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Doctor Who 4[XXX].7: The Unicorn and the Wasp

May 17th, 2008 (08:38 pm)

First thing, of course, peerage titles. I winced at 'Lady Clemency Eddison' being shortened to 'Lady Eddison' as if she's a peeress, in the 1920s she would almost certainly have been introduced as 'Lady Eddison' or at most 'Clemency, Lady Eddison'. I imagine that she is only the second holder of the title (and unless there is a younger sister we don't see, the last), her father having been ennobled for his military service and allowed a special remainder allowing the peerage to pass to his daughters and the heirs male of their bodies, like Roberts and Kitchener. They got 'the Honourable Roger Curbishley' right, though. Realistically, not very many people in the audience are going to be bothered by this sort of thing, apart from me.

The Unicorn and the Wasp was a more successful script and production, I thought, than The Shakespeare Code, Gareth Roberts's other 'celebrity historical' last year. While The Shakespeare Code struggled and failed to say something about the power of words to shape the universe, as if belatedly trying to answer Logopolis (which answered itself), The Unicorn and the Wasp concentrated on having fun. It was good to see Christopher Benjamin in the series again, though when I saw he was cast I wondered whether he'd be playing an elderly Henry Gordon Jago, meeting up with the Doctor again forty years after the events of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Instead he was a sort of Chatterley-in-reverse, pretending to be wheelchair-bound so as to stop his wife running off with gamekeepers. Mind you, if the male staff are all like Davenport, there will be no threats to Lady Eddison's fidelity there.

Despite all manner of factors, I've never got into crime novels, but the template seemed to be one familiar from television adaptations and of course Cluedo - in modern-day Doctor Who as few people as possible were left out. There were knowing uses of cliché, including jokey flashback sequences and anachronistic-looking spinning newspaper front pages. On Doctor Who Confidential Russell T Davies revealed that the inspiration for the episode's villain was the cover for an edition of Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds which he first saw about 1969; but most of the references to book titles were enuniciated in such a way that the attentive viewer would have guessed without knowing. On re-viewing the episode the pointers towards the killer being the vicar are present from the beginning, but for a long section of the episode I was misled into thinking that the villain was Lady Eddison, until Revd Golightly revealed his vespiform nature.

The 'unicorn' element was a bit of a red herring and underdeveloped as a threat, but I suppose that Charles, the seducing father-vespiform, was in a fuzzy sort of way a unicorn as well, attracted to the virginal Clemency in Delhi. Once the thieving Unicorn was exposed (and isn't she from another strain of fiction than Christie, or am I confused as I only know all this at third hand?) the actress and the character had nothing to do. I wondered whether this episode could have been dropped in earlier in the season; I think it was the first made for the season, after Voyage of the Damned and before Planet of the Ood, and there is something about the Doctor-Donna relationship which suggest it could have gone out second or third.

Steven Moffat, in two weeks...


Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: May 17th, 2008 10:37 pm (UTC)

The Vicar Didit! Excellent. Sounds fun- can't wait to see it.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 17th, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)

It's good lighthearted stuff which managed to be sufficiently 'serious about what it did, but not necessarily about the way it did it' to overcome any reservations about silliness.

Posted by: Polly (jane_somebody)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 08:44 am (UTC)

It bothered me too! When they were introduced to 'Lady Clemency Eddison' I assumed she was maybe a Duke's daughter, and couldn't understand why she was then addressed as 'Lady Eddison' rather than 'Lady Clemency'; when it turned out she was a peeress in her own right, I was most annoyed by the misleading introduction.

I did also immediately spot that Unicorn-woman was not proper Society for saying 'toilet', though I think for that period she should more likely have said 'lavatory' rather than 'loo' as Donna suggested. I am willing to be proved wrong on this minor point though, since the two are more or less interchangeable at least by now.

However, I'll admit to being mistaken in one of my original niggles. I was surprised at first by the author being addressed as 'Mrs Christie', but I had my biography out of order, and it was indeed only later that she became 'Mrs Mallowan'.

I did enjoy playing 'spot the title', though Skordh, who has read very few of them, didn't notice they were doing it until I pointed it out, so I don't think it was over-obvious. Having quickly checked a bibliography this morning, I think the only one I missed at the time was 'N or M', for which I'm mildly annoyed with myself, since in retrospect that one was really obvious!

