A Cosmos Without Iris Wildthyme Scarcely Bears Thinking About


I’ll Explain Later

We’ve skipped… oh lordie. Kursaal (58th on Sullivan’s rankings), Option Lock (37th), Longest Day (67th), Legacy of the Daleks (72nd), Dreamstone Moon (59th), Seeing I (A quite reputable 9th, and will be covered in the book), Placebo Effect (62nd), and Vanderdeken’s Children (56th), a list that more or less explains all on its own why I skipped them. This is The Scarlet Empress, the novel debut of Iris Wildthyme, who we already dealt with way back in the Pertwee era, but who is basically a loud drunk woman who may or may not have really had all the adventures the Doctor pretends to have. Lars Pearson calls this “a sensuous story, full of colors and scents.” At the time, Dave Owen called it “perfect carefree holiday reading.” It is the 18th most popular Eighth Doctor Adventure, or so people say. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide.

It’s September of 1998. The Manic Street Preachers are at number one with “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” In fact All Saints are next with “Bootie Call,” so, you know, that turned out to be wrong. Robbie Williams goes next with “Millennium,” then Melanie B with Missy Elliott and “I Want You Back.” Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Boyzone, Aerosmith, and Savage Garden also chart. My ex-wife really liked Savage Garden. Hindsight is 20/20.

While we’ve been not paying attention to anything… there have been some things. Titanic came out. The US military accidentally killed twenty people in Italy by having a low-flying plane cut the cables of a cable car. Windows 98 comes out, and the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya are bombed by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But the big news, frankly, is that the Belfast Accord is signed, bringing something approximating stability to Ireland for the first time in decades. During this month, on the other hand, Google is founded. Since I have a friend turning in her resignation at her current job so she can go work for Google today, we’ll take that as a good omen.

While in books, The Scarlet Empress. Marvelous. So, this book is terribly clever. This goes without saying. And it’s the sort of book that absolutely should exist within Doctor Who. But to some extent we should draw a line here and ask how it is that we got to September of 1998 without any book like this existing. Here we are, a hair’s breath from thirty-five years of Doctor Who, and we finally have a piece of unabashed and unflinching postmodernism that starts explicitly from the premise that Doctor Who is a genre and that its rules are narrative. We’ve flirted with it before, of course, but it’s been one note in a larger composition, so to speak - a facet of a larger point.

The obvious thing to contextualize The Scarlet Empress with is the aesthetic of frockery that dominated the Virgin era. Of course, there are some difficulties here - first among them that Magrs, in his afterword to the book, admits to having had some frustration with Virgin, both with the overly manipulative take on the Seventh Doctor and on their turn towards science fiction where he preferred magical realism. Both are at least sound critiques, and it’s telling that Magrs does name-check the Chelonians, which allies him tacitly with Gareth Roberts’s approach. Magrs writes that he “was always pleased when the Doctor was content to blunder into things,” a claim that firmly puts him in the same camp as Roberts when it comes to the Virgin era. And while there were large swaths of science fantasy and the like, the set of novels we covered here were also heavily biased towards ones that played closer to Magrs’s wheelhouse and further away from, say, Jim Mortimore (to pick a writer that it’s not just shamelessly stacking the deck to choose).

But equally, Magrs is clearly drawing from a playbook related to Paul Cornell’s or Kate Orman’s. There’s a passionate love of the frivolity of Doctor Who that comes through all of this. This was a book that was being built up to. But equally, there’s a clear difference between it and those books. The most basic divide is a concern with the mundane. Cornell and Orman are interested in the romanticism of Doctor Who as something that links to everyday life. Magrs, on the other hand, is interested in picaresque adventuring - in the fantastical and the weird. Cornell started from ordinary people to get to ludicrous frockery, Magrs starts from wild adventure.

