Sunday, 16 August 2015

Iris Wildthyme, throughout time

Iris Wildthyme will shortly be with us once more, in the latest anthology from Obverse Books, The Perennial Miss Wildthyme (available for pre-order now). But who is this mysterious woman, who travels the multiverse in an interdimensional double-decker bus, seemingly a TARDIS that happens to be smaller on the inside than the outside? This self-described "Trans-Temporal Adventuress," a batty old mare who's centuries old even when she's young, unstoppably youthful when she's already old and who's best friend is a talking stuffed panda? A woman who has had many faces, who claims to be a Time Lord and yet says she's nothing of the sort. She knows she's a parody of the Doctor and this just makes her love him more. An old, mad fag hag who can't be trusted, who steals others' adventures and rewrites history to make them her own. A character with as many origin stories as she can think of on the spot, who loves a bit of splishy-splashy and is never without a cigarette?

Trying to make sense of Iris's many lives is a fool's errand, as she'd be the first to tell you. And she might warn you about the spoilers, but I doubt it. Here we go anyway...

The First Iris: Iris was (probably) born on the outskirts of Saga City in the Clockworks of the Obverse, and was christened Lilith. She lived with her aunts until she found the wreckage of her magical bus, which she piloted out of the Obverse and into universes new. (Iris's origins were seen in the novel Wildthyme Beyond!) Other origin stories suggest she actually grew up in similar circumstances in the wilds of Gallifrey, but this may be a retelling of her origins fitted to suit the history of the primary Doctor Who universe. Or perhaps the Clockworks and Gallifrey are nothing other than reflections of the same realm.

Much, much later in her first life she resembled the poet Edith Sitwell (whose look was not entirely unlike a female version of the first Doctor). She has been described as “a very old, imperious Iris... a grand dame glittering in a carapace of ebon pearls,” (from the DWM article “Bafflement and Devotion”). This version of Iris appeared, briefly, at the end of the story “Came to Believe” in the anthology Wildthyme on Top, and in the later collection Iris: Fifteen.

The Second Iris: This incarnation usually goes by the name Brenda Soobie, and is described as a Scots-Caribbean songstress. She appears physically to resemble Shirley Bassey, only with a different regional accent, of course. This version of Iris appeared in the novel Mad Dogs and Englishmen (with the eighth Doctor, after one of the destructions of Gallifrey), and the multi-Iris story “The Golden Hendecahedron” in Iris: Fifteen.

The Third Iris: The most frequently encountered version of Iris in the BBC books range, this incarnation is said to look like Beryl Reid. A long-lived, perpetually middle-aged incarnation, this Iris smokes like a chimney and carries a laser pistol. It was during this lifespan that Iris first met her travelling companions Tom, Jenny and Captain Turner, all of whom she'll travel with again in later life (or lives). This Iris first appeared in print opposite the fourth Doctor in “Old Flames” (in the collection Short Trips), and later the third Doctor in the novel Verdigris and the eighth Doctor in The Scarlet Empress. It was after this adventure that she regenerated, with the help of some Hysperon honey, into her fourth self, having previously been poisoned by toxic Dalek meat.

The Fourth Iris: One of Iris's younger incarnations, something she at first enjoyed but later came to dislike, missing the clout and authority of an older body. She looks uncannily like Jane Fonda in Barbarella, often wearing catsuits and twirling laser pistols about. This Iris made her first full appearance in the short story “Femme Fatale” (in More Short Trips), where she described herself as “Iris Mark Six,” but it's now clear that she is the fourth Iris. She was the heroine of the collection Iris Wildthyme of Mars, also appearing in the novel The Blue Angel, the charity short story “Iris Explains” and a few others. She has worked both for UNIT (briefly) and its Darlington-based rival, MIAOW. “The Golden Hendecahedron” makes it apparent that this Iris is the same as the occasionally mentioned “Iris with a long white braid,” who is simply a much older version of this body. She later had her appearance changed by the Clockwork canons for selling fake exercise videos.

The Fifth Iris: A very little seen incarnation who has so far only appeared in “The Golden Hendecahedron.” Initially red-haired, into 70s fashions and with brown eyes, she later started to go grey, and one eye turned blue after she peaked at a space explosion. She didn't mind, since it made her look like David Bowie.

The Sixth Iris: Nowadays the best known Iris, this is the version who appears in Big Finish's productions and the bulk of those from Obverse Books. This version of Iris was first described as looking like Gracie Fields, but since she is voiced in all her audio appearances by Katie Manning, she has been illustrated like that as well. Flamboyant and a heavy drinker, this is Iris's most famous and incorrigible self. She has appeared with the fifth Doctor in Excelis Dawns, the sixth in The Wormery and bumped into the third and eighth in the Companion Chronicles, where she also teamed up with Jo Jones (nee Grant). Yes, they're both played by Katy Manning, and no, Iris's previous encounter with Jo in Verdigris was not mentioned once. You can't expect that kind of consistency from Iris.

