Monday, 2 August 2010

Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp

“I say! What are you doing with that lead piping?”

For the second story in a row I’m very pleasantly surprised. From my vague recollections I was expecting this story to be a fun but inconsequential bit of fluff. In fact, it’s brilliant, one of the very best comedy episodes the series has ever produced. It helps that Catherine Tate, who has a lot to do here, is such a brilliant comic actress, but the script is superb.

There’s little in the way of overt season arc stuff here (although Donna and the Doctor continue to relate to each other as they have been doing and Donna gets a quick line about the bees), so we have a standalone episode which reminds me very much of Gareth Roberts’ Missing Adventures novels, particularly The English Way of Death; a superbly realised historical pastiche, this time of course based on the Agatha Christie-style Whodunit. Actually, the whole thing feels very Season Seventeen in the best possible way, and Catherine Tate has never seemed more like Lalla Ward. Yes, I know how weird that reads.

The pre-titles teaser gives us a pretty clear example of both the tone we can expect and the kind of tropes we’ll be playing with. We’re immersed in the genre through overdosing on the trappings of the genre and period- flapper gear, gramophones, a very Twenties soundtrack, a vicar, a colonel, a professor. I love the blatantly excessive number of Cluedo in-jokes!

This feels nothing like Black Orchid, though. Aside from the nicely handled personal stuff regarding Agatha- her prickliness about her philandering husband, the chat with Donna, her very Victoria-esque admonition of the Doctor for enjoying himself as people die- the tone is quite rightly kept firmly tongue in cheek. There are a lot of postmodern in-jokes, of course (“I mean, that’s like meeting Charles Dickens. And he’s surrounded by Ghosts. At Christmas.”), and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. And the story is able to use our familiarity with the trappings of the genre to have a bit of fun; I love the wibbly-wobbly flashback scenes which contrast with what everyone is claiming to have been doing.

The whole think climaxes in the Poirot moment as Agatha and the Doctor take turns in revealing everyone’s secrets. Colonel Curbishley’s is the best, of course, as is Agatha’s surprised reaction. Of course, claiming that Agatha Christie is the greatest novelist of all time is a bit much. I devoured dozens upon dozens of her novels when I was about twelve but these days I find the prose and casual class stereotyping makes it hard not to hurl said novel across the room and reach instead for the nearest Margery Allingham. Still, her plots are rather clever and so is this. 5/5.

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