TV EYE: Doctor Who, S4 E07: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Whoblogging is late this week, thanks to my trip to Cornwall (plus, I’ve also worked out that thanks to the Eurovision delay, I probably won’t be able to blog on the very last episode of S4 thanks to a holiday in Spain. Curse you, Eurovision!!!). So, without further ado…

As anyone who’s read my Who thoughts on this blog before will know, New Who dealing in full-on comedy is usually the cue for me to slap my hand to my forehead and say “Oh, for heaven’s sake…” The grittier episodes may be closer to my heavily biased idea of ‘what Who is’, but it’s also affected by the fact that the show’s version of comedy is almost always locked in one specific mode with no variation – a kind of attention-grabbing, look-at-me cartoon where everything is subserviant to lots of running about and the chance for the main performers to gurn like there’s no tomorrow. Usually definable as the “More fun to make than it is to watch” factor, it’s an aspect that New Who has utilised plenty over the last four seasons, and The Unicorn and the Wasp is positively swimming in it – taking the idea of an SF-influenced Agatha Christie pastiche (staring the author herself) and milking it for every single lame gag that can be thought of. It’s easy to tell that the production team knew this was going to be a divisive episode – the more comic stylings and the oddball storytelling decisions with the flashbacks are the hallmarks of the kind of thing they seem to define as “daring”, and it’s certainly resulted in differing reactions;- I spent most of it bored and annoyed, and noted self-confessed New Who curmudgeon despolitz has admitted to quite enjoying it.

However, one of my main problems with the episode – and with S4 as a whole – is how utterly repetitive the show is getting, and how locked it is into an idea of what Who is to the exclusion of everything else (a problem which, the production team should remember, was responsible for bringing Classic Who to its final end in 1989…). The storytelling is essentially trapped in the same “aren’t we being clever and self-referential” mode as S2’s Love and Monsters (although to not quite such an obnoxious degree), highlighting the narrative voice and pushing the audience’s face in the storytelling for no other real reason than to get a gag (it’s certainly arguable that you could have played a relatively straight version of that episode) and to do the usual get-out clause of pointing out how ridiculous the story is before the audience notice and start fidgeting. As with The Doctor’s Daughter, the pacing is cranked to an absurd level, which doesn’t fit with what they’re attempting to pastiche – a fast-paced Christie story simply comes across as melodramatic nonsense – and despite the myriad of in-jokes and a great performance from Fenella Woolgar as Christie (one of the episode’s only realy highlights), it’s more of a cartoon version of the public perception of Christie rather than a genuine pastiche in its own right, and certainly misses completely out on the sense of danger and the macabre that made watching Miss Marple (the Joan Hickson version) when I was 10 years old such an unsettling experience. There’s never any sense of danger here because the story is far too concerned with giving Catherine Tate the chance to do a comedy upper-class accent, or to recycle the “contemporary character accidentally gives literary genius inspiration” gag from The Shakespeare Code (also written by Unicorn and the Wasp’s Gareth Roberts) so many times that I lost count. Of course, the biggest problem with the episode is simply that all the cheery shennanigans and CGI wasps (What the hell happenned to aliens that actually look like aliens?) can’t disguise that this is the fourth iteration of New Who’s celebrity historical format (and the third to revolve around a literary figure undergoing a crisis), and it’s getting rather tired. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, once I’d seen a small amount of the pre-publicity, this episode would virtually write itself – and I was mostly right (although I wouldn’t have predicted the sheer awfulness of the charades-in-the-kitchen sequence). There was very little here that qualifies as a surprise – and once you’ve embraced cartoon moments like Donna with a magnifying glass accidentally blasting a giant wasp with focussed sunlight (um….), you’re into the world of anything-can-happen, and there’s no real chance of developing any suspense or intrigue. The episode becomes a runaround and an “aren’t we being jolly” spoof of whodunnits that became so insufferably smug in the last ten minutes that I was almost tempted to throw the laptop I was watching it on (via Youtube, thanks to a BBC iPlayer malfunction) out of the nearest window.

Yes, it’s a lively piece of nonsense that’s doing its job as a slice of Saturday Night entertainment for the whole family. But, goddammit, Who has the potential to be so much more than that, and has a central concept that gives such an insane level of creative freedom that it’s almost tragic to watch it being squandered this badly. Hell, this even managed to be a Graeme Harper episode that I seriously disliked (although the man did direct the Rise of the Cyberman/Age of Steel two-parter, so he’s not always a guarantee of quality), and it’s hard to work out how even the companion has essentially become a utilitarian cypher – aside from a few ‘ordinary person’ moments, I couldn’t help feeling that you could have rewritten Unicorn and the Wasp as a Doctor/Rose episode in about ten minutes, and it certainly had the same slappable tone as S2’s Tooth and Claw, as well as the feeling that instead of an actual story, we were witnessing items being ticked off on a list of plot elements. For the first three weeks, S4 did actually feel a lot stronger and more adventurous than before, and even clunkier episodes like The Fires of Pompeii were at least doing stuff the show hadn’t done before, but since the suprisingly strong Planet of the Ood we’ve been stuck on Planet Mediocrity, and the scenery is starting to get rather dull. I’m now attempting to scale my anticipation back for the much-vaunted (and certainly interesting-looking) Steven Moffatt two-parter – it doesn’t need to be as good as Blink, or Girl in the Fireplace. Frankly, if it can just manage to feel different or surprising, Moffatt will be doing better than the last four weeks…

