Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Unicorn and the Wasp

The Unicorn and the Wasp is pure fun. It's so much fun, in fact, that it feels like a guilty pleasure, like a cream bun: undeniably delicious, but it wouldn't do us any good if Doctor Who was like this every week.

Each to their own, but crashing a 1920's posho garden party would be fairly high up my time-travelling bucket list. First stop: Venice in her pomp, of course, but very soon after that I'd be up for Pimms and croquet, I reckon. Still, the chances of finding a party as fun as this one are slim. Not only is it hosted by Felicity Kendall, for crying out loud, but a rather famous guest is self-consciously wandering across the lawn towards the Doctor and Donna.

"Agatha Christie," she says, sticking out her hand.

"What about her?" asks Donna.

Slightly embarrassed in that beautifully English way, the woman replies, "That's me."

Donna can't help herself. Her mouth falls open and her eyes gape. "NO!" she gasps, half-incredulous, half-exhilarated. "You're kidding!"
Donna's reaction is hilarious, feels very genuine, and helps set the tone for the episode. But I think it also exemplifies the spirit of the revitalised series. Look how much fun this is! The question has to be asked, why on Earth did the original show never do this? Why did we never get to pal around with brilliant people from history and have hi-jinks? We did meet Marco Polo, and HG Wells, but it wasn't fun, and we always just seemed to miss Leonardo da Vinci. In the new Doctor Who, the Psychic Paper becomes a pass to the roped-off, VIP areas of history. Once inside, the trick is to have fun with the famous guest stars, rather than at their expense. That's what Tooth & Claw got horribly wrong, and The Unicorn and the Wasp gets brilliantly right.

Yes, Christie chastises the Doctor, just as Queen Victoria did. But in Tooth & Claw, it came at the end of the story, like a judgement on the rest of the episode. Here it happens early on, and it works as a check on us and the Doctor, a reminder that, no matter how much fun we are having, people are dying and there is a real threat to be uncovered. But once delivered, we are all allowed to carry on enjoying the Whodunnit.

A lot of the fun in this episode derives from the playful way it adopts the conventions of murder mystery television. Every last morsel is wrung from the witness statements, with flashbacks within flashbacks, unreliable testimony, and the repetition of events we have already seen ourselves. The traditional I've-gathered-you-all-together scene gets a similar treatment. The 'moving finger' picks out each suspect in turn, revealing a different secret every time, but we also get Donna's commentary, munching popcorn as if she was sat on the sofa at home, trying to keep up with Poirot. With each fresh accusation (accompanied by a whiplash turn of Christie's head) Donna furrows her brow and asks "So she/he did it then?" It's lovely stuff.

Other trappings of the genre are served up more conventionally: a nice supply of red herrings; the below-stairs gossip; the POV shot of the murder victim; dinner, complete with power-cut and a knife in the back during the soup course. Doctor Who seems so comfortable with the format that it becomes clear that this could have been done completely straight and it would still have been very good. But it is undeniably better as it is: it needs the giant wasp, it needs the broad comedy of the Doctor's poisoning. These elements stop it getting bogged down in country house chat, and inject a dash of the fantastic. They remind us that Doctor Who is not only special but unique: there is no other programme on television that can tell a story like this.

It's episodes like The Unicorn and the Wasp that make me conscious that the show is being made by people of my generation. This blend of influences remind me of how television was when we were children: with a paucity of channels and very little choice, we ended up watching whatever was on. As a result we saw, and loved, all sorts of things that we would never have deliberately sought out for ourselves. BBC Two used to show silent movies in prime time for goodness sake! Harold Lloyd, and Laurel & Hardy! But we also got things like the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, Joan Hickson's Miss Marple and the Peter Ustinov Poirot films.

I know this makes me sound like a grumpy old Reithian in these multi-channel days, but I do think maybe television should give people what they need, rather than what they want. My boys not only have access (albeit limited) to dedicated channels of cartoons that run twenty-four hours a day, they also have Netflix, which lets them watch whatever they want, instantly. And so, in order to introduce them to something, I have to say, "Hey kids why don't you try watching this? It's really good." Sadly, nothing is as uninteresting as something your parents have recommended  (can you imagine your parents telling you to watch Monty Python? How can something be subversive if your parents have told you it's okay?), but I did get some traction with Charlie Chaplin once by telling them it was "a bit like Mr Bean."

The point of this is that my kids haven't ever been exposed to the works of Agatha Christie, and so they know nothing of the genre. But they absolutely loved The Unicorn and the Wasp.

"Ten out of ten!" said Chris. "It was great. I loved the detective stuff, how they had to ask questions, how it was a mystery."

"Yeah," chips in Will, "it was like that game, Cluedo!" (Okay, he didn't say Cluedo, he said Clue, because he lives in America, but we are going to pretend he said Cluedo.)

"Well," I said, "you know there are TV shows like this that are based on Agatha Christie books? With country houses and murders and detectives - would you like to watch one some time?"

"Sure!" they said.

And that is yet another reason why Doctor Who is the best TV show ever.


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