Saturday, 26 July 2014

Pluck Tales

Doctor Who
The Unicorn And The Wasp
Series Four, Episode Seven

I say, what's this?  A trip back in time to meet a famous person, written by Gareth Roberts?  Goodness me.  What will they think of next?

Working title:
The Two Unconnected Plot Elements.
Stop me if you've heard this one.  The Doctor and Rose Martha Donna arrive in Victorian England Victorian Scotland Elizabethan England 1920s England, where they immediately meet Charles Dickens Queen Victoria William Shakespeare Agatha Christie.  Rose Martha Donna says things like "och aye" "verily, forsooth" "top hole", the Doctor says "Don't do that".  He then tells Charles Dickens William Shakespeare Agatha Christie how great he she is, because he's a massive fan and coincidentally he she is having a crisis, so cheers for that.  William Agatha overhears a few references to his her later works, and of course he she will end up using those.  But there's a famous mystery looming: Queen Victoria kept refining the Koh-i-Noor William Shakespeare wrote an unperformed play called Love's Labours Won Agatha Christie went missing for a week.  This is inexorably tied to the sudden appearance of ghosts werewolves witches a giant wasp, for which there is a scientific explanation.  Sure enough, the witches the giant wasp is directly inspired by the work of Shakespeare Christie, because he she is the most human human who ever lived the greatest mind ever.  To prove the point, our heroes tell Dickens Shakespeare Christie his her work will live on forever.

The Unicorn And The Wasp takes unoriginality to very nearly impressive lengths.  Everything is as knowingly expected as in one of those audience-participation Sound Of Music things; they even joke about the likelihood of meeting Charles Dickens and some ghosts at Christmas.  Not content with a homage, the plot plainly revolves around the seen-it-all-before-ness of a Cluedo murder mystery.  (As for the monster's fixation on Christie's books, could this be the J.K. Rowling episode that never was?)  Granted, there is a certain amount of fun to be had waiting for the inevitable references and "Don't do that"s, but all of that's a poor substitute for something new.  This is Doctor Who.  They could do "something new" every week.  Why don't they?

And yet...

Maybe I'm just punch-drunk from the universe-bending weight of derivativeness on display (derivativity?), but The Unicorn And The Wasp works.  It's so aware of its trappings that, mostly free from the burden of making anything up, all its energy goes on the delivery.  The cast, the direction and the writing all add tons of pluck; the thing zips along like a ruthlessly-targeted spoof.

A fair amount of its success rests on the TARDIS crew.  We all know Catherine Tate is a naturally funny person, and that frequently peeks out of her performance as Donna, but it's by no means all there is to her – and quite right, since she's a proper actress and everything.  But The Unicorn And The Wasp finally allows her to go straight for laughs and, bouncing off David Tennant who's happily at home here, it's like The David and Catherine Show.  I'd watch that!

Totally settled into her TARDIS life, Donna is on appallingly good form from the start.  "You can tell what year it is just by smelling?"  "Oh yeah."  "Or, maybe that big vintage car coming up the drive gave it away?"  She also offers pithy put-downs under her breath.  "He snatched Lady Babbington's pearls right from under her nose!"  "Funny place to wear pearls."  And she makes wry comments on the events around her, such as when she notices a clandestine love affair between two men.  "Typical.  All the decent men are on the other bus."  The dialogue is just sublime.  That's one of the pluses of comedy, and one of the reasons it's underrated in Doctor Who: in comedy it is often more important not to put a word out of place.  And Donna's reactions throughout – spotting the giant wasp, "I don't mean it's big!", and munching food excitedly as the Doctor and Agatha make their accusations – make the whole episode that much funnier.

"So the killer does all the murders with what's to hand?  Pipes, statues, knives?"
"Yep.  They're all totally Agatha Christie references.  Go me."
"Okay.  So... why make the killer a giant wasp, then?"
Donna also makes the Tenth Doctor more enjoyable by proxy, as ever, but Tennant's no slacker at comedy.  His dialogue's just as spiffy: "Inspector Smith, Scotland Yard.  Miss Noble is the plucky young girl who helps me out."  And he has a bundle of really funny inflections, like coming across a clue and shouting "MAIDEN!" excitedly, but still having no idea what it means.  The scene where he gets poisoned might be a direct yoink from Young Frankenstein ("HARVEY WALLBANGER?"), but they both sell it.  It's a good episode for the Doctor overall, as he's simultaneously humbled (because it's a murder mystery and he's no Agatha Christie, even with the psychic paper), and clever (because he's the Doctor and he knows what kind of alien we're dealing with).  He plays off of Fenella Woolgar's Christie beautifully.  (More on her in a minute.)

The supporting cast have plenty of moments to shine.  In particular, the alibis scene with all the flashbacks: a moment where the Colonel gets distracted and has a flashback within a flashback is a particular highlight.  But then, this is an episode about Agatha Christie, and much rests on getting her right.  Although I've seen lots of things inspired by her work, I've never read or seen any of her actual stuff – so all the references to "sparkling cyanide," "the moving finger points", "this crooked house" and so forth made as much sense to me as accidentally switching channels.  However, Fenella Woolgar gives a delicately troubled-yet-excitable performance as Christie.  She radiates intelligence and she seems real.  Dean Lennox Kelly's cartoony William Shakespeare is all but forgotten.

Agatha's story is reasonably well handled (albeit with requisite David-Tennant-gabbling-to-fill-the-gaps at the end), but it's not much of a murder mystery.  Let's face it, you're never going to guess that someone once had a love affair with a giant wasp.  Just by virtue of being Doctor Who this flunks the rules of a proper whodunit – which Agatha seems to recognise, as she is flummoxed by the sci-fi elements.  But hey, I've read some Sherlock Holmes stories that relied on somewhat random (and very detailed) character histories being divulged right at the end, so there's some precedent here.  Arguably.  The whole "accusing parlor" scene is a total showstopper, regardless, and I enjoyed the sad story lovingly unspooled at the end of it.  Like the rest of the episode, it's all sumptuously directed and pretty to look at.

I should probably mention the giant wasp.  So: that's a bit random, isn't it?  I'm guessing it has something to do with Agatha Christie?  (The book cover at the end.)  The CGI's very good and, though your mileage may vary, I thought the transformations of the human character into their wasp form (I won't say who it is!), complete with going "zzz" at the end of certain words, though risky, totally worked.  It's not as if it's the silliest thing here.  Wasps don't exactly follow on from the likes of ghosts, werewolves and witches (were zombies unavailable?), but I'd be barking mad to complain about something being different for once, however picked-out-of-a-hat it feels.

I'm not sure how many more times Doctor Who can get away with plots that resemble Madlibs, especially with this one scraping the wallpaper from the (now crumbling) fourth wall.  For now, it only matters that the formula is put entertainingly to work.  It's how you tell 'em, and The Unicorn And The Wasp ought to elicit no complaints in that department.

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