Tact and Finesse (The Unicorn and the Wasp)
It’s May 17th, 2008. Madonna and Justin Timberlake have been at number one for substantially more than “Four Minutes.” Usher, Coldplay, and Kylie Minogue also chart. In news, attempts to provide relief aid for victims of Cyclone Nargis drag on, largely due to reticence on the part of the government of Myanmar. California’s Supreme Court declares that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. And, on the same day as this story airs, Portsmouth FC defeat Cardiff City in the final of the FA Cup.
Also on television is The Unicorn and the Wasp. There is a simplicity to this story. It is, of course, a Gareth Roberts script, which means it is a giddy, often very funny celebration. Roberts is not the writer you hire for critical and ambivalent takes on a subject, and so what we get here is wall-to-wall glee about how wonderful Agatha Christie was.
There are of course unsettling problems with this. Christie was a reactionary bigot of the worst sort- a fact that requires a complete whitewashing so that we can all revel in the Downtonesque glamour of the period setting without having to feel problematic in the least. It’s on the one hand difficult to be too upset about this – the point of the story, after all, is to be a big, frothy Agatha Christie pastiche in which the final twist is that the killer is an alien. Deconstructing the Agatha Christie style is a valid move too, but it’s a fundamentally different move.
Instead the point is to be absolutely, giddily bonkers. This is a story that’s supposed to be funny and inventive. And it is. The Agatha Christie title jokes fly fast and furious, well beyond what’s even remotely required. (I remember, about a year after this aired, solving a puzzlehunt with an Agatha Christie themed puzzle in it based on titles, and laughing out loud solving it as I realized just how many of the titles were what I had previously taken as perfectly ordinary lines from this episode.)
So Agatha Christie becomes not a historical figure but a genre, which is, of course, how Doctor Who generally prefers its history anyway. Then, added to this, is a cheekily recursive joke in which the Agatha Christie genre gets Agatha Christie thrust into it as a character. Roberts, being Roberts, was always going to write this as a giddy celebration of fannish love, and so we get the double recursion whereby it’s an Agatha Christie mystery starring Agatha Christie in which the reason the story feels like it’s straight out of an Agatha Christie mystery is, in fact, because the characters have been reading Agatha Christie. It’s gobsmackingly meta.
And so we get a story that, like any Agatha Christie story, is full of revelations. This is the standard structure of an Agatha Christie story – every character has some secret that causes them to act suspiciously. Typically the character who is the least obviously suspicious ends up being the murderer. This is, apparently, Christie’s actual process – her usual approach was to write most of the book, look back, identify the least likely suspect, and then go back and revise to make them the guilty party. In other words, Christie wrote her books to centralize the twist as a plot element. The entire point of the exercise is its unpredictability.
So the story takes great pains to have every character have some sort of secret, and largely manages it. Appealingly, this includes Christie herself, as the story hinges in part on the mild scandal of her disappearance and on the gossip surrounding her first marriage. But, of course, this plot element serves a different function than the other dark secrets. For most characters in a Christie story the point of their dark secret is to cause them to act suspiciously, thus making them suspects. The resolution for most characters is that they are, in fact, guilty, but they’re guilty of a crime other than the one the story is about – and indeed one that is unknown to the reader until it is revealed in order to prove that they are innocent of the central crime.
But Agatha Christie is never a suspect in the primary mystery The Unicorn and the Wasp – indeed, she’s uninvolved in either of the two title mysteries. Instead she is one of the story’s detectives, occupying the privileged space of characters who exist outside the dynamic of suspicion. But that does not mean she is above suspicion entirely By bringing in the quasi-historical mystery of “why did Agatha Christie disappear,” further complicates this by making her both suspect and victim in a secondary mystery – one that’s allowed to bubble silently under the surface for the bulk of the story to emerge in the climax, after the proper Agatha Christie-style mystery is solved. And so, curiously, the line between detective and suspect evaporates.
