Monday, 17 June 2013

Review: Doctor Who 4.7: The Unicorn And The Wasp

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Agatha Christie (Fenella Woolgar) helps the Doc solve a
murder case.
Doctor Who - Season 30, Episode Seven - The Unicorn and the Wasp
Written 1/4/12

Wowzers. While at times feeling a little out of sorts, this often criticised episode is an episode that is both irreverantly fun and fairly cultured at the same time, following the trend of the historical guest star with an appearance by a decent approximation of Agatha Christie and, like previous writers featured in NuWho, the story has been tailored to mimic and parody their works. Aside from a few issues with pacing, I think it's pretty good.
     The Doctor and Donna arrive at a 1920s dinner party on the day that Agatha Christie disappeared before reappearing a month later under another name. While not prying too much into the circumstances of that, they become embroiled in a mystery to find the killer of several people, including Professor Peach (a nod to the Christie-inspired Cluedo), the indian housekeeper Mrs. Chandrakala and the closeted aristocrat Roger. It is revealed that one of the members of the party is a Vespiform - a humanoid capable of transforming into a giant wasp, with telepathic powers linked to the Lady's jewel, and a result of her teenage affair with an alien in India. After much deduction, the killer is revealed to be the quiet Reverand Golightly, who has been playing out his murders like an Agatha Christie novel due to his mother's fondness for the books.
     The incorporation of references, both to Christie novels, plots, names and history gave the episode an almost Gattissian level of historical tone and, while it eres closer to the more poplised version of Christie's novels, it does feel like something of a tribute to her as both a woman and as a writer. Fenella Woolgar shows a woman blessed with an intuition and intelligence that allows her to understand motivations and thought processes, but with a frustration coming from her inability to apply it to her own personal life. Maybe not accurate to the real Christie, but a compelling character nonetheless that really stands out in the guest cast. (Which happens to include Felicity Kendal, being significantly more low-key than I'd expect.)
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Three guesses as to which of the lively ensemble is the villain.
     The comparisons must be made, of course, to similar interbellum stories in the show's history. Like its Eighties predecessor Black Orchid, the story attempts a cohesive murder mystery, but it all goes a little too fast to work. There's a reason why Morse and Marple and the like end up going on for three hours with seventeen different ad breaks where they try to sell you various brands of expensive tea - it's about drawing the mystery out so that the viewer has the chance to pick a favourite, and pick a villain, and try and work it out from there. I know Doctor Who is a bit wham-bam-shebang in this period and we are talking about a comedic 45 minute tea-time adventure, but if you're going to make a tribute to murder mystery it would help if the villain isn't obvious within the first ten minutes.
     Other than that, I think that it all worked well. For something that was focussed more on a mid-season comedic angle, I thought that the main story and the character work behind it were surprisingly strong, and despite how out-of-the-blue the eventual solution comes, it is fascinating and amusingly appropriate for the genre. It makes me wish that there were more stories set in the 20th Century, and especially around this time period. Or maybe it just makes me want to watch Jeeves and Wooster again; either is fine. Any episode that can inspire that is good in my book, for sure.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: She's here! Batten down the hatches, seal off the windows. Moffat is about to be told that he's the next head writer half-way through writing a story, and the result will change the show for the next half a decade. It's the first appearance of River Song in Silence In The Library/The Forest Of The Dead.

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