Even still, this isn’t totally unprecedented. Sky Pirates! came very close to this, complete with a pocket universe that obeys narrative logic, not real logic. But even there it was displaced - shunted out of the proper universe. It’s commenting on Doctor Who and genre tropes, but it carefully blunts its concerns, trying its best to leave “proper” Doctor Who functional and unburdened. The Scarlet Empress has no such hedge. It flat-out and unambiguously proclaims that Doctor Who is a largely postmodern structure run by genre tropes and thoroughly subject to literary theory, and it does so from within Doctor Who.

On the one hand Doctor Who has always been so postmodern that it’s tough to see how it took so long. If there was a sci-fi series that was going to fully embrace postmodern structures like this it was Doctor Who. On the other, as I said, 1998 feels like such a long wait. The show had been off the air for nearly a decade now, free for this sort of mucking about, and nobody pushed it this far. Never mind that Doctor Who fans, being in reality not a bunch of sad sack anoraks but a reasonably diverse cross-section of British society that included academics and people who would have been expected to do this sort of thing. In that regard, at least, this book is another piece of evidence in the argument that control of Doctor Who had to, over the course of the nineties, be wrested away from the anorak camp and given to other people. And if 1996-97 marked the point where the anorak contingent finally had its back broken then this is exactly the sort of consequence you’d expect to see from that.

One thing that is important in this is that when the anoraks got sacked from fandom there was already the possibility of a successor. One of the things that matters a lot in Doctor Who fandom, particularly in the wilderness years, is that British Doctor Who fandom was disproportionately comprised of gay men. This has come up a few times, but it’s not been dealt with in a while, so it’s worth doing again. The problem is that there’s not a definitive overview of this - though one has hope that the release of Queers Dig Time Lords from Mad Norwegian Press in June will at least substantively rectify this. Because it’s terribly important. It’s utterly wrong to say that gay male fandom was distinct from the anoraks. It wasn’t and isn’t at all. But it still mattered in determining the shape of things to come.

“Gay culture” (which is here used as distinct from “lesbian culture”) as a concept is a problematic one. It existed, certainly. But like any minority culture, it is formulated in part as a defense mechanism, and is in no way co-extensive with the set “gay people.” Since being gay was (and is) in a very real and tangible sense dangerous, having a culture in which one could retreat to find sexual/romantic partners mattered. As did communicating one’s sexuality to potential partners without outing yourself to the rest of the world. Add to this the fact that, historically, the theater was one of the places where it was possible to be quasi-openly gay safely. This confluence of events led to a gay culture that was, broadly speaking, based on an aesthetic of camp performativity.

There are several overlapping reasons for this. The theatrical legacy in gay culture is a big part of it, but so is the way in which camp and a slight overacting allows for something that at once stands out from and blends into mainstream culture. Also important, however, is the way in which camp and excess have a parodic, even mocking function. For an oppressed subculture, this is useful both as a political tactic and as a sort of catharsis: reflecting the oppressive mainstream culture back at it in the form of a distorted mockery. This isn’t malicious or angry as such - indeed, in an odd sense it’s celebratory: we may be pushed to the other end of the ballroom, but we’re having more fun over here.

Doctor Who fits this well; it’s a show that celebrates outsiders and is often raucously, extravagantly camp. It’s easy to love excessively - indeed, the nature of it being something that has a fandom really demands it. And Doctor Who’s role within British culture, as something on the one hand deeply beloved and familiar, and on the other hand something a bit odd and weird, is perfect for this. So the size and scope of gay Doctor Who fandom made sense. It’s been lurking around the edges of the frock movement from the start - Gareth Roberts, the creator of the gun/frock division, is unabashedly and unapologetically a gay man with a deep love of the excessive camp of Doctor Who.

The other thing to mention, and we talked about this way back with Verdegris, is the phenomenon of the “fag hag,” a (originally derogatory but now rather more complex) term originating within American gay culture, referring to a woman who largely hangs out with gay men. Closely related to this is the general phenomenon of the appropriation of women as gay icons: Bette Midler, Cher, and Dolly Parton being an easy three to grab at random. What most of the women latched onto as gay icons have in common is a certain degree of excess: they’re terribly camp, over the top women.

