That was a slightly bewildering collection. It’s messy. It’s playful and rich in ideas. It’s spun off so far from any kind of original source that its title character often hardly seems to belong in the stories and her appearances in them can at times be almost a distraction.
Normally these would be criticisms, but with Iris Wildthyme one has a feeling that they’re almost the point.
Firstly, a disclaimer. Obviously, this book was spawned from the pan-fictional entity known as Iris Wildthyme, whom I only know from BBC Books and not from Wildthyme on Top, about a dozen Big Finish audios so far, any previous Obverse Books releases or Paul Magrs’s non-Who fiction. This probably makes me a bad person, but what the hell. Apparently these days she travels around with a talking panda called Panda. Fair enough. Now, I loved her appearances in the BBC Books, but in this book I’ve got an itchy feeling that she’s missing something. I think it’s the difference between Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in the first three X-Men films and in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). In the former, he’s got something to kick against. He’s the cool one who can piss off the other X-Men and call Cyclops a dick. However in the latter, he’s bland because he’s lost that context and everyone else in the movie feels smaller than him.
Iris Wildthyme is like that Wolverine. When she’s turning up in Doctor Who books and driving the Doctor nuts, she’s wonderful. Here, she’s just swanning around the universe with nothing to stop her and being camp. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s less interesting. Iris Wildthyme and her stories are at their best, I think, when they’re subverting something bigger than she is.
There are four stories here, plus an awkward prologue that makes much more sense if you return to it after finishing the collection. The first is Jim Smith’s The Found World and I’m afraid it annoyed me. It’s being playful, yes, but in a way that reminds me of Gary Russell. Look, a crossover of characters played by Christopher Lee! You’ve got Mycroft bringing Dracula into The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), which is set on an island from The Wicker Man. A fourth Christopher Lee character might be Sherlock himself, if you stretch a point. Okay, yes. Why? I was waiting for this to lead somewhere, but it didn’t. Besides, it’s not even as if something very similar hasn’t been done before (but with a point) in vaguely Who-related fiction, e.g. Justin Richards (Short Trips and Side Steps), Stephen Marley (Perfect Timing).
On top of that you’ve got Professor Challenger, detailed Sherlock Holmes mythology and Ronnie Barker in Porridge. By this point I’d stopped thinking about the story and my main concerns were things like what cultural reference I’d missed in Verity Archangel and whether the Christopher Lee motif meant I should be looking out for Sir Henry Baskerville or Fu Manchu. In other words, Jim lost me. Sorry. I think I’d have been able to cope if it hadn’t been for the Lees, but they prevent it from being the intended League of Gentlemen mega-crossover and forces the reader (um, me) to take the actors into consideration as well as just the characters within the fiction. (Apparently, Verity is Jim’s and isn’t from anything, by the way.) However, all that said, I liked the ideas here and the use that’s made of them. The plot comes together strongly in the end and afterwards I liked the story a lot more than I had when halfway through. On a second reading, I dare say I’ll be prepared for the fanwank and besides, such slightly esoteric criticisms aside, it’s definitely good. I think the playfulness and experimentation in these stories is important and what gives the project its character, just as Faction Paradox carved out a clear identity above and beyond its spin-off roots.
Story #2 is Nick Wallace’s The Irredemable Love. This is the serious story in the collection, with pain and heartfelt emotion. It feels real. I approved of that. There’s some nasty stuff here, which the protagonists uncover through proper police work and investigation. My main problem was that I kept getting Whitney and Wilson confused, perhaps because their names are too similar.
Story #3 is Cody Schell’s Elementary, My Dear Sheila. On the one hand, this is wonderfully rich in ideas, wackiness and Mexican wrestlers. Alien Bodies might have been like this if Lawrence had been camper and obsessed with El Santo. Sheila is a wonderful creation, for instance. Just be prepared for the story’s second half to be more of a loose sequel and for the plot to go whiplashing all over the place like a beached eel. It’s weird. Cody’s definitely having fun, though.
Story #4 ends the collection with Stuart Douglas’s The Shape of Things, which is as all over the place as Elementary, My Dear Sheila. At first I liked the fact that it was an Iris story. I’d been losing patience a little with increasingly pointless Iris cameos, but here at last we have the lady herself. That’s good. She’s fun. Overall, I like the confidence of Stuart’s prose, but I think he’s guilty of telling us about Iris’s huge personality without really giving her enough to be huge at. Nevertheless again we have some nice ideas, plenty of energy and a return for Holmes and Watson. My notes for this story end with “what the hell?”
This isn’t a polished gem of an anthology. It’s a rough, sometimes awkward mix of pop culture from all over the bloody place, mixed up with some bizarro ideas and not always a lot of structure. I’m not wild about its use of Iris Wildthyme, but in fairness I’m so behind the times with that character that I’m hardly qualified to be passing judgement. Besides, most of the stories here are charging off at top speed in their own directions, only pausing briefly for an Iris cameo at some point. I like the freshness that Cody’s cultural references bring to what’s otherwise a kaleidoscope of British culture, especially from Jim Smith, and it’s got lots of confidence and enthusiasm. The non-pro writers don’t seem at all overawed or out of their depth, which is cool. A bit of a bumpy ride, but interesting.
Love the Iris logo, by the way.