Tony Fyler has worms. May need a pill to sort him out.
Or a Tequila Slammer, that works too.
We saw in Series 9 of Doctor Who how found footage can be used on screen to create… well, something, anyway. The Wormery takes us into a kind of audio version of the same technique, but with notably more success: an old Scottish lady is talking to a man who’s interested in some spools of reel-to-reel tape she has, recordings of her time and the conversations she overheard while working as a hostess in Bianca’s, an exclusive nightclub in World War II Berlin. When the Sixth Doctor drops in to hear the owner-chanteusse sing her famous midnight songs, he’s aghast to find an old…friend there before him. Iris Wildthyme, the peripatetic temporal adventuress (as played by the force of nature that is Katy Manning, rather less conspicuously than usual – at several points here you might wonder if this version of Iris actually is played by Manning, her characterization is so immersive), is in Bianca’s, looking a sight, being a pain and knocking back tequila like it’s going out of fashion (which to be fair, in war-torn Berlin, it probably was). Through spool after spool of tape, with occasional convenient narrative leaps from the woman, we get to listen in on a night out with Iris and the Doctor.
What unfolds from this premise is a sharp, intoxicating cocktail of worms and weirdness, as it turns out Bianca’s isn’t quite what people think it is. There are plots and sub-plots; Bianca has an agenda that can’t be guessed at, but which owes something to another Sixth Doctor story, this one on-screen, with her increasingly irritable manager Henry hatching slither-brained schemes of his own and Iris introducing the idea of paralytic karaoke to Western Europe a few decades early. Two cataclysmic physicists who, to say the least, aren’t from round here add an air of mystery, and there’s a sense of Bianca’s having escaped from an episode of Sapphire and Steel, especially when its true nature and purpose is revealed. As Iris drinks not so much to forget as to focus, the Doctor finds himself succumbing not only to the house special, but to the charms of Bianca. Could she really be the companion to end all companions, the one to sway the Time Lord who once wrote a paper on the precise chemical and neurological equation of love, and steal his celibate hearts?
Or is that just the alcohol talking? Whispering, sibilant in his head?
The worms of the title are an oddly cerebral idea in among all the karaoke, tequila and slurring talk of love. They’re largely kept on the periphery of events, a kind of nebulous atom bomb threat ringing the rim of the adventure while the characters get increasingly drunk and deadly, though they do represent the fundamental duality of Doctor Who – change or stasis, good or evil, stability or chaos. That duality is resolved with a surprising ease about three quarters of the way through the story, by which point it has ceased to be our primary concern in any case, if it ever was. By the time the worms stop being a worry, we’re more fascinated by the character dynamics – why does Bianca have one of Iris’ old dressing rooms at the club? Why does she have some of her old clothes? And why does she seem to have such a deep connection to the Doctor? Could it be that they have a history that neither Iris nor the Sixth Doctor himself can yet guess at?
The story, by Stephen Cole and Paul Magrs, exists simultaneously on several levels, and there’s every chance if you try to follow the high-falutin’ ‘weird science’ plotline, you’ll tie yourself in knots of vermicelli before you’re halfway through The Wormery. To be honest though, as is frequently the case in stories which bear Magrs’ imprint, it’s the characters you really invest in and that really deliver the drama you’re looking for. Jane McFarlane as Mickey, the Scottish hostess, is likeable in both her old lady guide and as a young woman, Manning’s Iris Wildthyme continues to be delicious – she’s an incorrigible nightmare if you have to mop up after her, but arguably the same could be said about the Doctor, and there’s a line here that bears a direct link to the Doctor’s approach to what he does – “I am always serious about what I do, though not always about the way I do it,” which makes us think it really could be Iris that the Doctor is ultimately destined to travel through life with. It would be interesting to hear her with a less fundamentally upright and morally straightforward Doctor (Number Ten might be especially combustible – Big Finish, just saying…Tennant and Manning, maybe?) The point is, long before the multi-coloured Doctor arrived in Bianca’s, blundering into adventure in his usual haphazard manner, Iris Wildthyme was on the case of something deeply fishy going on in the nightclub, for which the worms are little more than bait. Meanwhile, Bianca, played by Maria McErlane (star of many shows, but identifiable in this format to a whole generation as the narrator of EuroTrash), delivers a glorious counterweight to Manning’s Wildthyme, acting almost as the Anti-Iris, particularly inasmuch as Wildthyme announces that she fancies all the other Doctors, but not so much the Sixth incarnation, while it’s precisely that incarnation – loquacious, philosophical, morally upright – that interests Bianca. Hearing the two women almost scratch each other’s eyes out over the Doctor is rather joyous, and when Bianca reveals her actual plans and her connection to the Doctor, there’s a moment that’ll catch your breath as you realise the scale of what you’re hearing.
Overall, The Wormery is fun. Fun with a high ballsiness content to attempt, let alone pull off, the storyline it delivers, and some great performances, particularly from Manning, McErlane and Baker up front. The business of the worms themselves is complex and you may have to hold your head perfectly steady to stop your brains leaking out of your ears if you try and make such a mundane thing as sense out of it, but get down and dirty with the characters and it will repay your investment time after time.