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May 18, 2008

Wasp's Nest

Hastings had an open face.  Poirot uncharacteristically rubbed the back of his neck.
“This is certainly not the kind of mystery I am most comfortable with.” he said. “When I was improbably ushered into the BBC by Scotland Yard to investigate the disappearances I thought this was as you say, an open and shut case.  However our adventure has grown far larger than my usual environs to encompass the entirety of London.  My provinces are not giant robots or the Loch Ness Monster, but they are yours Mr. Dicks.  You must think, think which heavenly species may be conducting this silent invasion!”
Terrance tapped his finger on his chin thoughtfully.  Then his eyes brightened with the pleasure of a realisation.
“It’s the Autons!” He said.

Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Wasp2 Doctor Who continues its cultural tourism with Agatha Christie.  As Voyage of the Damned, the other recent cross genre experiment demonstrated, you do have to be careful how you deploy the various tropes of each format otherwise one ends up canceling out the other.  In this case though, the two aren’t as unlike as they might at  first appear.  Murder mysteries have been an aspect of the franchise for decades, stories pinioned on an opening moment in which the Doctor steps out of the Tardis and within seconds tripping over a dead body, moments later tasking himself with discovering who the culprit is (often finding himself accused).  Isn’t that how Planet of the Ood began? 

More often than not that’s usually a precursor to some much larger story, but there have also been a fair share of proper whodunits, not least Horror of Fang Rock in which the bodies start piling up and the timelord doesn’t really work out what’s going on until the climax.  It would be improper not to mention The Chimes of Midnight too, in which the Doctor and Charley are very much the visiting detective and sidekick and although that spins off into murkier territory, again there’s the final revelatory twist and all of the archetypes of a Christie mystery, albeit downstairs, are present.  There’s also The Banquo Legacy told from the point of view of the would be investigator and cultpit with the Eighth Doctor and friends and the then current arc plot buzzing around.

As ever it’s the setting which changed in The Unicorn and the Wasp, the mode.  The production team succeeded in producing an episode with an atmosphere unlike most other Doctor Who and probably authentic enough that if you slapped it out on ITV3 on a Sunday afternoon with adverts for AXA Sun Alliance and the RSPCA every five minutes it would fit right in (with the exception of the ruddy great Wasp).  Which is more than can be said for Black Orchid.  The casting helped enormously here, with a assemblage which have already got, if not a Christie adaptation some kind of costume drama, on their CV.  Christopher Benjamin, the not so wheelchair bound Colonel Hugh, has seen the most action having dodged knives and bullets Campion, Maigret, Morse, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders and even Rosemary & Thyme.  Speaking of which, this was only Felicity Kendall’s second television acting job this century.  We’re honoured.

Campion, Maigret, Morse, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders and even Rosemary & Thyme

Undoubtedly and rightly the best element of the episode was Fenella Woolgar, an actress I’ve been following since Bright Young Things and who is criminally undervalued at a time when television and film set amongst the upper classes are out of favour, unless Kiera Knightley’s in the cast.  As we saw in that film and Jekyll, she has the capacity to go quite broad and cartoonesque, but here she offered a naturalistic characterisation counter pointing the near parody of the cat-in-headlights sheen of Kendall, sensitive and with the writer’s real life recent tragedy just simmering under the surface -- you could believe she had the capacity to write those books.  Woolgar’s chemistry with Tennant was delectable too – the pacing scene in particular showing the kind of trust and history which isn’t always apparent in television when two actors have only recently met at the read through. 

David was on top form here, bursting with energy and ideas and not at all looking tired which best will in the world he did a bit last week.  That’s possibly because oddly, despite being broadcast seventh it was the first episode the be shot of the series (in a block with the Ood) and I do think that reflected in Catherine’s performance, still exceptional but just now and then betraying moments in which she’d not quite decided how to pitch the episodic Donna who we’ve previously seen mellow quite a bit.  But her playing of the poison scene was priceless as were the reactions during the exposition scene.  Very clever idea from Gareth to have Donna treat the whole thing like she’s watching a movie.

The problem was that unlike those television Poirots and Marples it lacked the running time to really explore the premise and although you couldn’t justify making this story a two-parter in present circumstances, it’s the first in a long while which really suffered from not having the four episode structure of the original series.  To be a proper whodunit, the audience needed time to get to know the potential suspects.  Choosing archetypes helped, as did those hilarious flashbacks, but the final reveals in that long exposition scene (the likes of which we haven’t enjoyed since the Hartnell era) would have been more effective if we’d known more about the guests, foibles and red herrings included.  The Unicorn in particular was a missed opportunity, Felicity Jones’s bright performance suggesting a potentially far richer figure than the screen time allowed.

How delighted you were with the episode probably depended on how much you love Agatha Christie.  Roberts is clearly as much of the author’s work as Shakespeare, but unlike him and Frank it seems I’m almost totally unfamiliar with the canon, my only previous experience being snatched moments of Poirot and that episode of the new version of Marple with Sophia Myles and Paul McGann in an eye patch.  Not even the well rendered giant wasp meant that I didn’t help spending some of the time not quite getting the joke, realising that something really interesting was happening but that unless I go out and purposefully work my way through the author’s back catalogue I’m never really going to enjoy everything as much as I’d like.  Which is fine.  I’d be worried if Doctor Who appealed to me all of the time.

Perhaps I’ll dig out that tv adaptation of Sad Cyprus, at least.  Paul McGann’s in that too.

Next Week:  Another former Eastern Bloc country wins Eurovision.

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