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May 23, 2008

Murder, She Wrote

Doctor Who: The Unicorn and The Wasp

Scowl Gareth Roberts is the Electronic Arts of Doctor Who tv writing.  Popular, populist, likeable - and barring a couple of new bells and whistles, turning out the same stuff year after year.  The Unicorn and the Wasp was the FIFA 08 to The Shakespeare Code’s FIFA 07 - not necessarily in content, but in tone, style, wit and approach.

Now there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.  The old series used to churn out celebrity pseudo-historicals in its sleep, and telefantasy’s Mark Gatiss set the style for the new format with The Unquiet Dead back in 2005.

Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Christie turned in a likeable, and wonderfully vulnerable performance as the spiky, heartbroken author but because of the nature of the part, it seemed written as Jessica Fletcher in a flapper dress, much as we had Shakespeare as Noel Gallagher in tights last year.

Gareth Roberts is the Electronic Arts of Doctor Who tv writing

We had a script packed with as many in-jokes, nods, winks and sneaky back references as polite society would allow.  For instance, Donna’s repeatedly handing of titles and plots to Christie echoed back to Will nicking the Doctor’s ideas last time around.

Hell, even the Doctor’s poisoning and kitchen-based bumming about looking for a cure was taken from Roberts’ own Eccleston-era comic strip for DWM about the Helping Hand organisation.

So, everything was in place for The Unicorn and The Wasp to be a hit.  A big, bold crowd-pleasing hit, that everyone - punters and fans alike - can join in with.   Except me.

Now, maybe it’s just because of my post-birthday, hitting 30 and feeling old hangover, but watching The Unicorn and the Wasp left me cold.  Perhaps it was the greatest hits package feeling.  Perhaps it was the sense of being led by the hand through a plot that seemed occasionally wafer thin.

Timetoplaythegame But mostly I think it was because this just felt like it was there.  It felt like it was marking time.  There never felt like there was much at stake.  Just a murder in a country house.  Even the idea that Christie might die because time was in flux felt like a throwaway, something to try and ramp up the climax just a little bit more.  I suspect it isn’t.  In fact, we’ve had hint after hint recently that history can be manipulated far more than the show used to risk, and these references are never as casual as they appear.

It was a country house murder mystery that could ONLY have been written for Doctor Who

Peter Davison complained recently, on the DVD commentary for Black Orchid, that it was never his particular favourite, because it could have been any country house murder mystery, rather than something written for Doctor Who.  And he was right. 

The Unicorn and the Wasp was the other extreme.  It was a country house murder mystery that could ONLY have been written for Doctor Who.  Yet, like Davison, I couldn’t find myself being engaged by it.

The sting in the tail here is there’s nothing wrong with the episode.  It wasn’t a bad episode of Doctor Who in any respect  - and certainly not production wise.  It looked lovely.  The performances were universally good.  Graeme Harper’s direction was wonderfully understated and restrained.  The production design was sumptuous.  Even Murray Gold’s music was low key and atmospheric - though whether that was through design or someone not turning the volume up in the dub remains to be seen.

There was just something... missing.  For me, anyway. I’ve thought and thought about this.  I watched the episode live, I watched it on the train back home, I watched it again before sitting down to write this review.  And it just doesn’t connect with me.  I can’t even say why. 

I want to like The Unicorn and the Wasp, I really do.  It’s got some funny lines, it’s got a coherent-if-slight plot, nice visuals... but it’s like listening to Mull Historical Society.  I know they’re good.  I know why they’re good.  But I also know I fall asleep when I listen to them.  And The Unicorn and the Wasp just lacked that buzz.

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