...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day 2694: DOCTOR WHO: The Unicorn and the Wasp


The moving FLUFFY FOOT writes, and having writ moves on…

I say whodunit is DADDY RICHARD with the DOCTOR WHO REVIEW on the JUBILEE LINE!

Here's the Evidence
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As charming, whimsical and entirely flyaway as one of Lady Eddison's picnics on the summer lawn, this was an absolutely topping way to while away a warm summer's evening*.

One part pitch-perfect period costume-drama with sparkling cast and sumptuous setting; one part rollicking Doctor Who monster chase, and what a monster; one part laugh-out-loud black comedy… one thing that it wasn't, of course, was an Agatha Christie mystery.

Despite the "whodunit" element – or rather, "who's the giant wasp wot we know wot dunnit" element – there are none of the true Agatha Christie motifs here. In a typical Christie mystery, the first fun is to spot the victim: this is easy, of course, because they'll be going out of their way to make certain that you think they deserve to get done in. At the same time this sets up all and sundry as potential killers. In particular – and especially if it's a Poirot tale – there'll be a young couple in love (possibly secretly), one or both of whom will be suspected of the deed. And a young woman who's no better than she ought to be who actually did it. Everyone will have an alibi and the police, no brighter than their buttons, will arrive and "hilariously" get it all hopelessly wrong.

(Christie was also notorious for overlooking almost entirely the "below stairs" classes – goodness, the servants could never have a motive for offing their betters or the Empire would crumble! – a habit that was, of course, gently parodied in "Gosford Park". It does make it a little odd when "The Unicorn and the Wasp" ventures down into the kitchen as though it wants to nod to "Gosford Park" but hasn't quite got the point. On the other hand, this does allow us the sweet introduction of a gay agenda/Lady Chatterley crossover moment, which obviously Donna spotted in an instant, and the outrageously funny "Ginger Beer" moment. Doctor Who in-joke and rhyming slang all in one.)

Here, there are no confusing "red herrings" (in fact, no one is presented as having a motive for the murders) and no "impossible alibis"; the police never arrive and the young lady who's no better than she ought to be turns out to be guilty of an entirely different crime.

Actually, I don't want to be unkind, but might not the title better have been: "The Wasp… oh and there's a Unicorn in here too… a bit". Ms Robbina Redmond was rather woefully underused, which was a great shame as she was charming fun as both flapper it-girl and unconvincing "cock-er-ney" burglar-ette.

I will endorse the suggestion, already seen on the OG forums, that she be the companion for series thirty-one in 2010. In fact, Ben Aaronovitch has already written her (re-)introductory scene. It's the one where she slips away from the party at a country house, tiptoes upstairs to the master bedroom, deftly springs open the safe… and finds the Doctor sat inside saying: "so, what kept you?"

But what, actually, was she for here? And why was she seen loading her pistol in the flashback – she's a cat-burglar not a highwayman! The problem is that her story – a cunning, stunning theft of the Firestone jewel – simply doesn't have room to fit in alongside the Cluedo murders that are going on.

Yes, sorry, I've given the game away haven't I: this isn't Christie, it's Cluedo – or for the American reader "Clue". In the podcast commentary, writer wit and raconteur Gareth Roberts admits to having been ever so jealous of Russell Davies getting the gig of writing an episode of the TV series based on the board game. So we get Professor Plum Peach with the lead piping in the Library; Miss Scarlet Redmond with the revolver in the bathroom; the Reverend Green Golightly with the Giant Wasp's sting in the… no, that one doesn't work.

In fairness, Christie would occasionally draw a great big old deus-ex-machina out of the hat in the form of facts suddenly know to the detective that the reader has been denied ("Evil under the Sun", for example, has Poirot know of a previous case just like this one). So the sudden: "ah ha, it's whoever is forty" leap is not completely without precedent.

Even so, it is slightly to miss the point that Christie's detectives – Poirot and Marple both – would solve the case psychologically and not reductively, whether by supreme intellect or insight gained from a lifetime of observing village life.

We almost get to that point here, when the Doctor realises that they need Agatha's genius for understanding motive. Unfortunately, the motive turns out to be that the alien wasp has been basically driven a bit bonkers by uploading Dame Agatha's own novels.

(Ironically, the villain being villainous because they are "just mad" is something that Gareth himself has railed against in the past when he praised the work of former Doctor Who producer Graham Williams for… giving villains proper motives.)

This isn't Christie, but then neither are two of Doctor Who's other "Christie" stories: "The Robots of Death" (the one where all the butlers did it) and "Black Orchid" (the one where the butler gets done).

Ironically, the most successful pastiche is Pip and Jane Baker's "Terror of the Vervoids". "Successful" is a relative term of course, but what success it has is by having the Doctor Who monster plot no more than tangentially connected to the whodunit… the monstrous Vervoids are, technically, the motive rather than the murderer.

