My ability to let this drag out until the final act amazes even me.
Whodunit? Gareth Roberts. In the BBC Wales main office. With, I can only imagine, an 1895 Wellington Model 1 Thrust-action vintage typewriter.
Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp
Message In A Bottle
The similarities between The Unicorn and the Wasp and Gareth Roberts' earlier script The Shakespeare Code are glaring. Each is an historical featuring an famous literary personage, witty dialogue, myriad clever literary and historical references, gratuitous homosexuality, and a dreadful magical conclusion.
...like the ropey remains of one of Damon's curries
Obviously, the biggest fault with the episode lies in the ending (or endings, if you prefer), so I'm going to start this review by turning to the last page and figuring out whodunit. For much of the last act it seems like Roberts was just pulling stuff out of his arse like the ropey remains of one of Damon's curries. The Reverend's anger "broke the genetic lock"?? He "realized [his] inheritance...after all these years."? While this may not have quite matched the stomach-cramping abomination of Freema Agyeman spouting "Expeliarmus!" in last year's Roberts episode, it's still the sort of rubbishy bullshit-science that makes us science-fiction fans froth at the mouth. Roberts' most grievous crime is the contrivance that the "Vespiform telepathic recorder" absorbed "the works of Agatha Christie directly from Lady Eddison", forcing the clergyman to engage in a complex ritual of serial homicide. Perhaps they should have skipped to the end of the book she was reading and saved some time in solving the mystery. Turns out that when she was in India a giant wasp dragged her back to its lair and laid its eggs inside her; after returning to England the larvae ate their way out of her and joined the C of E.
As the ending continues, the vicar turns into a wasp in a cloud of smoke. A cloud of fucking smoke? You've got to be kidding me. Manimal had better transformation scenes. After what turned out to be a pretty nice collection of giant-wasp footage (I was particularly impressed with the little details like the reverend's stinger nicking the paint off the ceiling), the least the Mill could have done is upset the Mary Whitehouses in the audience with a suitably gruesome homage to Cronenberg's version of The Fly.
Then, just when we think the painful ordeal is finally over, Fenella Woolgar doubles over, struck in the abdomen by Murray Gold's pummeling score.
In a miserable attempt to maintain some level of drama during an amiable car chase that would have been more thrillingly played out with hurtling rickshaws, we get the news that, once again, "Time is in flux, Donna!" This fails to disuade us of the sickening realization that the tail end of the episode will continue to stagger sousedly into the inevitable, predictable conclusion. Then, just when we think the painful ordeal is finally over, Fenella Woolgar doubles over, struck in the abdomen by
Murray Gold's pummeling score. This has the convenient side effect of wiping her mind of the untenable explanation for the plot, and the Doctor and Donna leave her wandering confusedly in Harrogate like a returned abductee on The X-Files or a Liverpudlian football fan after the big match.
The final indignity in the episode is the maudlin bit at the end in the TARDIS. Roberts borrows from RTD's Book of Very Large Numbers and David Tennant digs out his only not-dog-eared copy of an Agatha Christie book which not only has a giant wasp on the cover, but was published in the year five million. Exactly five million. We're not talking about some "5,012,315 A.D." shit here. Round numbers only. It's all about the zeros.
You may be surprised to learn that despite the final ten minutes of unmitigated bollocks, I actually enjoyed The Unicorn and the Wasp. Thoroughly. I had a gay old time. The final act of The Doctor's Daughter similarly ended in a staggering array of implausible crap, and I slagged it mercilessly in my review. So why should this episode be different? Why do I hold it to a different standard? Simple: The Unicorn and the Wasp was taking the piss. The whole thing plays out like a send up of a genre so well-crafted that even I, who have never read an Agatha Christie book, can appreciate its machinations.
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
As usual, I spent most of the episode in glassy-eyed adoration of Catherine Tate. While there is some merit to the observations others have made that she was still settling into the character when this episode was filmed, I'm still pretty certain she's the finest thing about the last three or so decades of Doctor Who. Some people have been all abuzz (like an angry Christopher Benjamin) about whether or not Tennant is going to hang around for series five in 2010...I'm much more worried that Tate won't be around for several more years of the program. I'd hate to lose her after just a season. "Please, mom...can we keep her?" What happened to the good old days when you couldn't get rid of these people?