This is central to understanding Iris Wildthyme, who is largely designed as a version of both. She is a deliberately excessive, over the top character. Her very name gestures to her excess: she is a wild time. She’s an often irritating figure of bravado and adventure who is altogether too much. And this, conceptually, stems right out of gay culture.

On a basic level, Iris is a critique of Doctor Who. The novel admits as much: the Doctor sarcastically accuses her of being “the great feminist reinterpreter of patriarchal Gallifrey” who celebrates “the endless polymorphous perversity of time and possibility.” And Iris acknowledges it. She’s a what-if alternative - a version of Doctor Who that allows for something other than his continuity. The Doctor responds with outrage that Iris is stealing his adventures and telling them as her own, but Iris shushes him, insisting that there is no problem with the contradiction and their two narratives can exist side-by-side.

On the one hand this is another version of the “it’s all true” approach to Doctor Who continuity. If we accept that everything ever to be put out as Doctor Who (and several things that aren’t) are, in fact, a part of what Doctor Who is then we are forced to accept that contradictions are inherently a part of Doctor Who. We have to agree to revel in the contradictions and see them as sites of pleasure and fun. Three Atlantises? An incoherent Dalek timeline? Whatever the hell was going on in Trial of a Time Lord? Fantastic. Love ‘em all. So Iris Wildthyme, a character who’s nothing but contradictions and lapses within Doctor Who, is perfect for that.

On the other hand, the mind rebels. Somewhere down the rabbit hole of postmodernist alternative and queering narratives one runs into the fact that you need somewhere to start. Complete and boundless mercury isn’t even unproductive, as that is itself too fixed a concept and judgment for it. It isn’t anything at all - mere formlessness. Saying that it’s all true is a hair’s breadth from saying that none of it is.

To put it another way, Iris is on the one hand incongruent with any narrative. By her nature she doesn’t fit into it, because what she’s defined as is “the narrative force more disruptive to normative structures than the Doctor is.” She’s the eternal possibility Doctor Who has that it could be even stranger and more prone to flights of fancy. No matter how strange Doctor Who gets, she both offers and threatens to be stranger.

On the other hand, Iris fits into any narrative, and most especially Doctor Who. The possibility of things getting stranger is, after all, irreducible from Doctor Who. One can always fall out of the world and into something stranger. That’s where we started, and no amount of effort can quite move us away from it. Doctor Who cannot succumb to Iris, but it also can’t get her out of the narrative. There is no way to foreclose on the possibility of Iris Wildthyme - no way to render her non-canonical. Any objection to her runs afoul of the basic problem that she doesn’t give a toss about it. She is on the one hand necessarily wrong about the nature of Doctor Who and on the other irrefutable.

It would be a mistake to treat this as some sort of rejection of postmodernism. Postmodernism is not crazed relativism, and no postmodernist of any note embraced the complete rejection of all set order. And Iris doesn’t come close to that. Bound into everything she does and offers is a sense of fun. This is not to say that her purpose is purely to amuse, as opposed to something serious or political. But it is to say that she demonstrates the political utility of fun and amusement. She demonstrates the basic, subversive value of having more fun.

Earlier in the blog I suggested that the paranoid model was one reaction to the overflow of information and possibility, and mused on what pathology might characterize the alternative, namely the erotically charged glee of the frocks. Here we have the answer: a sort of willful psychosis that just accepts the endless perversity of things so long as it keeps being fun. If we wanted to get into literary theory - and in a book that name checks Julia Kristeva, Vladimir Propp, and Michel Foucault I really can’t imagine why we wouldn’t want to get into literary theory - the antecedent would be Deleuze and Guattari and their landmark tome Capitalism and Schizophrenia, although I quibble with their use of “schizophrenia” here.

The effect is strange but quite suited to Doctor Who - a sort of Buddhist hedonism in which one takes wild pleasure in everything while not attaching one’s self too firmly to any given configuration, being ready to fall out of the world into an entirely new sort of fun. It’s consumerism turned inside out, with the notion of scarcity rejected. In that regard it’s wonderfully, joyfully subversive and potent: why not have more fun? What possible argument could there be for not taking more joy and more pleasure from things? Why wouldn’t we want the central organizing force of our narrative to be nothing so much as an overflowing, libidinous glee?