Posted by: Andy (alitalf)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 08:53 am (UTC)

I too have never got into crime novels, so probably missed out on some of the references. In general Dr Who seems to pay too little attention to gross impossibilities that I can spot - some of the scientific ones. It is not necessary, I am sure that an enterprising scriptwriter could have come up with something more convincing than a small lens focusing sunlight at more than twenty times its focal length and inconveniencing - well - anything or anyone, actually.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 09:17 am (UTC)

I didn't notice that was wrong until lil_shepherd pointed it out; but then I am a scientific ignoramus, perhaps a consequence of too much implausible Who.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 09:19 am (UTC)

It bothered me too!

Of course, in these New Labour days, we have people like Lord Levy publishing books in which they give their names as 'Lord Michael Levy', which suggests he is the son of a duke or a marquess rather than a peer himself. *sigh*

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 09:30 am (UTC)

who_daily has summarised my post as "parrot_knight explains to the Who writers - Aristocratic Titles: UR doin it rong."

Posted by: muuranker (muuranker)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC)

I was also bothered by the Unicorn saying she went to the toilet. Yes, it was the wrong register (I too vote for 'lavatory'), but I think from reading books of the period, the word is only used by people _not_ in (possible) connection with urinating (so Our Hero can discover the cyanide bottle has been hidden in a cupboard in the lavatory, or Our Heroine can dash into the toilet and grab a towel. But if they arrive, hot sticky and dusty from a train without a corridor (in the days before decent anti-persiprants), they _went and had a wash_. Not mentioning the name of the room.

as to The Unicorn being from 'another strain of fiction' - the jewel-thief-in-the-big-house is more Whimsey than Poirot, I think. Oddly enough, there's a very good Whimsey short, with a jewel thief who is spotted by Lord Peter in line one because of the delivery (in French) of the line 'What! Do you think I'm an idot?'.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
Davison Clock

Trust Lord Peter to get it right; though Black Orchid was perhaps more his territory...

Posted by: muuranker (muuranker)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 09:14 pm (UTC)

The jewel thief was correctly spelled, of course. Idiot! Duh!

Double idiot for the lack of a ")" somewhere along the line.

Posted by: Delia (chainmailmaiden)
Posted at: May 19th, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC)

I thought they were being a bit obvious with the titles & it annoyed me, but then it doesn't take much to annoy me with new Who :-)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 19th, 2008 07:57 pm (UTC)

Interestingly, Andrew Billen in The Times thought that the story would have benefited from a second episode, allowing more development for the characters and more plot. I have to say that while I like most of what the Doctor Who team do when it works well, and I think doing The Unicorn and the Wasp as a comedy with tricksy viewpointing worked, if the same energy and thought was put into doing a more traditional plot-led story (as I felt wasn't done with The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky) then I'd be very happy.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 11:04 am (UTC)
Doctor Who

isn't she from another strain of fiction than Christie, or am I confused as I only know all this at third hand?

If you're thinking of Raffles, then she is indeed from another author (I haven't read any Raffles and know it mainly from George Orwell's essay on the books; I have read a fair bit of Agatha Christie, though).

I thought the story was fun but insubstantial and flawed. More on my own blog later, hopefully.

By the way, did I miss your post on The Doctor's Daughter or did you not review it?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 18th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC)

I'm not sure if she is all that Raffles-ish specifically, but calliope85 will know, if she is looking in.

I've not reviewed The Doctor's Daughter yet, though it looks as though I might as well have spent time reviewing that than preparing for my interview!

Posted by: calliope85 (calliope85)
Posted at: May 19th, 2008 10:19 am (UTC)

Only just got round to watching this episode and reading this entry, and am filled with 1920s country house mystery joy, so thought I'd jump into the discussion...

I don't feel that the Unicorn was a particularly Raffles-ish character. Raffles' 'trademark' was his quasi-gentleman status as man-about-town and amateur cricketer; if he were present in a story like this, he would be in his own persona. (He also wouldn't be idiot enough to drop his burgling kit out of his own window, but let that pass.) Thieves in Raffles are either upper(ish)-class social insiders, guests at the country houses they intend later to burgle (Raffles himself, Lord Ernest Belville) - the 'amateur cracksmen'; or they're lower-class social outsiders, cracking the cribs from the outside (Crawshaw, the 'prince of professors'). If the 'Unicorn' actually *was* Miss Redmond, of course, and faked the thieves'-kitchen-in-Seven-Dials accent in order to cover up her true persona, then she'd be a lot closer to the Raffles archetype.