This is, of course, a very Christie trick. It’s central to And Then They Were None (a book that, on the third time of trying, finally managed to avoid being screamingly racist in its title), which combines the Agatha Christie mystery with what is essentially the base under siege format of Doctor Who, with a bunch of isolated characters steadily being picked off by an unknown menace who is, of course, one of them, such that every character is simultaneously detective and suspect.
But there’s a more obvious example, frustrated only by the fact that I have taken a solemn vow not to reveal the ending. Indeed, by the fact that the ending is, within the text, explicitly unspeakable. The text explicitly addresses the audience and asks that they promise not to reveal its ending. This is a curious maneuver on Christie’s part, and one we ought take seriously. What is unspoken and unspeakable is as large a clue as what is actually said.
But for now we should point out a more proximate problem. Since we are discussing the very point I am honor-bound not to reveal, my vow is can only be upheld by declining to mention the title. And yet this unspeakable text is not just unspeakable within this blog post, but unspeakable within the episode. Of all of the Christie titles mentioned it never comes up, despite its title being far more straightforwardly evoked than something as arcane as N or M or Sparkling Cyanide. In an episode structured to get an end-of-episode sight gag out of the fact that one edition of Christie’s book covers featured a giant wasp, the failure to include such low-hanging fruit is striking, and, indeed, explained best by the simple fact that the text in question is, by its own design, unspeakable. The only explanation is hat the episode is caught in the same problem I am – because it has indulged in the central twist of breaking down the line between detective and suspect, it cannot mention the text in which this happens lest it break the vow.
But given this, the fact that the episode is equally mum about Christie’s reactionary poliics and racism becomes a fact that speaks with curious volume. By positioning Christie as a simultaneous observer and subject of the mystery and thus invoking an unspeakable text The Unicorn and the Wasp tacitly acknowledges its own unspoken and unspeakable critique of Agatha Christie. That her reactionary racism is entirely unspoken in a text in which her character is inexorably linked to an unspeakable title makes the critique implicit in every frame.
Here a peculiar factor of Doctor Who’s celebrity historicals becomes a clever twist. We know, of course, that whatever the answer to the real mystery of Christie’s disappearance is, it was almost certainly not her contact with a telepathic wasp monster. This is the central joke of most of Doctor Who’s “history with monsters” stories – that the end revelation is inevitably that some historical event was caused by aliens: the loss of Love’s Labour Won, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the royal family’s hemophilia, et cetera. And, of course, Agatha Christie’s disappearance. But, of course, these aren’t the real historical reasons. Within an Agatha Christie story – which is, of course, where we are – they would self-evidently be revealed as lies and deceptions covering the awful truth. And so the
But when the reality of Agatha Christie is already marked as a site of an unspeakable truth, the self-evidently false speech of Agatha Christie’s disappearance becomes a visible feint – a false story to be revealed as the suspicious lie that it is. But what is more interesting in this formulation is the presence of the Doctor and Donna. On the most basic level they are detectives, and thus exist outside the dynamic of suspicion. But since the rigid divide between detective and suspect is put under suspicion in The Unicorn and the Wasp, this doesn’t quite work.
It’s significant, then, that the Doctor moves into another category briefly, but, as is his wont, cheats to get out of it. He is poisoned such that he becomes a victim. It’s particularly worth pointing out that there is no antidote for cyanide. The Doctor is successfully murdered within the rules of an Agatha Christie story – Agatha Christie even says so. It’s only because he exists in another narrative logic which he briefly substitutes for the logic of Agatha Christie that he survives. It is also worth noting that the victim manifestly does not exist outside the web of suspicion. Indeed, it is the fact that the victim had a secret that is, inevitably, why they’re killed in the first place. The victim is always someone who, had someone else been murdered, would have been a suspect.
