5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE UNICORN AND THE WASP
The Unicorn And The Wasp is a bit of a curate's egg.
Groaning now? Fair enough. Because groaning is what you'll be doing quite often during this episode. There's the shameless Cluedo ripoff, for a start. It's not just Professor Peach and the lead piping - most of the characters are Cluedo-related. And then there are the Agatha Christie references, which start off reasonably subtly ("Why didn't they ask…heavens!") and are progressively wedged in with increasing desperation ("I've called you here, on this endless night…" "Sparkling cyanide!" "This is a crooked house!). Could they be any archer?
Then there's the baby plot, which can only be obscure to the terminally dimwitted. Lady Eddison locks herself in a room for six months until she recovers? That sure as hell ain't malaria. And in case you'd just dropped the remote and had missed that vital plot point, they stick a whacking great teddy bear in the shot.
Obvious, however, isn't something you'd say about the wasp. Which is programmed to kill because someone was thinking about Agatha Christie and is now telepathically linked to her. And which buzzes embarrassingly as it switches form. Somehow the wasp part took over? We're still groaning, just in a different way.
Just as we are about the lack of originality. Yes, we know it's a pisstake of the genre, and that part's done pretty nicely: we like the spinning newspapers and wavy dissolves, and we especially like the way they undercut the cliché by showing what the characters were really doing in the flashbacks. However, other steals are more outrageous: the ginger beer scene directly lifted from Young Frankenstein (SEDAGIVE??!!??), and the monster child in the 1920s country house murder mystery a complete steal from Black Orchid. Then there are the too well-worn bits and pieces from other historicals: "Don't do that..." and all the dropping in of stuff the historical personage seizes on which was wince-worthy the first time.
And yet, and yet. There's a sprightliness about The Unicorn And The Wasp that's really appealing. The first two thirds of it, before the steadily-increasing heap of bollocks becomes too difficult to ignore, is despite its faults effortlessly entertaining. An excellent cast means that many moments are much funnier than the script would indicate. Some of our favourites:
The supremely unctuous vicar. "With the Lord, one is never truly alone, Doctor." If he were any slipperier, he'd leave a trail.
"There's no Noddy." Not a particularly hilarious line on the face of it, but David Tennant's delivery makes it hysterical.
"You're ever so plucky." Another stellar David Tennant delivery.
"I mean wasp that's giant!" Overdoing it a bit in the delivery, but still very funny. And we like the way she burns the wasp with the magnifying glass.
"MAIDEN! ...what does that mean?" Extra points for channelling Tom Baker.
"You crafty man!" Followed by the Doctor's smile, and the way he crashes down his teacup and lollops across the room. A fantastically played two-hander with Fenella Woolgar, clearly born to play Christie.
The pointing finger. Obvious and overstretched, but David Tennant sells it to us every time.
And of course the mysterious Eastern jewel in the crown, the ginger beer scene. Catherine Tate might still be finding her feet in this first-filmed episode of the season, and as a result playing it a bit too broadly, but nevertheless this scene is, if you'll excuse us, an absolute gem.
And it's not only the funny moments that shine, either. One of our favourite scenes is Agatha Christie castigating the Doctor for his lack of sensitivity. Not only is she right, the Doctor knows it and is suitably chastened. It takes a special woman to knock the Doctor off his perch, even momentarily, but the way these two work together makes it utterly believable.
Not everybody is given such great lines, but none of them let the side down, don'tcha know. From Felicity Kendal with her eerily glassy forehead to Christopher Benjamin, veteran of one of the great comic Who roles Henry Jago, to Adam Rayner as the sultry Roger (ha!), the cast's performances underpin the whole thing beautifully. And Graeme Harper's direction's not flashy, but it's very nicely done. (A special shout-out to the gorgeous camerawork in the ginger beer scene.)
Yes, a lot of it's silly and too clever-clever. But we're suckers for well-done comedy, and there's enough of that in here to just rescue it.
MORAL: When they ask if you'd like your drink in bitter almond flavour, say no.
THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS
How, exactly, does the wasp use the lead piping?
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
How come Lady Eddison doesn't remember she hasn't invited the Doctor? It's only a tiny party.
DO CALL ME MRS CHRISTIE
The Doctor and Donna anachronistically use first names, which nobody would have done then with people they'd just met, but nobody picks up on it. God forbid we should think people in history were different from us: surely our very brains would explode.
Pretty nice day for December (when Christie actually went missing), isn't it? Of course, if they'd set it in December the wasp angle would have been a bit of a problem.
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Can we call time now on the Doctor saying "Well"? It's getting intensely irritating.
CARVED IN STONE
Why would you just stand there and scream when a gargoyle's falling on you?
LIP LOCK SHOCK
You didn't actually think they were never going to kiss, did you? We wouldn't like to bet that's the last of it, either. But we do like the way David Tennant delivers "I mean, the detox".
What was the point of the whole Unicorn thing? It's in the title and everything, but as a subplot, it's pretty pathetic, since it barely makes an impression. Our bet is that it's only in there at all because it makes a cool title.
Why does the wasp sound like several wasps about a zillion times smaller? Several small wasps, soundwise, do not equal one big one.
"Thieves in the night"? So why is sun streaming through the windows?
BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS
"You said you were taught by the Christian fathers - meaning, raised in an orphanage." Huh?
I MAY HAVE TO CHANGE INTO SECOND GEAR
Could this be the world's slowest car chase?