Sunday, 27 January 2019

Muse of Fire written by Paul Magrs and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: 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 Real McCoy: Why is it that most writers forget that one of the joys of Doctor Who is the main man and his friends simply materialising somewhere wonderful and basking in the atmosphere of it all? It’s something that has been curiously forgotten in recent years when bucket loads of angst is the order of the day. Thank goodness we have Paul Magrs around to remind us what a thrilling adventure being a time traveller can be and how delightful to just soak in the atmosphere of somewhere fabulous. I had a greater feeling of immediate joy after the first few minutes of this story than I have in any main range adventure this year. Ace immediately suspects the Doctor of foul play but he insists that Paris sets his heart racing and he has nothing but simple relaxation on the agenda. It’s worth listening to this story just to hear Sylvester McCoy attempt to get his mouth around ‘there’s a kerfuffle at the Metro.’ When the Doctor says there’s’ nothing like a really messy bookshop I couldn’t possibly agree with him more. How fabulous that the Doctor gets to lock horns with a bad reviewer and try and convince them to see more merit in the work he is roasting. Talk about breaking down the fourth wall. Or the fourth wall in the sound booth. It’s a pity he couldn’t have a chat with all those season 11 naysayers. Whereas all the other Doctors put up with her cheeky lifestyle, the seventh considers her an Agent of Chaos. Of course, he does, given that he has primped himself up as the one who acts as Time’s Champion. Anybody who creates chaos in his universe of order would probably be seen s the enemy. There’s a certain arrogance to the Doctor’s comments, like he is responsible for her. He doesn’t think she is evil, just a meddler. Iris mentions the desert planet Hyspero, accidentally letting the Doctor know a little of his future. Isn’t it wonderful when the Doctor gets on his high horse (and McCoy starts garbling his dialogue) that Iris just laughs in his face? Exactly what I would do. She had forgotten what a gloomy old soul he was in this incarnation. Iris’ melodramatics makes him feel queasy. There was a marvellous moment when Panda stepped into the TARDIS and I thought it would be lovely for him to hop off on a trilogy of adventures with the Doctor. The fact that they had a number of offscreen adventures here fills me with hope. I love the fact that the Doctor got everything so spectacularly wrong simply because of his preconceptions about Iris. That’ll learn him.

Oh Wicked: Ace came to Paris on a school trip once but she never even got to see to the top of the Eifel Tower. Known as the rowdy one. When Panda threatened to punch Ace on the hooter, I could not have been in love with him anymore. It’s something I have longed to do for many years. When Ace threatens to start shouting, as she has an irritating propensity to do in these audios Hex reminds her that she isn’t at a football match. God, I love this script. Iris asks if Ace is the Doctor’s guard dog.

Sexy Scouse: Hex! That luscious, silky voiced nurse from Liverpool is back and plenty of time has passed for this to feel like something special. Don’t get me wrong I still think that the Hex/Hector arc ran on endlessly past its sell by date but the idea of dipping into the timelines of the Big Finish original companions whilst they were travelling in the TARDIS is a wonderful idea. I’m pleased to see Eight and Lucie and Six and Charley are also being revisited too. As Tom Baker said in Day of the Doctor ‘just the old favourites…’ If that was the case then if Maggie Stables were still with us, Evelyn would be top of the list. However, at his height Hex was a bright, engaging and sympathetic protagonist and it is wonderful to catch another glimpse of his adventures with the seventh Doctor and Ace before everything went sour. Hex is more than capable of standing up for himself and when Ace makes jibes at somebody taking an interest in him he reacts rather forcefully (there always was something tangible between this pair, you know). Why is it always Hex who gets caught in the crossfire? Or with his clothes off? Lucky us, I guess.

Aunty Iris: God bless Katy Manning and her continuing devotion to Doctor Who. I’m not just talking about her convention appearances, fabulous though they are but also her commentaries, her appearances on SJA and in countless Big Finish productions but also her expression of love for the show both in the past and present. She’s an excellent ambassador for the show and somebody it is impossible not to like. Add to that list the sexy French accent she adopts in the opening instalment of Muse of Fire. Trust Iris to notice immediately that Hex has quite a physique on him. A woman after my own heart. Iris’ salon is full of hangers on and sycophants. A bit like Bianca’s then. She’s living in a grand old mansion in Paris, 1922, and surrounding herself with wonderful writers and artists and intellectuals and gorgeous young men. Sounds divine, sign me up. She’s got quite a name for herself in gay old Paris. Her bus is mysteriously smaller on the inside but then she did always like to be facetious. It’s a wonder she doesn’t do herself a mischief flying around in an ancient death trap. Mind you, you could say that about the Doctor and TARDIS too. Panda lives up to his reputation of being a sarcastic, critical, scathing little Panda and you can see precisely why Iris keeps him around. He keeps her real. And he out camps her 2/1.