What does it mean, then, that the Doctor can be drawn into the system of suspicion? In many regards it makes sense – the Doctor’s roots are in the same Victorian colonial structures from which Agatha Christie emerges. If Christie is to be a tacit object of suspicion, the Doctor has to be as well. And ultimately their defenses are identical. Christie is allowed to have her myriad of personal political failings overlooked because her books are so much fun. Likewise, the Doctor survives his poisoning through an over the top slapstick sequence involving a joke about Harvey Wallbangers. Nevertheless, the grammar of the story highlights the problem even as it declines to address it. Even within dialogue, it draws attention to the importance of the unspoken. “Well, she’s British and moneyed. That’s what they do. They carry on,” the Doctor explains, highlighting how the appearance of normality is, within this story logic, the most striking clue that something is amiss.
|Buzz me up to heaven, baby|
The other thing that is very much worth pointing out is that there is one character who exists entirely outside the dynamic of suspicion and who does simply get to function as a detective who is above the fray: Donna. Indeed, she does not even spend the episode in any particular sort of danger. Each of her first three stories involved her having at least one scene where she’s a straightforward peril monkey, and she only avoids it in her next two by dint of having Martha around to imperil instead. But in this story there is not a single moment in which she is rendered helpless. The one scene in which she is directly attacked she repels the attack on her own and escapes without difficulty. She does not need to cheat, as the Doctor does – she’s simply narratively invulnerable.
As she should be, existing as she does well outside the class dynamic that both empowers and morally compromises the Doctor and Agatha Christie. She is the everyday and the material, and thus holds the only true position of power. And in doing so we see the real response to the critique of the Doctor and Agatha Christie. Yes, they both come out of fundamentally morally compromised traditions and cannot get entirely away from the worst aspects of those traditions. And yet they also expose the ways in which those traditions collapse, the Doctor by being a figure of endless transgression who thus rejects the very structure of order from which he derives his power, Christie by showing how the entire network of power she belongs to is, in fact, a morass of buried secrets and treacheries. What we are left with is a story in which the only form of power comes from those who are not actually invested in any intrinsically, but who claim it on their own merits and cleverness. In a story of British money and power, there is, in the end, only one true Noble.
December 9, 2013 @ 12:36 am
I never knew you were a puzzlehunter before. Although it is an increasingly popular sidehobby for geeks, even allowing for the MIT hunt skewing the stats somewhat. It's a great hobby for the introverted because although it's more fun with other people, you don't necessarily have to be in the same room as them at the time! Also, it's the sort of thing that rewards more than just a lot of general trivial knowledge but also the ability to string it together in lateral but elegantly consistent ways. That's probably why those of us who are puzzlehunters seem to like Moffat's intricate plot constructions more than other people do.
December 9, 2013 @ 12:44 am
I find it terribly hard to watch and enjoy this episode – the titles of all 80-odd of Agatha Christies books are burnt upon my brain, making it impossible to properly ingest the dialog of this episode… it's like 45 minutes of someone reading out your family tree.
December 9, 2013 @ 12:46 am
Lovely stuff, Dr. S.
December 9, 2013 @ 1:32 am
However, it did help give rise to this cap on this little gem, which shows a snapshot of it's humour sans sly book titles http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4tyGOy7IOU
December 9, 2013 @ 2:01 am
You know this is probably as good a place as anywhere to bring up the subject of Racism, since Phil does often call out Doctor Who for it's perceived failings in this area. Now I'm in my 50s, so I've seen the changing face of racism in the UK over the past 40 odd years, and in my experience the definition of what is Racism is getting broader and more confused as the years go by.
A quick Google for "Definition of Racism" gives us a couple of interesting hits:
"…the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races…"
"prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."
The second definition has always been what I've understood (and seen demonstrated) in the UK. In the 70s it was the implication that the Irish were thick, that Africans were inferior to "Whites" and that Jews were tight with money. Add to that the idea that Pakistanis smell (mainly of curry) and nowadays that all Muslims are terrorists.
This is what I've always understood to be racism – possession of a racial characteristic makes that person inferior.
