Doctor Who – “The Wormery”

There’s one place in creation where the truth really can be found in the bottom of a glass: Bianca’s, a very special and very exclusive little club.

The Doctor, careworn and seeking quiet distraction, gains admission. But his rest and relaxation is soon shattered by the wobbly arrival of louche trans-temporal adventuress Iris Wildthyme. She claims she’s on a secret mission of vital importance, the success of which hinges on her getting paralytic. When she’s drunk, she can hear the whispering voices in her head!

The Doctor soon learns that Bianca’s airs and graces cover not just one malevolent power lurking in the shadows, but several. And a wriggling, writhing presence has designs on the clientele…just as Bianca herself has designs on the Doctor.

At last, after so many centuries, the weary Time Lord is dragged by the heels into that darkest of undiscovered countries – love.

Colin Baker is the Doctor in The Wormery.

Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Katy Manning (Iris Wildthyme)
Maria McErlane (Bianca)
Paul Clayton (Henry)
Jane McFarlane (Mickey)
James Campbell (Allis & Ballis)
Mark Donovan (Sturmer)
Ian Brooker (Barman)

Written By: Stephen Cole and Paul Magrs
Directed By: Gary Russell


What happens when the Doctor breaks down?

Even a 900 year old Time Lord who smiles all the time eventually bends under the pressures of saving the universe time and time again.

Barley escaping from a parallel Earth where your friends and colleagues were servant of a fascist regime and watching helplessly as the planet dies screaming under an ocean of boiling lava? Go catatonic.

No matter what you do or what steps you take, everyone around you ends up dying horribly? You sacrifice your life so one person, JUST one person lives.

Your schemes and plots, meant for the best, drive everyone away from you? Lock yourself up in the TARDIS library and watch as the wordplay and zest for puns you once held fade away.

Watching someone die because they refused your help because there was no longer any difference between the Time Lord and the Daleks? Forsake being “The Man Who Never Would” because the universe has no need for one anymore.

Put on trial by your own people for crimes you MAY commit, with your own future incarnation as prosecutor, while your best friend dies as there is nothing you can do, before having to pull the bacon of the Time Lords out the fire AGAIN?

You need a freakin’ drink.

Fitting between the departure of Peri in the televised serial Mindwarp and the introduction of Evelyn Smythe in The Marian Conspiracy, The Wormery explores what happens when the Doctor decides to forget his problems at the bottom of a glass. With a cast that camps it up to the appropriate levels, superb sound work, and an intriguing wrap-around narrative with a doozy of a punchline, The Wormery is well worth the price, and that’s before mentioning the introduction (or re-introduction) of a former Who companion to the Big Finish pantheon!

1930’s Berlin. Everyone comes to Bianca’s, a cabaret that caters to the exclusive, the discreet, and when necessary the occasional fascist thug. It’s here that the Doctor finds himself, drained from his recent trial on Gallifrey and looking for forget about the universe for a while. But the universe hasn’t forgotten about the Doctor, and trouble finds him in the form of one Iris Wyldthyme, Transtemporial Adventuress and professional drunkard. It doesn’t take long for the Doctor to realize there is much more to Bianca’s than the house special, but it also doesn’t take long for the Doctor to realize there is much more to Bianca herself, something that attracts him…much to Iris’ dismay!

Beforehand came the “Villains” trilogy and the overly long and emotionally draining Zagreus. Afterward would come the first half of the Eight Doctor’s “Divergent Universe” arc, which contains some incredibly weird and thought provoking concepts. Falling squarely in the middle of these stories, The Wormery is a breath of fresh air between some very dark and disturbing stories. The audio doesn’t take itself seriously, adding just enough drama and tension to prevent it from slipping into pure farce. It introduces some unique concepts to the Who universe, such as how to land a TARDIS inside another TARDIS without causing (in theory, hopefully!) a time ram. And the wrap around narrative is very well done, as a former waitress, Mickey, plays some audio tapes from the club’s secret recording system for a mysterious stranger. It allows the story to skip ahead and Mickey to fill in the gaps with any necessary exposition without it feeling forced. And it also allows for one heck of a final line to close out the entire thing when the stranger’s identity is revealed.

When listening to the patrons and background noise of Bianca’s, it’s very easy for the listener to imagine themselves sitting in the cabaret, listening to the bar’s namesake croon. The immersive atmosphere of The Wormery can be placed at the feet of both of its writers, as well as Big Finish’s top notch sound department. The sound crew has done wonders with this story. Taxis whizzing through Berlin (and points beyond!), the clink of glasses and muted background conversation, the smooth tones of Bianca’s voice against the harsh, grating screeches of another singer, drunks falling off chairs, and even the subtle difference between Mickey’s telling her story and the dialogue pulled from worn and forgotten reel-to-reel reels, the audio work is simply incredible. And the music…oh, the tinkling of the piano providing a backdrop to much of the dialogue, not to mention a great musical score that I wish I could somehow get on CD or separate download! This story is definitely one of the best from a purely audio standpoint, and the sound crew, led by Jason Loborik and Steve Cole, definitely deserve a round or two of bitter for their work!