Standout Performance: Katy Manning gives her usual exuberant turn as Iris but it’s David Benson as Panda making his Doctor Who debut that most impressed me. Every single line that comes out of Benson’s mouth made me laugh. Every. Single. One. It’s worth remembering that McCoy, Aldred and Oliver have fantastic chemistry, unmatched in the seventh Doctor line since.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You shouldn’t let critics put you off!’ I loved that line!
‘Absinthe make the heart grow fonder’ Anyone who can affectionately poke at Pip’n’Jane is doing something right in my book.
‘Your reviews have caused untold damage to the Web of Time!’ ‘Good! I’m jolly glad to hear it! Don’t slam the door on the way out.’ Oh my, this practically pisses all over the Charley arc.
‘The Grand chess master playing his cosmic games…all while he’s togged up like a little tramp.’ I almost choked with laughter at that line.
‘Doctor, I spy Gertrude Stein! She’s doing the Charleston with Salvador Dali!’

Great Ideas: Is this the only Doctor Who story to allude to an enormous pair of breasts on it’s cover. Actually, the cover is quite an ugly thing, which is shame because what it is advertising a story with much beauty within. Have you ever noticed how the Doctor and his companions have an erring ability to land in history and immediately fall into contact with the most famous people of the time? Hex is in Paris in 1920s and who happens to be the second person ne talks to – Salvador Dali! Things have been altered and reality has been re-written. Imagine being able to see a map of souls with a distinctive timeline for each person. Imagine the power you would have with that information. A woman who is a living Picasso, a cubist nightmare, an aberration of smeared human features. What a terrifically macabre idea. Paris between the wars is swarming with time travellers, it’s a very popular destination for people of that ilk. An alien that feasts on the mind of geniuses to survive. Iris wasn’t kidnapping Dora, she was pursuing her. The Queen of Bracht summoned her and asked to go after her. Dora Muse is a monster, a brain vampire.

Audio Landscape: Some Big Finish adventures plunge you into the atmosphere of the setting they are creating and if you close your eyes you can really imagine you are there. Muse of Fire is one such example and having been to Paris three times, I’d say I’m fairly qualified to say that.

Isn’t it Odd: You’ve got some cod French accents polluting the story but I hate to say it but that is exactly what I expect when Big Finish heads abroad with Doctor Who. Remember ‘this way laydeez and geyntelman’ from The Spectre of Lanyon Moor or that extraordinary accent that Caroline John adopted for Dust Breeding. I never did quite figure out where Madame Salvadori came from. There’s no real reason for Iris to remain so anonymous about her motives, but it does keep the mystery going for three episodes. She’s always loved a bit of theatre.

Standout Scene: The end of episode three is priceless because it ditches all the usual false jeopardy and goes for something much more enticing instead: promise. The idea of the Doctor and Iris going to war. Bring it on.

Result: ‘You truly are a living Picasso! A work of art!’ Intoxicating, a heady brew of delicious character work, terrifically funny dialogue and a far mature plot than you might think from the outset. I know this might not be everybody’s idea of Doctor Who but those people need to head to Paris, get pissed, chat to strangers, indulge in their lusty desires and wake up in the morning and wonder where the hell they are. You know, live a little. I had a pleasing vibe of The Wormery about this but only insofar as Iris is running a bar and there is a reliance on great wordplay and music but whereas that tale was a mournful affair for the sixth Doctor, Muse of Fire transpires to be a giddy explosion of colour and madness. A bit like a Salvador Dali. I really enjoy the scattershot approach to the plotting with lots seemingly random, bizarre and fun things happening and I wouldn’t put it past Paul Magrs to refuse to tie it all together for the listener (remember The Blue Angel?). He’s not that predictable a writer. On this occasion he does so, and with remarkable skill and clarity. Random patterns emerge into a rock sold plot. But on the journey we get to sample the exquisite Parisian culture, enjoy the camaraderie of the 7th Doctor, Ace and Hex combo and catch up with the inestimable Iris Wildthyme and her unforgettable companion Panda. I really love Iris, I love the fact that there is somebody out there pootling about in time and space in old bus and doing exactly what the Doctor does but in the craziest way possible. Almost like she’s designed to irritate those people who consider The Mind of Evil to be the ultimate expression of Doctor Who. Don’t get me wrong I love The Mind of Evil but I fully accept that it’s sillier, crazier, stratastrophically imaginative uglier cousin Carnival of Monsters has so much to offer too. Iris is Carnival of Monsters; colourful, insane, hilarious, creative and just a little bit drunk (‘Sundowner?’). Pitting her against the seventh Doctor offers a fresh approach to the pairing because he’s not putting up with any of her nonsense and she’s perfectly prepared to bring Time’s Egotism down a peg or two. There’s a strong comment on reviews and how they can hurt authors in there, which I found particularly arresting. It’s easy to forget that the work that people are slaving over is a labour of love, but then it’s also easy to forget that the review itself is just one person’s opinion in a sea of judgements. Any piece that makes me consider the nature of writing a review whilst writing a review is making me think in all the right ways. ‘I can make amends for all those rotten reviews!’ indeed! If you’re looking for a nuts and bolts Doctor Who adventure where spaceships go BANG BANG and robots go KILL KILL and everybody is drowning in spacebabble then head over to the 4DA range where you can drown in SF clichés. If you fancy something with some personality and charm, a literate edge and gulp of Absinthe then you’ve come to the right place. We don’t get enough Magrs to blow away all the dusty old Doctor Who clichés that clog up the main range: 9/10

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