THIS EPISODE TAKES
AND "SILENCE IN THE
'THE COMPLETE FOURTH
SERIES' HMV EXCLUSIVE
DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD
2609) RELEASED IN
In 1926, Agatha
for 10 days. Was it
amnesia? A nervous
breakdown? Or a
Giant Alien Wasp...?
17TH MAY 2008
Whilst this episode may not rival The Shakespeare Code in terms of its dramatic weight, as a piece of entertainment it certainly holds its own against the best of them. And despite the story’s intrinsic humour, The Unicorn and the Wasp can’t simply be dismissed as a farce; Gareth Roberts’ script is every bit as well crafted as his script for The Shakes-peare Code was, exploiting a real-life mystery for the sake of drama.
“It’s the day Agatha Christie disappeared…”
When writing for the Bard, Roberts inventively decided to play upon the intrigue surrounding his missing play, Love’s Labour’s Won. In the same way here, Roberts sets his ‘the Doctor meets Agatha Christie’ story on the day that the novelist scandalously disappeared for ten days. Where the real world cannot offer an explanation, Doctor Who once again plugs the gap…
I think the most outstanding thing about The Unicorn and the Wasp is that
it manages to feel as much like an Agatha Christie Whodunit as it does a Doctor Who episode. Roberts’ script is littered with secrets and motives and red herrings, not to mention a beautiful dénouement where Christie
and the Doctor gather the suspects so that the murderer may be revealed. Furthermore, the very title of the episode reeks of the genre, and even the
rather incongruous presence of a giant wasp feels appropriate in a wacky
sort of way, as the same was famously emblazoned on the front cover of Christie’s 1935 Poirot novel Death in the Clouds.
“But think about it. There’s a murder; a mystery; and Agatha Christie…
That’s like meeting Charles Dickens surrounded by ghosts at Christmas.”
More than that though, director Graeme Harper
has truly excelled himself in the shooting of this episode. The flashback sequences; some of
the zooming head-on camera shots employed;
the effective use of Murray Gold’s wholly apt
score – it all feels so stereotypically “Christie-
ish”, particularly to those like myself who are not
especially au fait with her work and are thus not
in a position to nitpick. Harper even manages
to make a 20mph car chase work – no small
feat in 2008!
Of course, it’s hard to discuss an episode
entitled The Unicorn and the Wasp without reference to its titular creatures. And though
I must confess to having felt slightly let down
at this episode’s distinct lack of unicorn, this small grumble was more than made up for by
both Felicity Jones’ charismatic east-end jewel
thief (“the Unicorn”) and also a rather stunning
piece of CGI by the Mill – the Vespiform (for
all intents and purposes, a giant wasp).
“This whole thing is being acted out like a murder mystery.”
Now bearing in mind that many of the characters in this episode are written as deliberate clichés - parodies, even – the cast have to be given a hell of a lot of credit. With actors the calibre of Christopher Benjamin (an actor held in high esteem by Doctor Who fans thanks
to his extraordinary performance as Henry Gordon Jago in 1977’s Talons of Weng-Chiang) and Felicity Kendal on hand, even the most intentionally cheesy Cluedo-esque characters are imbued with a little bit of a heart and a hell of a lot of humour. As the writer himself put it, “there’s really nothing nicer than watching a lot of English actors hamming it up in a vaguely exotic location... and then somebody’s murdered!”
Indeed, I think that this story proves that Roberts’ customary style and wit is best suited to the vibrant and visceral medium of television. I get so much more out of seeing his characters brought to life
in front of me than I do reading about them on the page.
As one might expect, the standout performer here is Fenella Woolgar as Christie (a casting suggestion of David Tennant’s, I understand, as was the casting of his own father as a foot-man!) Woolgar may not be the spitting image of Christie, but again from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know all that much about history’s best-selling novelist, she looks and acts precisely like I expected Christie would have; her looks and even her manner are extra-ordinarily distinctive.
“Time is in flux, Donna. For all we know this is the night Agatha Christie loses her life.”
Fair dues though, Christie is the one character in the whole episode (save for the Doctor
and Donna) that is given any sort of depth. Like Dickens and Shakespeare before her, the legendary writer’s demons are explored without any punches being pulled. Her husband’s infidelity and even the low opinion that Christie has about her own works are both explored through both Roberts’ script and Woolgar’s first-class performance.
For the regulars though, The Unicorn and the Wasp is simply good old-fashioned fun. After a few heavy episodes for their characters, it’s rather refreshing to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate both kicking back and enjoying a rip-roaring caper the likes of Partners in Crime. The scene in the kitchen where the Doctor tries to “detox” following his poisoning stands out above all else; not due to the now annual Doctor / companion snog, but due to
the sheer hilarity of it - the whole sequence is pure gold! “I must do that more often”, says
the Doctor, before he registers the look of trepidation on Donna’s face. “I mean, the detox”.
“Miss Noble is the plucky young girl who assists me.”
That said, the story’s final scenes are not without their resonance. In saving the day, Donna condemns the Vespiform to a watery grave, prompting a stern reprimand from the Doctor who lectures her on how the creature “couldn’t help it”. In response, Donna retorts “neither could I”. Wonderful stuff.
And so all told, The Unicorn and the Wasp continues what is becoming a very long and unbroken line of very good episodes. Far from traditional and far from predictable, Gareth Roberts’ second script for the revived series will keep you guessing throughout as well as thoroughly entertained.
On a final note, I’m pleased to see that Doctor Who has been returned to its native 7.00pm slot – something that I can already see (from the overnight ratings) has resulted in an upturn in the viewing figures. Lamentably though, there will not be any Doctor Who at 7.00pm next week thanks to bloody Eurovision once again. Two years in a row now! I can’t believe that in this marvellous age of multi-channel digital television quality shows like Doctor Who have to be pulled “to make room” for the likes of Eurovision! This country…
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
In the Big Finish audio drama Terror Firma the Doctor claimed to have travelled with Agatha Christie. He was either telling porkies (as he habitually does about his age!), or mixing her up with Mary Shelley...
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