“The stuffed bear is talking. I’m looking for more alcohol. Soon we will know everything.”
The discovery of an old 8-track tape amidst the detritus cluttering the time travelling double decker bus leads to a reunion with…Iris’ husband? But not before a fame obsessed would-be starlet unleashes a mind-controlling invasion from beyond the cosmos…
“Keep away from me, you stage school succubus!”
In an intertextually self-referential tie to a very similarly minded Big Finish offering, it turns out that Iris jilted her husband (and his promising career took something of a nosedive) during the course of the McCoy/Mel Eurovision/Deep Space 9 sendup Bang Bang-A-Boom!
“Go on, get yourself a glass, let me sit on your knee and you can tell me all about yourself.”
“You must lead a terrible life…trying to find happiness in the bottom of a glass.”
“oh, I’m not trying to find happiness in the bottom of the glass, I’m trying to find drunkenness in the bottom of the glass. The two things are very different, my dear.”
As with the best Bernice Summerfield (and to an appreciable extent, Who) stories, Mark Michalowski’s The Sound of Fear is more of a comfortably claustrophobic character study than a proper cracking “adventure”.
No fists will fly, and explosions and flashing lights (or more precisely, sounds) are few and far between, but listeners in the proper mindset should find themselves utterly absorbed, somewhere between a bemused laughter that seldom lets up and a warm affection for the characters whose presence we’re privileged to share for all too short a time.
“I must admit, though…it’s not what I was expecting. Those trailers are very misleading.”
“I know, I thought I’d be playing the classics, but 99% of our material are specially written knockoffs because we can’t afford the rights to the originals.”
“…all that real music to choose from…and you feed them this tat! Doesn’t anyone complain?”
With hippie stoner computer “Janis” (Jane Goddard) and starry eyed assistant Leeza (Helen Goldwyn), Iris’ abandoned ex Sam Gold (Miles Richardson) lives a sad, drunken existence hucking cheap, soulless imitations of the sounds of an era that literally changed the world to the nostalgia market. With the sinister Naxian horde looking to suffuse this populist tripe with subliminal messages and mind control, can it truly be random chance that leads Iris and Panda to pay a call just in the nick of time?
“Don’t you see? The fact that you don’t care is exactly the point!”
“…you mean that this sub-signal contains some sort of emotion altering frequency…”
“…that affects the mood of the listener…”
“…making them want to just roll over and give up…a concentrated dose of negative vibes!
…and if they can’t get off their arses to turn the radio off, how the hell would they manage to fight off an invasion!?!”
There’s a very similar feel in the adventures of Iris Wildthyme to the more ‘out there’ comedic and absurdist elements of Bernice Summerfield and her cast of ragtag ne’er do well tagalongs. Certainly, this may have some relation to both characters having a genesis in Who-related fanfic during the series’ long hiatus during the 90’s and early millenium. With a lengthy and convoluted backstory, Iris, like Bernice, comes with a significant amount of baggage and unrecorded “prehistory” even the most avid of Big Finish listeners could not be privy to.
Moreover, both series have a strongly lighthearted focus (though Iris dives right in to waters where Bernice barely dips her toes). Hell, there’s even a direct and knowing (if subtle) connection made in track 4, where a reworked and somewhat simplified version of the pre-Epoch Bernice Summerfield theme serves as background during Sam’s monologue…and just to hammer the point home, did anyone notice the presence of none other than Irving Braxatiel himself as the aforementioned Iris-ex?
“Wildthyme’s Law, Rule #1: Grab the nearest bottle and hope for the best!”
That said, there are some key variances. Where Bernice is more of a bemused, sardonic type, Iris is optimistically dotty, even somewhat clueless. Where Bernice is primarily driven by intellectual curiosity and the need to uncover secrets, Iris is all mindless id – dive in headfirst, it’ll all turn out alright.
“You had your chance. I worshipped you…and then found out that you gave up your career for an old lush with an unhealthy love of leopardskin and cuddly toys!”
To put it another way, Iris is Bernice as if filtered through the wild, drug-fueled sensibilities of early Jim Henson (okay, there’s this little grumpy green who lives in a rubbish bin and has a worm for a best friend, and a giant mopey elephant thing that nobody can see except an oversensitive metrosexual giant chicken…) by way of Sid & Marty Krofft (Lidsville? Sigmund and the Sea Monsters? Land of the Lost? HR Pufnstuff?). It’s too trippy, too Jim Starlin cum Doctor Strange era Steve Englehart by way of Steve Gerber not to be the direct result of a bit too much chemical overindulgence.
Which of course means it’s incredible stuff.
“The thing about being a DJ is that music gets under your skin…good music…terrible music, even!”
“…stop…what are you doing?”
“Oh, nothing much…just mixing every novelty record ever released into the mother of all megamixes. Say hello to Jive Bunny…oh, hell, there’s even some Joe Dolce in there! Leeza…shaddap-a you face!”
