Doctor Who - The Unicorn and the Wasp
Writers idolise writers, and they love their own medium, which goes some way to explaining why so many of new Who's historical adventures have focussed on various Earth-based scribes. Jaunts to see Dickens and Shakespeare - both episodes referenced here - have meant only one series so far where the Doc hasn't met a writer of note. Chuck in incidents at the theatre (The Shakespeare Code again, Daleks in Manhattan) and on TV (The Idiot's Lantern), and it's all getting a bit self-indulgent.
Still, 'self-indulgent' was probably written in great big red letters on a whiteboard during the tone meeting for The Unicorn and the Wasp. It's all about knowing, and acknowledging, that you're working in the murder mystery genre. It's a jokey romp, played straight but written arch. And, so long as you're up for the ride, it works.
As influences continues to be drawn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, why not do another 'Jane Espenson episode'? Just as Love & Monsters owed a debt to that show's The Zeppo, so this one sits alongside things like I Was Made to Love You and Storyteller, discussing the genre rules even as it conforms to them. So far, then, so Scream.
Director Graeme Harper seemed an odd choice for the story initially. He's a high-energy shot-caller, not generally known for his 'more tea vicar?' style. But where The Doctor's Daughter's marriage of mechanical writer and emotional material only scraped through, here the unlikely director brings a real force and verve to the visuals. Interesting shot choices and framings abound, along with nifty cutaways. Oh yes, he has a blast with the flashbacks.
Gareth Roberts (anything but an unlikely choice, after The Shakespeare Code) does a lot more than chuck in Christie titles as dialogue, and the flashbacks are a case in point. As each character is interrogated, we see what they were doing at the time of the murder. Obvious, right? Wrong. While showing a disparity between what a person says and what really went on is nothing new, there's a clever layer of information reveal here. The character may be lying, but we know one thing for sure - the flashback isn't. It's the contradiction itself that tells us, the audience, the truth.
Brilliantly, only one character is shown to be telling a story consistent with their flashback. And, because of that - in retrospect, anyway - they can be the only one who is lying, the flashback being a fabrication based on their statement. Seriously, this is proper, command-of-the-craft writing. The later use for a gag - the Doctor's irrelevant flashback to a another adventure - is pure icing.
The downsides are pretty much you'd expect. The story climaxes twice when, really, it should end in the drawing room - note the dreadful "time is in flux" line, working so hard to ramp up the tension that Christie might die, knowing that the REAL ending has already happened. The Dickens 'filled with doubt' riff is recycled, and putting a second detective in the mix robs the Doctor of some of his usefulness. And the whole thing echoes old episodes a little to loudly (not just the writery/historical ones, but even the 'bow and arrows' moment from Blink). Oh, and the talisman finale is a mess, somehow linking the monster more closely to Christie than its mother, simply because she read six of her books.
The transformation of the giant wasp is bit flat, too. The CGI beast is terrific, enhanced hugely by small details - note the small nick it makes in the ceiling with its stinger - but we've evolved past 'purple light and dissolve' at this point. (Why purple, anyway? Wouldn't yellow have been more thematically appropriate?) A chance for something ever so slightly gruesome is missed, a pity after that shocking Ood transformation earlier in the series.
So the last ten minutes are a bit of a fudge - but when a story has been so much fun up to this point it's hard to lay into it too harshly. Fenella Woolgar is understated and charming as Agatha, though the rest of the cast get little time to make a solid impression, and Catherine Tate continues to confound expectations by being, y'know, actually quite likable. Though, like Martha before her, she's working without much of a personal arc. The writers may have a missed a trick here - a comedically-gifted companion could have allowed the Doctor to get darker; as it is, we're kinda watching two banjo acts.
Still, as with all whodunits there's always one question left unanswered. Who killed the Chauffeur in The Big Sleep? How did Morse get that car to start on those cold Oxford mornings? And, in this case... how come the killer was able to drink the pepper-laden soup?
