s different. No huge box sets marking his return; just a simple reappearance in the Main Range from time to time. It’s nice. And both he and Sophie Aldred are definitely on form; if the banter between their characters is anything to go by, it’s as if Olivier never left.

Also present are two other shadowy figures who seem to be somehow connected to the mysterious exodus of artists and writers. The first of these is the anonymous critic who is responsible for driving the great writers and artists out of Paris. He’s someone who is definitely known to fans of Iris and Big Finish, but to reveal his identity is this review would be denying listeners his glorious big reveal. The other is the mysterious Dora Muse, played to perfection by Christine Kavanagh. A patron to the arts and the expanding literature of the time, Muse has her own reasons for following the careers of so many great gurus. And yet, there is no doubt that time has begun to fold in on itself somewhere in her vicinity. It is her proprietorship of a small bookshop in Paris where this is most evident – for the renowned “Shakespeare & Co.”, known today the world over as the one publisher that was willing to risk everything to publish the first full editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses – now seems to have been changed its name to “Dickens & Co.”, a neglected, cluttered store with some decidedly odd alien technology underneath the staircase. How this all ties in with what is happening to the artists and writers of Paris is one of the story’s central mysteries.

The delightful cast of characters is topped off first by American couple Kevin and Isabel Archer. It is this duo – played by Gethin Anthony and Rebecca La Chance respectively – who are really at the centre of everything: both have been living off the generosity of Isabel’s uncle while aspiring poet Kevin attempts to hone his craft surrounded by some of the greatest masters of modernism. The fact that Kevin’s poetry would put a Vogon to shame is irrelevant; it is their love story, and Isabel’s unquestioning loyalty to her husband, that forms the backbone to such a delightful audio drama. As their story unfolds, the most obvious question that one must ask is, how much would you give up to pursue your dream? And more importantly, how much would you be willing to give up so that your spouse could pursue his or her dream? There is no doubt that the decision to try and become a paid artist or writer is, at its heart, a huge gamble for many. Muse of Fire explores the notion that it is often the peripherals – spouses, children, parents – who risk the most for the artists in their lives.

Also included for the first time in a Doctor Who story is David Benson’s Panda, a character who has become a staple of Iris Wildthyme solo stories over the past decade. It is mentioned in the CD extras that Katy Manning’s Iris – though very busy in her own series – hasn’t appeared in a Doctor Who Main Range story for over 15 years! (It seems that they are referring to 2003’s The Wormery, although Iris has appeared in a handful of Companion Chronicles, in addition to her own series since then). Panda makes a glorious debut in a Doctor Who story, and his own idiosyncrasies – particularly ruffling his fur whenever he’s referred to as a “bear” – definitely adds some wonderful comic relief to the story. Panda’s clashes with Ace and Hex in particular are hysterical, and it’s wonderful to see him as part of a growing cast of canon Doctor Who characters.

One final mention needs to be made with regards to the story’s sound design and music. Sound designer Daniel Burnett has managed to capture the exact tone of what Paris between the wars must have been like. But it is Benji Clifford‘s music that is the real star of the show; the smooth, lively melodies serve to do much more than just convey a sense of time and place. Although the incidental music makes great use of organs and accordions, it is the jazzy piano riffs that serve as background music in the cafés and salons of the time that really set the scene. It’s such a shame that this is one of the first Main Range stories in years to not feature some of the story’s incidental music as extras on the CD. Normally I tend to skip over a lot of the musical extras, but on this release I actually went looking for the musical tracks, only to find nothing! Part of this, unfortunately, has to do with the length of the story; most episodes are over 30 minutes in length (episode 4 is actually over 35 minutes), which means the entire story clocks in at over two hours – much longer then the average Main Range adventure, which usually runs closer to an hour and a half. And yet, the extra time isn’t noticeable at all – a definite sign of a tightly written and directed piece. The only side effect is that it doesn’t leave much room for CD extras (although there are about 15 minutes of interviews on disc #2). Nevertheless, if there is one release where Big Finish makes some musical tracks available to subscribers (as they often do – the subscriber digital release of Muse of Fire actually came with the Short Trip story Tuesday, by Tony Jones), this should be the one!

Overall, Muse of Fire is a deeply original story with a rich tapestry of characters, set against a gorgeous backdrop of art, poetry, literature and music. Director Jamie Anderson, who has been responsible for directing all Sylvester McCoy’s releases this year, has done a fine job of greatly differentiating between the tone and ethos of the varied stories he has worked with over the past several months. And, as has already been mentioned, he seems to be particularly adept at pacing his stories; Muse of Fire, though longer and meatier than the average Main Range adventure, seems to whip by, unencumbered by overly-long exposition. Truth be told, this simple characteristic is the result of an almost perfect pairing: it’s Anderson who has brought out the best performances in all his actors, but Muse of Fire is definitely Magrs’ baby, an incredibly well-written dive into a fascinating period of social and artistic history. Peter McAlpine

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