I can’t stand wasps. I have never liked Agatha Christie. I was therefore probably not going to immediately warm to this episode. Gareth Roberts was either going to be onto a total winner or complete failure….
My problems with Agatha Christie are long and deep-rooted. I was kind of brought up with her work (my mum had read every single one, and there were hundreds of them in the house). I studied her work as part of a course at university – compared and contrasted every aspect of her novels with others of both the time, earlier and later. And I was bored rigid of her. Formulaic, predictable and annoyingly elitest, her mysteries were not exactly my favourite time-killer.
But there is a sort of history with Doctor Who and crime fiction. They seem to be natural companions. You see, Doctor Who is not all about saving universes from horrible beings, sometimes what is worth saving is somewhat smaller than a planet. And the Doctor has been pretty good at being the detective – stories such as the Talons of Weng Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock unfold like Sherlock Holmes tales, while fabulous murder mysteries in their own right, like The Robots of Death (which still stands up as a magnificent piece of drama, in my opinion) carve out this alternative and rich vein in the Doctor’s psyche. And here he was again.
I loved every second. It was like Gosford Park with… humour… and aliens. Its a very different episode to anything else in this series – something akin to a twisted version of Cluedo…
Gareth Roberts seems to get all the fabulous subjects, last season it was Shakespeare and this time it was Christie – and both times there was something integral to the work of the writer that he picked out and made central to a supernatural mystery. Last time was more straightforward – some witches use the Globe Theatre to try and unleash evil forces. This time, the trademark structure (sorry – the only structure) of an Agatha Christie mystery serves as a template for a wasp trying to exact revenge on his mother.
Oh and there were some fantastic lines and moments – the attempted poisoning of the Doctor and his “de-tox” – completed with Donna’s idea of a shock (I don’t think I’d recover from that though…well done, Doctor…!). My personal favourite was the Doctor’s “You always fool me. Well, several times, Well, once or twice. Well, once. But it was a good once…” Says a lot about the way I read her novels…
postscript: 29 May 2008
I just caught up with the Who Cast’s review of The Unicorn and the Wasp, and I need to add to what I wrote.
I tried not to analyse the episode too much, as it was meant to be straight up enjoyable telly rather than anything serious… but I don’t think I can sit back and do that now.
I think I may be able to appreciate the episode more than others because I am already a fan of the crime fiction genre. I mentioned that there were crossovers where the Doctor assumes the mantle of detective – happens more often that not, in my opinion, but not that often in such an obvious and traditional way.
That said, the criticism I’ve heard, including Trevor’s on the Who Cast, seems to completely miss the point. That’s not necessarily a criticism – if its not your bag, its not your bag and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But Gareth Roberts’ script is much more subtle and manipulative of his source material than I think its been credited. There are the in jokes – for example, Donna’s blatant attempts to get her name in print (although that pretty much echoed the in-jokes from The Shakespeare Code – except in that episode it was the Doctor influencing the future written works…). But that is the tip of the iceberg.
I loved the way the script used the one structure Christie ever really used and twisted it to make it fit with Doctor Who – the flashbacks, which Christie uses, particularly in the finale to explain the previously hidden narrative – were brilliant, with even the Doctor joining in. Trevor’s point of being able to work out who the murderer is alongside the detective, I disagree with. I think Christie’s detectives actually kept their cards close to their chest, and clues (as with a lot of crime fiction) don’t often seem to lead anywhere specific.
What I think maybe confused people and put them off the scent of any murderer was the side plot of the “Unicorn” being present (and subsequently caught) – which is the one slight issue I had with the plot… I thought the Unicorn bit was unnecessary and got in the way a little. But that in itself is a device Christie used – everyone in the mystery with something to hide will always give some sub-plots which will distract from the main story and throw the reader/viewer off the scent. Possibly.
But, there are a few very accurate parodies in the script – the catching of the murderer in particular. The way the Doctor names suspects, puts forward a theory or a possible motive and then discounts them (with Donna’s brilliant comedic reactions) is straight out of every Poirot story. One of the quietest characters in the story turns out to be the murderer – again a recurring theme in Christie’s works. That’s why its at once so hard and – with experience of the novels – so easy to work out who the murderer is – there’s not much to go on in terms of evidence, and the Doctor doesn’t reveal anything particularly in naming the killer insect, so if you don’t know Christie, you won’t know.
But after a while, you get a feel for which characters are possible suspects. And generally, the less obtrusive the character, the more probable that they’ve done something heinous. That’s why I think Trevor’s comment, about anyone who says they worked out who the killer was is either a good guesser or a complete liar, is not fair – you just had to watch a few Poirot stories and put two and two together to work that out if you wanted to.
I loved this episode – for all the marvelling I’ve done at the other episodes, this may well be my favourite so far – because it taps into my personal tastes, sure – just like the Shakespeare one did – but also because it was just fun and could have gone so horribly wrong.
Agatha Christie may well be a good old British Institution these days, but so are soldiers wearing red unfiorms during desert combat, the Royal Family, complaining about the weather, golf and horse racing. Not all institutions deserve all the reverence they receive.