However let's look at the first definition I found. "the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race…" To a certain extent this is correct. I, as a UK-born English caucasian possess characteristics specific to my race – my skin is a light pink colour. Similarly my work colleague Glenn is UK-born but of African descent, so he possesses dark brown skin. This is specific to his race. So long as nobody points out Glenn's (or my) skin colour as indicating something inferior or superior about us, it is difficult to see how this is racist. But yet now this is what seems to be happening.
December 9, 2013 @ 2:02 am
…Some time ago I saw Katy Perry and Ross Noble on the Graham Norton show. Noble mentioned something about someone being Chinese. Katy Perry's eyes widened. "You can't say that!" she cried. "It's racist!". Noble pointed out in disbelief that all he had done was mention that a person was Chinese, so how could that be racist. I have noticed this in my own children, who appear to have been indoctrinated to the point where if I mention that an object is black, my 10-year old daughter tells me I shouldn't say that.
A search for examples of Agatha Christie's "screaming racism" does bring up instances where she defines characters by their racial charactistics, but in a lot of cases merely to point out how different they appear to someone else of different racial characteristics. The racist title of course that we're all thinking of is "Ten Little Niggers" or if you like "Ten Little Indians". Was Christie racist to have used either of those titles? Well they were based on a popular nursery rhyme of the time, in which the use of "Indians" or "niggers" was simply to provide cadence, but the rhymes themselves do not indicate that what happens to the Indians (or niggers) is somehow due to their inferiority, and the story itself does not hinge on racial inferiority for it's plot. The term "nigger" has over the last few decades become a word that it is generally accepted offends people and so is no longer used because of it's perjoritive overtones. However simply the use of the word is now deemed offensive, devoid of any context, and we get the ridiculous situation where Reginald D Hunter uses the word in his stand-up act, and this ends up in his posters being banned from tube-station walls and some newspapers for fear of offending people.
It appears to me that the term "Racism" has become so incredibly all-encompassing that we can no longer mention any racial characteristic, even if it neither derogatory or complimentary, but merely descriptive.
"Her skin was the rich colour of a dark mahogany."
I can guarantee that if one of my children wrote that in a school essay, they would be advised to take it out. Am I the only person that sees this as a bit extreme?
December 9, 2013 @ 2:08 am
Then, added to this, is a cheekily recursive joke in which the Agatha Christie genre gets Agatha Christie thrust into it as a character.
It's worth noting here that Agatha Christie often thrust herself into Agatha Christie stories as a character (Ariadne Oliver), which she also clearly meant as a cheeky recursive joke.
The Unicorn and the Wasp is delightful in so many ways (as are, I find, the majority of Christie's works). I understand why this episode cops a lot of flack, but I really wish it didn't.
It took Doctor Who forty-two years to build up the gumption to tell another no holds barred meta-comedy where the show itself is used to distort and subvert a familar genre. Fandom let Donald Cotton think that his scripts were no good – we shouldn't let Gareth Roberts think the same.
December 9, 2013 @ 2:24 am
If you say something you're not only asserting it as true, or fictional, you're also asserting it as relevant. So by referring to somebody's race you're claiming that it makes some kind of relevant difference to someone's assessment of a situation.
On the other hand, if you don't refer to somebody's race you make races other than the default assumption of the reader invisible. (I managed to read American Gods without noticing that the protagonist is black.)
December 9, 2013 @ 2:43 am
So it's a postmodern text, about fiction and death, in which the fictional status of Doctor Who is made explicit and… oh hang on I watched this one and the next story in the wrong order. Coming just before Moffat really does Roberts no favours here, as it did Whithouse no favours with School Reunion. For example, the revelation that the reason that it's a Christie murder mystery is because the killer has been brainwashed by Christie murder mysteries isn't given any thematic exploration – it merely feels like a handwave to justify what Roberts was writing anyway. Though that isn't that far from how Christie plotted either.
(I'd probably enjoy this episode more if I could join in the gushing praise for Christie. Her prose is best described as Dicksian, and her knowledge of the human heart is basically pop psychology at its most easy to digest.)