Quite simply, the two genres just don't mix here. This Doctor Who is about pace and energy (yes, that is Graeme Harper behind the camera again, fantastic as always) and "a serious amount of running"; Poirot would never run anywhere ever, and the detective story is all about the slow build up of plot and the slow unlayering of character. That's why chasing and being chased by a giant wasp – brilliantly realised though it is – feels jarring. It's a sudden intrusion of the wrong kind of story: we're expecting a clue in the locked bedroom, not the villain waving a big sign that reads "it was ME!" and saying "BUZZ!!!!!".

In Doctor Who we're trained by the economy of the show's format to believe that everything that is said is both important and true; in a detective story we believe everything we hear to be either chaff or deception – again, the commentary remarks upon this dialectic. They also point out the revealing irony that in the "flashbacks" sequence, it is only the Reverend whose words match the images we see of what he was actually doing.

But then I'm missing the point myself, because this was a comedy drama, not a serious attempt at homage at all. In that context, it's entirely right that Agatha Christie should be reduced to the popular stereotypes: body in library; sinister butler; everyone gathered round at the end as the detective ticks off who did and didn't do it. They're all lightly mocked along the way, particularly in that fabulous "flashback" scene, and also in the almost Clouseau-esque "I have gathered you all here" scene, which Donna is watching like it's live television before ending up suspecting everyone including herself.

Casting was a treat. Obviously a joy for all Doctor Who fans to descry once more the lugubrious liniments of Christopher Benjamin, on fine form as the loveable Colonel; even more loveable in fact when his deception was blown by an own-goal, and his motive turned out to be the desire to keep the woman he loved. And marvellous to see isn't-she-a-dame-yet Facility Kendal indulging some little comic moments into the otherwise flawless jewel that was Lady Eddison.

But the greatest kudos has to go to Fenella Woolgar for creating a sympathetic and believable Agatha Christie. She managed to be smart but with an air of sadness, a woman just about holding it together in the face of discovering her husband's infidelity and a mind-bending plunge into the Doctor's world of alien insect craziness at the same time, but with a wistful regret that her own opinion of her writing was "competent" rather than "great".

I don't know whether it was whimsical fun or insane self-indulgence to turn large chunks of the script over to name-checking great swathes of Christie titles. There is, I suppose, a kind of aptness to making a crossword puzzle out of a story about the lady who many say turned the detective novel into one. It certainly left the dialogue even more imponderably unsayable than ever, with David and Fenella given the lions' share of trying to make the likes of "The Moving Finger", "Sparkling Cyanide" or "our Secret Enemy" sound naturalistic. Even Ms Kendal struggled with "…he was taken at the flood".

One particular personal niggle, though: Agatha Christie, of all people, would know that "Nemesis" is not used to refer to the murderer – Nemesis, being the Greek goddess of divine retribution, while hardly a "nice" person is definitely on the side of right: Holmes is Moriarty's nemesis; the reverse is not the case; likewise it is the Doctor who is nemesis to the Master, and not the other way around. Our modern usage of "nemesis" as a synonym for "arch-enemy" would have been as alien to her as a giant wasp. Nemesis is personified in the Christie canon as Miss Marple; and the book "Nemesis" is – confusingly to a modern reader – not about Miss Marple's arch-enemy, but about the spinster sleuth's implacable pursuit of a crime.

It was, perhaps, a little bit trite to explain away a real-life mystery of Agatha Christie's life as a Doctor Who yarn. We turned over to BBC4 later in the evening to watch their more serious-minded covering of the same topic, which, apart from having the same registration number for Mrs Christie's car, appeared to be written from a completely different set of research notes. Though, coincidentally, it had a very odd (though completely successful) narrative structure of flashbacks within flashbacks.

There's no reason why you can't do a Doctor Who whodunit, though. See "The Also People", for example, an admittedly much more languid novel written by that Ben Aaronovitch again.

But to do the subject justice, you need a more complicated story (one where, perhaps, it is the Unicorn's dazzling theft of the Firestone that is the trigger for subsequent Vespiform-related events) with more convoluted characters, and more time devoted to understanding them and their contradictions, and less to Doctor Who set pieces like running up and down corridors or getting poisoned (entirely excellent though both of those were). What, in fact, you want is to have done this as one of the 2009 specials, where the extra time would give you room to do all that.

What we ended up with, then, was fairy cake and cocktails in the garden, rather than the five-course dinner with port and cheese to follow. Delicious, memorable, charming, but not quite as filling.

Next time… Shush: "Silence in the Library"

And, fortunately for the ratings, an even BETTER one to while away the rain and the cold.


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I thought Nemesis was a cloven hoofed alien wizard?

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr James - for 'Terror Tube', please see photo at top! MM x