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Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus

"[The Celestial Omnibus] shows Iris at her typical best, with brilliant episodes of a charming, maddening and entirely contradictory life": Shiny Shelf
"The proliferation of references to the 'Magrs-verse' give the whole book the feeling of a celebration, and a damned enjoyable one at that": Doctor Who Reviews
"'Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus' provides a much needed adult spin on Doctor Who at a time when the official fiction seems to be targeted exclusively at children.": Dr Who Reviews Blog
"Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus is a joyous technicolour party of a book thatíll bring plenty of sunshine, and not a little gin, into your life.": Jon Arnold, Shooty Dog Thing 10

Wildthyme on Top
Reviewer: Stuart Douglas
It's been a long time coming, but the first Iris Wildthyme short story collection is finally available. Whether there is ever a second one obviously depends on the quality of this first offering and, equally obviously, the resultant sales. I'm happy to say that, if there's any justice in the world, sales should reflect the high quality of this set of stories and a second collection should be guaranteed.
Compared to the main Who Short Trips collections from Big Finish, this is on a different level entirely (it looks like a *real* book for a start, rather than a TV tie-in). Where many of the STs rely either on an extremely tenuous linking scheme to bring coherence to the stories en masse (or are so ruthlessly edited that all the stories read as though written by the same person), Paul Magrs seems to have edited this collection with a fairly light hand, trusting the authors to do what they're best at and come up with a group of well written, amusing and thought-provoking short stories. And, in the vast majority of cases, they haven't disappointed in the slightest.
Most Horrid - Justin Richards
Starting the first ever Iris Wildthyme collection with a story from Justin Richards seems a bit of a risk - if there's one writer here who doesn't seem well suited to people's preconceptions of Iris, it would surely be Richards who, in his previous work on Doctor Who, comes across as short on humour (unless you find Daleks quoting Shakespeare funny) and big on workmanlike, rather than inspiring or playful, prose and very traditional plotting.
The choice of title doesn't bode well either. It's presumably meant to suggest the cheapo ghost-hunting show, Most Haunted but it reminded me of that bloody awful Dawn French vehicle from a few years ago - neither option struck me as particularly inspired. As it turns out I wasn't wrong - this isn't the type of tale which is likely to draw the casual reader into the collection, being a pedestrian ghost story/whodunit centred round the filming of an episode of a crappy TV show very similar to Living TV's ghostly offering.
There are a couple of good lines - the suggestion that a ghost murdered someone for a pint of milk raised a smile, as did the presenter's inability to differentiate between the sound of the wind and that of a ghostly apparition - but other than that it's all a bit flat and lifeless. The solution is evident from the moment Iris appears and none of the supporting characters is written as anything more than either a caricature (Fliss, the vain and somewhat dim-witted presenter) or a personality-free cypher (everyone else).
One of the potential banana skins of an Iris collection is that whilst Iris served a dual role as foil for, and reflection of, the Doctor in Paul Magrs' Who work, there's a possibility when she has to stand on her own two feet that she will end up as a Doctor-lite, with authors cutting and pasting the name Iris into their manuscripts in place of the Doctor. Richards definitely falls into this trap here - there is no point in the story in which the Doctor and Iris couldn't be change round without problem.
In fact, Iris seems lacking in personality altogether and is more an amalgam of 'Irisy things' than an actual personality - a character in Most Horrid says her accent lies 'somewhere between Liverpool, Manchester and perhaps Ilkley Moor' and everything else about her is similarly generic. There's more to writing Iris than simply throwing in a 'chuck' or a double entendre now and again, and this Iris appears oddly unlike her normal self. Would she really have accepted that a woman slumped at a table with bruises round her neck was simply sleeping or drunk? And run away from a man who jumped out at her? In truth, Richards seems very unsure of Iris as a character and too often comes across as trying too hard to fit her into his own inaccurate preconceptions, with Iris pinching the bum of a cameraman and constantly considering the relative attractiveness of every man she comes across, as if the author is under the impression that her primary characteristic is some kind of advanced sex addiction.
One final moan - there's a reference to the Third Doctor near the end which would have been fine, except the pretext for mentioning him is down to a large comedy nose which has no other logical reason for being in the story other than to prompt the Doctoral reference. A disappointing start all round.
