Tuesday, May 20, 2008

4:7 The Unicorn and the Wasp

And the award for "Silliest episode of Doctor Who excluding those in which the villain is made of Liquorice Allsorts" goes to...

The Doctor goes back to the 1920s and meets Agatha Christie. Fine.

The Doctor finds that Agatha Christie is embroiled in an Agatha Christie mystery. OK: roughly what we'd expect.

The Agatha Christie story in which Agatha Christie is embroiled isn't an actual Agatha Christie story: it's a BBC adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, full of televisual devices like flashbacks and scenes from the P.O.V of the murderer.

I'm a Holmes man, myself, but didn't actual Christie stories take place on exotic locations like the Nile, the Orient Express, the Clouds and so on? And weren't her actual characters rather less generic than Nervous Country Clergyman and Stiff Lipped Anglo Indian? Isn't this, in fact, Agatha Christie as imagined by people who haven't actually read many many Agatha Christie stories, pretty much as last week was Doctor Who as remembered by people who haven't actually seen many Doctor Who stories? I mean, the opening scene: Prof. Peach is murdered in the library with the lead piping. That's not from Christie; that's from a board game that was a parody of Agatha Christie. First published 1949.

But this isn't even Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel: this is Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel in which an evil shape shifting alien is deliberately and consciously acting out an Agatha Christie story. But it's more complicated than that: this fictitious alien-organized murder-mystery party is the explanation of the real mystery of why Agatha Christie disappeared for a fortnight in 1926. And it also turns out that's the place where she got the ideas for many of her best stories.

In short: what we have here is yet another example of Doctor Who chasing it's tail round and round in ever decreasing circles and eventually disappearing up its own eye of harmony.

There's no mystery about Agatha Christie's disappearance. She ran away because she was distressed after learning that her husband had got a young woman pregnant, although, in his defense, he always claimed that it was the policeman who did it.

We all miss you, Humph.

I found the solution to the metafictional mystery, which involved an evil shape shifting alien insect, only slightly more unsatisfactory than one of Christie's own. But that may very well have been the point.

No West End Theater manager today would consider staging a three act whodunit; such things are purely the province of church hall amateur theatrical societies. The Mouse Trap is not even especially good of it's kind: I'm told by people who know that Ten Little Wassissnames is a much better example of the genre. Yet The Mouse Trap limps on for forty, fifty, sixty years, famous for being famous, a mummified relic of the way theater used to be half a century ago. Christie's stories are not rooted in police procedure, or forensics, or logical deduction, or a particularly subtle understanding of character. Her twists endings surprise us; not because of what they say about the real world or her imagined world, but because they break the rules of the detective genre. The corpse dunit. The first person narrator dunit. The detective dunit. Everybody dunit. No-body dunit.

The analogy between Agatha Christie and Doctor Who is left as an exercise for the reader.







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30 comments:

Tom said...

"didn't actual Christie stories take place on exotic locations like the Nile, the Orient Express, the Clouds and so on? And weren't her actual characters rather less generic than Nervous Country Clergyman and Stiff Lipped Anglo Indian?"

Sadly, no. Christie's characters are cardboard stereotypes to an almost fanatical degree. "Americans are so modern" being one phrase I remember from Orient Express. People can be predicted by both their nationalities and professions.

A handful of her locations - the most memorable, of course - are exotic (the ones you mention), but most are the usual bland run of country houses (4.50 From Paddington, Mysterious Affair at Styles), Famous Five-style Cornwall holiday resorts (Evil Under the Sun) and, more than anything else, the cozy village settings with high murder rates later to be prowled by John Nettles in Midsomer Murders.

Andrew Stevens said...

I agree with Tom. Christie's locations and characters are generally not very interesting. And I like Agatha Christie. (My older brother owned her every book when I was a kid, so I read them all. I too am a Doyle man, but I still have a nostalgic affection for Christie.)

Most of Christie's endings aren't particularly twist endings either. The murderer is generally someone with a perfectly sensible motive and not terribly surprising. Most of her "twists" are that the murder was carried out in a particularly ingenious way so the murderer has an airtight alibi or the murderer had a hidden motive which doesn't get uncovered until the end or the murderer was trying to kill somebody else and accidentally poisoned the victim, so the murderer has no motive against the actual victim.

