Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 051. The Wormery by Paul Magrs & Stephen Cole (November 2003)

“Life’s a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” – Voltaire

Sandwiched away between the big old 40th anniversary celebration of Zagreus and the launch of the Eighth Doctor’s new adventures in a Divergent Universe is the little curiosity that is The Wormery. Those of you who remember my enthused reaction to The Stones of Venice won’t be surprised to learn I eagerly awaited the return of the grandiloquent Mr Magrs, though it must be said that pairing him with the writer of The Land of the Dead didn’t sound all that promising.

Thankfully, The Wormery is much more Magrs than Cole, and it’s absolutely dripping in surrealist, bohemian atmosphere. The tone, to my ears, is futurism meets the Aesthetic movement, space-age Oscar Wilde, and that’s something I can *completely* get behind. Magrs’ stuff absolutely oozes ambiance. Doctor Who landing in a slightly sleazy cabaret feels like we’ve met a small corner of the Firefly universe, that underworld of seedy, vibrant, colourful bars which we don’t see in the Whoniverse very often; the writers make it sing, and the Sixth Doctor fits into Bianca’s club marvellously, indeed somewhat surprisingly, given that The Wormery is full of powerful women emasculating slightly ineffectual men, but that is very much part of what makes it so fun; it’s infused with a Gatiss-like love of slightly anachronistic camp. There’s real warmth to the way Magrs writes, a sort of hedonistic vitality tinged with just the right amount of wistfulness, which I find utterly captivating. He’s the sci-fi Christopher Isherwood.

The headline, of course (she’s the biggest thing on the cover!), is the return of Iris Wildthyme. While I found her a tad irksome in Excelis Dawns – perhaps it was my own unfamiliarity with her, or it was the setting she didn’t quite suit, or the rapport with Five didn’t quite work – she works marvellously well here. Her entrance would give River Song a run for her money: “You do not look like the kind of adventurer who recklessly endangers himself just for the thrill of it,” Bianca tells the Doctor. “Don’t I?” he asks, “and what do they look like?” Bianca replies, gesturing, “Like her – over there, by the door.” As the bars of jazz music swirl and dive, the Doctor blurts “Oh no, not her again!” The entire affair has an effortless cool about it. Katy Manning is, typically, firing on all cylinders.

It’s a pity the writers fall back on Iris and Bianca’s “fighting” over the Doctor in Part Three, but the silly old trope is subverted to some degree by the true identity of the two of them. The duality between them is for the most part vividly rendered, and the revelation concerning Bianca and Iris ties into the Doctor’s recent encounter with the Valeyard. Bianca is wonderfully bitchy to her at points – see this great speech for instance: “You’re a chicken; you scratch around in time’s farmyard for scraps of sustenance, you cluck about after this one like a dotty, doting mother hen! No, Iris, you will never be free of me. But I will free myself of you, your aimless adventuring, your half-cooked philanthropy. Evidence of the past can be tampered with. All my potential, all my youth. I am all that you will be, Iris. At the end of your days, when you’ve shook off your last skin, you will find me waiting underneath. You are me.” There’s a definite undercurrent to Iris – she’s far from merely a caricature.

What this raises is the cabaret staple of self-loathing and regret amid all the booziness. The narrative framing device in this one is Mickey and Ashcroft listening to all the old tapes recording what happened at Bianca’s, thereby framing all the pleasingly jazzy Epicureanism in a kind of Great-Gatsby-ish melancholia, looking back on a more youthful, devil-may-care time of one’s life just as Nick Carraway does in Fitzgerald’s novel. Mickey’s constant commenting on past events in her life also calls to mind Jacqueline Rayner’s neat trick in Doctor Who and the Pirates, except here it takes the form of a simple monologue delivered by an older Mickey to the constantly silent Mr Ashcroft. In both instances, the real identity of the person to whom this extended monologue is being addressed forms something of a twist; the taciturn Ashcroft, it is revealed to us, is in fact the Seventh Doctor. It’s not just a killer moment – a bit of an odd thing to do so if that was all the impact they wanted it to have – but it works well for the story as chosen. This is the second time we’ve seen Seven ‘revisit’ a Six story (the more obvious example being Project: Lazarus), and in both instances there’s been a real sense of one of the Doctors slightly muddling his way through and the latter one ruminating on the ramifications of that. Though McCoy hardly has an active presence in the story, the final twist of the knife subtly alters how we take the narrative, for we know now that this is something the Doctor – and not just a bit-player like Mickey – has been musing on in his down time.

Regarding Baker’s Doctor, we get some nice references to The Trial of a Time Lord, which appears to have happened quite recently, so this is clearly pre-Evelyn. In fact the characterisation of the Doctor as a bit of a moper, a bit of a melancholy figure, hardly thanked for the efforts he makes for the universe – indeed, put on trial for his pains – is rather reminiscent of Eight in The Stones of Venice. The world here is, at its core, a mad, sexually free and libidinous thing, in which the Doctor finds himself in a somewhat awkward quandary: the geeky male who once wrote a treatise on the chemical reactions behind love, etc., the man for whom women are a bit of a mystery. It’s tempting to argue that The Wormery thus codes him as an explicitly queer figure, but I think that that would be rather lazily looking for evidence of gay characters in a story co-written by a gay writer, not to mention the fact that the whole tone of this story, and indeed certain elements of the Doctor in any story, is so floridly camp anyway that I doubt Magrs is coming straight out with any kind of bombshell about the Doctor’s sexuality.

