Friday, 13 February 2009

Anticipating Iris

This post gets to Doctor Who eventually. It takes a while.

It takes a while because it's a strange thing to listen to people who aren't geeks having a canon debate. The serious business of which imaginary stories are more or less imaginary than others is a constant source of worry to the likes of me, but I never thought I'd see my Mam and My Lady Friend lock horns over this sort of thing. Yet there they were last Christmas, thrashing out the matter of whether or not From Barry to Billericay was an authentic account of doings within the Gavin and Stacey universe.

Hang on...the Gavin and Stacey universe?
Oh yes. For it was the very nature of that universe which was at stake.

Gavin and Stacey, for anyone who's not seen it, is a BBC sitcom/ comedy-drama thing and the air of the show is a little more mimesis-rich than it is elsewhere on Planet Sitcom. The slider has been pushed towards the Royle end of the Royle-to-Boosh axis. Perhaps the best clue as to where the show finds its level of realism is in that Alison Steadman seems to be playing an older version of her character from Abigail's Party. Gavin and Stacey fits nicely with those early Mike Leigh social comedies. Someone who misunderstands fiction could watch this show and think they were watching the world in which they live.

Except for Nessa.
Monstrous, impossible and erotic, Nessa disrupts everything.

If you want to get metafictional about it, then she's probably allowed to because she's played by one of the show's writers. If she can't tear down her own creation from within, who can?

Like a writer, Nessa tells stories. Hers are about her past; as an original member of All Saints, as a former lover of John Prescott, as being responsible for the death of her drug-running husband. If any of her stories are true then that's the mundane and domestic reality of Gavin and Stacey right out of the window. If any of her stories are true then we're no longer watching a world that's much like the one in which we live.

At Christmas round ours, everyone agreed that Nessa was the funniest joke in the show, but nobody could quite agree on what exactly the joke was.

My Mam was laughing at a joke in which Nessa was a pathological liar, confabulating her past and then trying to pass it off as genuine with her catchphrase, "I'm not going to lie to you..."

My Lady Friend was laughing at a joke in which Nessa's stories were true, but just didn't fit with the reality around her. She saw her as a piece too big for the jigsaw and the humour as lying in the way her incongruity held the whole business of constructed realities up to ridicule.

DOCTOR: You're an Impossible Thing, Nessa.

Shush now! We'll get to you in a minute.

There's a fair old bit of support for My Lady Friend's reading in the show itself (Stacey and Uncle Bryn always seem to remember Nessa going through the experiences she recounts) but the clincher would be the tie-in book Gavin and Stacey: From Barry to Billericay, which has actual documentary proof of her stories. Letters from John Prescott and everything. Hence the canon debate.

We come now to Iris Wildthyme, a woman who would have no patience with canon debates or anything else which tried to contain whatever reality she was trying to assert. Iris is the naughtier, more disruptive reading of Nessa, but louder and more explict. As loud and explict as only the very drunk can be.

But Iris isn't here to bugger up Gavin and Stacey's reality. She's come for Doctor Who.

She's come via a circuitous route. Iris first appears in the unpublished juvenilia of Paul Magrs as a Doctor stand-in, before migrating to his original literary fiction in the Phoenix Court books. Then she finally meets her 'maker' in the short story Old Flames and the novel The Scarlet Empress. Iris meets the Doctor, the character of which she's a parody. Naturally she loves him.

There's something a little Christian about this - in that theology then we're expected to love someone on account of being imperfect imitations of Him - but with Iris and the Doctor then the balance of power is a little different.

She's a self-aware parody. Iris not only understands that she's a fictional character, but understands that she's a shadow of another fictional character and that she knows rather more about how that character's world works than he does.

The Doctor, for example, experiences his adventures as they occured within continuity. If a writer in the 90s retroactively set a story inbetween two stories written in the 80's, then the Doctor would remember them as occuring in the new order. Iris would remember them as occuring in the order they were written, because Iris understands that she is being written, and the Doctor's often a little unclear on that.

She's disempowered by being a response to a story while empowered by having more perspective on that story, and The Scarlet Empress, the definitive confrontation/romance between Iris and the Doctor proceeds from there.

Manifesting as one of the sort of drunken, flatulent old baggages who Angela Carter would typically valourise as the secret rulers of the world, Iris turns up and lays claim to the Doctor's past. Half the stuff that we 'know' happened to the Doctor, she says actually happened to her. All your text are belong to us. And she makes a good case...while the Doctor has forgotten much of what he's lived through, she's got perfect records in her diaries. While much of the Doctor's life gets ignored as 'uncanonical', she's happy to take the lot...Kroton and Frobisher and all.

Iris continued to pop up in Doctor Who after The Scarlett Empress. In three more wonderful Paul Magrs novels, on occasions when writers like Lawrence Miles or Lance Parkin wanted to nod in the direction of her disruptive potential, in Big Finish audio adventures and a rather mixed anthologies of short stories.

By the time Iris got her own first season of audio plays though, it's possible her relevance had passed. She'd been the Doctor while being all the things the Doctor wasn't, and the dividing lines had been cultural and sexual.

The cultural references made by the Doctor in the English series had always been elitist and 'high-culture' but delivered without any real suggestion of enthusiasm. Much as you'd expect from writers who didn't really know what they were talking about but had a vauge idea that the character they were writing was meant to be 'posh' - think of how everyone other than Ellis and Morrison writes Emma Frost. The nadir of this may have been the Paul McGann Doctor blathering on unconvincingly about Puccini, which is why Iris had to appear when she did to blast ABBA out of her stereo. The Doctor in the English series was uncomfortably asexual. Which is why Iris had to have degrading group sex with strangers.

Here's the problem for Iris now - the post-2005 Doctor is pop-culture friendly and sexual. This Doctor dances. This Doctor dances to Kylie. There's a point in the first episode of the Welsh series where the Doctor reads an issue of heat magazine. That's the point in which Iris ceases to function as a parody. That's the point at which the Doctor integrates Iris into himself. She's no longer anything he can't be.

Time to close the book on the character? Time to admit that the critique she offered has been answered, and in being answered has oblivated the critique?

It seems not, as Big Finish have just brought out a new season of four Iris audio plays. My worries about her relevance would have saved me from forking out the thirty quid for these except for two things; they come in a snazzy pink box set, and they have this tag-line...

Time and Space. Good and Evil. Gin and Tonic.

I'll let you know how I get on.

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