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Big Finish Review: Muse of Fire

It has been quite the year for the Seventh Doctor, we’ve had 6 audio adventures to feature this Doctor, played brilliantly by Sylvester McCoy, Red Planets, The Dispossessed, The Quantum Possibility Engine, Warlock’s Cross, The New Adventures Volume One and now, to round that out is Muse of Fire, an amusing little story set in Paris in the 1920s which not only brings Phillip Olivier back as fan-favourite audio companion Hex, but also sees the return of the trans-temporal adventuress Iris Wildthyme and her best friend, Panda.

The cover art for Muse of Fire
The cover art for Muse of Fire

Arriving in Paris in the 1920s, the Doctor, Ace and Hex quickly discover that something isn’t quite right. Some of the world’s most influential personas have given up on their dreams. James Joyce, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali have all moved away and are working boring 9-to-5 jobs. With the Doctor deciding to investigate, Hex befriends a strange woman, who invites him to a party.

Things are slowly coming to ahead. The Doctor is set to lock horns with Iris Wildthyme. There is a lady who owns a bookshop who isn’t from Earth and who knows more about what is going on that she will admit. Ace befriends a couple who are having more than the usual marital troubles. And then there is the bad-mouthed Panda, currently working as a art-critic!

Put simply, Muse of Fire is a delight from start to finish. I’ve always been a big fan of Iris Wildthyme and Katy Manning’s portrayal of that character. And Iris is a character who has been around in the Doctor Who universe for quite some time, appearing in the old range of BBC Past Doctor Adventures and Eighth Doctor Adventures, features in her own range of novels, had a long running series with Big Finish and met the Doctors a couple of times, the last of which being The Wormery, where she came face-to-face with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. And that was before she took on Jo Grant as a companion in The Companion Chronicles’ range!

When you look past all the comedy and bluster, there is a rather interesting character in Iris. She has a mysterious past and often comes across more as a meddler than a true ally. That is certainly the stance that she seems to take here when she meets the Seventh Doctor, who blames her for putting the future of Earth in the crosshairs.

If you are familiar with Paul Margs’ storylines, they often take Doctor Who stories and themes and gives them a more comedic twist. Muse of Fire could easily be put next to City of Death, thanks to its Parisian setting and storyline which revolves around famous painters. But where Muse of Fire is different, is that it doesn’t feature Scaroth, but a vampiric creature who sucks out human creativity.

Margs’ has created a very interesting story here, which feels like a mixture between a Seventh Doctor story, with his darker side shinning through and the comedic farce of a Wildthyme adventure. His image for the vampire alien is a wholly original one, someone who literally looks like a Picasso painting and it continues some of the original designs for aliens that Big Finish have been dreaming up recently. Put in typical Margs’ fashion, the comedic aspects of the story aren’t too far behind. We’ve got plenty of David Benson hilariously devouring his lines, “A BEAR?!!!” And a favourite moment of mine was when Iris convinced Hex to pose nude in the name of art. “Wait till you see what they made of him, we’ve had a lot of cubists in tonight!” Marg’s dialogue is electric, and the whole cast seemed to really enjoy performing this script.

Gods and Monsters saw Hex bow out following a storyline which saw the Doctor’s old enemy, Fenric making a shock return and since then, Phillip Olivier has appeared a few times in different Big Finish productions, recent outings include Star Cops and Doctor Who’s Shadow Planet/World Apart. Here though, Olivier is on fine form as Hex once more, proving why he is such a fan favourite. Hex was always brilliant, kind and caring and not afraid to stick up for himself or his friends, even if it means getting into trouble. One of my favourite moments with Hex comes at the end of episode two of Enemy of the Daleks where he tells the Daleks to stuff it. However, that might now be topped by a story-stealing scene here where Iris convinces him to pose nude in the name of art! It is a hysterical moment that will have any listener chuckling and the reaction from the Doctor and Ace just makes the scene a piece of comedy gold. Needless to say that Phillip Olivier is excellent all the way through this story and proves why we need some more trilogies with Hex in the near future.

The main cast of Muse of Fire: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Katy Manning, David Benson and Phillip Olivier
The main cast of Muse of Fire: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Katy Manning, David Benson and Phillip Olivier

Sylvester McCoy is just as excellent as the Seventh Doctor, with this story making six releases this year for his Doctor, one might speculate that he should have been getting tired by now. This couldn’t be further from the truth though, McCoy is just on fire here as he was way back in the year with Red Planets, in fact, he is a lot darker here than he has been in the previous outings. Instantly distrusting dear Iris, he even goes so far as to state that he needs to stop here once and for all. Of course the Doctor and Iris go back a long way so things aren’t as simple as that but McCoy really rises to the challenge and you genuinely don’t know what the Doctor is going to do here. McCoy’s pitch-perfect performance really keeps you guessing. For me, this was his best performance of the whole six outings of this year.