At the core of the mystery are what the writers christen “Psychic Worms”, whispers, half-spoken memories, “ghosts, watching us all and listening discreetly, gossiping quietly in the smoke and shadows.” The scene where they first speak to Henry on the phone is a lovely slice of surreal creepiness, addressing him in rasping, hoarse tones as “my darling”, and the “extra shadows” the worms cast are another creepy little element that works well. Part of the function they serve is as clearly subliminal messages, as ugliness that breaks through even amidst art, although the moments where this come through Iris’ singing don’t work quite as well as the sound creatures in Whispers of Terror or The Fearmonger. This is nicely paralleled with Sturmer and his troops, as indeed all representations of military presence in a 1930s Berlin cabaret are wont to do: behind every libidinous performance in those heady days was a berifled officer, just around the corner.

Seeing what they will become, the worms decide they do not want “complex form” and “multitudinous organs”, but choose lack of evolution, lack of progress, contentment with where they are, over the choice to surge forward. It is both ‘factions’ that choose this, even though they are explicitly presented as opponents – the one with its desire that everything is frozen as perfect as it can be, and the other choosing a moment of pure violence in which everyone rides roughshod over everybody else: “those who live solely for the moment can never change, never progress. Unreasoning violence is our friend, loveless sex our ally, the severance of all meaningful ties with all other living things our goal.” Hedonism is thus both celebrated and criticised; the story clearly revels in it, but also presents a firm critique of its stultifying effects. In this regard, the core speech is surely this one: “You sound like one of those dreary scientists…always fretting over whether the fabric of time and space will start to split! Each time I step on to that stage, I am playing a fatal game! Perhaps this night, this song, will be the moment my delectable façade will split. The fabric of my very being will unravel for all to see…these dangerous spots are everywhere. In my experience, the world is always ready to unravel, and that is where you always find the cabaret. Wherever there is the threat of imminent calamity, you will find a soul such as I, stepping into the limelight and singing, singing into the darkness.” The Doctor is a hedonistic figure, too; not for him the life of settling down, not for him love or a family, but he will always be the flitter of in-betweens, the journeyman, the raconteur and the troubadour. His hedonism may mean he never settles or establishes, but it is still of an outward-looking, compassionate variety, doing good where he can, when he can, and thus of a fundamentally different variety to the more destructive kind favoured by ‘the worms’.

The story wraps this all up in a fundamental uncertainty about its own reliability: Iris has been tampering with the records of her life on Gallifrey; Mickey and Ashcroft listen to surviving records of the past (“all that remains of us in history is the recorded evidence we leave behind us. These tapes are all we have to prove that Bianca’s ever really existed”). It’s pretty postmodern, and this pall of uncertainty works well with the slightly ‘blurry’ nature of the hedonism it wants to portray. Look at this line, too: “I am the Doctor…”/“…and you walk in eternity, or some such…Wherever it is you walk, Doctor, I walk too.” Bianca (importantly, that is to say, Iris) is a postmodern figure in that she’s seen Doctor Who before – or she’s seen Pyramids of Mars, at any rate (oh, and The Ultimate Foe: “You are powerless to prevent the… the metamorphosis of specious principles!”). She gives running commentaries on his show in other adventures as well: clearly Magrs intends her as a kind of surrogate audience, a self-insert, a fan of the Doctor’s who actually gets to do things as mad as he and then some.

In terms of tone, The Wormery is a raucous, joyous thing, a smoky, inebriated triumph, “Piano Man” in audiobook form. But that doesn’t make it sound as high-concept as it is; this is also a delightfully tricksy, intellectual script, full of good ideas and twists. It peters out a little bit at around the three-quarters-mark, and the resolution is a bit nebulous, but overall this is good old eccentric, camp and subversive Who. If that’s what Paul Magrs delivers when he’s being run-of-the-mill, then bring him back ASAP. In short: this isn’t generic “action/adventure” lager-Who to binge on, but one to savour like a fine claret.

