Sunday, May 18, 2008

Doctor Who - The Unicorn and the Wasp

After last week's promising episode which turned out to be somewhat light on plot, this week we get something that is so full of plot it's positively groaning at the seams.

Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed 'The Unicorn and the Wasp'. Yes, it's lighthearted, yes it has too many characters, yes it reads more like a story from a Doctor Who Annual, yes it should probably have had two parts ... but the breadth and scope work well, and the plot unfolds neatly, with pretty much all the loose ends tied up, albeit at a tearing pace.

The TARDIS arrives at a country house in the year 1926. Professor Peach arrives and heads for the library where he discovers something in some papers and is promptly killed by a giant wasp with a lead pipe ...

This sets the scene for the tale which unfolds. Full of allusions to Agatha Christie's own writing, the titles of which litter the dialogue. This opening is from the game Cluedo (called Clue in the USA) of course, but the sheer fun of having a professor killed in a library with lead piping by a giant wasp (how *did* it hold the piping anyway?) just seems right in context.

Our suspects arrive: There's Lady Eddison, a woman with a hidden secret; Colonel Hugh Curbishly, her husband; Roger Curbishly, her son; society beauty Robina Redmond; and the Reverend Arnold Golightly. Then there's the staff: Miss Chandrakala is Lady Eddison's constant companion and maid; Davenport is a servant boy who is enjoying a secret relationship with Roger; there's Greeves the butler ... even Mrs Hart the cook might be a suspect ... and of course Agatha Christie herself, on the very day of her disappearance for 10 days in 1926. This would place the date as being 10 December 1926, however the weather is anything but! According to internet sources, the maximum temperature in Oxford in December 1926 was 6.9 degrees C - hardly the weather we saw.

I'm not going to go through the plot here for once, as it is so complex and convoluted that I would end up just retelling it with little space for comment. All of the characters have secrets, and as the story unfolds they are each revealed. I liked the way that the flashbacks were handled, with the on-screen image showing the 'truth' as the person narrated their version of events. For once, the music was excellently handled. Not intrusive or wrong, but subtle and perfectly in tune with the period and the action.

I was very puzzled as to why 'The Unicorn' was called that ... there seemed to be nothing about the thief that suggested this moniker. But this is about the only thing that didn't make sense. All the secrets meshed together and the revelations were spoilt only by Catherine Tate's Donna being just obnoxious with interjections and statements which were meant to be funny (I assume) but which just came over as crass. There was a repeat of the Doctor telling Donna not to talk in the posh voice (as the Doctor told Rose not to try speaking in a Scots accent in 'Tooth & Claw') more of the Doctor and Donna denying being partners, more Doctor and companion snogging action - and there is no way that Donna would kiss him, even to shock him ... this whole poisoning scene was just a step too far into silly, with Donna clowning and talking rubbish while the Doctor was to all intents and purposes dying in front of her. There was a level of gravitas missing here I felt, and I was reminded more of an Abrahams/Zucker film (aka Airplane or The Naked Gun) than of something which was meant to be a little scary.

The villain of the piece is revealed as ... well maybe I should leave some secrets. But it's an alien vespiform from hives in the silfrax galaxy and looks like a giant wasp. The CGI is quite impressive and the creature looks real and effective on screen, even if it's not possible to just shine sunlight through a magnifying glass to burn something - you have to focus it, and it needs to be fairly close to the lens to work.

Even the revelation that a human/vespiform relationship can result in a baby which turns into a wasp when it gets angry sort of works ... I think you really have to leave your disbelief at the door with this one. Strange and daft though it all sounds, the show rattles through at such a rate that you tend not to notice the somewhat ludicrous elements.

Amongst all the fun and games, there are a surprising number of Christie's own book titles scattered throughout. It's a shame in a way that Doctor Who Confidential gave a large number of them away, but I managed to find three which they didn't list. If I remember, when the season is ended, I'll pop them all in another post so as not to spoil the fun for anyone trying to spot them. There's a handy checklist list of titles online at, a URL which amused me as well!

Next week we're at the biggest library ever (hopefully with no lead piping) with a spooky kid, spacemen, infected darkness and a warning to stay out of the shadows ... Steven Moffat's back ... and it's hopefully going to be terrifying.


Anonymous said...

I didn't see this episode,so I
can't comment. But with regards to
Moffat, did you know he is replacing
Russell T. Davies as showrunner
in 2010?
See today's Guardian Media:

I'm quite pleased-I loved Press
Gang and Jekyll and all Moffat's
"Who" episodes.

David said...

Yes I saw that today. Good news.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, I must congraulate Steven Moffat for becoming the big chesse for "WHO". Hopefully plots will be tighter and a new broom will sweep away the self-indulgence that afflicts the show at present.

I think that to consolidate the show's popularity it needs a new voice with new ideas; for example do we really need a Dalek's story every year ? Do we need a creaking deux es machina plot resolution for each end of series story?

Secondly, I must thank RTD; he has made a monumental comtribution to the history of the series in his role in regenerating the alien in the box into a modern critical & popular success. If at times I have been dismayed by his scripts: the series openers / closers in particular, Credit is due to him. I just feel the immense strain of the job has drained him of ideas for "Who" & his editorial judgement has suffered. The gap year year will allow Moffat and crew to really a get a grip of the scripts so that we needn't endure the likes of "The Long Game", "The Idiot's Lantern, "Partners in Crime", "Fear Her" or the recent Sontaran muddle.

I do worry that that Beeb's losing confidence in the show's appeal. Note: the DVD release policy -dog's like Arc/Timeflight" & "Timelash" mixed with the expensive limited edition "Key to Time" / Davros boxsets.
Yes, milk the poor old cow before she keels over seems their strategy.

One possible shadow on the horizon is the possilbility of David leaving the show but hopefully if this occurs they will secure the services of an actor who loves the show & is a top notch performer .... like DT!

Please don't let us endure the humillation of casting an actor who will be running for the exit after a few shows as the Ninth did; sorry Chris ... but it was!

I really enjoyed "The Unicorn & the Wasp" despite is pantoesque pastiche of the country house whodunnit.

It was fun & will probably be the lightest & least grim show of the remainder of the series. A series that has been very dissapointing so far.