December 9, 2013 @ 2:46 am
A search for examples of Agatha Christie's "screaming racism" does bring up instances where she defines characters by their racial charactistics, but in a lot of cases merely to point out how different they appear to someone else of different racial characteristics.
How about the bit in Peril and End House where Poirot uses the length of someone's nose as evidence that he's a money-grabbing crook (and is right)? If anything, the fact she takes pains not to actually say the word "Jewish" in that scene indicates that she knows she's being a bit racist.
December 9, 2013 @ 2:55 am
"Her skin was the rich colour of a dark mahogany."
I can guarantee that if one of my children wrote that in a school essay, they would be advised to take it out. Am I the only person that sees this as a bit extreme?
Ironically, it's probably how we ended up with this:
December 9, 2013 @ 3:42 am
Excellent link. Thank-you. Raises interesting points. Exactly why do children from an ethnic background still identify with the white, middle-class, English culture? I wonder if it's because that's what they see looking out? Regardless of how you yourself are on the inside, if you live in a culture that is predominantly WASP (to use a handy contraction), you will tend to "soak" that up.
I think in UK literature there's a tendency to only change the racial characteristics of a character if it's important to the plot. If you want to write a story where the central character has feelings of alienation, then you set them apart from the norm of the culture they live in. Make them gay or bisexual, or non-white, then stick them in the middle of Coronation Street. But if the story you want to tell doesn't depend on them being an outsider, then don't spend time describing their Muslim religion or their skin colour if it never comes up, otherwise readers will expect a plot point that never happens.
This is very interesting actually. I'm thinking on the hoof here.
"Steve turned as Jess's talll slim form entered the control cabin, her long red hair swinging in the low-gee…" We use Jess's hair colour and the fact that she is tall and slim as a descriptive tool to help readers visualise how the author wants us to think of her. Apart from the fact that it makes her (presumably) attractive to Steve, we don't expect her hair colour to have any relevence to the plot. But when we read "Steve turned as Jess's tall slim form entered the control cabin, her dark ebony skin gleaming under the emergency lighting…" we find ourselves shelving that for later, and expecting that Jess's race will become a plot point later on.
"The Year of the Quiet Sun" is a case of an SF novel where race is never mentioned, until the very last chapter when not only to we find that the protaganist is black, but we also find why that is of vital importance to the plot.
December 9, 2013 @ 3:58 am
Ooo, and look what's on the same web site:
December 9, 2013 @ 4:12 am
Or, indeed, why so many of us liked LOST.
December 9, 2013 @ 5:06 am
If you want to read a detective novel focused on race (and written in America in 1964), I can't recommend Rex Stout's A Right to Die highly enough. It's great in part because the narrator (and one of the detectives), Archie Goodwin, exhibits all sorts of unconscious signs of racism over the course of the story but gradually comes around to a different perception by the end of it. At no time is he presented as outright racist by definition two, but he is by definition one in ways that illustrate the problems with it.
"White" people have all sorts of skin color, from intrinsic to tan, but tend to be white-washed or taken as default, and that's racist. Any double-standard in how you approach or describe a character is. So when Stout's novel opens, Archie admits a man to see Wolfe who he first describes as unlikely to bring a big fee, and then second as a "Negro." He says he breaks a rule to admit him on account of civil rights, but an experience reader knows he's hoping for a reaction from Wolfe. And then it turns out the man is someone who featured in an earlier case also built around race and racism, and Wolfe recognizes him where Archie saw only "Negro."
Ensuing suspect descriptions spell out "white" or "colored" and Archie indicates exact skin tone for the latter but never for the former. (That, by the way, is the inherent racism in describing mahogony skin without also describing ivory skin.)
In the final chapter of the book, the original client is at the door again, and Archie now describes him as "quite natty in a little brown macron or zacron or something, tropical weight, about the same shade as his skin, but I thought he was rushing it a little." Not only does he notice clothing (where before "Negro" was sufficient as description), but the reference to skin color becomes a way to talk about the clothes which are the important part of the sentence. Even the grammar makes something of a joke out of what had been a central issue of the story.
