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New Who 4.7, The Unicorn and the Wasp

I do see that this episode was cool and clever and funny, and doing some interesting things, I really do. It was definitely better than the last two, and probably the last three in fact - in other words, somewhere in the same territory as Planet of the Ood, quality-wise. But I was also disappointed by it at the same time.

Maybe it was partly the fact that it was pre-publicised as the first Doctor Who episode to be explicitly produced as a comedy since 1966. Yes, the script was humorous, and certainly the story as a whole has to be understood as light-hearted and surreal. This isn't meant to be a visit to the 'real' 1920s, any more than any of Agatha Christie's novels ever were - rather, it's a pastiche of a literary fantasy-world (or, really, TV adaptations of that literary fantasy-world), as Donna's comments about Charles Dickens and Enid Blyton make explicitly clear. But having a surreal setting is not quite the same thing as being a comedy, and for pure laugh-out-loud value, I don't think it entirely lived up to its publicity. In my book, for instance, it wasn't anything like as funny as Time Crash: and I know that's a rather different thing, since Time Crash only had to sustain its comedy for seven minutes, and didn't really need to worry about a plot. But even so I don't think that The Unicorn and The Wasp had as many really hilarious moments spread through its entire 45 minutes as Time Crash did in its seven.

Both the pacing and the plot felt 'off' to me at times, too. To deal with pacing first, ITV's Poirot usually has one main mystery to solve in the same time-slot, though even he often gets twice as long (i.e. a two-parter), and Miss Marple regularly does. But this story had to deal with three in 45 minutes (the identity of the Unicorn, the identity of the Wasp and the reason for Agatha Christie's disappearance), and as a result it lost a lot of the atmospheric scene-setting that makes most TV adaptations of Christie's works so enjoyable. Instead, we jumped rudely from on scene to another - for example, kitchen poisoning scene --> brief lightning flash --> everyone sitting down to dinner. Evidently, during those few seconds, the register was supposed to have switched from high comedy to gloomy foreboding and tension - but it was just too fast to work, and I think the impact of both scenes was weakened as a result.

And then there was the 'resolution in the library' scene - the traditional moment where the sleuth of the hour gathers everyone together to unveil the identity of the true murderer. Don't get me wrong - it was great fun, and I absolutely loved Donna munching contentedly on her grapes and playing the TV-viewer's usual role of going 'so it was her, then?' as the scene went along (especially when the 'moving finger' pointed directly at her, pulling her suddenly and rudely back into the story as an active participant). But if you're going to present a genre pastiche, with its character stereotypes and its stock scenes and devices, you really have to respect the structure you're working with - and here the resolution scene just came too early to feel 'right'. I'm not sure what could have been done about that, given the plot distance which still had to be covered after it, but I'm just saying that it sat awkwardly with me.

And I haven't even got on to the plot yet! I'm not going to complain about it being clichéd and silly, because obviously that was the point. It's what you're going to get when you insert a giant alien wasp into an Agatha Christie murder-mystery. But there were some individual elements in it that definitely stretched my ability to suspend my disbelief. Like the rather baffling business about the Colonel having elected to stay in a wheelchair for decades in order to stop his wife from straying - just, what? And why Professor Each-Peach-Pear-Plum would say to his assailant, 'Oh, it's you - I was just doing a little bit of research' just before he was killed, when he'd only just told Reverend Golightly (whom we later find to have been the murderer) that he was going to the library to do some work anyway. I also didn't like the way that the business with the Vespiform's telepathic recorder 'letting go' of Agatha Christie at the end was conveyed via the same sort of breathless plot exposition from the Doctor which had annoyed me last week. This time it was so blatant that it felt like the Doctor Who spoof in the last episode of Extras - and that is a baaaddd sign.

So that was 700 words of negativity, and now I feel like a miserable old git with no sense of humour... Like I said above, it's not that I didn't enjoy it - it's just that there are a lot of ways in which I think it could have been so much better. Anyway, let's try turning the tables, shall we, and picking out some of the things I actually liked in it - or at least the things I thought were interesting and / or clever.