Sleuth Slayers - Jake Eliot
Justin Richards could do worse than take lessons on writing Iris from the next author up, Jake Eliot, who I have to admit is the only writer featured whom I'd never previously come across.
His Iris is spot-on - funny, inquisitive, smug and with an over-inflated sense of her own worth. Tom also gets fleshed out a fair bit and after his Mike Yatesian shenanigans in Verdigris seems far more pleasant here, early on in his relationship with Iris.
Eliot also realises that Iris moves in a slightly different universe to the Doctor. Where Who fanboys ponder whether the Doctor and Blake's 7 exist in the same universe, Iris fans know that the old lush is far more likely to bump into John Steed than Kerr Avon. In Sleuth Slayers we can even pin down exactly which Avengers episode it is she's interrupting, as Steed has Ms Georgie Price-Jones in tow, the Emma Peel impersonator from the excellent Girl from Auntie (which even leads to a joke for Avengers fans when Iris asks where the usual girl is, Emma Peel having been kidnapped in the story in question). Other plus points go to the nicely-drawn slew of fictional detectives and do-gooders (including mention of Gervase Fen which further demonstrates Eliot's excellent taste) and if the villain is made obvious by the fact that there's not all that many people still standing by the end, well, it's not a serious detective story.
The only slight niggle I had is that, for some reason, Eliot refuses to say that the bowler-hatted, umbrella-carrying companion of Ms Price-Jones is John Steed (or even just 'John'), but instead refers to him as 'the man' throughout. Unfortunately, this conceit means that whenever Steed is around, the phrase is over-used and each occurrence has a minor jarring effect, especially in scenes where there was more than one man present.
Minions of the Moon - Philip Purser-Hallard
Philip Purser-Hallard's twin strengths in his published work so far have been an uncanny skill for believable world-building and a flexible prose style dedicated to the needs of his characters (I know the latter sounds like a bit of a given for an author, but you'd be surprised how many Who authors can only do one style).
Minions of the Moon utilises these abilities to great effect and adds a level of sheer lyricism which picks you up and sweeps you along to the story's conclusion. With adjective-heavy descriptive passages and an emphasis on colour, it's an absolute delight to read and visualise, and minor details (like the fact that time on the Moon is measured in sevenths, and each seventh has two different, suitably poetic, names) make lunar society genuinely come to life, as do the diverse lunar inhabitants themselves.
As with his debut novel Of the City of the Saved..., Minions is replete with great sf ideas - nano-technology based on the medical knowledge of the sixteenth century and the resurrection of the gifted dead on the Moon being the two best here. That the main sf idea - of Elizabethans in space - is the same as that of the recent(ish) Big Finish Unbound release, A Storm of Angels, is unfortunate, but just goes to show that great minds think alike (and I'm sure that the author would have no objection to being compared to Marc Platt in that respect).
Iris and Tom are both well served in Minions - a scene where Iris becomes drunkenly maudlin at apparent sexual rejection and Tom attempts to console her is a highlight, but both characters are handled with consistent and obvious affection.
In almost any other Big Finish collection this would be a stand-out story, a guaranteed gold medal winner - it's a measure of the quality on offer throughout Wildthyme on Top, though, that Minions of the Moon only just makes the podium here.
Beguine - Steve Cole
Unfortunately, for me this story seemed to have one section too many. It starts very promisingly with a geriatric stripper getting her kit off for a bunch of foul-mouthed pensioners, with the suggestion that young people are hunting the old - sort of Logan's Run with old slappers. Perfect Iris country, frankly, and sure enough she and Tom appear in front of one old man, causing him to wet himself as he recognises her (and Tom in particular) from 40 years previously. Youngsters burst in on the desperate old age depravity and...the whole story slips into unnecessary and rather ordinary horror territory. What looked like being a touching, if unusual, love story (or stories) wanders off into live burial and other horror staples and the jump in pacing derailed me completely. It's entirely probable that a few more reads will improve the tale, but on a first runthrough it just didn't gel as I'd hoped or expected.