Her most well-known stories do indeed have those big twists, though. Although I'm not sure she ever used "nobody dunit." In And Then There Were None, she used the corpse dunit and a setup which implied that it was impossible for anyone to have dunit.

Agatha Christie, with Murder on the Orient Express (everybody dunit) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the first-person narrator dunit) and The Mousetrap (the detective dunit) more or less used up every possible resolution that one could include in a murder mystery, with one notable exception that nobody has yet used. The reader dunit.

Gavin Burrows said...

I'm a Holmes man, myself…

As I suspect will be most assembled here. But Holmes meeting the Doctor would be too close to the Doctor meeting the Doctor. (Which of course they’d never do.)

…but didn't actual Christie stories take place on exotic locations like the Nile, the Orient Express, the Clouds and so on?

You’re probably thinking of the film adaptions, which tended to take a shine to the Grand Tour idea. And Then There Were None has been filmed about everywhere apart from the original location, off the coast of Devon.

But this isn't even Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel: this is Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel in which an evil shape shifting alien is deliberately and consciously acting out an Agatha Christie story.

The fundamental weakness seemed to me that it couldn’t decide whether it was a parody or an example of the Christie genre, while either might have done. There were plenty of examples of parody (the lead piping, the Doctor milking the
‘revelation’ scene). But we also seemed expected to take the whodunnit business seriously. For that to work, it has to be conceivable that we could get it. The best whodunnits aren’t those where you say “what a brilliant unguessable twist”, they’re where you kick yourself for not having got it – “oh of course it was him!” That doesn’t square well with shape-shifting carpet-pulling alien who can bend the rules of reality and do impossible, unguessable things. You can combine whodunnits with SF, I seem to remember a Blake’s Seven episode doing it.

PS We all deserve praise for collectively avoiding the obvious Whodunnit joke…

Gavin Burrows said...

Oops, apologies, paras 1, 3 and 5 should have been ascribed to Andrew!

Andrew Stevens said...

As I suspect will be most assembled here. But Holmes meeting the Doctor would be too close to the Doctor meeting the Doctor. (Which of course they’d never do.)

Let's hope that every production team has the good sense not to have the Doctor meet a fictional character (unless it's in the Land of Fiction, of course). Having the Doctor with Arthur Conan Doyle could be interesting, but best not.

nickpheas said...

I read my first Agatha Christie the other day. Indeed, cardboard characters, and it turned out that the obvious villain of the piece was in fact the murderer.

The perhaps interesting thing, that is lost on us now, was that Christie was writing a period piece. Is this common throughout? In 1923 she's writing a book set against the backdrop of the Great War. Should the rest be considered historicals or reportage?

Mark Goodacre said...

Great review -- made me smile. Not the best outing on the current series. Nevertheless, lots of fun.

Do you not give your rating with your reviews?

Was referred to your blog by RPG.

Phil Masters said...

You can combine whodunnits with SF, I seem to remember a Blake’s Seven episode doing it.

If that was a serious remark, someone hasn't read enough.

(Oh, Gil the ARM and Luke Garner, The Demolished Man - though that's technically an open mystery, Lije Baley, Queen of Angels... Though the formal detective story requires a certain amount of playing fair with the reader, and while hard SF writers are completely happy with that sort of formality, Doctor Who is quite militantly sloppy as a point of principle.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Partners in Crime: 1
Fires of Pompeii: 2
Planet of the Ood: 3
Sontaran Stratagem: 4
Posion Sky: 4
Doctor's Daughter: 2
Unicorn and the Wasp: 2

Andrew Stevens said...

Nick, which novel did you read? From your description, I assume you read Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published in 1920 and set during World War I because that's when she wrote it. (And, indeed, the murderer is the obvious villain of the piece, although that's a fairly unfair description of the book, since there is, at one point, a very good reason to think he didn't do it.) Christie rarely did period pieces.