The verdict in preview articles for The Unicorn And The Wasp was unanimous. This story would be unmissable fun for Agatha Christie fans and costume drama enthusiasts, but probably not to the taste of Doctor Who fans. While the intelligent and insightful portrayal of the episode’s guest star makes it easy to see where this opinion came from, the tale is actually far more successful as a Doctor Who story than a replication of Christie’s storytelling.
Gareth Roberts has done an excellent job of playing the hand he’s been dealt. With the plot structured around Christie’s notorious disappearance, many writers would have felt constrained by being forced to set the story so early in her career. However, Roberts produces an excellent gag from the situation through our heroes’ confusing the author with references to novels she is yet to pen. The tone is extremely well-balanced, allowing time between the murders to be used to round out the guest characters, stopping the killer’s victims being mere cannon-fodder, but still able to include out-and-out comedy such as the Doctor’s attempt the shake off the effects of cyanide poisoning. One problem, however, is the repetition of jokes within the story. Donna’s half-hearted attempt to copyright Christie’s future works and the spoof flashbacks are entertaining, but don’t justify their repeat performances. Having already shown Lord Eddison having a flashback within a flashback, there’s little call for the Doctor to then remember his rescue of Charlemagne. When speaking of Attack of the Graske, Roberts explained how he had decided against including the line “A Merry Christmas to all of you at home!” (in reference to a piece of fourth wall-breaking in a sixties story) on the grounds that it would only irritate the handful of people who recognised it. It’s unfortunate the same restraint wasn’t exercised with the insertion of Christie titles into the script. At first the references raise a smile, but soon begin to grate, merely resulting in some extremely unconvincing dialogue.
When speaking about the story’s construction, Roberts has commented that despite its element of mystery solving, Doctor Who is not particularly suited to detective stories, which rely on a slow and methodical presentation of clues and red herrings. While this isn’t entirely accurate, it is true that the programme as it stands today has difficulty in enforcing such an approach in its more light-hearted moments. With the story conceived as an antidote to the traumas of The Doctor’s Daughter, slowing down the pace to allow us to get to know Lady Eddison and her guests was clearly not an option. The writer instead opts to include what are widely perceived to be the trappings of a Christie novel. Our setting is a country house, with an array of desperate suspects and an air of upper-class restraint. In fact, the results bear more resemblance to the work of Conan Doyle - an atmospheric backdrop for the audience to admire the detective’s ingenuity, rather than a puzzle that can be genuinely solved in advance of its dénouement. During the development of the story, from the discovery of Professor Peach’s corpse to the final unmasking of the killer, the episode feels like the edited highlights of the mystery, ticking boxes without actually giving the viewer new clues to chew over. The production team have clearly aimed the adventure at those who know Christie’s canon through adaptations (it’s telling that the highest praise Donna can give the author is that her work will one day be filmed), rather than readers of the original novels.
The story is vastly more successful when dealing with the writer, rather than her books. Although lacking the poignancy of the Doctor’s visit to the almost-dead Dickens, Agatha’s story manages to be quietly uplifting without ever becoming overly sentimental. The script gives Fenella Woolgar opportunities to show many sides to her portrayal, including melancholy over the failure of her marriage, outward frostiness to the Doctor’s enthusiastic pursuit of the bizarre and self-doubt which finally gives way to a steely determination to end the wasp’s rampage. Whether or not you agree with Roberts’ assessment of what makes Christie’s work so appealing, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying character arc for the author, as she is coxed into deploying her skills in the real world, gradually supplanting the Doctor’s role as the fountain of all wisdom. More than any other celebrity historical, The Unicorn And The Wasp shows the Doctor and his guest star as behaving equals, to the point where it’s up to the guest cast and Donna to bring out Agatha’s gentler traits. In fact, Ms Noble is well-served by the story in general, which gives her both an opportunity for her to actually show her previously referred-to enthusiasm for the opportunities which travelling with the Doctor gives her, and the chance for a few pointed digs about her temporary role as Inspector John Smith’s assistant. These little jabs help keep the travellers interesting, even when they’re both obviously having the time of their lives. The reference to the fate of Lance is well timed, and does a good job of concisely conveying her emotional journey.