Stephen Cole and Paul Magrs are no stranger to either Doctor Who or Big Finish. Both men have penned well-received novels and comic strips for the Doctor as well as the Bernice Summerfield range. Cole was the writer of the audio stories The Land of the Dead, well noted for its isolationist atmosphere, and The Apocalypse Element, the closet to a “big budget” story Big Finish had done up to that point. Magrs may be best known for the absolutely insane Eight Doctor novel Mad Dogs and Englishmen but also penned the moody audio The Stones of Venice. With the two of them co-writing the script for The Wormery, the dialogue flows easily while the plot unfolds in an easy and casual manner. The plot does get a bit weird at times, especially when the titular worms make their appearance and their master plan is revealed. And there are a lot of science fiction concepts sprinkled throughout the story; collapsing galaxies, wormholes destinations, and nexus points of space and time fraying from overpopulation. It doesn’t detract from the overall story, but it is a bit of technobabble.

There is one other concept The Wormery touches that both benefits and risks dragging down the story. The Doctor is currently sitting in Bianca’s trying to come to grips with the events of the multi-episode televised saga The Trial of a Time Lord. In order to get the most out of The Wormery, the listener should be familiar with the overall theme of the story; the Doctor being put on trial for his sins, past and future, while being accused of these crimes by none other than a future incarnation known only as the Valeyard. Without this knowledge, why the Doctor isn’t his normal self might come as a bit of a confusing shock to the listener. The script touches on Trial but really doesn’t explain its importance, even when it becomes vital to the plot in the fourth episode. On the other hand, The Wormery helps to explain the change from the angry, bitter Sixth Doctor pre-Trial and the bombastic but brave Doctor we see traveling with Evelyn Smythe. The behind-the-scenes mess that Trial of a Time Lord caused would take up several blog posts, but the best way to sum it up is “Colin Baker gets screwed again by the BBC.” Where some people see Big Finish’s stories as “saving” the Sixth Doctor, I’ve begun to see them along the lines of “Colin Baker gets to play the Doctor the way HE wanted to.” The Wormery isn’t some scathing critique of Trial. It’s more of an attempt to explain its effects on the Doctor in a respectful and reasonable manner, bridging the gap between Six/Peri and Six/Evelyn.

Based upon the CD cover, I visualized Six in his blue “mourning” coat, even though he technically didn’t debut it until Real Time. It’s gotten to the point with these Big Finish reviews that the words “Colin Baker” automatically equal “a quality performance.” To me, he hasn’t phoned it in once. His acting has pulled up lesser scripts and elevated good scripts to amazing ones. Alongside of Peri, the Sixth Doctor is brash, loud, bombastic, and interacts with her in a “we’re the only people allowed to be mean to each other” sort of manner. With Evelyn (and with Melanie Bush as well), the Sixth Doctor is self-assured and lets other people know it, but loyal and kind to his friends outside of the occasional friendly jest. The Wormery introduces us to a different kind of Sixth Doctor. This one is quiet, moody, and most of all, despondent. Instead of diving into an adventure head first, Six, dare I say, broods a little bit. The cockiness, the bravado, the inflated ego, very little of it is on display in this story from the Doctor. Baker takes a role that could have just been “mopey Doctor” and instead gives of “Doctor looking for that spark.” Don’t get me wrong, Colin Baker is still Colin Baker and he has his moments where both the old and the new Six shine through. One could see The Wormery as either an aging process or a distillation process where Six takes a look at his lives, takes a drink, and decides to forge ahead in a bold manner. The bullying creature who demands to be noticed for saving countless lives is now the guy at the end of the bar, wondering just WHY no one gives him credit for saving countless lives. It’s a truly amazing performance on Baker’s part to make this version of Six someone who you don’t want to pity, but someone you want to root for to throw on his old coat (metaphorically speaking. Sorry, I like the blue outfit!) and start kicking butt across the galaxy once again.