Blame Iris - Stew Sheargold
After the luxurious prose of Sheargold's last foray into the world of Iris (in his collaboration with Paul Magrs, It's Raining Again), I should have realised that 'Blame Iris' would be good. In fact, it's packed with lovely writing, unexpected imagery and cracking dialogue. The story of Iris and Tom's exploits with Henry Miller, his wife June and Anais Nin and the attempted invasion of Earth by aliens made of paper is so well-done that it could easily be Paul Magrs writing under a pseudonym. A delightful piece of work which perfectly captures Iris, Tom and the kind of threat she's best designed to confront.
Came to Believe - Craig Hinton
Craig Hinton said of this story before it came out that he thought it was the best thing he'd ever written. And, much as I'm a fan of his Missing Adventures in particular, I'd have to agree.
This is easily the best and most thoughtful use of Iris as a character in the collection and the one which best demonstrates that Iris can be used in ways which are simply not possible when writing for the Doctor. Hinton plays up the fact that Iris is a far more 'human' personality than the Doctor and presents much the same set of foibles as Barry, the recovering alcoholic journalist she is trying to help. As a result she slips into the clinic with relative ease and, over time, is able to force Barry to reflect on what he needs to do to recover, without once becoming anything other than the usual Iris. It's really not possible to imagine the Doctor in the same position (well it is, but the resultant story would be very different and, frankly, not very good).
Of course, clever ideas and characterisation are all well and good, but if the writing is rubbish then the whole thing falls flat. Fortunately, there's some wonderful writing here and, for anyone who has ever been close to an alcoholic, there's much that rings absolutely true and which brings a lump to the throat. Alcoholism isn't the rather cool dissolution of 'Leaving Las Vegas' and Hinton gets that point over very well (without making either Iris or Barry depressingly didactic mouth-pieces for abstinence) as the various stages of degeneration are illuminated by the increasingly sickly background characters who also inhabit the clinic.
And just when you think this story can't get any better - up pops another Iris!
The highlight of the collection.
Rough Magic - Kate Orman
A bit of a pause for breath after Came to Believe, Kate Orman's Rough Magic doesn't really stand out and is in many ways the most anonymous tale in the collection. Don't get me wrong - it's professionally and well written, it has a coherent plot and an interesting setting but for all that, the story slips by in ten minutes, and the next day all I could remember about it was that a magician was involved and that the ending was quite funny. None of which is necessarily a condemnation - I enjoyed reading the story and will no doubt read it again (which puts it up on at least one of the stories in the collection) but in the company of Hinton, Blum and Purser-Hallard, it's just not memorable enough to make more than a fleeting impression.
The Mancunian Candidate - Lance Parkin
Whereas this still had me involuntarily laughing to myself an hour after I finished it. A razor-sharp spoof on CS Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, told as a series of intentionally convoluted and interwoven first person narratives, there are more jokes in its thirteen pages than in entire Big Finish audio 'comedies'. Hard to say which is the best joke, but having a three foot high squirrel comment on the fact that Manchester has a thriving gay scene was a 'choke on coffee' moment for me, although not the only one. I could be picky and wonder why Lance didn't use Professor Cleavis, the CS Lewis character from Paul Magrs other books, as his thinly disguised author but let's not niggle - it's a very, very funny story.
Iris and Irregularity - Jacqueline Rayner
When I read the first line of this story I groaned and very nearly skipped onto Jon Blum's closing tale. Anything which starts with a play on the opening line to Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' should come with some kind of kitemark which guarantees that's it's not the start of some crappy sub-Pratchett wacky fantasy novel or an American self-help book.
Fortunately, Iris and Irregularity is neither of those. Instead, it's the tale of what would happen if Iris had gotten her hands on the elder Bennett sisters (cunningly disguised as the Grant sisters) before they were married off. I wasn't a fan of Raynor's recent NDA and her previous Who work has been patchy, but here she exhibits an unexpected lightness of touch and razor-sharp wit which came as a very pleasant surprise. Again, Iris' role is clear, makes sense and is about as unDoctorly as you could ask for. Definitely a pleasant surprise.
The Evil Little Mother and the Tragic Old Bat - Jon Blum
This is the first fiction of Jon Blum's that I've ever read and, if this is the general quality of his output, then I can see exactly why he gets irritated when it's suggested that he got into writing Doctor Who on his wife, Kate Orman's, coat-tails. This is truly top-drawer stuff, at once grasping that Iris need not be even vaguely similar to the Doctor and that things are rarely as black and white in Iris' corner of the Universe as they tend to be in the Doctor's.
