Monday, May 19, 2008

Caught by the fuzz while I was still on a buzz

Ah, I knew I'd be able to come up with a song lyric title eventually.

So, The Wasp and the Unicorn. I'd place this one below Planet of the Ood but slightly above The Doctor's Daughter, somewhere around a 7. (In view of which I'm going to fix Daughter at a 7, but I'm also going to re-evaluate The Fires of Pompeii from an 8 to a 7, because I think it's more or less on a par with both these episodes.)

I went through a phase of reading Agatha Christie novels in my teens. (It was around the same time as my phase of reading PG Wodehouse and my phase of reading Jeffrey Archer. Dear god, why Archer, you ask? Because it was what the school bookshop stocked. It was that or David Eddings, and I had to draw the line somewhere.) What I learned from that experience was that Christie wrote in a formulaic way, but that you still couldn't necessarily predict the murderer's identity because some vital but absurd bit of information would be withheld until the last minute.

Some years later my erstwhile housemate, the estimable Dr Pittard, explained to me the real value of Christie's oeuvre ("or egg") - she may have had her shortcomings in some areas, but she had a real talent for engineering new ways for the crime genre to work. The murderer had to be the least likely candidate, not simply in narrative terms, but in terms of their mechanical function within the story. One of the victims did it. Everybody did it. The narrator did it. The policeman did it. The detective did it. Maybe you did it. Where were you on the night of Chapter Two?

So this might be seen as a kind of reversal of Gareth Roberts' previous New Who, The Shakespeare Code. The greatest asset of aspiring actor and jobbing hack writer Shakespeare was his understanding of human nature, yet the witches in The Shakespeare Code are after him for his technical ability. Only he can write the pseudo-magic incantation that will release the rest of their kind (or rather, as it turns out, only he can act as a flopping puppet through which they can channel the incantation, so really they might just as well write it themselves... oh, anyway, it's bulwarks). Here, on the other hand, the Doctor needs the help of genre technician Agatha Christie to unravel a murder mystery because only she supposedly understands human nature well enough. Hmmmm.

If Christie really were brought in to work on this story, she'd just wait around until the third murder, throw in a red-herring jewel thief (so far, so good), then contrive some way for the least likely possible candidate to have dunnit. By that token, it really would have been more appropriate if the culprit had been "You, Donna Noble!" or "You, Agatha Christie!" It's not all that Christiesque that the vicar should have dunnit; perversely, it's more fitting that the murderer turns out to be a giant alien wasp. Naturally there's an unlikely family connection disclosed at the last minute ("I loved him, even though at night he transformed into a giant wasp" - what?!). It's ridiculous, but not much more so than Hercule Poirot's Christmas.

What is ridiculous is the vicar's bzzzzzing just before he metamorphoses. I know, I know - it's the vibration of the wings that makes the buzzing sound, not the wasp saying "bzzzzz". That's not why it's ridiculous. He's an alien giant wasp, after all, and in any case a wasp that size ought to sound like a Chinook helicopter close up, so it's not as if they weren't already taking liberties. No no, it's just figging ridiculous.

But it's a comedy episode and therefore can be forgiven much. The shoehorned Christie title references are often quite laboured, but the story overall is a pleasant bit of fluff. Still though, halfway through the season and still no episodes I'd particularly want to get on DVD. Sigh. Next week, the Doctor faces a Dirty Two Dozen of bad pop acts. Oh no, wait, it's Eurovision.


Christopher Pittard said...

"Estimable Dr Pittard"... hot damn, that's going straight on the CV. The Gerald Heard website have me down as 'distinguished', though.

The most ingenious bluff about this episode was the expectation that Felicity Kendal would do something. Anything. I don't know, perhaps finding out that your partner is really a giant wasp leaves you psychologically broken (and not broken in the cod-psychology sense, I mean absolutely busted into pieces). I think it might, y'know. And the cramming of Christie titles into the script was just silly. Incidentally, why are literary figures such privileged historical figures in nu Who (Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie)? I look forward to the 2010 series in which the Zarbi are the big comeback monsters and the doctor hooks up with Syd Barrett to defeat the Parmaynu (sentient gas creatures, of course), prompting a flurry of Pink Floyd references (a kind of Billie Piper at the Gates of Dawn...)

John Toon said...

True, true, true. And you've been saving that "Billie Piper at the Gates of Dawn" joke for four years, I just know you have.

Re Famous Historical People, it's true enough that in Old Who they used to be throwaway gags or else there to be debunked, and meanwhile the Common Man could get on with carrying the story. But we live in the Age of the Celebrity, and so it goes.

Christopher Pittard said...

Actually, the Billie Piper joke was pure instantaneous inspiration (and has now been nabbed for Darwin's Doughnuts) thanks to a look over at my CD rack and a couple of 'bad pun' synapses clicking into place - my original plan was to go for some kind of Atom Heart Mother strangulation ("at 'em, earth mother!" You can see Tennant bellowing it, can't ya?).

John Toon said...


Thoughts on the other hand re Famous Historical People in New Who: at least if all the historical people the Doctor proclaims "genius" (apparently on the slightest evidence) are literary, it might get Da Kidz interested in books. You can't underestimate the value of these things.

Of course, the other historical "genius" the Doctor's teamed up with, the only non-literary one, was Mme de Pompadour, so I suppose there's also the tiniest chance New Who might get Da Kidz interested in shagging the King of France. Still, I'm pretty sure that won't happen in the majority of cases.

And besides, she was in that story for a valid plot reason, and not just so that the Doctor could fangush all over her. That too, obviously, but not just that - cf with, for example, Dickens. I'm not counting Queen Victoria in all of this, by the way, because she was clearly not the main focus of her episode but merely second fiddle to a werewolf, and she also wasn't officially declared a "genius".

Coming in 2015: the Twelfth Doctor nips back in time and meets celebrity inflatable doll Jordan, in a story in which her grotesque false tits strangely prove key to the plot, and the Doctor tries but can't quite bring himself this time to call her a "genius".