Fundamentally, a light-hearted take on the 1920s murder mystery, with appropriate costumes, setting and characters, is bound to be pretty chuffing decent. Like Donna said early on - 'A party in the 1920s? Now that's more like it!' For the most part, the pastiche was spot on, from the vicar on his bicycle to the wibbly flash-back sequences, and everyone involved in the production got a great deal out of the material. And I enjoyed the knowing use of cross-references, too. Obviously, there were the clever insertions of titles from Christie's novels, which pickwick has very nicely compiled, while in a way the use of the pastiche approach was also reinforced by the presence of Christopher Benjamin playing the Colonel, since his most famous previous Who appearance is in The Talons of Weng-Chiang - a story which plays in very similar fashion on an established literary / televisual genre (although it doesn't focus so directly on the works of one author, and nor does it feature that author directly as a character). On top of that, traditional British comedy is recalled by at least three uses of the phrase 'Carry On' (though I'm uncertain as to why, since the style of comedy used here was very very different), and of course the Reverend Golightly turns out to be something other than he seems, if we take into account film's most famous character with the same surname. (Actually, arguably the same is true of every character in the episode, and the 'Golightly' reference really suits Robina Redmond's character best of all - but the Reverend does have the biggest secret to hide).

Meanwhile, the most interesting aspect of all to me was the sheer quantity of references to Who continuity, and specifically New Who continuity. We got:That stands out to me as by far the heaviest collection of references to its own previous productions that I've seen so far in New Who (though isolated refs have been cropping up a fair bit in the current season), and I think there are a number of absolutely fascinating things going on here. For one thing, doing this in an episode which also trots out a voluminous collection of references to Agatha Christie novels can't help but invite parallels between the two, and all the more so since the episode explicitly goes into the issue of whether her novels were actually great works of literature or not. Is that New Who's comment on its own productions, then? That audiences may disagree over whether they are quality television or just mass entertainment, and the producers may not know at the moment how they're going to be remembered - but ultimately they believe they are going to be vindicated by how long they'll last and the sheer numbers of people who watch them?

Secondly, for the first time ever we're presented with the idea that the Doctor literally carries his continuity around with him, in big wooden trunks stored underneath the TARDIS floor. Now that's a nice metaphor, because of course what it means is that new Who is standing directly on foundations made out of its previous stories (and, if we want to extend the Cybermen reference, the Classic stories too). On the whole, that's absolutely right, and exactly what Doctor Who has always had to do, ever since the end of the first season. So it's nice to see the new series acknowledging it directly. But that very phenomenon is a weakness as well as a strength, and the image can be read in a more negative light, too. I know it probably doesn't matter to the TARDIS how much stuff it's got inside it, either in terms of weight or volume. But in more human terms, it's hard not to interpret all those wooden trunks being perpetually carted around the Universe as Baggage. So I think what we have here is a direct representation of that continuity as both a solid foundation and a potential dead weight at the same time. For the moment, it's fun to see the new series addressing that and playing around with it. But it's also a way of saying, 'Hey - these past episodes are good fun to tip our hats to at the moment, but the more of them we have to keep track of, the harder it's going to get' - especially since slavish reverence for continuity is one of the explicit criticisms made of the John Nathan-Turner era of the Classic series. On the whole, though, I think that a series which is apparently as self-conscious about the issue as this episode suggests should be fine for the time being at least.

And thirdly, the references to new Who episodes in this story made an interesting contrast with The Fires of Pompeii, where all the continuity references were to Classic Who instead. This probably just comes down to the preferences and interests of the writers, really, but that's never a good reason for not reading much more into it if you want to. My interpretation is that it signals the difference between a story about 'real' history (Pompeii - if you overlook the fact that half the characters are taken from the Cambridge Latin Course) and one about literary history (Agatha Christie). From that perspective, we could say that new Who sees Classic episodes as historical artefacts - things which are done and dusted; relics of the past which no longer need to be thought about in terms of the process of their creation, but just are. Meanwhile, it sees its own episodes as works of literature - creative products of the imagination, involving an authorial process which it is (naturally) far more aware of. Whether that's a good thing or not, I couldn't say - but it's fun to think about, anyway.