If this book seems obvious now, and like a book that took too long to happen, this speaks of nothing so much as the degree to which this is just how things are done now. This book captures perfectly the aesthetic that drives not just Doctor Who, but contemporary fandom. Iris Wildthyme was, if you will, a character made for Tumblr and for Twitter. The new fandom has, at long last, made its way into Doctor Who.


Daibhid C 8 years ago

The most fundemental evidence of Iris's effect on narrative structure is surely that she quite literally wandered into Doctor Who from a different narrative entirely. Apparently she first appeared in Magrs's mainstream magic realism novels, which I haven't read.

As someone who has a tendency to go the anorak route, while appreciating the other viewpoint this blog represents, it's quite interesting to bear this post in mind while reading the discussions on the TARDIS Wiki about which versions of Iris "count", and why. As you say, the central point of the character is that Iris herself couldn't care less.

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Prole Hole 8 years ago

I'm a big fan of the narrative discontinuity that Iris brings, but I completely understand why she comes across as utterly insufferable to other fans. The Scarlet Empress is one of the early highlights of the early EDAs (though Seeing I should absolutely be read, it's just a wonderful book) and the whole lyrical, fantastical approach was something of a breath of fresh air, akin to getting to the Mind Robber after endless base-under-seige stories. If Iris has a flaw is that repetition across the range tended to lead to diminishing returns (EDAs, PDAs, audios...).

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Adam Riggio 8 years ago

Another aspect of Iris that I find intriguing is her portrayal in the audios by Katy Manning. I'd like to hear, on the blog proper or in someone's book version, your take on her performance as a figure with more mercury than the Doctor. After all, she's well-practiced at it, this having basically been Jo Grant's narrative relationship with Jon Pertwee's Doctor.

Maybe The Wormery would be a good audio to cover in an upcoming book. Given your critiques of the Colin Baker era, especially the excessive influence anorak-style fans had on its aesthetic, an audio co-written by Paul Magrs and co-starring Katy Manning would make for a fascinating analysis.

That reminds me that I should go listen to The Wormery again.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 8 years ago

I do Find and Replace in the Pertwee book.

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Ununnilium 8 years ago

I seriously need to check out some Wildthyme. What's generally considered her best book/audio?

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Tommy 8 years ago

I think a good primer for Iris is to listen to The Wormery. It was my first introduction to her and I enjoyed it a lot. Enchanting I think was the word. However from there I started listening to her own solo audio spin-off series, and they kind of put me off her and made me realize I wasn't a fan of the character. I only tent to like Iris in small doses as a part time guest.

It might also be that I don't tend to like Paul Magrs' work unless he has a co-author to counterbalance his excesses and his adulation for the character. Nothing Iris related, but I was pretty repulsed by his The Boy That Time Forgot to the point it nearly killed Big Finish for me.

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Arkadin 8 years ago

The Big Finish companion chronicle Find and Replace--in which Katy Manning plays both Jo and Iris--is well worth listening to.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 8 years ago

Equally, this is the debut and the natural starting point. And is quite good and fun.

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Arkadin 8 years ago

Incidentally, I'm curious if anyone has read any of Magrs's non-Who novels, and which are considered the best. There doesn't seem to be a lot of crossover in his readership between his "literary" work and his Doctor Who work.

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Jesse 8 years ago

I haven't read any of his "literary" books, but I've read NEVER THE BRIDE, in which the Bride of Frankenstein runs a bed & breakfast and solves mysteries. I found it entertaining.

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Dr. Happypants 8 years ago

"I'm a big fan of the narrative discontinuity that Iris brings, but I completely understand why she comes across as utterly insufferable to other fans."

I'm glad you said that, Prole Hole! Conversely, I completely understand why Magrs and Iris and The Scarlet Empress appeal to some people, but I just find Magrs' work, and TSE particularly, just...a slog. His style is just not to my taste at *all*; his kind of literary playfulness is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Again, it's purely a personal aesthetic thing, nothing I'd want to make and defend a serious intellectual case against.

