1. Wildthyme at Large
  2. The Devil in Ms Wildthyme
Big Finish
Iris Wildthyme Season 1

Released 2006

Synopsis: Iris, Tom and Panda gallivant about.


Oh heckythump! by Luke Hewitt 1/8/13

I first encountered the irrepressible, intoxicated and in some ways almost indecent Iris Wildthyme in The Wormery. At first, she honestly felt, in the serious context of that story -- beside a 6th Doctor mulling over his trial and the dark noir world of a Berlin Nightclub -- frankly an embarrassment. It was like sitting in a theatre watching the final scene of Romeo and Juliet next to someone yelling "Oh shut up, he wasn't worth it" This might be a minor exaggeration, but, needless to say, Iris did not make a favourable first impression with me.

Then, however, as the story progressed, I began to realize that there was rather more of a point to Iris than just the drunkenness and innuendo. Not merely that she was rather vulnerable under the bluster (that was obvious), but that deep down she wanted to do the right thing and genuinely cared about people. Indeed, in some ways she began to remind me of the 6th Doctor himself, with an over-the-top, goodtime-girl act replacing Colin Baker's egotistical and pompous professor act.

It also rather helped that gradually (especially after her musical performance), Iris started to remind me of my Gran, who'd worked as a pub pianist all her life, loved being the centre of attention, regularly drank copious amounts of vodka, gin and sherry, yet was probably one of the most generous, kind-hearted and stubborn people you could find (she never owned a leopard skin unfortunately, though did have plenty of rather ridiculous jewellery including a glittery handbag).

So, I was quite eager to see what a series about Iris would be like. I borrowed the first two seasons from a friend (who had also lent me many other Big Finish dramas) and got ready for hilarious, overblown but hopefully still occasionally thoughtful adventures aboard the iconic big red trans-temporal omnibus.

Unfortunately, to say I was disappointed was an understatement. The two adventures that make up the first season were both in their distinct ways some of the worst audio from Big Finish I've ever heard, regular GBH of the earhole as my Gran herself (and likely Iris too), might have put it.

Now, I imagine after that statement people will be thinking that this review is going to turn into a bitter, hatred-filled rant that would terrify the most rabid of villainous old men who ever tried to redirect a time stream and that I'll be spending my evenings attempting to build a time scoop and adding cyanide to bottles of Gordon's gin. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, if the number 22 to Putney Common pulled up, I'd be the first person to hop on board and join Aunty Iris for an unorthodox journey through time and space. This is because, as I mentioned, my friend also lent me season 2, which was simply exceptional, and prompted me to purchase season 3 as soon as BF announced it. Indeed, it was hearing season 3 that made me want to revisit the first season and so come to this review. Thus, while my comments about the below episodes will undoubtedly be negative, please bear in mind that I am an Iris fan, and perhaps the major reason I dislike these two pilot stories is that I know just how fantastic Iris and her adventures could be when they are handled correctly.

Wildthyme at Large.

One of the major problems with this story, the series pilot no less, will become apparent within its first scene. A young man called Tom is at a book signing, autographing books he's written about his adventures in time and space with Iris Wildthyme, whereupon Iris herself turns up to harass Tom's fans, make free with the refreshments, talk over old times and eventually take Tom out for Pizza and armed robbery.

Having a visual impairment, I do not have access to much of the printed material about Doctor Who. One reason I am such a fan of Big Finish. With only a few exceptions, the BF audios exist independent of other media, whether or not they exist within the same continuity. Even when they reference elements from the novels, such as the department C4, these elements are usually explained in the plot, just as when a BF story uses elements from TV episodes (as so many do), those elements are treated with enough detail so that the story can be understood without having seen the episodes it supposedly follows.

I have not seen Robots of Death, but the 2011 story Robophobia provided all I needed to know despite it being a sequel (actually after Robophobia I'm eager to see that particular Tom Baker adventure). The same goes for The Brain of Morbius and his subsequent return in the Eighth Doctor Adventures. Yes, there will occasionally be nuances, allusions or snatches of dialogue that are stuck in just to please diehard fans (which, as something of a diehard fan myself, I can hardly object to), but generally speaking the BF audios have attempted to strike a balance, making certain that when the plot uses devices, characters or situations from other media, the script gives enough of a recap to make it enjoyable to someone who doesn't know the previous source, as well as in-jokes and references for people who do.