The woman did publish 80 novels and wrote books that were considerably better than her first one. Like most writers, she got better with age, and then declined. And Then There Were None is a classic of the genre and the Christie novel I most recommend.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said:
Let's hope that every production team has the good sense not to have the
Doctor meet a fictional character (unless it's in the Land of Fiction, of
course).


Wasn't this episode already effectively set in the Land of Fiction? (Unless you’re distinguishing it from the Land of Metafiction?)

Phil Masters said...
If that was a serious remark, someone hasn't read enough.

What a strange comment! So your complaint would be I only
used one example where several would suffice? (At least you didn't
take it so far as to mention Asimov!)

Andrew Stevens said:
Christie rarely did period pieces.

Not even by the end of her life? (Not arguing, just asking!) We definitely see them as period pieces now, as much as Holmes stories. A large part of the appeal must be going back to an imagined time where events were (ultimately) explicable. (They sometimes hinted they’d be going into why Christie is so popular, but never really did. That might have been something more interesting.)

Ways whodunnits shouldn't really end:
i) "No of course the vicar didn't leave footprints in the shrubbery, because he
had a secret anti-gravity belt, didn't I mention it?"
ii) "So nobody saw the Butler entering the Pantry because, as things turn out,
he was given an invisibility ray by the Mettleglennusians."

Andrew Stevens said...

Sorry, Gavin, I was being intolerably fanboyish. The Land of Fiction is where the second Doctor story The Mind Robber is set. It's actually a very good story (really) and, in it, the Doctor meets Gulliver, Rapunzel, Cyrano de Bergerac, Sir Lancelot, and quite a number of other fictional characters. They are brought to life, by the by, through the usual scientific gobbledegook. It was not meant to be a metaphysical commentary on where fictional characters really come from.

I'm not sure I could stand the Doctor meeting Sherlock Holmes in real Victorian England, though I'm sure he probably did in one of the books.

I'm not sure Christie did even by the end of her life. Most of her stories are rather unlocked in time, vaguely occurring at some point after World War I, but before 1970. However, she did write Curtain and Sleeping Murder 30 years before they were published, so they had become period pieces by the time they were published. But they weren't written that way.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said:
Sorry, Gavin, I was being intolerably fanboyish.

No, I'm sorry, I was being wilfully obtuse! This story was set in a land of fiction, albeit with a small 'f'. That was all I meant!

Helen Louise said...

My housemates loved this episode (although one said it would have been better without the wasp, and more like the Black Orchid... that 1920s one with Peter Davison). Have to say, it was a relief to think "Oh, Andrew Rilstone will agree with me!" Yes, that's the way I think. You're probably scared right now...

Lots of things bothered me, most notably the fact that the story was ostensibly set in the summer and Agatha Christie vanished on the third of December. It's my birthday, in fact, so I'd remember! The Professor Peach stuff annoyed me too. I almost expected Donna to say, "Hold on Doctor, this is ridiculous. You're traveling the whole of space and time in a police box and I'm Catherine Tate. We've just met Agatha Christie and by some amazing coincidence it's the day before she disappeared and an alien's involved. Either this is a prime-time BBC TV programme or God is actually Russell T Davies."

What bothered me about this episode - and the previous one, actually - was that it could have been improved just by putting in a bit of work. Some research and a proper mystery would have made it so much better. Sigh.

Mike Taylor said...

What bothered me about this episode - and the previous one, actually - was that it could have been improved just by taking out a bit of work. The Unicorn and the Wasp would have been much better without the wasp, and The Doctor's Daughter would have been much better without the Doctor's daughter. Cramming all that stuff in meant that neither episode had time to breathe, so that the good thing they did have to offer were never developed beyond "interesting idea".

Ah well: I have high hopes for next week, not just because it's Steven Moffat (hurrah!) but because it's the first of a two-parter, which seem to be pretty reliably better than one-shots.

Phil Masters said...

So your complaint would be I only used one example where several would suffice?

More the implication in your phrasing that the best evidence for this was one episode from a TV series from decades ago (which even you only "seem to remember"), when there are scores of novels and short stories to illustrate the point.

