In short: Nearly brilliant, but not quite.
Gareth has shown himself to be one of the few New Who writers who plugs easily into RTD’s house style. This possibly comes from years of practice with Gareth writing a number of Missing Adventures that aped Season 17. But also, I think Gareth is a very good writer. His New Series Adventure novel, Only Human, is by far the best book that series has produced (though I’ve only just started Wetworld, so I haven’t read them all and I’m happy to be proven wrong). And last years Shakespeare Code was an utter delight, full of verve and wit and academic injokes.
Gareth’s sense of humour and his naughtiness really comes to the fore in The Unicorn and the Wasp. From the moment the Doctor and Donna walk out of the TARDIS, the gags are aplenty. And because it’s about Agatha Christie and because we live in a post modern era, most of those gags are knowing and clever. The opening murder, with Mr Peach in the Library with a lead pipe speaks for itself. And then there’s the flashbacks – I LOVE the flashbacks. Not only do they service the plot, but some of them are hilarious. Especially the Belgium one with the insane computer. (I also loved the one with Henry Gordon Jago – and YAY! for Christopher Benjamin, it’s like he’s never been away – taking a gander at the naughty pictures. It was a great Homer Simpson moment).
But as funny as the episode is, I’m not sure it’s always as funny as it wants to be. The kitchen scene, for example, is chuckle worthy. But it goes on for too long and gives David far too much time to do his gurning acting. Catherine, who knows comedy like I know books by Stephen King, saves the scene with her wonderful comedic timing and the Harvey Wall Banger line. And once you reach the drawing room scene, the jokes have lost their zing. Especially the bit where Tennant is pointing to a number of suspects and implying that they might be the murderer. A joke so worn out that I’d really hoped Gareth would have avoided it. But that’s humour for you, It’s a bit hit and miss at times.
The real problem with this episode is Graeme Harper’s listless directing. As you’re watching the episode you sort of realise that Harper is struggling to keep up with the zany comedy and the running around and the fun of it all. It’s not all terrible. But the chase scene in the last fives minutes is so badly staged that it sort of undermines the ending. Just watch the Doctor and Donna run to the car… Donna especially looks like she’s being held back by a piece of rope. Also, the drawing room scene, which I really liked, needed more work. Considering how long and static it is, it needed to be a little more dynamic and more in tone with the rest of the episode. The reveal of who the murderer is simply doesn’t have the oopmh that it should have.
And while the wasp looks pretty good, something about it didn’t work for me, and I wonder if that’s something to do with the direction as well. Maybe not.
All that said, The Unicorn has one crazy plot. Only in Doctor Who could a Lady of Realm (or whatever) have sex with a giant wasp leading to the birth of a wasp child who is brought up by the Church and becomes a Reverend. I mean, that’s totally bonkers and yet, it works. In fact, as plots go, this one hangs together really well, considering that it is reasonably complex. I also loved the red herring of the Unicorn. Thrown in the title to imply significance, the reveal of the Unicorn turns out to be totally meaningless. I really did think that the Unicorn would somehow be tied into the larger story, and as a result, I didn’t pick the true motive of the murderer. Maybe that says less about the story and more about how thick I am – but I want to believe that it’s shows how nicely layered the plot is.
The actings not bad, though I do wonder whether the performances are the reason why some of the jokes don’t work. Felicity Kendall is great, and so is Henry Gordon Jago, but the rest of the cast is a bit one note. I do love the butler though. As for the actor playing Agatha Christie (whose name totally escapes me), I thought she was pretty decent without being outstanding. But then, I’m not sure what to expect from someone playing Christie. I just don’t know enough about her. The nice thing is that after watching this episode I do want to check out more about her life.
Talking about Christie, the worship of her and her place in modern fiction got a little wearying at times. But then, unlike Dickens and Shakespeare, I’ve never read any of her work. Does that make me a freak?
Overall, The Unicorn and the Wasp is New Who doing what it does best and a near perfect example of RTD’s vision of what New Who is all about. It’s witty. It’s fast paced. It’s filled with naughty, sly references (and about five gay jokes) and it’s so much fun. Yeah, it runs out of pace and yeah the direction is a bit poor, but compared to what we’ve got in the last few weeks, this episode is a real breath of fresh air.
So I’ll give it a 8 out of 10.
And – no Who next week. What will I do?!?!?!?!