When Iris appeared in The Wormery, this certainly happened. Several times the Doctor has introduced "old friends" who he knows from some unspecified earlier encounter, just like the professor from Shada. So I had no trouble with accepting that Iris was a fellow time traveller with a fondness for strong spirits and a double decker bus.

The first thing Paul Magres does however in this supposed pilot of a new Iris series, is set out to alienate anyone who's not read his Iris Wildthyme books. The first half of the story involves Tom being world famous writing about his adventures with Iris; possibly a little egotistical on the author's part, but certainly not very helpful for anyone who's seen no adventures with Iris up to this point outside Big Finish. Most of Tom's dialogue is about unspecified past events and people that he and Iris both knew, none of which is explained to the uninitiated. Then finally, just after we've met Robin Hood (a recognizable figure at last!) and some sort of crazy cult based around a publishing company, and so seem to be out of the metaphorical woods of tangled sequelness, we're instantly chucked straight back to where we were.

The big revelation is that Iris did something unspecified in her past that she can't remember, which has been downloaded into a crystal that some evil head on a spike with an unpronounceable name wants to get hold of. There's something about a group called Meow, though confusingly they seem to have nothing to do with the bodiless baddy, and a lot of guff about higher dimensions. Eventually Tom smashes the crystal to stop said weird forces knowing whatever it was, even though Iris didn't know what it was herself, and I'm buggered if I know what it was either.

Doctor Who has always revelled in bringing chaotic plots into proper resolutions, and indeed some of my favourite outings both on and off TV have been the Doctors scrapes with the surreal, fantastical or just plain weird. But, however strange things got, there has always been a sense that everything is based on some sort of internal logic and comes together in the end, whether by the power of the Celestial Toymaker, the abandonment of an apartment complex to starvation or the vagaries of the Matrix. But for all the sense Iris' outing made to me, I might as well have just listened to a randomized collection of voice clips spouting unrelated comedy lines.

I might have appreciated the adventure purely as a humorous outing, but unfortunately here too the reliance on past knowledge really gets in the way. Tom's comment "you know what she's like" to Panda is a prime example, a line which I'm pretty sure was supposed to be funny, but which wasn't because -- well, I don't know what she's like. Of course, I realize that Iris's egotistical reminiscences about past triumphs is all part of the character, especially in her parodies of established Doctor Who plot. However, when written correctly, such things are no more diverting to the audience than the Doctor's similarly egotistical name-dropping of all the famous people he's met (something his sixth self is especially guilty of). In this first story, however, with Iris and Tom discussing past companions and what scrapes they got into together, such allusions fell completely flat since it was extremely hard to pick out what were Iris's exaggerations from genuine past exploits, which, needless to say, robbed them of any level of humour.

Tom I also found a distinctly uninspired character. We're told that he is gay and that he is black, but neither of these are particularly interesting facts in and of themselves, because they seemed to have little or no bearing on the story. Tom just felt utterly flat to me, possibly because he was resting too much on his book-created laurels.

Panda has grown to be one of my favourite characters of the Iris series, but here he feels less than he should be. I'm not certain if this is because once again his dialogue and much of his humour comes from past references, or that between talking heads I didn't know about (where's Alan Bennett when you need him?), random higher dimensions I didn't know about, odd organizations I didn't know about and all the other things I didn't know about, the idea of a cultured, pompous, self-indulgent, sentient cuddly toy just didn't stand out as it should've done. This is a real shame, since David Benson does a cracking performance, and in the later, far more worthwhile offerings, Panda quickly became a favourite character of mine.

The crowning glory in this megalith of mediocrity, however, was Iris herself. Now, I can be said to be a seasoned ticket holder to that very bus and I can appreciate Iris's strengths: her larger-than-life personality, ably brought out by Katy Manning, which show's Manning's superior strengths as an actress (since a character more different from the quiet, clumsy and lovable Jo Grant is harder to imagine), her underlying desire to do the right thing and her wit, albeit sometimes wit that takes a little extra gin to get oiled into action.