It's just that sort of resourcefulness and spunk that allows the best of the program's companions to transcend the wide-eyed damsel-in-distress quagmire that so often afflicted Adric and Mel.
Speaking of the good old days, I remember when the role of the Doctor's companion was to get into some sort of poorly-calculated dangerous situation and scream, allowing the Doctor to show up in the nick of time and save them. How much cooler is it now that Donna is able to take things like bloody humongous wasps in stride, and deal with them herself? No standing petrified like a deer in headlamps and shrieking for help...she defeats the rutting massive insect with a magnifying glass! Twice! It's just that sort of resourcefulness and spunk that allows the best of the program's companions to transcend the wide-eyed damsel-in-distress quagmire that so often afflicted Adric and Mel.
Over the previous several episodes Tate has been so busy impressing us with her formidable dramatic range that I almost forgot that she was a comedian. Well, The Unicorn and The Wasp's wit-laden script was a fine showcase for her comedic talents. From the brilliant "Oh, what noise! Alright, busy bee...I'll let you out. Hold on. I shall find you with my amazing powers of detection!" to Donna's totally affected laugh at Agatha's quip about Belgians to her indignant "I'll pluck you in a minute. Why don't we find the real police?", Tate's timing and delivery was pitch-perfect. Only that "What ho! Spiffing!" stab at the RP took me aback.
Much of the episode, at least before the mawkish denouement, was littered with witty dialogue and rounded out by generally fine performances and sparkling chemistry between David Tennant and the rest of the cast. Fenella Woolgar stands out for her spot-on portrayal of Christie, but props should probably go out to the entire ensemble cast orbiting the magnificent Felicity Kendal (a couple of times).
The true comedic masterpiece in the episode was the poisoning scene. Everything about this made me happy. Graeme Harper's reeling camerawork was ideal for setting the mood, and even Murray Gold's pounding music worked with the scene rather than against it. Tennant and Tate's performances were inspired, and all the elements fit together like well-oiled machinery...Tennant pouring the ginger beer on his head and stuffing his face with walnuts, the game of charades ("Harvey Wallbanger?? How is Harvey Wallbanger one word?"), "I need something salty!" "How about this?" "What is it?" "Salt!" "That's too salty!", and Donna's "Alright then...big shock...coming up." If I were the sqeeing type, I'd have squeed.
Another highlight of this was the uproariously funny bit where under cross-examination everyone has flashbacks to things they're too embarrassed to mention or can't use to establish an alibi, followed by the Doctor's own flashback about Charlemagne being stolen by am insane computer in Belgium (The Doctor in the flashback is played by David Tennant, so this would seem to imply that this is one of the Tenth Doctor's untelevised adventures).
Roger's avowed affection for thrashing young boys.
There was really no shortage of other brilliant little things in The Unicorn and the Wasp that deserve mention. Graeme Harper's inspired first reveal of the giant wasp through Donna's magnifying glass. Cornering the wasp in the hallway with all of the other suspects. Allusions to Edward Lear. The subversion of the Agatha Christie formula when it turns out the Colonel can walk. The crack about planet Zog. Roger's avowed affection for thrashing young boys.
Don't Stand So Close To Me
If there's one more area where I wish Roberts had been able to restrain himself, it was with the whole need to explain away the murder mystery in the first place. There was a nice parallel set up between Christie and the Doctor when they first figure out the murder's an alien ("Yeah, but think about it. There's a murder, a mystery and Agatha Christie....no, but, isn't that a bit weird? Agatha Christie didn't walk around surrounded by murders...not really. I mean, that's like meeting Charles Dickens and he's surrounded by ghosts...at Christmas.") I rather liked the image of murders following Agatha Christie around everywhere she goes just as everywhere the Doctor goes the murderers are aliens. It would have been nice if they'd just stopped there. Instead, everyone makes the same "it's just like an Agatha Christie book" observation throughout the rest of the episode, culminating in the ridiculously contrived explanation for the Vespiform's behaviour.
I can't help but think we should be grateful that Clemency was reading a Christie novel last Thursday. Imagine how different the episode would have turned out if she were watching Torchwood.