So, maybe not my favourite episode of the season so far, but it's certainly given me a lot to write about, hasn't it? ;-) As for previous weeks, I shall finish up by mulling over the clues it may have included for future episodes:

1. Two of the series' running references showed up - the Doctor and Donna being mistaken for a married couple, and Donna's comment that 'they still have bees in the 1920s' when she first hears the buzzing of what actually turns out to be the wasp. I have no idea what, if anything, is going to come out of either of these - but they aren't half being pushed hard, aren't they?
2. It's not really a clue, because we already know the setting for the next episode, but I'd just like to note that the motif of a murder in a library makes a nice link to the next story.
3. Telepathy. This is something I noticed being foregrounded quite heavily in The Planet of the Ood and The Fires of Pompeii, while of course in the interim, a character has been created whom we know the Doctor could communicate with telepathically if he needs to, viz. his daughter. Here, it came up again in the form of the Firestone - which of course is also, much like the fob watch in Human Nature etc., a potential way for the memories and personalities of dead Time Lords to be resurrected. If you link that aspect of the Firestone with the recording of a) Martha's memories by the Sontarans to transfer to her clone and b) the recording of a generic soldier personality by the replication machines on Messaline in The Doctor's Daughter, you've got a potentially rather interesting little theme building up. I'm just sayin', is all.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 18th, 2008 07:50 pm (UTC)
I like your icon more than I liked the episode.
May. 18th, 2008 07:55 pm (UTC)
Hehe - bless!
May. 18th, 2008 08:07 pm (UTC)
i liked but i agree with you about some of the problems. that bit with the grapes was funny, and i did laugh in places just didn't find it hilarious.
May. 18th, 2008 08:37 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm glad it's not just me.
May. 18th, 2008 09:04 pm (UTC)
I have just watched the repeat on BBC3 and loved it apart from the silly poisoning part and the Gay Agenda, yawn.

But I hadn't the faintest idea it had been billed as out-and-out comedy! If I'd known that I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it half as much.
May. 18th, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I really wish I hadn't heard that myself. Sure, the episode was funny, but so is a lot of Who, old and new. From the publicity, I was expecting something on a different scale, and I really think that stopped me just enjoying the episode for what it was. :-(
May. 18th, 2008 09:19 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I didn't know that either, and would probably have gone into it fearing the worst if I had. And if I'd gone into it in an easily irritated frame of mind, I wouldn't have liked it at all.
May. 18th, 2008 09:38 pm (UTC)
Gah! I have been ruined! Ruined, I tell you!!! :-(
May. 18th, 2008 09:19 pm (UTC)
Yes, I agree - I thought it was enjoyably silly, but I was looking at it as murder mystery crossover crackfic rather than something that was intended to be actual comedy.
May. 18th, 2008 09:39 pm (UTC)
Damn. I'm sure it would have looked a lot better from that angle...
May. 18th, 2008 10:08 pm (UTC)
I think I disagree with your general view. I really didn't enjoy the episode much at all. not sure I can say exactly why but I think roughly that I just was left kind of wondering what the point was at the end of it all.

I hadn't heard it was comedy but did notice that they were obviously going fo that. However it didn't work for me. Due to personal preferences perhaps. It was a bit more farcelike for my liking, bought a smile to my face at times (particularly the wild guesses in the kitchen in the post-poisoning scene) but in general it just didn't feel right. I guess possibly because doctor who hasn't tried to be a comedy for over 40 years and maybe therefore I expect it to be more "real"... It just felt to me to be a weak story that was a little disjointed.