(At least you didn't take it so far as to mention Asimov!)

Ahem. Lije Baley.

Phil Masters said...

I'm not sure I could stand the Doctor meeting Sherlock Holmes in real Victorian England, though I'm sure he probably did in one of the books.

All-Consuming Fire, apparently. With added Cthulhu Mythos.

But I'm just going by the descriptions here; I haven't read it.

SK said...

'it's the first of a two-parter, which seem to be pretty reliably better than one-shots.'

Someone can't remember as far back as last year.

Gavin Burrows said...

Helen Louise said...
… one said it would have been better without the wasp, and more like the

Black Orchid... that 1920s one with Peter Davison…



Agreed. And even if it had to be an alien, why a giant wasp? It felt like

they’d started with that paperback cover at the end and then worked backwards.


Phil Masters said...

More the implication in your phrasing that the best evidence for this was

one episode from a TV series from decades ago



And why on earth would somebody want to post a comment about an old

science fiction TV series on this blog?


SK said…

Someone can't remember as far back as last year.


If we were to take an average (ie remembering a bit further back than last
year), I think most would agree the two-parters tend to turn out better. (Along with the argument ‘the ones written by Moffatt tend to turn out better
than those that weren’t. So next time both rules work in our favour!)

…that’s two people in a row with this ‘someone’ thing! Guys, if you really need
to be reminded of anyone’s name you can always use the scrollbar at the right
hand side of your screen to get back where you were.

Andrew Stevens said...

It felt like they’d started with that paperback cover at the end and then worked backwards.

Further evidence for this theory - the wholly pointless Unicorn subplot. Presumably this was meant to throw up red herrings, but it didn't even do that. So one has to suspect that the title came first and the episode was written around the title.

I must confess I hated this episode. Given how enjoyable many people seem to have found it (and I was enjoying it until we got into the Accusing Parlour, where it became very boring for a good ten minutes and then excessively irritating), I feel a little guilty about how much I disliked this one. Perhaps I'll re-evaluate it when the DVD comes out.

Two-parters in Doctor Who:

Aliens of London/World War III - quite bad.

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances - extremely good.

Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways - decent.

Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel - certainly decent.

The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit - quite good.

Army of Ghosts/Doomsday - not much substance, but watchable.

Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks - decent first part, terrible second part.

Human Nature/The Family of Blood - excellent.

The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords - abysmal.

The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky - good.

So, yes, I agree with Gavin, two-parters do tend to turn out better on average. I'm not sure I agree with Mike Taylor that this is reliable, but I do think it's generally true. Note that the weaker two-parters have been penned by Davies or Helen Raynor. (She redeemed herself with the Sontaran two-parter this season, though and Davies's two-parters are a mixed bag, they're not all bad.)

nickpheas said...

Andrew Stevens asked...
"Nick, which novel did you read? From your description, I assume you read Mysterious Affair at Styles"

Indeed, chosen by virtue of being on the Aussie Project Gutenberg and little else.

Mike Taylor said...

So, yes, I agree with Gavin, two-parters do tend to turn out better on average. I'm not sure I agree with Mike Taylor that this is reliable, but I do think it's generally true.

Hey! I said "pretty reliable"!

Actually, was for some reason thinking of the 4/5 and 9/10 two-parters, but not the season-enders, which seem to be somehow a different category. But I do agree that Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords was the worst story in the whole of New Who, with the Resurrection Scene at the end being the only time I've actually physically squirmed with embarrassment.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said...
Further evidence for this theory - the wholly pointless Unicorn subplot. Presumably this was meant to throw up red herrings, but it didn't even do that.

The phrase I am looking for is “yes:.

So, yes, I agree with Gavin, two-parters do tend to turn out better on average.

Well, it’s probably pretty self-selecting. They spot the better episodes and bump ‘em up to two parts. And there’s been some good one-parters, like Blink.

PS Apologies for the fact my previous post was laid out

like a

bad poem

I don’t know what that was about.

Andrew Stevens said...

Hey! I said "pretty reliable"!

