Now that’s more like it.
Gareth Roberts is a name I like to see below or after the Doctor Who logo. He showed his chops early when his novel The Highest Science bucked the rather dour tone that the New Adventures of Doctor Who had taken. He has always had a handle on how comedy complements drama, and his talent quickly took him forward. He’s written soaps, novelizations of Cracker, and he continued to be associated with Doctor Who in the form of contributions to Doctor Who Magazine and a number of the audio plays. Finally, last year, he co-authored Invasion of the Bane for the Doctor Who spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures and continues to be heavily involved in the show’s production.
Last season, he wrote The Shakespeare Code, which I think remains the best of that year (although Blink cuts it close). He showed Russell Davies’ talent of good emotional pacing, but he also knew how to hold the plot together. Moreover, in all of the fun of meeting Shakespeare, acting out one of his plays, he was able to add depth to his production, talking about the power of words, and how one of the cleverest humans in history was a writer.
So, it was with considerable anticipation (especially after the bad taste that The Doctor’s Daughter left in my mouth) that I awaited Roberts’ contribution to this season, The Unicorn and the Wasp, featuring Agatha Christie. And I’m pleased to say that I was not disappointed. You can read my spoilerific review after the break.
Landing outside a British manor house in the 1920s, the Doctor and Donna are delighted to discover themselves at the edge of a garden party, so they invite themselves to the gathering to have a little fun. To their surprise and delight, one of the guests at the party is none other than Agatha Christie (played very well by Fenella Woolgar). As the Doctor and Donna size up the various other guests (such as Lady Edison’s son, Roger Curbishley, who obviously has a thing for his manservant Davenport), the Doctor catches a stray comment from Christie disparaging the institution of marriage, and he makes a critical connection.
Today, it turns out, is the day before Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance, after she discovered that her husband was having an affair. The Doctor is well up on the details of this real-life mystery, and he and Donna are not sure whether to be eager or disturbed to find themselves at the start of it. But then, out comes the head servant, screaming her lungs out. There’s been a murder in the library.
Gareth Roberts had me at the end of the teaser, as he sets up a joke that lands with the force of a punch in slow-motion. As the guests gather, a man named Professor Peach greets everyone, and announces that he’s going to the library. Hmm… Professor Peach, in the library, with… You can see it coming from a mile off, but that doesn’t make it any less funny. When Peach looked up and said, “I say… what are you doing with that lead piping?”, I knew I was going to enjoy the next forty minutes.
The fact that it was a gigantic wasp wielding that pipe (I love the spindly little leg seen in shadow — just… put that image together for a moment)… well, that was just the cherry on top.
In an interview, Gareth Roberts noted that he was taking the advice of Douglas Adams, who warned against allowing the characters to know that they were in a comedy. When the actors realized this, he said, they thought it would be okay not to take themselves seriously. Gareth wisely knew that this would have sabotaged the production and he and director Graeme Harper work hard to keep the characters serious and in the moment, even though the entire genre of Agatha Christie’s novels go in for a complete parody.
The genius of The Unicorn and the Wasp is that Gareth pushes the tale to its limit in terms of how over-the-top it goes. As the situation gets more and more outlandish, we get to the peak of Everest here, and lean far over the other side. Any further and it would just have been silly. Case in point is when we see the vespaform transform from human to wasp while confronting two young hooligans. One cannot help but raise one’s eyebrows as the man starts to slur, and then buzzz his speech, but Graeme Harper has a stroke of brilliance: he focuses on the hooligans, who start chortling at this silly display. Chortling along with the audience… until the transformation takes place, and they see the wings, and the very big stinger, and the colour sort of drains from their face as they realize how much poop they are in. I’m sure the audience stops laughing at this point.
All of the characters are stereotypes from various Christie novels. They’re played to the limits of their stereotyping, but they’re also played in perfect seriousness, keeping the comedy just on the limit of bursting, and destroying the tension that Roberts is building here. This allows us to focus on the wonderful chemistry between the Doctor and Christie as they team up to solve the murder(s). David Tennant and Fenella Woolgar are clearly having fun, and like Donna, we’re content to sit back and munch peanuts while this magic happens. The Doctor’s manic performance as he realizes he’s been poisoned with cyanide goes on just long enough for the joke to have the most effect without getting old, and it’s topped off with a shock from Donna that’s just wonderful to behold.
Fenella Woolgar is perfectly cast and disappears into the character of Agatha Christie. Her performance anchors this production and offers considerable depth. The young lady at first embraces the mystery, but then has to contend with her own self doubts as the situation spirals out of control. She’s wonderful to watch and matches David Tennant line for line as the two share the action of this mystery.
But lets not forget Donna. While she is content to watch, she also handles a fair chunk of action herself. Catherine Tate has completely settled into her role as Donna. The repartee between her and David Tennant is wonderful. Even as she bridles at being labelled “Chief Inspector Smith’s plucky young assistant”, she still proves to be a decent detective herself. She rolls her eyes at the right moment as the clichés reveal themselves (I love her reaction to the Doctor’s magnifying glass — “Is that for real?”) but it is immensely satisfying to see how well she handles herself against the attacking Vespaform.
Finally, the revelation scene, played for all the cliché that it’s worth, and again, like Donna, the audience is passing the popcorn. It’s too obviously a parody of the genre at this point to be as satisfying as one of Hercule Poirot’s reveals, but it still gives us a satisfying denoument for all of the characters. Everybody has the accusing finger pointed at them (even Donna) and, of course, the murderer is revealed.
The Unicorn and the Wasp doesn’t have the depth of The Shakespeare Code and, in the cold light of day, there are some convenient plot contrivances which bring the story to a close. For instance, how is it that Christie gets bonded to the Vespaform’s telepathic transmitter and Lady Edison is not? The connection through the novels Lady Edison was reading is tenuous at best, and the inclusion seems only to serve the purpose of adding additional tension to the resolution, and launch the mystery of Christie’s amnesia, which the story was not actually prepared to tackle.
Also, the motivation of the Vespaform was tenuous. If it decided to play out a role in one of Christie’s thrillers after having all of them placed in his head by the telepathic transmitter, why the murderer instead of the detective? Now, Professor Peach’s discovery at the teaser could have given the Vespaform a secret to protect, but the connection was not made very clear — possibly the result of there being just 42 minutes to tell this tale.
Finally, just how does this family explain to the police the three dead bodies in their manor? Especially after the disappearance of “Chief Inspector Smith” and Christie herself? They might be British. They might try to carry on with a stiff upper lip. But that sort of thing doesn’t stay hidden easily.
But all of this is easily forgotten in a production that is wholly in control of its tone and completely in love with its source material. The Unicorn and the Wasp is a wonderful romp which stands proudly among the best episodes of this season.
Sadly, I have to report that Stephen Moffat’s two-parter has been delayed a week due to Eurovision. But Canadian fans will be delighted to hear that the CBC will be showing this season of Doctor Who starting September 19. No word yet on whether or how they’ll be showing the Christmas special, The Voyage of the Damned