December 9, 2013 @ 6:09 am
the Doctor by being a figure of endless transgression who thus rejects the very structure of order from which he derives his power
My favorite part of an excellent essay about a story I really like. You might have found a single phrase to explain why I love this show.
December 9, 2013 @ 7:01 am
On the other hand, if you don't refer to somebody's race you make races other than the default assumption of the reader invisible.
I remember reading Cradle by Arthur C Clarke in my late teens and realising half way through that one of the main characters was black – I'd just assumed he was white until there was an explicit reference to his skin color in the text. That made me think about my own perception of race, and how no white characters are ever described as white when they're introduced, whereas it's usual to mention ethnicity. I resolved to try not to make that sort of lazy assumption again, and I thought it was a good idea of the author to buck the trend and gently challenge the reader in this sort of way.
Then I read the book again many years later and realised I'd just missed the sentence where he was described as a "young black man" the very first time he showed up. Ah well.
December 9, 2013 @ 8:43 am
Oh, that's why I hate Moffat's work then. I can't stand puzzles. I just can't get my head around them.
I remember when I was a boy telling a lady in my church that I didn't like puzzles. She was utterly scornful telling me "You're obviously the lazy sort that likes everything to come easy." Us Moffat Haters are the lazy folks that like everything to come easy.
December 9, 2013 @ 1:36 pm
There was a sci-fi novel by (I think) Katherine Kerr which opened with a note saying that if a character's race wasn't mentioned in the text, they were Hispanic, I think most of the white characters were also offworlders.
December 9, 2013 @ 4:42 pm
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December 9, 2013 @ 4:46 pm
I remember reading Cradle by Arthur C Clarke in my late teens and realising half way through that one of the main characters was black – I'd just assumed he was white until there was an explicit reference to his skin color in the text
Heinlein did the same thing for real in a couple of his books, deliberately refraining from mentioning the protagonist's race while dropping clues late in the book that he was black — Tunnel in the Sky (1955!) and The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1985).
December 9, 2013 @ 7:37 pm
"the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race…"
Which is actually backwards. It's the possession of certain characteristics (primarily skin color and facial morphology) that leads to racial categorizations.
December 9, 2013 @ 9:48 pm
Honestly, I never picked up on Christie's racism because I was too busy being horrified by her classism and, surprisingly, by her sexism. The murderesses in Christie are the only characters who don't come off as flighty twits, other than Miss Marple, whose brilliant crime-solving skills are said to stem entirely from the fact that she's a gossipy old biddy and raises to the level of a super power. Poirot also once solved a case by blithely assuming that one female character would instinctively know where another had hidden a bottle of poison because "women know these things." As for the classism, Christie has at least three stories I can recall that depend on the idea that members of the upper class are literally incapable of recognizing someone they know well if that person is wearing a waiter's jacket.
December 9, 2013 @ 10:28 pm
IIRC Gaiman's American Gods does this as well.
December 9, 2013 @ 10:45 pm
Moffat's denouements suck and it seems like he can't decide whether he wants to be hard-and-fast-rules or timey-whimey with his overwritten predestination paradoxes which renders them an unsatisfying neither-here-nor-there.
I have a hard time telling when he's supposed to be tying off an arc because his denouements are so terrible. Did we settle who cracked time that Prisoner Zero mentioned in episode 1? I know the Pandorica mess COULD be it, but since he collapsed time like a fist THREE TIMES IN THREE YEARS as his big finales I honestly have no idea.
(I kind of want to punch him.)
December 9, 2013 @ 11:21 pm
As for the classism, Christie has at least three stories I can recall that depend on the idea that members of the upper class are literally incapable of recognizing someone they know well if that person is wearing a waiter's jacket.
How is that classist, as opposed to being a rather mordant critique of class?
What Happened To Robbie?
December 9, 2013 @ 11:37 pm
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What Happened To Robbie?