Rounding out the main trio is the ever-delightful Sophie Aldred who always delivers a terrific performance in anything she is in. She has a number of different audio adventures this year, not just in the main Doctor Who range but Gallifrey and Class. She has just been excellent in all of them but this audio will only continue to prove why the trio of Aldred, McCoy and Olivier are one of the dream teams of Doctor Who. All three actors bounce off each other as if they haven’t been apart for the best part of six years. I always look forward to anything which features Sophie Aldred and that won’t be changing anytime soon.

Katy Manning is just stellar as Iris Wildthyme. I’ve always been a fan of Iris’s adventures and was dismayed when the range came to an end with Wildthyme: Reloaded a few years back. However, she makes a triumphant return here, making you chuckle from the opening moments. It is credit to Manning’s acting skills that I didn’t register it was her in her opening scene until Iris’s distinctive voice comes into play. Manning is deliciously naughty here too, relishing the comedic moments and slightly risqué scenes but she is also cracking at the quieter and darker moments. She really shines with McCoy too, the pair bouncing off of one another nicely. Manning is excellent in anything, always bringing these magnificent characters to life. Iris is just so wonderfully naughty and mischievous and it is a wonder why the this Doctor thinks of her as a meddler. The rest of us think she is great to be around. So long as Big Finish keep Iris around, I’ll be there, wallet ready to splash out. Maybe one day we’ll get a ride aboard her double decker-bus and share a glass of G&T!

David Benson is excellent as Panda, another character I’ve always loved. Muse of Fire sees him as wonderful as ever. Always ready with a quip to take people down, here he seems to destroying the faith in the world’s most famous artists, writers and influencers. Benson has such a great handle on the character that it isn’t hard to imagine a toy panda walking around the streets of 1920s Paris and getting into a double-decker. Or sat in front of a typewriter, completely destroying people’s lives. Its glorious to hear! He too has a great rapport with the rest of the cast, and while it is really nice to hear him facing off against the Doctor, Ace and Hex, my one minor quibble with this story is that he and Iris are kept apart for most of the runtime. But considering how fantastic the rest of the adventure is, this really is only a minor, minor, quibble.

Rounding out the quest cast is Gethin Anthony, Rebecca La Chance and Christine Kavanagh as Kevin Archer, Isobel Archer and Dora Muse respectively. All of them are excellent. You instantly buy that Kevin and Isobel are husband and wife, thanks to the excellent chemistry between Anthony and La Chance, who also work extremely well with the rest of the main cast. In fact, by the end, you will find yourself routing for them, hoping that they make it out of this story alive! Kavanagh is excellent as Dora Muse, instantly luring you into a false sense of security, while also making you believe her story completely and utterly. She has a great chemistry with McCoy and the pair share a couple of electric scenes. Overall this is a really strong cast.

Muse of Fire, as well as some strong writing and fantastic acting from all involved, boasts some really tight direction from Jamie Anderson who once again proves he is an excellent addition to the creative crew at Big Finish. He really knocks it out of the park here, keeping the pace of the story really moving at all times. He also knows how to assemble a strong cast and he has excelled himself once again here. I hope to see more from him, both in the directorial and writing chair in the near future.

Overall, Muse of Fire is a fantastic story, full of comedy, some dark moments and a real sense of fun, this is an excellent way of spending two-hours. It seems that every time the Doctor visits Paris, something wrong is afoot, though I doubt even this time those feet would belong to a talking Panda! Margs’ characters of Iris and Panda are also welcome additions to any Doctor Who story and that trend continues here thanks to the wonderful performances of Katy Manning and David Benson.

The main and guest casts are on fine form here, thanks to some strong writing and tight direction, with everyone seemingly wrapped up in the same joy that the audience will have listening to this. Muse of Fire is fantastic way to wrap the Main Range of Doctor Who audios up for 2018, one that promises to come back strong with January’s Devil in the Mist. But for now, with Christmas and New Years’ approaching lets raise of a glass of bubbly to our mad Auntie Iris!

Synopsis

Oooh la la! It’s been a long time coming, but the Doctor is about to be reunited with Iris Wildthyme! They’re both in 1920s Paris and everyone’s flocking to Iris’s salon.

But wait…! What’s that noise..? Thud thud thud…! It’s the soft, approaching feet of a small and acerbic Art Critic Panda…!

Written By: Paul Magrs
Directed By: Jamie Anderson

Cast
Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Philip Olivier (Hex), Katy Manning (Iris Wildthyme), David Benson (Panda) Gethin Anthony (Kevin Archer/Dali), Rebecca La Chance (Isabel Archer), Christine Kavanagh (Dora Muse). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Producer: Nicholas Briggs
Script Editor: Alan Barnes
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Jordan Shortman

Jordan has loved Doctor Who for as long as he can remember and television in general. Many people blame his old teacher for what they believe his is obsession, he doesn't care though, his head is off in time and space most of the time.