Here, however, we see Iris complaining about pizza toppings and garlic bread being greasy, moaning about headaches and untidiness, and becoming a literal embarrassment as she complains about what women are wearing and collapses into a buffet table. In short, Iris has become the one thing which Iris should never be: petty!

The supporting cast are in no way an improvement either. Generally, overblown characters like Iris work as a contrast to the normalcy around them; indeed, seeing how a larger-than-life and exaggerated character reacts to those around them who are normal is part of their very comedy. With talking heads who croak like hard-smoking frogs, a Robin Hood whose lines might have been taken out of a secondary school play and an evil publishing cultist who sounds as though she's had one too many jabs from the Stephen Thorne of villainy, even before she reveals her diabolical plot, a time-hopping old lush isn't half so amusing or out of the ordinary.

It is not only with the characters and plethora of in-jokes that Iris's first adventure is less than satisfactory. I'm not sure whether this pilot was done on a shoestring budget, but the sound and music also lack Big Finish's usual light-fingered touches, and it's almost possible to hear the stock tracks repeating backgrounds. Combine this with a less-than-inspiring set of background music that seems drawn from the synth catalogue "standard ambient music" draw, and you have one giant mess wrapped up in a fur coat that distinctly left its knickers at home.

The Devil in Ms Wildthyme.

Well, I thought as I heard the theme music, at the least the previous adventure ended on a high point, meaning that we can perhaps get down to making some new memories. Sadly, however, as illnesses, melancholia and general dismality hove into view, it seems not.

The best description of the second episode is that it's the morning after hangover following a really bad party. Every single character seems to be descending into a tawdry pit of ailments of one sort or another. Headaches, phobias, trembling and less than savoury bowel complaints... I rather wondered in fact whether I'd by mistake tuned in to a particularly abysmal episode of EastEnders.

Here not just Iris was petty, but seemingly the entire cast. While this certainly isn't to say nobody should get sick in Doctor Who, most of this episode seemed to be an ongoing discussion of such malodorous maladies and nothing else, making them appear to be not just something that is an obstacle to be overcome, but the defining process of the story; indeed, Tom's comment about the still-unexplained previous companion Jenny being defined by her travel sickness was ironically apt.

The supporting cast didn't help matters either since, once again, overacting abounds, and neither are they free from pettiness as a shallow, unsympathetic woman with the nasal tones of a soap-opera extra complains to a doctor of lumps, while the doctor makes supposedly intimidating references to resurrecting his master, which sound far more like he's been reading too much James Herbert and drinking too many espressos.

With the general slow pace of the story and emphasis on its more sordid aspects, even though there is at least a followable logic and a villain to be stopped, the plot hardly makes up for its problems, particularly since once again it rests on Iris's faulty memory.

Neither the acting, sounds or overall cast performance improves here; indeed, all that can really be said for the second story is that at least it does feature a new villain, albeit an incredibly ineffective-seeming one who Iris seems to need to remember to defeat rather than actually bother opposing.

In fairness, this might also be due to a script that is plagued with constant explanations, complaints and all in all substandard dialogue; indeed, the principal notice the audience gets of the villain's evil plan is due to the villain himself explaining the whole thing to an unheedingly Brainless Tom -- apparently simply because he likes the sound of his own voice.

While not quite as profoundly awful as the pilot, The Devil in Ms Wildthyme is scarcely better, and still is a long way from the fantastic, paradoxical and wonderfully outrageous adventures that we'd expect Iris to be having.

While there are likely worse Doctor Who audios out there, it is pretty obvious that these two episodes were a rather underdone experiment on the part of BF, a "what if we had an Iris series" rather than a serious attempt to actually start one. I'm actually surprised, given this half-arsed effort, that we got to see more Iris adventures at all, albeit that I'm extremely glad we did.

Fortunately, coming back in Series Two, all these problems are ironed out. Far higher production values, the removal of that fifth-wheel Tom and all the past references that went with him, and a far less wacky, though still undoubtedly unique, set of places for Iris and Panda to visit where both characters can stand out as the icons of crazy that they are.

If like me BF is your first introduction to Iris, I'd highly recommend starting with Series 2, going on to Series 3, and only listening to these two stories as an afterthought, since "afterthought" seems to have been what BF thought of them as well.