10 thoughts on “TV EYE: Doctor Who, S4 E07: The Unicorn and the Wasp

  1. Oh. I quite enjoyed it! It added nothing to the overall Who ethos but I felt it was a bit of fun. Possibly because I’m not a Christie aficionado, so most of the references went way over my head. A few stuck out like very sore thumbs but hey, I could live with it.
    I just wish characters would stop exhaling cgi gas/breath/smoke/fairy dust every week!
    (Better than falling into a bouncy castle brain I guess?)
    Still, I’m going to be away for the first part of the Moffat 2-parter, so I’ll have to rely on my malfunctioning DVD recorder to catch it.
    I just hope it’s as good as you’re expecting it to be, Mr Bullock, as I actually found “The Doctor Dances” a bit drawn out and irritating. “Are you my mummy?” can only be creepy for so long…

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    • If you enjoyed it, sir, then all power to you. For me, there’s only so much of being beaten with the ‘fun’ stick that I can cope with, and it’s more the sheer repetitiveness and ‘Look, aren’t we being daring’ tone that annoyed me than it not being an exact Christie pastiche. (Certainly, Tennant was wandering back towards the very annoying ‘mad as a badger’ mode he was in in S2.)
      Like I said, I’m scaling my hope for the Moffatt back – and I didn’t actually adore the original Moffatt 2-parter from S1. Like you said, it was rather drawn out, and suffered from the common problem in Who 2-parters (I think Paul Cornell’s Human Nature tale is the only one that hasn’t) of not having quite enough story, and regularly grinding to a halt so everyone can sit around and chat. (Plus I didn’t like Captain Jack first time round, although Barrowman worked later on to the point where I was kinda shocked that he got exterminated in Parting of the Ways- little did I know the Torchwood-related nonsense that was coming, of course…) It’s just that after S2 and S3, I’ve gotten used to Moffat’s episodes being the highlights – and, frankly, at least it’s a story that doesn’t immediately look like it falls into any of New Who’s somewhat restrictive plot boxes, so that’s gotta be a good thing…

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  2. I agree
    You hit the nail on the head Sax, what should have been a clever episode turned into an embarrassing sham. I was disappointed that they didn’t have the imagination just to do a straight whodunnit with no monsters or aliens – that was what I was hoping for, just the Doctor using his intellect to solve a mystery. But no, too many boxes to tick. Just like the latter Bond films before Casino Royale.
    I liked Pompeii and Ood, but the rest of the series has been dreadful. My Saturday night has been Who, Lost and Galactica, but I’ve had to change that as Lost is currently kicking ass and Galactica is *the* darkest programme ever broadcast – and Who is just looking like The Chuckle Brothers in comparison.
    I keep saying it, but with episodes like Planet of the Ood, Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, The Empty Child and The Satan Pit you can see what Doctor Who *can* be and it pisses me off when it falls *so* short of that benchmark with children’s TV episodes like “The Doctor’s Daughter” and “The Sontaran Strategem”.
    I watched “Rose” the other day (if you read CJs Blog you’ll know why) and although it has many faults it just seemed more exciting, dramatic, broody, dark and dangerous (Eccleston’s influence obviously).
    RTD is out of ideas. Seriously, I’m praying Moffat is going to save this series, because I’m at the point of giving up. Yes, I’ll record it and watch it at some time, but it’ll have dropped off my essential viewing list.

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  3. Final episodes
    Hell’s teeth. I’ve just read the final episode line up on the BBC Who website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/s4/news/080519_news_01)
    Episode 8: Silence in the Library – by Steven Moffat
    Episode 9: Forest of the Dead – by Steven Moffat
    Episode 10: Midnight – by Russell T Davies
    Episode 11: Turn Left- by Russell T Davies
    Episode 12: TOP SECRET!
    Episode 13: Journey’s End – by Russell T Davies
    Wonderful. 3 episodes by RTD and Episode 12 which will no doubt be called “Rose Returns” and will feature every character that’s ever appeared in Doctor Who.
    Episode 13 sounds ominous. I know who’s journey I hope is ending…

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    • Re: Final episodes
      Just to worry you, episode 12 is by Davies as well. It’s four in a row- lord help us. And yes, the rumours suggest the cameo level is going to go through the roof…

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  4. This episode was so good …
    … I was expecting to see George Lucas in the credits.
    I thought it was “okay” (meaning mediocre and seen-it-all-before). There never seems to be quite the depth of Douglas Adams throw away humour that the current production seems to be aspiring too. It’s a pity Adams didn’t have these production values at his disposal when he was in RTD’s chair so long ago.

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    • Re: Holy Crap!!!
      I think the phrase ‘blimey’ comes to mind. I’d heard very strong rumours that this was going to happen, but it’s very good news. I don’t expect the show to abruptly metamorphose, as I’m sure there’ll be a certain amount of keeping within formula (After all, it was Moffat’s idea to resurrect Jenny at the end of The Doctor’s Daughter- not my favourite moment), but it will be extremely interesting to see where the show goes without RTD at the helm…

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