Actually, was for some reason thinking of the 4/5 and 9/10 two-parters, but not the season-enders, which seem to be somehow a different category. But I do agree that Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords was the worst story in the whole of New Who, with the Resurrection Scene at the end being the only time I've actually physically squirmed with embarrassment.


Sorry to misquote you, Mr. Taylor. I assure you it wasn't intentional.

I've squirmed in embarrassment only four times that I can remember during the new series. The first time was throughout Aliens of London/World War III. (I liked Boomtown though, but I was wincing when I saw the Slitheen were coming back.) I thought it was just a cultural difference. Here in the U.S., we relegate jokes about flatulence to bad Eddie Murphy films, aimed at children with no taste. I was happy to see, therefore, that Mr. Rilstone agrees with me on this.

The second time was the last fifteen minutes of Love and Monsters as soon as the Absorbaloff appears on screen and particularly during the painful blowjob joke.

The third time was during that dreadful Olympic torch scene in Fear Her. In fairness to the writer, I assume that the whole "that must mean hope has died, no wait, some guy we've never seen before is going to grab the torch and light the flame himself, without being tackled by security" bit sounded better in his head than it was on screen, but dear God, who allowed that to go through unedited?

The fourth time was virtually all of Last of the Time Lords, but certainly the floating Jesus thing with everybody clapping their hands and saying, "I do believe in fairies" was the worst bit.

Mike Taylor said...

One day, one of us will post a list of favourite bits of New Who :-)

Sometimes it's hard to believe that we are mostly fans.

Andrew Stevens said...

One of the reasons why I always preferred Doctor Who fans to fans of other shows is that Doctor Who fans didn't tend to take their show too seriously. I like Star Wars, particularly Empire Strikes Back, but whenever I would remark in front of Star Wars fans that Lucas was a terrible writer of dialogue and couldn't direct performance and the first movie really suffered from this, they'd be ready to form a lynch mob. (Perhaps not anymore, as George Lucas dramatically demonstrated how right I was with three terrible films.) But I could always criticize anything in the first 26 seasons of Doctor Who and Doctor Who fans would either agree or disagree, but nobody would get bent out of shape about it.

The new show seems to be developing into an exception to this, if Outpost Gallifrey is anything to go by, which is a pity. E.g. it is impossible to criticize anything about the new show without some fan immediately using the tu quoque fallacy and claiming that the old show did it too at some point. This happens regardless of whether you mention the old show or not, oddly enough. The obvious response to this is both A) of course it did, the show lasted 26 years and did pretty much everything in that span and B) so what? If I complain about an episode being over-the-top ridiculous, it does not chasten me if someone points out that the whole of Season 24 was over-the-top ridiculous as well. Season 24 was terrible.

Part of this is merely an over-sensitivity to criticism, probably because the new show is pulling in fans who have never really been fans of anything before, and don't understand the fan ethic. Allow me to quote Paul Cornell, Martin Day, and Keith Topping from the preface to their wonderful "Discontinuity Guide":

"A Doctor Who video is a cheap way of getting back a slice of your youth or glimpsing a world you have never seen but have heard so much about. But the harsh reality is that sometimes the video disappoints: the first few minutes produce a rush of nostalgia, but then a bit of bad acting slips in, or a set wobbles, or the first alien made out of egg boxes and tin foil appears. You feel cheated: it's as if your childhood has been made counterfeit.

"Such criticism seems to be an inherent component of devotion: to really love something you have to want to take it apart. So we detail goofs and blunders because they're there, committed for all eternity to the merciless amber of video. We don't list such flaws because of an ignorance of the nature and development of television. TV drama, in the 60s and 70s, was almost exclusively 'event-orientated,' in as much as programmes were designed to be viewed once and then probably never seen again. Certainly, directors in the 1960s could never have envisaged a time when their work would be available for purchase in the High Street, let alone subjected to frame-by-frame scrutiny. Even if they had wanted perfection, the constraints they worked under made this impossible. Most mistakes just had to stay.

"We only mock Doctor Who because we are here to celebrate the fan way of watching television, a close attention to detail matched by a total willingness to take the mickey."