This Iris has starred in five series of audios for Big Finish (so far), travelling with Tom, Captain Turner and Panda at different stages. She's also the main character of the bulk of the short story collections. She's most commonly associated with Panda, and supposedly met him in this lifespan, via Tom. However, he's also been seen to travel with her fourth self, and was present at her very first encounter with the bus. It's possible Iris's adventures with Panda form one big temporal loop. She's been married, had children and grandchildren, but this was merely the flicker of an eyelash in her long life.

Possible Future Irises:

We've had several brushes with Iris's future selves, and while it must be stressed that these are only potential futures, these are the Irises we've met so far, including several from “The Golden Hendecahedron”:

The possible seventh Iris looks like Phyllis Diller, never stops talking and has the loudest, most abrasive laugh of any woman in the cosmos. She's physically elderly but doesn't dress like it.

The following Iris is nothing more than a ventriloquist's puppet, cursed to spend this entire lifespan in this reduced form by the Gamesmaster.

The next Iris after this had the physical form of a statuesque black man in drag, and wore a long, honey-coloured wig. As she said, she may sometimes be a man, but she's “always a lady.”

The final future Iris we met in this story was a tall, lisping incarnation who looked like Carol Channing. She smoked a pipe, wore a floral suit and was quite commanding.

The collection Iris: Fifteen included many stories featuring other versions of Iris. One such Iris, in the story “Gimme Shelter,” had recently regenerated into a teenaged form with frizzy blonde hair. She wasn't happy about this as she couldn't get served.

The story “God Engine Rhapsody” featured an Iris with an American accent and crimson-and-platinum hair.

A very sexy version of Iris became involved with MIAOW in “Our Tune.” She had jet black hair, and ruby red lips that matched her figure-hugging outfit. This Iris might be the same as one who featured in a later story, “Ouroboros,” with so-black-it's-purple hair, a trim figure and green eyes.

“The Wildthyme Effect” featured an Iris who was based in the sixties, owned a shop and was “proud to be a woman of means.” I have a suspicion that this is the same version of Iris who later became a star making televised recreations of her adventures, and dropped Panda in favour of the more marketable kangaroo, Hoppy.

The story “Samsāra” sees a new Iris, of Indian looks and accent, born from fire in front of her startled companion.

It's possible further incarnations feature in this collection, although some are given scant description and might be ones we know already. The piece “Iris at the V&A” describes images of Iris from various points in her timestream, including some of those above and more, such as an Iris with bright red hair with the look of, according to Panda, “a lesbian space pirate," (possibly the fifth Iris, possibly not).

Beyond this book, we know that seven of Iris's incarnations were present in the Death Zone due to a plot by the mad Time Lord Morbius. We have also met two future Irises on audio, although neither is quite the Iris we know and love.

Dan Hogarth played a male Iris in the audio adventure The Two Irises. He looked rather dashing in a velvet jacket, and shunned alcohol. This should've been the first clue: this wasn't really Iris at all, but a projection by her TARDIS-bus to stand in her place while she was away. This faux Iris took the name Hillary and settled down to life as a barkeep in Spain.

Finally, there's Bianca, voiced by Maria McErlane. Encountered as the villain of The Wormery, this is Iris's final form, her equivalent of the Valeyard. Bianca guts her bus and turns it into a transdimensional cabaret club, intending to forcibly bring peace to the universe. She tried to steal Iris's remaining lives but was defeated, and seemingly faded from existence.

The Original Iris:

Iris made her first ever appearance in the novel Marked for Life, part of a run of works set in and around the fictional Phoenix Court. These novels aren't sci-fi or fantasy per se, but working class, queer fiction with a dollop of magical realism. The original Iris Wildthyme was an elderly lesbian in a relationship with the main character's mother. She had a double-decker bus, of course, but this one was resolutely fixed to one spot. However, this Iris claimed to have lived for hundreds of years, and at the climax of the story, seemingly met her death, only to transform into a baby in what was very clearly a Doctor Who-inspired regeneration. Baby Iris continued to appear in the Phoenix Court novels, and after many years, the adult Iris appeared in her original universe in the short story "Hospitality" in the collection Iris: Abroad.

The original Iris was described by other characters as overweight, but was in fact quite tiny, merely swaddled in many, many layers of clothing. The image conjured is of the grandmother in the Giles cartoons, but with more glamour. Not a Time Lord or a Clockworker, she's earthly but seemingly immortal, compared to Orlando. Is this Iris the version who appears in the Obverse segments of the Doctor Who novel The Blue Angel, on a version of Earth that seems at once closer to our own and further away than the one regularly saved by the Doctor? In a strand of the novel that may be less or more real than the Doctor's adventures? And how does she relate to the temporal adventuress who put the Doctor there, living a life in a single old house from which various lodgers come and go?

Who knows who Iris really is. All we know is that there's no point asking her; you can't trust her answers anyway...

With thanks to Paul Magrs, the creator of Iris Wildthyme all those years ago. What wonderful lunacy you started!

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