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May 24, 2008

Ten Little Niggles

Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Wasp1 I'm not a fan of Agatha Christie. I've never read one of her books, never encountered Poirot, never even played Cluedo. In fact, I have a profound dislike for Agatha based on an experience that I had when I was ten years old and which is seared indelibly on my memory.  When I was living in New Zealand my mother took me to the cinema to see Battlestar Galactica: The Movie (basically the first three episodes of the TV series stitched together to annoy George Lucas and fool international distributors) but thanks to some seriously bad public transport issues we missed the screening. And the only alternative was The Mirror Crack'd - another TV movie (well, this is New Zealand) starring Angela Lansbury and Tony Curtis, I think. All I really remember is seething through the whole thing with barely disguised anger, disappointment and contempt. Even back then I was pining for BSG.

As a result, I didn't bring any baggage with me to The Unicorn and the Wasp, and while I thought I'd miss all the references to her novels I'm happy to report that it was practically impossible not to identify these moments thanks to plenty of dialogue that felt completely unnatural and bent all out of shape; the lines "This is a Crooked House" and "Endless Night" may as well have been accompanied by characters waving copies of her books in the air. But it didn't bother me one little bit and it warms the cockles of my heart to imagine Gareth Roberts sitting in front of his computer chortling over at the sheer genius of his shoe-horned prose.

We should let Gareth pen one of these literary japes every year - just before all the serious stuff kicks in. I want to see the Doctor's adventures with Stephen King ("Don't just STAND there, CHRISTINE, CARRIE IT!"). See, it's a piece if piss. Perhaps the Doctor could be driving the truck that mysteriously knocks poor Steve down at the end. Moff? Call me.

Is it just me or does Vespiform sound like a brand of sanitary towels..?

Wasp2However, the Man in the Brown Suit (damn it, he's got me doing it now) really excelled in this episode. Tennant seemed to relish the absurdity of the whole thing and his verbal diarrhea actually suited the story for a change. The poisoning scene was especially delightful. When The Prisoner was faced with a similar problem in The Girl Who Was Death he handled it with super-cool aplomb, whereas the 10th Doctor goes metal as he channels a drunken Lionel Blair. Brilliant. Without a doubt this has to be the funniest scene we've witnessed in Doctor Who since 1979. Unless you count Warriors of the Deep episode 3, of course.

I believe this episode was filmed first, and I'm just relieved that it was left until the middle of the run. If it had been transmitted any earlier I would probably be lambasting Tate for doing all the things I'd dreaded she do (snogging the Doctor, chewing the scenery with comedic moments like "E-NOR-MOUS!" and generally taking the piss) but I'm in love with her now, so I don't care.

I'd go so far to say I loved The Unicorn and the Wasp up to a point. It looked fantastic, the script was dripping with wit, the guest cast all shone in their all too brief moments, the CGI wasp was very impressive, and the reference to an Insane Computer that had enslaved Charlemagne was a delightful touch. Yes, dear reader, this was a jolly ripping page-turner that was simply spiffing on every level. Top-ho!

But then we reach the final 10 minutes and everything falls apart.

The revelation that Felicity Kendall had shagged an insect was quite enough for me...

The problem stems from Gareth Robert's determination to explain how Agatha could end up in one of her own murder mysteries. He even pokes fun at The Unquiet Dead, which, unless I'm mistaken, wasn't especially criticised for giving us Dickens at Christmas with ghosts when it was originally broadcast. Instead of just going with the whacky coincidence of Agatha embroiled in one of her own plots, Roberts tries to explain it with some supernatural mumbo-jumbo, and this is the point where you can actually hear the plot's gears grinding together until the wheels fall off. The explanation - that the alien somehow fuses its consciousness with Agatha because Felicity Kendall happens to be reading one of her novels at the time - simply beggars belief. When Agatha and the Vespiform (is it just me or does this sound like a brand of sanitary towels?) have their stand-off at the lake and the wasp somehow lets her go at the end (why? how? what?) it gets so ridiculous that credulity is stretched beyond its limits.

The revelation that Felicity Kendall had shagged an insect was quite enough for me - I didn't need to see this protracted nonsense just so they could explain a mystery that 99% of the population wouldn't have been aware of in the first place. And there was me thinking that ennui, heartbreak and introspection resulted in her mysterious sojourn in the winter of 1926. Turns out she was mind-wiped by a drowning wasp instead.

Wasp3To make matters even worse, John Paul wasted no time in pointing out to me that the vicar turns into Bruce Forstyth just before he turns into the giant wasp and now it's impossible for me to watch the episode ever again. He loves nothing better than ruining this show for me, the ratfink bastard.

Events are rounded off with an insufferably smug coda whereby the Doctor reinforces just how bloody brilliant Agatha Christie is because people are still lapping up her formulaic nonsense in the year 5 gazillion, trillion. But what he fails to mention is that Terrance Dicks and Dan Brown continue to kick her ass in hardback sales.

Sadly, The Unicorn and the Wasp is one murder mystery where I found myself wishing that its final pages had been torn out...


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