I think the character of the Unicorn was drawing on sufficient numbers of literary archetypes that she didn't have one particular literary antecedent; I can't think of any particularly clear Christie parallels off the top of my head, but I'm not very familiar with a lot of her work. I can't think of any Christie 'amateur cracksmen' in the Raffles sense - that is, someone who is largely a social 'insider', making use of their social connections for profit. Tommy and Tuppence might be the closest of her major characters, as they started out as upper-class adventurers dabbling in a bit of blackmail, before they turned detective. But the Unicorn is, of course, not a true 'swell mobsman' in this sense - she's a social outsider, it seems, and is closer to, say, Arsene Lupin, whose true persona is never glimpsed, and who makes use of his mastery of disguise to masquerade in society for his crimes.

The 'Unicorn' name is interesting in itself; it could be supposed to be a title which the thief has been awarded by the popular press (perhaps in relation to a particularly spectacular early theft - a fabulously valuable single diamond known as the 'Unicorn' would be a pretty archetypal example). It seems like a rather odd choice for a supposedly male thief though (which was why I found it difficult to imagine that anyone could *not* guess Miss Redmond was the famous thief from the first mention of the name). I might guess that it's of a family with 'The Saint' in stemming from a calling card or the like which the thief leaves at the scene of the crime; the first stories I know of which particularly popularised the society thief who leaves his card at the scene of the crime are again those featuring Arsene Lupin.

Jewel-thieves-in-big-houses rather went out of fashion, however, with the increasing dominance of the true murder mystery - except, as in this story, as red herrings. The plot-device of a theft being used to cloud the waters of the pure spring of murder is used by Christie in Death on the Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia, and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. In both cases, the theft plotline has a slight 'this crime iz pastede on, yay' feel about them; so in that sense, even the perfunctory way the Unicorn's plotline is dealt with is a Christie homage...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 19th, 2008 10:37 am (UTC)

"Thank you. That's what I wanted to know," as Nyder might say...

Interesting analysis of the Unicorn name; I'd have thought that it was possible that the name could be applied to a male thief being led to unstolen female, but if the Unicorn was a jewel to begin with, like a horn perhaps, then the name makes sense as one that might be adopted by a woman.

Posted by: calliope85 (calliope85)
Posted at: May 19th, 2008 10:53 am (UTC)

*ponders* You've drawn my attention to something odd in my own reaction to the Unicorn name. Of course unicorns are male - symbolically and in terms of the 'can only be tamed by unspotted maidens' archetype. Yet their association with pink sparkles, rainbows, and fairy princesses in much of modern small-girl culture means I have great difficulty imagining a male thief choosing to go by the nom de crime 'Unicorn', or of a newspaper dubbing a supposedly male thief 'the Unicorn'. The question I suppose is whether this feminisation of the unicorn (as image rather than as myth) goes back in any way to the 1920s. It could be quite neat on the writer's part to draw the audience's attention to a potentially female thief by using a now-rather-feminised pseudonym, while the characters in the story would have no particular reason to think of the Unicorn in anything other than masculine terms. It gives the audience an unfair advantage in terms of solving at least one of the crimes, but that's very useful in a show like Who which is trying to appeal to a far wider audience than the devotees of traditional mystery novels.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 19th, 2008 11:31 am (UTC)

Interesting. I hadn't realised that the association of unicorns with fairy princesses had feminized them so much. I don't remember this association being particularly strong in my childhood or my sister's, but then 'My Little Pony' wasn't launched upon the world until 1982; this was the first strongly branded 'fantasy horse' toy range I remember, and I think pink unicorns followed in their wake, though I could be wrong.

A Google search suggests that unicorns on the whole are either male or sexless, but once 'toy' is appended then the feminine pronoun is universal. The first named toy unicorn I came across was 'Lola', which considering the subject of the song of that name, is strangely appropriate for a discussion of recently transgendered mythical creatures.

The ambiguous gender point is something that I'd expect Gareth Roberts to have picked up on, though. I'd never have thought of a unicorn as female*, but the girls in the audience would have done, and it's only redressing a historic gender imbalance in the Who audience to give them an advantage...

*ETA: Or so I thought; but on seeing the comment posted I now think I remember seeing unicorns as female as a child because they were often in the company of girls and young women... but I'm not sure how trustworthy this memory is.

Edited at 2008-05-19 11:39 am (UTC)