I think I do appreciate it more after reading some of your comments on things I'd missed (and the fact it was deliberately going to comedy explains the style rather than it just being some random weird writing).
May. 19th, 2008 08:34 am (UTC)
No, I didn't really enjoy it much either myself. Intellectually, I can see that it was clever, and indeed funny. But as for pure emotional yays - not so much.
May. 18th, 2008 10:38 pm (UTC)
I found it ammusing in places, not brillant, but again - not a stinker. The flash back momments where funny.
May. 19th, 2008 08:35 am (UTC)
Yes - I liked the double-flashback for the Colonel, and also the bit where the Doctor had to remind Lady Eddison that she didn't need to narrate the dialogue he'd actually been there for in fine detail. :-)
May. 19th, 2008 07:08 am (UTC)
It had me tittering away. Not hilarious, but certainly very funny in places :-)

BTW- have you ever thought of becoming a reviewer for Dr Who Magazine? A review like this is far better than the stuff they print.
May. 19th, 2008 08:41 am (UTC)
Aw, bless - that's a very flattering thing to say! But honestly, I think there are a lot more people out there on 'tinterweb writing much better reviews than me. And I also presume that the writers for Doctor Who magazine actually don't have as much freedom as random bloggers to say what they really think, given that it's an official BBC-sanctioned publication. I don't think I would fancy that.
May. 19th, 2008 03:13 pm (UTC)
Gareth Roberts started off life as a fanfic author. Regrettably, it shows.

- K
May. 19th, 2008 03:16 pm (UTC)
Ha! Yes, that certainly makes a lot of sense...
May. 19th, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC)
Clever but superficial, then? I'd go with that. I enjoyed it at the time, but now feel oddly uncomfortable for doing so (and how many things can you say that about). Curiously when you made your reference to the filmic resonances of the name Golightly I instantly thought not of Audrey Hepburn but of Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg lasciviously lisping, 'Oh, it ain't goin' in that end, Mr Golightly'. And, I have to say, speaking from a position of some knowledge, some clergymen still do ride bicycles. Classic three-speeds, even.
May. 19th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)
Clever but superficial, then?

Aye, that's exactly it.
Jun. 17th, 2008 01:19 am (UTC)
We've just got up to this in our Who watching, Stateside. Unlike you, I thoroughly enjoyed it--probably because being in the States we weren't hammered with pre-publicity about it being a comedy (I can't see how it was greatly different from any of the lighter Who episodes).

It's also because I adore Agatha Christie (due to a huge amount of train-travelling up until I grew out of the young person's railcard). The previous comment calls it 'clever but superficial' which more or less sums up her stories. It wasn't as devious as an Agatha Christie book, but then I assumed it wouldn't be--I'm more familiar with her books than with the TV adaptations, so the pacing didn't bother me. Predictable, yes... but in a way I appreciated.

Perhaps what disappointed me most was the characterisation of Agatha herself. I would have much preferred something more like her own Ariadne Oliver character--so sick and tired of everybody always referring to her books. Still, this was early Agatha. Perhaps she wasn't fed up of Poirot yet.

The gay agenda bit (also mentioned in the comments) didn't bother me. It was extraneous, but I quite liked the way it was kept to Doctor and Donna commentary, rather than the other characters blindly accepting it (the way nobody ever batted an eyelid over Martha being black, barring one rude comment from somebody who died five minutes later).

What I didn't like was the rather lackadaisical solution to Dame Agatha's disappearance. There was no reason for the Doctor to take her 10 days into the future, other than blindly repeating history, which (I think?) is not something he typically does. I half-expected him to take her for a trip around the universe (globe-trotting Agatha would have loved that, I'm sure). Obviously, there's never a reason for somebody with a time machine to return somebody 10 days to the future instead of when they left, but the doctor does have a history of being off in his dates. I would just have liked something a little more solid than "Because that's what happened".

Anyway, I think it could certainly have been better, but it was fun as it was, and I loved it. OK, some of the titles were forced, but it was fun to listen out for them. If you're not a particular fan of Christie, the episode instantly loses some of its appeal, but my husband seemed to enjoy it more than many of the recent episodes.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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