So before we close out, let’s take a quick look at the very next adventure in the travels of Iris Wildthyme, Land of Wonder.
Now, take note: while The Sound of Fear may be damn silly and pretty “far out” in any number of respects, Paul Magrs’ Land of Wonder takes things way out into left field (and, it must be admitted, falling somewhere outside my personal comfort zone).
Apparently Iris has been trapped in 1972 by her Clockwork “superiors”. So wait a minute…how Who-referential is this going to get? Let’s check ’em off.
First and most basic, Iris is a time traveller. She has a companion. Well, not exactly a humanoid one, but Tom Baker once famously suggested a talking cabbage as his next traveling partner…
She got sick of the orthodoxy of her people and scarpered off with a time travelling device/makeshift home base, which just happens to be an outmoded British institution of sorts (old time police booth, meet London-style double decker…).
Now she’s exiled on Earth, because she turns out (to everyone’s surprise) to still fall under the authority of her people. Furthermore, she’s exiled to the early 70’s (cough-Pertwee and Jo-cough) and more or less to kill time, she winds up working with a governmental detachment (not UNIT this time, but something called “MEOW”…well, actually “MIAOW, the Ministry for Incursions and Other Wonders”). Sheesh! Somebody was having themselves a good laugh with the Katy Manning-related self-referentiality here…
There’s even a dash of Quatermass and the Pit to be found in the odd archaeological discovery in the London Underground pointing to some rather surprising secrets…
“You are our best hope. If you take this device, the very heart of Wonderland will be with you. You will spread nonsense and absurdity wherever you go!”
Those with a fixation on Lewis Carroll…or perhaps a certain line of comic books (hang in there)…should feel a bit more at home with what ensues than I was. But however bizarre, the incessant banter between Manning’s daffy Iris and David Benson’s sarcastic stuffed Panda keeps things light and entertaining throughout.
So, does anyone out there remember a series called Excalibur? A sort of Briton-centric iteration of the X-Men, written during its only successful periods by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis (or later in the run, Davis as sole author and artist), it was a bizarre, often quite entertaining comic, drawing heavily from Davis’ earlier Captain Britain material (on which he worked with such folks as Alan Moore, Jamie Delano and Dave Thorpe).
As such, there were any number of stories revolving around a bizarre extradimensional band of baddies known as “the Crazy Gang”, most or all of whom came straight out of the pages of Lewis Carroll. It was quite weird and often a tad hard to take, but love of the characters, good writing and rather nice artwork carried the reader through the overly camp, panto-styled inanity of these recurrently appearing clowns to the generally far better stories that surrounded them.
And so we circle back around to Land of Wonder, which feels for all intents and purposes like a mining of the same territory…
“Professor Ramsbottom? I can’t keep calling you by that awful name…what’s your first name?”
(sighing exasperatedly) “Nevermind…”
Using her trusty logic bombs (“outlawed in any sensible society…dangerous insofar as they tended to set the most ludicrous of events into motion”), Iris exposes what doesn’t make sense – a sizeable hole in the tunnel leading to an incongrous spaceship, which in the course of events leads to an underground Wonderland…
“Good Lord, what’s that? It’s just a head!”
“A Cheshire Cat!”
“Do I look like I’m grinning?”
“To be honest, no…I’ve never seen a more downcast moggy…”
While Sean Connolly’s sardonic “Salford Cat” was rather welcome and amusing (particularly to this particular John Cooper “Bard of Salford” Clarke fan), his other role as the mock turtle with a head of a cow mooing every line was quite hard to take. If you haven’t experienced it yet, trust me on this one…
Similarly, if a tad less gratingly, we have Lizzie Hopley, who plays both Ramsbottom’s assistant Audrey and mad MIAOW founder Harriet Dodd just like Elizabeth Berrington’s Marie Antoinette on French & Saunders’ Let Them Eat Cake…and if you can picture that, you know exactly what I’m trying to say here! And guess who among the story’s many characters winds up on the bus at the tale’s conclusion…
While there’s really no comparison between the excellent Sound of Fear and the spotty at best Land of Wonder, the bottom line is that Katy Manning and David Benson carry the show. Like Lisa Bowerman and Miles Richardson’s two (wo/)man show in The Brimstone Kid, these two could do pretty much anything between all the banter, and listeners would still wind up with one hell of a good time. Tag in the aforementioned Richardson as Sam Gold and Connolly as the Salford Cat, and we’re left with a treasure trove of comedic gold.
Don’t expect to take any of this with even a modicum of seriousness. I mean, think about it: a drunken pseudo-Timelady in an outdated time traveling double decker bus with a snarky talking stuffed panda in tow is hardly the stuff of your typical dystopian hard-SF offering!
But if you go into this with the right mindset, it’s truly wonderful stuff. I certainly hope to dig back into more of Iris’ misadventures in the coming months, and if your sense of absurdist humor runs anywhere approximate to my own, you might be interested in doing so as well.