My favorite episodes of the new show, which rank right up there with the classics of the old include: Dalek, Father's Day, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, School Reunion, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Smith and Jones, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, and Blink. I would probably include Utopia had it not been followed by the two episodes that did follow. My only serious objection to the new series is how inconsistent its quality is. To a certain extent that's an occupational hazard of being a Doctor Who fan. On a show which can do anything, sometimes this is taken too literally by the writers. E.g. the first rule of science fiction is: you don't rewind time. Yes, you can do it. No, you shouldn't.

Louise H said...

I think that there are different ways of being a fan, dependent on the show as well as the individual. For instance Buffy fans didn't, in my experience, tend to pick holes in the plots- they were too busy critiquing the characters. Robin Hood fans (yes, they do exist) don't dare even start to point out plot holes because they know the entire edifice will fall on top of them, so they confine themselves to lusting after the actors. B5 fans tended to judge episodes mainly on the amount and complexity of plot arc, and otherwise they just grumbled about the dialogue a lot.

It is possible that the way of being a fan of old Who is not entirely appropriate to new Who. But as long as everyone's enjoying themselves, it probably doesn't matter.

Favourite moments; the Doctor meets the Dalek in "Dalek". And the mobile phone call between Doctor and Master in "Sound of Drums". I can forgive an awful lot of rubbish for those two.
I don't know whether the ability to note but forgive rubbish makes me a fan or not, but I'm getting quite good at it. Must be all the Torchwood I've been watching...

Andrew Stevens said...

Different shows have different weaknesses. Doctor Who, of course, has had every kind of weakness. Nobody complains about the plot holes in the Pertwee years because Terrance Dicks rarely let plot holes get to the screen. So we complain about how Earthbound it is or how repetitive it is or the CSO or how Pertwee's Doctor was always patronizing Jo (or how Jo was such a weak character she deserved to be patronized). If we're criticizing Hartnell, we complain about the slow pace or William Hartnell fluffing his lines. If it's Troughton, we complain about the ten Cybermen stories in a row all taking place in a base under siege. If it's Tom Baker, we complain about his overacting. If it's JNT, we complain about the stunt casting, the pantomime, Colin Baker's costume, or those damn question marks. And, of course, we can always complain about the special effects. Even the new show is no exception. Modern CGI still looks remarkably cartoony; I am amazed at how overpraised it is currently. In 30 years, people will be laughing at it.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said:
“One of the reasons why I always preferred Doctor Who fans to fans of other shows is that Doctor Who fans didn't tend to take their show too seriously.”

Old Who in particular had much more of an anthology feel than many science fiction shows. So you can criticise individual storylines without feeling like you’re pulling down the whole edifice.

But there’s more to it than that, I think…A lot of what appeals about Doctor Who is its less tangible, more subjective qualities – it’s charm, it’s quirkiness, it’s willingness to embrace the absurd. It has the character of its protagonist in many ways. That makes it a very different prospect from something like Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica, even with New Who. So I don’t care much about the odd ropey effect nor the frequent plot holes. I can laugh at them without that marring my enjoyment, in fact they become part of my overall enjoyment.

Nearest thing to Who in my mind would be Jack Kirby’s comics, which are frequently grandiose and ludicrous – but if they weren’t they wouldn’t be themselves! It’s like knowing someone whose foibles also help make them endearing.

Modern CGI still looks remarkably cartoony; I am amazed at how overpraised it is currently. In 30 years, people will be laughing at it.

In thirty years? I was laughing at it all the way through Lazarus Experiment.

Andrew Stevens said...

Gavin, excellently said. One of the best succinct things I've ever heard anyone say about Doctor Who. Were I to guess, I'd say the reason new Who doesn't have that same feel is that it's much more of a coherent whole than an anthology show nowadays. A pity, really.

Obviously I agree about the CGI, but the majority of people seem to disagree with us. I loved Peter Jackson's Fellowship, but Return of the King was just buried by all the cartoony CGI. But, in reading reviews, it seems like I'm one of the only people who thinks this. And Doctor Who's CGI doesn't reach the level of Peter Jackson's.