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May 27, 2008

Murder Most Funny

And while everyone else is using the hiatus to talk about music, I'm using it to lazily delay my review of last week's episode.

Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Christiebook Probably the most exciting thing about Doctor Who is its capacity to be absolutely anything each week. We can go from a morality play on an ice planet, to an invasion by alien thugs being stopped by military thugs, to an impromptu war between two different ragtag armies on an alien planet, to a murder mystery in the 1920s. It's a little bit sad that we've reached the point where nearly every story seems composed of recycled material dressed up to make it look pretty.  This episode, on the surface, might seem to fall victim to those problems. We get all that we expect from a celebrity historical. The companion tries to put on an accent, and the Doctor tells them not to. The Doctor and the companion try to make reference to things that haven't happened yet. The historical figure of note is called upon to solve all of the episode's problems with his or her incomparable genius.

But for all of its superficial similarities to The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, The Girl in the Fireplace and The Shakespeare Code, this episode nonetheless delivers something fresh and exciting, funny and sad, touching and terrifying. But mostly funny.

Of course, the episode is helped around by a group of interesting guest characters played for the most part by highly capable actors. Felicity Kendal deserves major credit for bringing to life that old stereotype of the upper-crust lady who copulated with a large insect and gave birth to his offspring by feigning illness and then watches as the insect offspring returns to murder those around her including her younger, legitimate son, who is a gay stereotype. Marvelous. Classic Christie, there. Or, so I suppose, because I've never read an Agatha Christie novel. She's on my list  of authors to eventually read, somewhere between Orson Scott Card and Terry Pratchett. Oh, look, I've gone and alienated most of the readers of this blog without saying incendiary about the episode.

Anyhow, Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Christie was a wonderful bit of casting, and props to David Tennant for suggesting her in the role. It would have been easy to portray Agatha Christie like Shakespeare and Dickens, simply a charismatic figure who thinks she knows her way around a mystery but is completely out of her league when the Doctor shows up. And to some extent this is true, but there are some notable differences here. When we first see Shakespeare and Dickens in their respective episodes, they are playing to a packed audience who is there to see there work, while Agatha is instead somewhat detached not only from the characters with which he interacts but also from her audience of readers in general. Woolgar plays the insecure but charismatic Agatha nearly perfectly. This is the most complex "celebrity" character we've seen in some time, and that is owed in equal parts to Woolgar and to Gareth Roberts' script, and this character perfectly complements (and perhaps surpasses) the Doctor as the hero of the episode.

It's not just the heroine and other characters of the episode that make this episode a thrilling and funny murder mystery, however. The episode is full of small touches that are bizarre, unusual, and occasionally even daring. Our first indication that this episode doesn't fit the traditional mold of Doctor Who episodes is the early scene with the newspaper clippings and the flashes forward to set up Agatha's disappearance. It's not a device that's used much on Doctor Who, or, in fact, anywhere anymore except as a joke. It creates a somewhat lighter tone that's maintained throughout the episode with a plethora of funny-but-throwaway Christie references. Despite never having read Christie, many of these were conspicuously placed, and so once I realized that it was going on (fairly early), it became easy to hear a line of dialogue and guess that it was a reference. The lighter tone of the episode keeps a series of brutal murders and one bizarre romance from becoming too disturbing, and allows a place for such wonderful moments as the Colonel's unnecessary confession and the Doctor's struggle to get the antidote he needs (a funnier variation on the Doctor's struggle to get a remedy from Jackie Tyler in The Christmas Invasion).

And David Tennant is marvelous in this episode, isn't he? This Doctor has always had the brooding, emotional side that we saw especially highlighted in last week's The Doctor's Daughter. That portrayal of the Doctor is always interesting to watch, and Tennant's portrayal has an emotional depth to it that keeps the character from feeling like the bored yet reckless wanderer of The Sontaran Strategem and The Poison Sky that seemed somewhat bland. But the Tenth Doctor has always had a zany and manic energy about him that has lent itself to some great comedic moments, and this episode emphasizes that part of the Doctor's character. He even has to be taken down a peg by Agatha for his enthusiasm about the situation. But the best scene in the episode was the aforementioned poisoning scene in the kitchen. In this scene, Tate tries and fails to keep pace with Tennant. This is the first time I've really had anything negative to say about Donna, but it's been mentioned by my fellow reviewers that this was the first episode filmed and so as Catherine Tate struggles to find the softer, gentler Donna, she is outshone by Fenella Woolgar in the role of Agatha. Which is nothing to be ashamed of.

But while Agatha acts as the star companion of this episode, a little more attention could have been paid to the story of her disappearance. From watching Confidential, it seemed like the goal of this story was to build Agatha Christie into one of her own murder mysteries while simultaneously doing the obvious Doctor Who thing and explaining her mysterious disappearance. And while the first was done admirably, it seems the second was sacrificed a bit to this end. The explanation for Christie's disappearance has little to do with this mystery story and when it comes it's not even a very good explanation. She wasn't abducted by aliens or anything, but she was apparently just brought to Harrogate by the Doctor in the TARDIS. It would have been nicer if they had just focused on the murder mystery.

Camptownraces And because this episode is a murder mystery, not only is the explanation for Christie's disappearance made superfluous, but the sense of scale in the story is narrowed, much to the episode's credit. In very nearly every episode, the entire Earth is at stake. Go down a list of episodes in the new series, leaving out those few that aren't set on or around Earth, and in nearly all of those that remain, the fate of the Earth is jeopardized. This was nicely highlighted in The Fires of Pompeii when the Doctor verbalizes his attitude that he is only comfortable acting against the Pyroviles once he learns that Earth itself is threatened. "Then the planet is at stake. Thank you, that's all I needed to know." Instead, here, all we have is an alien that happens to be bent on playing out a murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie's novels. Psychotic and evil, yes, but planet-threatening, no. That would be against the point of this story because there's no lace for such a thing in the murder mystery. Which was one of the several failings of Voyage of the Damned, another exercise in genre-driven storytelling. That story was based around the conventions of a disaster movie, but unlike this story (and so like RTD's Doctor Who), it was for some reason necessary to throw in a groan-inducing mention that the nuclear storm drive would wipe out all life on Earth if it made impact. Thirteen million viewers rolled their eyes in disgusted unison. I don't know how likely this trend is to change with the upcoming regime change of Doctor Who, but I'm sure we can expect the world (if not the universe) to be at stake in the 2009 specials.

All in all, this attempt at genre parody works out quite well, and it's nice to have this sort of comedic episode lighten the mood between the emotionally heavy story that preceded it and the forthcoming two parter by the Grand Moff which promises to be as dark and terrifying as we'd hope.

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