With a more self-reflective Sixth Doctor this time out, it’s up to the rest of the cast to pick up the larger-than-life slack. Maria McErlane is the star of Bianca’s, a place so nice they named it after her. McErlane is best known in Britain for her comedic work, both in stand-up and serving as a “straight woman” for several sketch shows. For The Wormery, McErlane perfectly plays the part of the proud, scheming diva bitch. From the very first line she utters to the Doctor, “light my cigarette, darling,” the audience knows exactly what they’re going to get from her role, and McErlane delivers. Her performance is nowhere near as over-the-top and campy as Patricia Quinn’s from Bang-Bang-A-Boom!, but it doesn’t need to be. Her desire to be loved and the center of attention ties in perfectly the plans of one half of the story’s villains, and it doesn’t hurt that Ms. McErlane has a lovely singing voice as well!

On the other side of the aisle stands Paul Clayton, well known across Britain for a wide variety of dramatic work, and known to Who fans as Mr. Bartle from the Tenth Doctor story Planet of the Ood. As club owner Henry, he represents the plans of the other half of the story’s villains; tough with a mean streak, menacing from the shadows until he needs to get involved directly. The narrator for the whole piece, Mickey, is played by prolific Scottish voice actress Jane McFarlane. Her soft tones provide the perfect mix of tension when talking about past events, mixed in with just enough wistful nolstalgia for the way she remembers how it used to be…

Now, I’ve made it this far without mentioning what some people consider to the most important part of The Wormery. And that is the introduction of Iris Wildthyme to the Big Finish main range continuity after her initial appearance opposite Peter Davison and Anthony Stewart Head in Excelis Dawns. Claiming to be a renegade Time Lord, Iris first debuted in one of Paul Magr’s “it’s not Doctor Who related, we swear, don’t sue us BBC” novels as a long-lived novelist who regenerated at the end of the story. She first met the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane in the short story Old Flames where the Doctor claimed she was a lifelong friend. Of course, this sent the fandom into a tizzy, especially as Iris kept reappearing in various books and short stories, weaving in and out of the Doctor’s life. With a TARDIS that looks like a double-decker bus, Iris had drank her way across the universe and into her own Big Finish range, with several series released over the course of the 2000’s.

While some people like Iris and some people dislike Iris (see also Summerfield, Bernice) and might groan at her being “shoehorned” into Big Finish, what makes her appearance so special is just who is playing her – none other than Katy Manning! Best known for playing the Third Doctor’s companion Jo Grant, Manning has always been one of the most popular actresses to be associated with Doctor Who – bubbly, happy, and the perfect counterpart to the slightly grumpy Third Doctor. At least, until he lightened up and the two adventured across the galaxy for a good bit. Manning might also be known (I admit or deny nothing) for the cheesecake pictures she took with a Dalek for a magazine photoshoot, including one with nothing on but the smile God gave her.

(for the record, Jon Pertwee’s response was a loud laugh and a cry of “typical Katy!”)

Manning portrays Iris with a larger than life appetite for adventure, gusto, and booze. As opposed to the quiet Sixth Doctor in The Wormery, Iris is poking her nose in where it doesn’t belong, loudly demanding answers from the bad guys, spilling her concerns to the Doctor and everyone around them, and being incredibly scatterbrained. It could have easily been a recipe for disaster, but Manning takes the part and not only makes it her own, but makes Iris someone the listener can relate to. On screen, she would be a nightmare, but Iris was a character made for the audio format. She’s far from a perfect character – her song at the end of the second episode almost brings about the end of the universe! – in that she is very loud and some of her dialogue is very hard to understand at times. Her importance to the plot, though, is one that also has something to say about Trial of a Time Lord, to the extent that Six proclaims “PLAGURISM” at one point!

What makes Iris work is her chemistry with the Sixth Doctor. She’s not a fan of his incarnation (she adored Five, even if he was a bit serious, and thinks Seven is too cunning for his own good), but she knows the man the Doctor is, and that’s the man she loves. Yes, Iris proclaims her love for the Doctor, but also proclaims she knows it’ll never happen, so she just soaks it in while she can whenever she is around him. The pining is kept to a minimum, so it’s a bit emotional and not overwrought ala Rose/Ten or Martha/Ten. In a way, Iris fills the companion role for this story, and does it very well. Maybe she’s the one who drags Six out of his funk and sends him on his way to soon bump into Evelyn Smythe…

Synopsis – Great sound work, good music, Katy Manning back in the fold, and a quieter, reflective Six make The Wormery a story well worth passing the time and bending the elbow with. 4/5

Next up – There were two friends, and together they travelled the cosmos. They thwarted tyrants and defeated monsters, they righted wrongs wherever they went. They explored the distant future and the distant past, new worlds and galaxies, places beyond imagining. But every good story has to come to an end…

Paul McGann is the Doctor in…Scherzo.

About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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1 Response to Doctor Who – “The Wormery”

  1. Cygnia says:

    Magrs’ favourite Sue… ;p

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