When Philip says...

"Why wouldn’t we want the central organizing force of our narrative to be nothing so much as an overflowing, libidinous glee?"

...my reply would be, "That'd be great if Magrs and Iris were fun for me, but they aren't."

I want to like his stuff, I really do. For me, the problem comes down to this...

I like unapologetic science fiction and fantasy a lot more than I like metafictional magical realism.

In TSE, Magrs has a lot to say about narrative and adventure fiction, couched in the form of adventure fiction, but TSE just doesn't work very well on the adventure fiction level. None of his stuff that I've read or heard has been particularly strong on the plot level, and most of his non-Iris characters are fairly thinly-sketched. His ideas and imagery fail to grab me because he never manages to convince me that his approach actually leads to better, more fun storytelling rather than just...commentary.

TSE is a piece of adventure fiction that doesn't really deliver the pleasures I get from a solid adventure yarn, and instead offers something else, a something else that isn't, on its own, to my taste. If he could combine that same literary playfulness *with* a story that really did beat pulp adventure at its own game too--a more engaging plot, richer characters, greater tension, more thrills, a more compelling world--then I'd be sold.

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Adam Riggio 8 years ago

I hadn't heard of Find and Replace until you mentioned it in this thread, and after researching it on the internet, I have come to these solid conclusions.

1. I very much want to listen to this play.
2. I am convinced that this play was written specifically for Phil Sandifer to analyze.

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Daibhid C 8 years ago

Strictly speaking (puts on anorak), Iris made her debut in a Fourth Doctor story in the original Short Trips volume, but there's only a handful of months in it, and that story possibly works better as a "teaser" of "here's this mad character, if you're intrigued, buy Scarlet Empress" than an actual introduction.

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Nick Smale 8 years ago

Of all the books I've read with the words "Doctor Who" on the cover - and there are many - I think this is my very favourite. Just enormously fun, and funny, and joyful.

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Archeology of the Future 8 years ago

What interests me is that from the Eight Doctor onwards we get writers aware enough of how the Doctor works that they realise certain questions about who and what the Doctor is and what the Doctor means need to be shunted off into characters like Iris and Jack Harkness because the New Adventures showed what happens to an ongoing narrative if you try to answer them within the Doctor himself.

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Dan Abel 8 years ago

I read Magrs earlier work (Marked for Life,
Does it Show? & Could It be Magic? ) after reading Scarlet Empress and enjoyed them a lot - but i think that the milage may vary. His work from 2000 on, less so.

I've also really enjoyed the early Brenda and Effie books, but the later ones remain good holiday novels, though i do adore the BBC radio play.

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Steven Clubb 8 years ago

Find & Replace is probably the better of the two to do. The Wormery is a bit of fun, but as it's deconstructing the whole concept of the Valeyard, I find it steps off a cliff in the home stretch. Since no one seems to have a particularly clear view of what the Valeyard is (beyond evil Doctor guy), it's pretty resistant to efforts to deconstruct it.

Find & Replace manages to take the madness that is Iris and force her into a coherent story, and a touching farewell to the late Jon Pertwee.

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Steven Clubb 8 years ago

The Womery is fun, although I think it falls apart in the home-stretch.

The first two installments of her on-going series are kind of there.

So, I'd say her second series, which parody four different eras. Panda is the most awesome character ever.

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Ununnilium 8 years ago

Hmmmmmm... interesting point. Of course, sometimes they do anyway.

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Seeing_I 8 years ago

Everybody really out to check out the 1934 film "The Scarlet Empress" from which this novel takes its name. Like 1930's classic "The Blue Angel," it stars Marlene Dietrich and was directed by the genius Josef von Sternberg. The film "The Scarlet Empress" is a warped epic fairy tale of sexual politics with wicked humor and breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography. One of the all-time great gay icons, Marlene Dietrich, plays the notorious Catherine the Great. Notice how often the director puts her in proximity to horses...

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