December 9, 2013 @ 11:45 pm
Aside from everything already mentioned, for me 3 stories in 4 seasons where the Doctor meets a famous writer and tells them how brilliant they are and often how only their brilliance can save the day – Dickens in series one, Shakespeare in the Shakespeare Code and now Christie- seemed a bit much, particularly when there are only 10 or so stories per season. They even had it again in Vincent and the Doctor although at least this time he was a painter rather than a writer.
Also the fact that Christie's politics aren't called out here makes me think of Tooth and Claw. iirc British Imperialism is never touched on although the central historical figure is the figurehead of the empire. I can understand the reasons for not including an exploration of that although it's a shame as there are links there with colonialism and the Doctor himself (or rather how the show and sometimes character have had strong colonial/imperialist overtones).
December 10, 2013 @ 12:19 am
Because, IMO, it's nonsensical and counter-intuitive. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would fail to notice their own stepfather disguised as a waiter (and by disguised, I mean "wearing a white jacket") if only because the natural impulse is to pay attention to your waiter's face so that you know which waiter to make eye contact with when you need something and he's across the room with another table. I suppose it's possible that a snooty person might not actively choose not to notice the faces of wait staff, but if you were a murderer, would you base your entire plan on that? And yet, it succeeded all three times. And Poirot doesn't even think it's unusual for an entire table of people to not notice that a well-known millionaire industrialist whom they all know is pouring their champagne. Which suggests that the author doesn't think it's unusual either. YMMV.
December 10, 2013 @ 2:28 am
In my experience, waiters don't 'own' tables in England – you want something you catch the eye of any waiter, regardless of who may have served you previously.
December 10, 2013 @ 2:31 am
The past is truly a foreign country, and I don't think you can extrapolate from your experience in modern restaurants to the experience of the upper classes at a formal dinner in a great house in the 1920s. In all but the poshest of modern restaurants you have to catch the waiter's eye because he or she is waiting several tables, not to mention going back and forth to the kitchen to send orders and collect dishes. But when dining at someone's house there was just one table, and the ratio of staff to guests was much higher, with multiple waiters in constant attendance. There was no need to catch the waiter's eye, first because your waiter stood behind you and you were unable to see his or her face; second because he or she was trained to anticipate your desires, for example refilling your glass before it was empty; and third, because the level of light was much lower than we take for granted today (the more old-fashioned houses were still using candles) and the waiters stood in the shadows.
For someone with modern sensibilities the experience of full table service is really extraordinarily creepy. There's someone standing behind my chair watching me eat! It's impossible to ignore it or feel comfortable. But someone who had grown up with domestic service must have been able to tune the servants out—to treat them as part of the furniture. And this is the snobbery that permeates the social milieu Christie is portraying: so universal as to be unremarkable. (But it was no wonder that domestic service died out in the mid-20th century: no-one would choose to be a scullery maid or a footman if there were any other paying work.)
Which is not to say that Christie does not often stray well beyond the bounds of the credible in her use of the trope of disguise. One of her novels features a woman whose second husband, to whom she has been married for years, is revealed to actually be her first husband in disguise! But this is only a problem if you believe that Christie's purpose is to describe a realistic murder and its investigation, a belief that surely does not stand up to a cursory examination of the books.
December 10, 2013 @ 4:18 am
@jane: Yeah, that. People have a hard time understanding that "race" has no outside objective existence; people draw more-or-less arbitrary circles around certain collections of traits and characteristics and declare it a race.
It's actually not dissimilar from color itself; there's nothing intrinsic about the wavelengths from 620–740 nm that make them and nothing else "red" — we just draw a circle around that set of wavelengths and declare them all to be hues of one color, rather than a hundred and twenty distinct colors (or a hundred and twenty shades of grbledue)
(And not all cultures circle the same things. In Japanese, the idea that green and blue are two different colors rather than two shades of the same color is essentially modern — and resultingly they call green traffic lights "blue". Similarly in english, the distinction between orange and red is 15th century — previously, it was just considered "a yellowy shade of red". Which is why natural redheads have orange hair.)
December 10, 2013 @ 6:05 am
IIRC Gaiman's American Gods does this as well.
