BBC1 - 17th May 2008 - 7.00pm
Most people get quite uncomfortable when you ask to talk to them about class. After all, isn't class something you don't dare mention any more for fear of disturbing those long dissipated distinctions, the superiority and inferiority, between different social stratas? One of the strongest aspects of the parodic nature of The Unicorn And The Wasp is the way it subverts, in that wonderfully Doctor Who/British way, the cliched image of the English country house bourgeoisie and their proletariat neighbours and servants. Donna's 'flapper or slapper?' enquiry pretty much indicates that this is Gosford Park with jokes.
Some rather laboured and interminable Agatha Christie in-jokes aside, Gareth Roberts layered script has allusions to, not only Felicity Kendall's own Indian upbringing and early career, but also to taboo-busting, inter-species sexual trysts between a big alien wasp and a young English woman, vicars who happen to be hybrids born out of wedlock admonishing punishment to church vandals, gay sons blatantly knocking off the younger male servants, and a Mockney jewel thief jumping the class divide by strangling her received pronunciation. Posh people's repression and umpteen skeletons in a vast country house, full of closets, with knobs on, then, as each of the Christie inspired characters turns on the victim/murderer and posh/commoner axes to avoid being revealed for what they essentially are. The gay couple who are closeted, the deb who can't reveal she's a vowel crunching jewel thief, the chair bound Colonel who can really walk and enjoys a bit of porn, Lady Eddison who had a child out of wedlock and finally Agatha Christie herself, running away from the fact that her husband is having an affair with another woman. It is ironic that at the conclusion of the episode the Doctor is sure that the events at the dinner party will never come to light because no one will actually want their true misdemeanours revealed.
A quick word about the gay characters (stereotypes would be more appropriate, even?) as their inclusion will obviously get steam issuing out of the ears of certain fans. Look, it's a series executive produced by a gay man and written, in the main, by gay men. This sort of thing is bound to happen. And besides, it's a further, observational in-joke about the modern media's response to Christie's works, as they are endlessly reinterpreted by cinema and television. The film version of Evil Under The Sun is one of the gayest film experiences I can think of and the recent ITV Miss Marple plays the same game of shifting the Christie conventions. You could even interpret the story as anti-gay, if you so desired, as it kills off one gay character and then denies his lover the right to mourn, in much the same way so many films and television programmes have done so in the past and continue to do so in the present. No doubt some moaning minnie will say that it's not an accurate portrayal of gay men of the time and they wouldn't have openly flirted in such a way. The 1920s were actually very liberal times and gay night clubs and openly homosexual actors were part and parcel of urbanised society, so the Colonel's acknowledgement of his son's sexuality isn't as far fetched as it seems. Suffice it to say, the 'gay agenda' (as it is commonly known) does pale beside a vicar turning into a fucking great wasp from the result of a union between a woman and insect. It makes the sexual innuendo between two male characters seem charmingly normal, even more so in Roger Curbishley's flashback which does flag up the closeted nature of the affair whilst also cleverly celebrating it as perhaps the most normal relationship in the entire episode. And, yeah, I'm capable of laughing at the 'ginger beer' joke too, which more than indicates this is supposed to be fun rather than a dreary social commentary on gay repression in the 1920s.
Gareth Roberts script plugs into all the wit and satire of his previous novels, particularly The English Way Of Death , and almost succeeds for the first half an hour to poke enormous fun at the detective fiction genre, fulfilling most of our expectations whilst turning some of those genre cliches inside out. An episode that's an homage to Christie gets very meta-textual when it posits the alien threat to the landed gentry, in carrying out its machinations, as its own homage to Christie's novels. It's a neat, funny idea, as is the sublime use of flashbacks where recollections, especially those of the Colonel, have sub-recollections of their own. He recounts his movements of the day, in the obligatory 'detective questions suspects' scene, but he then hilariously wanders off into a wet dream about can-can girls. Even the Doctor succumbs to a little reminiscence about an encounter with Charlemagne and a computer. Complete with wobbly dissolves and ubiquitous harp glissando, these flashbacks, the spinning newspapers, the nods to Cluedo (“Professor Peach? In the library? With the lead piping?”), are all part of the genre dressing and dissing that accompanies this kind of period drama done Doctor Who style.