Both of the regulars come across very well - Iris at once madly scheming and oddly fragile, whilst Tom undergoes a minor intellectual journey, which I found very refreshing. One difference between the companions of the Doctor and Iris is that in the latter case Iris rarely has the answers (although she does here) and hence the companion is robbed even of the need to ask 'What's going on?' for the readers' benefit. In some of the stories in this collection, there's been an understandable tendency to shunt Tom to the sidelines a little, but here he plays an important role aiding reader comprehension of the various archetypes on show and the real people on whom they are based. This is a story worth reading a couple of times in order to pick up the many smaller nuances on show, but even on first read it's a treat.
Blum even manages to end the collection perfectly with plenty of scope for another book to come, but even if he hadn't done that this would still be an exceptional ending to an excellent collection.

"Suitors, Inc."
Reviewer: Stuart Douglas
Some things are anathema to all right thinking people - the Daily Mail, Ant and Dec, and the use of short sentences ending in an exclamation mark are surely amongst most people's top three such irritations.
Imagine my surprise therefore when I came to read Paul's latest Iris short story, 'Suitors, Inc' (in 'Seven Deadly Sins') and found the damn thing was littered with them. Short sentences that is! Ending in exclamation marks! Not Ant and Dec!
Less surprising though is the fact that this otherwise horrendous practice works perfectly here. 'Suitors, Inc' - for all its subject matter of anatomically correct sex robots and shanghaied horny pensioners - is a story from an alternative universe where Target kept the Who fiction license and started publishing short story collections for younger readers. And in that context the plethora of exclamation marks serves to give the dialogue a certain zip and dash and imbdues Paul's prose with an engagingly dynamic quality. This is a story which rattles effortlessly along and which manages - in the space of a dozen pages - to feature four Time Lords, a couple of assistants, an enemy from another book and what seems to be the Obverse version of a certain well-known robot dog. The dialogue is as crisp as you'd expect and catches the tone of the respective TV characters well (particularly the fourth Doctor), the plot is completely nuts (and the ending is left unresolved, with absolutely everyone heading off together into further thrilling adventures) and there's even time for an amusing metafictional reference or two. If you had to sum 'Suitors, Inc' up in a word, that word would be 'joyous' because you really do get a feeling of Paul's joy in writing for this particular era of Who and as a result it's an absolute joy to read.
Apart from a bizarre typo at the bottom of one page where a meaningless word has been added to the end of a sentence, this is well nigh perfect and confirms that Paul is the pre-eminent writer of short Who fiction. Lovely stuff.
To the Devil - A Diva
Reviewer: Stuart Douglas
Just finished reading this over Christmas, and I was mightily pleased. A bit of a change in pace for Paul compared to his earlier works in particular (it actually reminded me of a Chris Brookmyre novel where the swearing and shooting had ben replaced with shopping and shagging) but none the worse for that. All of his books have made me laugh at one point or another (MD&E made me laugh almost continuously) but this is easily the funniest of his non-Who novels, and seemed somehow a far lighter work than anything he's written previously.
I'd approached the book expecting a straight Wheatley spoof, but it's a lot more than that - in fact, it's not that at all, really. It's an affectionate look (a phrase that I seem to use a lot thinking of Paul's genre fiction) at Hammer horror films in particular, but it's also, in no order of importance, a rather touching World War II evacuee memoir (the equal in quality to the wonderful North East sections of The Blue Angel); a study of friendship and family in all its - not always pleasant - forms; a bit of a slap at Fandom with a capital F; a comparison of different levels of fame; and a book which examines love in every way you can imagine.
If anything there's a little too much in the book - although its title suggests that Karla, the Diva, is the main character, the story is rarely told from her POV and she disappears completely from fairly large sections of the narrative. Maybe it just seemed too good a title to pass up, but the story of Chris and Lance (and their assorted relations and friends) is really the backbone of the novel and would have worked just as well had devil worship and vampire lesbians never intruded.
The only slight disappointment was what felt like a fairly rushed ending and a bit of Buffy-style finale where a character is built up as terribly powerful and all-knowing (Karla and the Brethren) and then killed pretty easily in the end. Possibly that's deliberate given the earlier references to Buffy and Angel, but I'd have liked slightly more subtlety in the final few chapters. Oh, and given that the narrative specifically mentions the Who novel line, it's a little strange that none of Paul's Who books get a mention in the 'About the Author' section at the start of the book (not that all his work is listed actually, but it just seems a little peculiar).