In American Gods, the lead character's indeterminate/mixed-race appearance is discussed in dialogue a few times. The sidequel Anansi Boys specifically only ever mentions the skin colour of non-black characters, treating Caribbean origin as the unstated default.
December 10, 2013 @ 6:17 am
'Also the fact that Christie's politics aren't called out here makes me think of Tooth and Claw. iirc Imperialism is never touched on although the central historical figure is the figurehead of the empire.'
I think it is touched on obliquely. However, Doctor Who, as Phil often points out, does not so much travel in time as in genres. The 'celebrity historicals' to which we could add and Victory of the Daleks are often addressing the genre of celebrity itself, examining the recieved popular image, the perception of famous figures from history rather than the real people or even the real millieu they lived in. I think this became most apparent with Churchill in VotD. There was no in-depth examination of the man's politics he was merely there as an iconic signifier with no more depth than the barrage balloons or Spitfires whose function was to conjure an era. In fact he bore little physical resemblance to the actual man and was more like a half remembered image of someone dressed as Churchill. This fits with Moffat's (and to a lesser extent RTD's) overall tone for the show since the revival. The themes of childhood and stories puts the emphasis more on perception and memory and how that can create its own reality than in detailing any kind of truth or empirical analytical reflection. Those who get frustrated by RTD's 'reset button' denouments or Moffat's incomplete and tangental finales which are then percieved to have failed to tie up all the loose plot threads are misreading the nature of the unreliable narrative that Doctor Who has become and which I would argue it always has been. Wyatt Earp in The Gunfighters and Nero in The Romanswere no more real historical figures than Queen Victoria or Agatha Christie or indeed the Doctor himself. They are characters in a narrative. After all, we're all stories in the end.
December 10, 2013 @ 1:30 pm
Philip, I really hope you'll consider reworking this essay, because the middle sections are utterly incomprehensible to me. Even assuming that "Since we are discussing the very point I am honor-bound not to reveal, my vow is can only be upheld by declining to mention the title." suffers from some wonky grammar, and assuming that the title you don't wish to mention is the title of, not a book, but a stage play, I read this several times and just got lost in your words. Shine the light of clarity on what the heck you want us to take from those paragraphs, please?
December 10, 2013 @ 1:31 pm
You are correct that the title is a stage play. I'll have a look at the paragraphs in a bit and see if I can find any light to shed.
December 16, 2013 @ 3:15 am
None of the three examples I'm thinking of were in a private home with household servants. Two were in restaurants/nightclubs and one was on an airplane! In fact, IIRC, it's the very same story referenced by the paperback at the end of the episode, the one with the wasp on the cover.
December 16, 2013 @ 11:15 pm
Hey Phil – Wow, thanks for this. I am not a particular lover of Christie in a deep way and at the time enjoyed this story i=on a very simple level and just sort of took it (wrongly) for granted as a bit of fluff, but really good to watch and enjoy fluff.
Thank you for opening my eyes, that is why I come here to read your work! I missed all of the episode titles hidden in the script and had only a vague idea of Christie's bigotry, let alone ANY sense regarding the unspoken text you mention. You have added layers to my understanding that will I am sure improve this episode for me when I re-watch. Thanks!
And Daibhid C: Thank you for the link to the blog entry about stories, writing and race in the classroom. Brilliant, cheers. The author pretty much summing up a lot of how I feel.
"Ironically, it's probably how we ended up with this:
December 20, 2013 @ 6:52 pm
Belatedly, the thing I most remember about this episode was the Guy On rec.arts.drwho who insisted that since the transformation effect was a dissolve and not a morph, this "clearly" could "only" mean that the Vespiform was not a shapeshifter, but rather used a perception filter; it was always physically a wasp, but just looked human — and therefore so was his father, and therefore RTD had shown explicit human-insect sex, a literal woman fucking a literal bug. This was, of course, he held, part of Rusty's campaign to turn our children gay.
June 24, 2015 @ 10:16 am