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May 24, 2008

Dead funny

Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Agatha

Despite an otherwise tediously forensic examination of its every epigrammatic cough and spit, the one thing my English teacher neglected to mention when we read The Importance of Being Earnest at school was that it was meant to be a colossal piss-take. I think I might have enjoyed it a lot more if he’d let me in on that one.

No such worries about this week’s Doctor Who, though: Even a schoolboy as slow on the uptake as I was couldn’t have failed to notice The Unicorn and the Wasp was such a reverential parody of the works of Agatha Christie – and the country house murder mystery in general – it was in danger of meeting itself on the way out of the billiard room with the candelabra.

Being Doctor Who, of course, it went one further and made the loving element of homage the fulcrum on which the entire plot revolved – and even found time to chuck in a bit of meta-textural fluff about the show’s own blending of fact and fiction. (In fact, there are probably all sorts of tedious quasi-academic treatise to be written about the viewers’ complicity in this particular TV parlour game, so if you see anyone acting suspiciously in the vicinity of terms like fourth wall, post-structuralism or, indeed, meta-textural, you are advised to alert the appropriate authorities.)

In many ways, Gareth Roberts was on easy street here – chucking in a grab-bag of familiar tropes from even the sketchiest Christie primer was exactly what the project demanded and, ultimately, what gifted the episode so much of its charm. And, far from being mere window dressing, it’s the period trappings that prove crucial: Imagine, for a moment, that Pip and Jane Baker hadn’t been such ham-fisted hacks and had turned in a reasonable murder mystery pastiche for Terror of the Vervoids (I know, I know, but try); the fact it was set aboard a white plastic spaceship filled with people in casual 80s sportswear would still have damned it to being on the back foot when trying to present a satisfying whodunnit. But give us gramophones, sun-dappled lawns, mahogany trim and a pink gin and we’re up for anything, what what?

Ultimately, though, comedy episodes stand or fall by one criteria – was it funny? And The Unicorn and the Wasp was an absolute hoot. I watched it in extremely mixed company, ranging from casual fans to several Americans who had never seen the show before (“Which one’s Doctor Who?”) to the bloke who played the sax on Howard Jones’ Like To Get To Know You Well (don’t ask), and everyone laughed in all the right places the whole way through.

Tennant simply excels at this sort of light comedy, bounding from parlour to dining room to library dropping bon mots like cake crumbs and devouring Roberts’ witty wordplay with the relish of a Trappist monk who’s just been given leave to tell a particularly filthy joke.

It was obvious from the get-go that this was a script custom-built for David Tennant, and it’s impossible to imagine any other Doctor having quite the chutzpah to carry it off. Tennant simply excels at this sort of light comedy, bounding from parlour to dining room to library dropping bon mots like cake crumbs and devouring Roberts’ witty wordplay with the relish of a Trappist monk who’s just been given leave to tell a particularly filthy joke.

The poison sequence, in particular, must be a contender for the funniest scene in Doctor Who’s 45-year history, Tennant’s blustery exasperation (“Harvey Wallbanger?!?”) matched tic-for-tic by Catherine Tate’s boneyard dry sarcasm (“Oh, too much salt”). Tate’s Donna was also particularly suited to her role as the sleuthing Doctor’s plucky gel assistant, moving easily between girlish enthusiasm and a sort of withering Greek chorus (“Professor Peach. In the library. With the lead piping.”). She still can’t run in heels, though.

Elsewhere, the story’s parade of familiar archetypes were well served by a strong cast, including national treasure Felicity Kendal and fan treasure Christopher Benjamin. It was a shame the ensemble nature of the piece reduced most of the talent to little more than glorified cameos, but it was entirely appropriate that the one performer who really got a chance to shine was Fenella Woolgar as Christie herself. Previous sleb historicals have opted for a familiar name in the pivotal role, and the temptation to indulge in a spot of stunt casting (in an alternate dimension, there’s an issue of DWM with the quote “Tamzin Outhwaite is the busiest woman in Britain, so we were thrilled when she said yes!”) must have been strong, but Woolgar was just perfect; if anything, her chemistry with Tennant was even stronger than Tate’s – the scene in which she admonished him for enjoying himself too much was delightfully played by both actors, and I loved the mock reproach in her declaration: “Doctor, you are impossible.”

Wasp_attackIf you’re looking for the one major element that let The Unicorn and the Wasp down, the clue’s in the title – and it has nothing to do with jewel thieves or horny horses. There’s a certain stripe of Who fan, of which I count myself one, who would love to see the producers have the cojones to go monster-free occasionally but, hey, I’ve read the memo on keeping those damned kids’ happy, so I understand why this perfectly enjoyable time travel caper had to have a ruddy great Hymenoptera plonked in the middle of it. It’s just a pity the Vespiform couldn’t have taken the guise of something a bit more organically linked to the setting – a giant Victoria sponge, perhaps? Okay, maybe not. (The transformation effect, incidentally, was a spectacularly cheap affair – ask the actor to say “zzzzzz” while shining some coloured lights on him. But if you care about that sort of thing, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.)

There were other irritations: It wasn’t just the Doctor who was breezily cavalier about death (witness how quickly Lady Woolgar appeared to get over the death of her own son) but I guess, from Christie to Cleudo to Midsomer Murders, the genre has always worn its tragedies somewhat lightly. The sci-fi elements of the plot – alien wasp man absorbs works of Agatha Christie through a necklace, or some such bollocks – were also even flimsier than usual (and that's saying something). But what the heck. It might be ironic that, in a tribute to the first lady of plotting, the plot itself barely had time to simmer, let alone thicken, but with so many other giddy distractions on offer, it would be churlish to grumble too much. As a gay old treat to be enjoyed over a Mint Julep on an early summer’s evening, this was the cat’s pyjamas.

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