Other things:
The authors’ comments in the liner notes are worth quoting: “We had wanted to write something together for a long time, but we both decided that we had to wait for a project to come along that had real integrity. A project that had something to say about the condition of man and the nature of the universe, that would transcend its genre roots and its limitations of form to become timeless and profound. Then we thought, ‘Stuff that’, and started making up all this stuff about tequila worms who wanted to take over the multiverse, who operate from a 1930s cabaret and get everyone dead drunk.”
“You know, there was once a place where the truth really could be found in the bottom of a glass…Bianca’s. The only place where that old adage had any truth in it, and the only place you could go to get a drink in those heady, wicked days. And the more you drank, the clearer the truth became. All sorts of truths.”
Stephen Cole & Jason Loborik excel with a speak-easy-style score, which enlivens this production no end. It’s easily the most memorable incidental music aside from Doctor Who and the Pirates.
The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly from the three non-Doctor leads. Jane McFarlane makes a very fine Mickey, Maria McErlane is great as Bianca, and Katy Manning is obviously superb as Iris.
The Doctor lights Bianca’s cigarette with his sonic screwdriver: what a rogue!
“Iris Wildthyme, trans-temporeal adventuress extraordinaire, at your service.”
“The audio medium. It can be so deceptive.”
A wonderful description of Time Lords: “There are beings that exist, just like worms, who if you chop them in half, like this tape, they grow another head, each half. They set off in separate lives. They regenerate themselves beyond damage. Almost immortal. Slippery. Hard to pin down.”
“Iris, you’re in no fit state to discuss epistemological quandaries!” (I’ll be using that line in future).
“It’s strange for me, hearing all this again so long after the event. Catching the little comments that passed me by, the scenes I only glimpsed from the corner of my sparkling eye as I wrapped up the drinks for my boys.”
Allis & Ballis’ vaguely touched-on romance is enormously sweet, particularly the naiveté under which they assume the other occupants operate, unaware of them.
The revelation at the end of Part One, that “the entrance is in Berlin but the club itself is in deep space”, is a beautiful bit of genre-mashing that reminds me of everyone’s favourite Enlightenment cliff-hanger.
“Really, Doctor, where did you find her?”/“All through my lives, in all the wrong places.”
“Bianca’ll have my guts for garters!”/“Well she might as well, the state of the lingerie in here…”
“A new star will shine brightly at the cabaret tonight… to draw the shadows closer.”
I love Katy Manning’s little Iris ditty at the end of Part Two, fun and catchy and kind of unnerving all at once (I gather this becomes her recurring theme). The lyrics: ‘You say you never wanted her in your hair, well as you know she’s famous for it! Her name induces sighs of despair, well as you know she’s famous for it! Aside from vats of liquor, your cupboard is bare! You damn her to the devil but she’s already there! No one else beside her – you’re beside yourself with joy!’
“His shadow wasn’t quite true, out of sync with the rest of him, like it’s having a job keeping up with the goose-stepping.”
“What’s wrong with being drunk?”/ “Well, as my good friend Douglas once said, ask the glass of water.” This is the first instance in which one of the writers of Doctor Who is established as existing in the Doctor Who universe – notably for the postmodernist Magrs.
I’d never thought of the connection between wormholes and worms before. Nice bit of linguistic jiggery-pokery, that.
“Poppycock! A gratuitous gabbling of garrulous gallimaufries.”
“It was her own club – why didn’t she bar Iris, or just turf her out onto the celestial pavement?”
“Well, that’s the chaise longue shot to buggery!”
“What’s got into him?”/“Lashings of tequila – and the love of a bad woman!”
“You witless imitator! At least my dark self had an ounce of style! This is so typical of you copycat amateurs; who ever heard of a diabolical denouement occurring in a patisserie?!”
“Change should always be for keeps.”
“You catch yourself looking back at yourself. Have I changed so much over the centuries, you wonder? When will it happen? – that one turning point over your lives, that one moment when your fate is sealed…”
“A dart of life in a sea of shadow.”
“The shadows – it’s like they’re getting inside the clientele.”
“The nexus point with everything breaking down – it doesn’t have to result in chaos, you know. Not with one voice holding sway, one perfect voice.”/“It’s been tried before, really, again and again. I don’t approve of dictators, benevolent or otherwise.”/“You believe in aristocracy, though. You are a Time Lord. On your homeworld you believed in your right to rule. You have to believe in that right, or else how else would you do what you do? And that’s why you took it so hard when you were placed on trial again – because you knew that they, like you, believed absolutely in their right.”
“We’re through the aftershocks… the before-shocks… we’re just riding out the never-were-shocks!”
“In a quiet corner we found Henry, fading fast, like a shadow fades when the sun slides behind the clouds.”
“You will forget about me, of course, the architect of this place. Bianca’s time is past. Now it’s just a dark, fuggy little backwater on the bad side of town.”/“There’s still magic here. There’s always magic. There’s always magic if you know where to look for it.”
“Only those tapes remain to show any of it ever happened. And me, of course. But who’d believe me? I can see it in your eyes, Mr Ashcroft. It’s a tall tale and you don’t believe me. Well, listen to the tapes again. Go on, you can take them with you if you like. I trust you. But do take good care. If anything happens to them, there’d be nothing left at all, and the way the Doctor talked, you’d think that was a good thing, but – maybe he was just trying to protect his Iris. You know, I’m sure he loved her in a way. But he’d never admit it. You will look after them, won’t you, Mr Ashcroft?”/McCoy: “Yes, Mickey, I’ll look after them.” Great ending.

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