The Unicorn And The Wasp is broadly enjoyable, with the party atmosphere hardly damaged by the rising body count. Its weakness is borne of ambition, as the writer attempts to simultaneously construct an entertaining Doctor Who story, an Agatha Christie pastiche and a thoughtful meditation on an author who didn’t believe she deserved her success. In the space of forty minutes, achieving two of these three objectives is a creditable result.
Possibly the oddest sequence of events in Agatha Christie's long life occurred in December 1926. For ten days she went missing, eventually being discovered in a hotel in Yorkshire, suffering (so it was claimed) from amnesia. To this day, no-one has been able to determine conclusively whether this peculiar incident was the result of a genuine case of mental impairment, an elaborate publicity stunt, or even a way to get back at her cheating husband. In any case, the famously private Christie refused to say.
Needless to say, this interesting little sidebar in life of one of the world's most famous authors has been the subject of films and books for some years before now, so how does Doctor Who's take on the events of 1926 match up to other accounts of the story, like 2004's Agatha Christie: A Life In Pictures?
Well, not too badly as it turns out. This episode isn't without it's problems, however, so naturally I'm going to concentrate on those.
The first thing you might notice is that although The Lion and the Unicorn has to take place in December to accurately tie in with the events of Christie's disappearance, the episode prominently features blue skies, bright sunshine and various partygoers congregating outdoors with nary a piece of warm clothing in sight, and you can feel your viewer credibility beginning to stretch. But I suppose you have to accept this kind of thing is unavoidable when dealing with the realities of a production schedule which requires Christmas episodes to be shot in the heart of summer, so in this instance it's forgivable.
The other bugbear is slightly more troubling - a nagging feeling that we've seen it all before. Admittedly, originality shouldn't be an issue when dealing with pastiche, which relies on the viewer's familiarity with the tropes of a given genre. But this episode not only cannibalises other Christie adaptations but also Doctor Who itself, to a worrying degree. It was actually possible to sit there ticking off the moments that are direct lifts from earlier episodes - e.g. Doctor chastising companion for putting on a silly accent (Tooth and Claw), Doctor plays charades with companion while wrestling with his biology (The Christmas Invasion), etc etc. We even get a scene where this season's Genuine Historical FigureTM expresses doubt that their work will be remembered in the future, which echoes similar dialogue with Dickens in The Unquiet Dead. It really does feel like the series is starting to chew on it's own tail. Perhaps it's just a sign that this particular production team is coming to the end of it's creative usefulness, so it's probably just as well that the big changeover is coming up.
The story also suffers from another malaise of recent episodes, which is having to include a monster to hang the plot on, when the story would work just as well without one. Why not just tell a period murder mystery and make the Doctor the sole fantastical element? Do they think the younger members of audience will get bored if they don't see an alien within the first five minutes? It seems like Davies and his writers have fallen into the trap of thinking that you have to incorporate a convoluted sci-fi explanation for everything, just because it's Doctor Who. I wonder, did Gareth Roberts get his first draft script returned with "It's good, but could you include a giant space wasp at some point?" scribbled in the margin? I wouldn't doubt it.
Why would the alien need to copy Christie's thought processes anyway, when all the characters already appear to be inhabiting a world straight out her books?
God, now I've written most of it this whole review just seems ridiculously negative, when really I quite enjoyed the episode, at least until the last ten minutes. The guest cast all put in good turns, and Fenella Woolgar has a lovely big face. Remarkably Tennant doesn't seem to be showing any signs of fatigue yet, despite what must be an extremely demanding (not to mention exhausting) role. The dialogue manages to be sharp and witty for the most part, apart the more obviously clunking references ("Murder? On the Orient Express?" ARGHHH!). And the flashbacks are actually funny.
That bit with the buzzing vicar is really, really silly, though.