I'd have thought this would make a good intro to fans of Paul's Who work who haven't read his other novels - and if anyone doesn't find the orgy scene with CS Lewis a hoot, well, they need their funny bones examined.
Paul Magrs Retrospective
Reviewer: John Seavey

When I first started re-reading the Doctor Who books of Paul Magrs (The Scarlet Empress, The Blue Angel, Verdigris, Mad Dogs and Englishmen), I swore to myself that I wasn't going to dwell on Iris Wildthyme. She's a character I find tremendously irritating, and she's in all his books, but I told myself that she wasn't the only thing about Magrs' novels, and it wouldn't be fair to him to spend my entire time ranting about one recurring character. But as I got into the books, it seemed to me that the key to understanding Paul Magrs was to understand Iris Wildthyme--that in many ways, it seemed that Iris was symbolic of the author's very real love/hate relationship with Doctor Who...and that my frustration with the character stems from my own profound fondness for that same traveler in time and space.
There's an awful lot of the mimic to a young writer; I think that everyone can remember casting themselves in the Doctor's role in their own personal stories when young (always assuming, of course, that one didn't become a fan of the series as an adult) or of making up our own monsters that seemed even better than the ones on the telly...even though, to our adult eyes, they're just thinly-veiled rip-offs of the real things. Magrs seems to be deliberately re-creating his own children's re-writing of Doctor Who in an adult form; Iris is like the Doctor, only better! She's had all the Doctor's adventures, only better! She's fought all these villains that are even worse than the Doctor's foes, like the Glass Men of Valcea, which are villains who roll along on wheels and are powered by static electricity and shoot death rays and aren't at all like the Daleks...and so on. The pastiches extend past Doctor Who; 'The Tomorrow People', 'Star Trek', 'Star Wars', and 'Lord of the Rings' all get the same slightly disdainful re-creation (or, in the case of the latter two, the creators get re-creations.) It sometimes comes off as enjoyable, sometimes as quite annoying.
The reason it annoys, I think, is because sometimes Magrs seems to want to be seen to be disdainful. There's a certain smug superiority that oozes off the paper in spots, as though the author is saying, "Look, this stuff is all crap, really. Worth taking away a few bits of inspiration from as post-modern, post-ironic, post-surrealist statements for art's sake, but God, you can't be one of those saddos that sincerely likes the stuff, can you?" In 'Verdigris', Mike Yates turns into a literal cardboard character before our very eyes. In 'The Blue Angel', the Obverse Canine mocks Fitz's desire to try to make a coherent narrative out of the events of the novel, claiming that all narrative structure is equally valid and that it's pathetic to try to impose form on it. As a fan, I feel angry...and I feel even angrier that my very anger is part of what Magrs is mocking.
But when he's not mocking (or when it doesn't feel like he's mocking; part of the problem with post-modernist surrealism is that you can never tell when the author is making fun of us or making fun of himself making fun of us), Magrs can be a very enjoyable read. He's a clever person, with a wicked sense of the absurd, and when he gives in to his own inner geek and unabashedly celebrates the strange and unusual world of Doctor Who, he's quite fun. (Plus, he gets off one of the best Eighth Doctor lines ever, from the Doctor to Freer in 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen': "You've got lackey written all over you, Freer.") His prose is a wild, dense, multi-layered confection of jokes, tangled language, and classical allusions, which appeals quite a bit when the mood is right. His plotting is all over the map, though, a hazard of surrealist works; 'The Scarlet Empress' is a bizarre shaggy-dog story, 'Verdigris' and 'Mad Dogs' both have surprisingly tight, if insane, plots, and 'The Blue Angel' falls apart so spectacularly that it actually does not have an ending, a possible first in Doctor Who history.
Ultimately, I'm sure that whatever I may say, Paul Magrs will return to write Doctor Who...and whatever I may say, he'll bring back Iris bloody Wildthyme again. Like the Doctor, I think that while I might dread her every appearance and spend all my time wishing her gone, I will grudgingly admit that she does make life more interesting. (But don't think I'm getting soft, alright?)