Where it goes somewhat astray is in the obvious recycling of certain elements from The Shakespeare Code and Tooth And Claw where we have the shameless but irritating naming of as many Christie books as possible and Donna inspiring the creation of Miss Marple and Murder On The Orient Express. These are simply a re-hash of the equally self-indulgent throwaway Shakespeare quotes from last year. The Doctor's wonderment at the Vespiform is also too similar to his reaction to the werewolf but I'm prepared to forgive Roberts that one over the re-use of the Doctor's admonishments to Donna's embarassing attempt to go all 'received pronunciation' on the lawn.
After half an hour of parody and pastiche, expertly played and delivered it has to be said, it all comes crashing to a halt with the lightning flooded dinner scene, which resembles something out of Neil Simon's Murder By Death (perhaps more influential on this episode than even Gosford Park). The unveiling of the vicar as the culprit goes on rather too long, despite the lovely joke of the 'innocent' Colonel standing up to be counted when he should be sitting. It does unravel further with the then rushed conclusion, complete with a huge info dump, as Lady Eddison is reunited with her long lost son who then promptly turns into a wasp and chases after Christie who has in the meantime sussed out his link with the firestone gem. Donna spends the entire scene as if she's playing Cluedo very badly and the script rather overplays her supposedly funny interruptions as each suspect is interrogated. The rather clunky explanation for the Vespiform's obsession with the Christie books is a bit wince inducing at this point and the motorcar chase, going all of 10 miles per hour, isn't exactly The Sweeney and doesn't quite come off. It's then all rather hurriedly and again, clumsily, resolved by Christie chucking the gem into a lake, drowning the Vespiform and then conveniently losing her memory so that the episode can tie in with her real-life disappearance. It does strain the episode to breaking point to try and use all those elements and properly resolve the mystery. The best that can be said is that as a whole it is all very self-contained and therefore the plot isn't actually a great deal of importance here. It is simply an exercise to provide a Doctor Who explanation for Agatha's amnesia whilst, for the most part, successfully taking the piss out of the conventions of the genre.
Fenella Woolgar pretty much steals the episode with her fragile little turn as Agatha and she's got a great supporting cast too, especially in Felicity Kendall and the slightly underused Christopher Benjamin. Catherine Tate, Tom Goodman-Hill and Felicity Jones are perhaps the only ones here who get a bit of finger wagging for their off kilter performances. Goodman-Hill threatens to break into a a full rendition of Wire's I Am The Fly in his transformation sequences (or is that an homage to Timothy West in Anglia's low-rent version of Dahl's Royal Jelly ?) whilst Jones' Mockney 'it's a fair cop' moment probably means she couldn't be Nancy if she tried. Tate, meanwhile, is for the most part extremely funny and clearly shows what an asset to the show she is, but as this is one of the first episodes to be made she does tend to veer off into sounding too much like her comedy characters in some scenes. Her performance is over-heated at times but I'd put that pretty much down to enthusiasm and finding her feet. However, her leading man is both irritating - the long drawn out meeting with Agatha on the lawn punctuated by those now over-familiar, and continual, withdrawals of 'well...' after each faux compliment is dragged out again - and yet wonderful - the Give Us A Clue double act between him and Tate as she tries to help counteract the poisoning is another superb example of the comic repartee between the two actors that was established so well in Partners In Crime.
The Mill's box of tricks embellishes the proceedings with a smashingly effective CGI giant wasp and we have a lovely matte painting to support Lady Eddison's reverie about India that is simply the visual icing on the cake. Graeme Harper is right on the game until that last ten minutes where his editing and directing doesn't help to oil the grinding wheels of so much endless exposition and so little action. The car chase, as indicated earlier, is a bit perfunctory and not up to the strengths he obviously displays in the first 30 minutes where his Robert Altman meets English farce notion display his control of the actors and his panache with visuals and camera moves. In fact, I'd go as far to say that as a 'celebrity historical' this really didn't need the conventional Doctor Who alien thrills and spills to dovetail the delightfully, riotous mix of Christie's life and fiction with the upending of detective genre tropes. The Doctor Who bits tend to get in the way and it would be satisfying if just once this kind of story was simply about the historical events and the people affected by them without recourse to SF conceits like giant wasps, Carrionites and Gelth.
Now, excuse me. After such an entertaining episode, I'm off to the Ambassador's reception.
Cathode Ray Tube Doctor Who The Unicorn And The Wasp Vespiform Agatha Christie
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