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Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Unicorn and the Wasp originally aired in 2008.

Oh, it’s you… I was just doing a little research… I say, what are you doing with that lead piping? But that’s impossible. Oh, no!

– Professor Peach discovers the point of crossover between Agatha Christie and Doctor Who

The Unicorn and the Wasp is the most fun episode of the fourth season, by a significant margin. It’s a high-concept high-energy run-around that has a great deal of fun playing with a genre mash-up, as the Doctor intrudes on an Agatha Christie mystery (starring Agatha Christie!) to create curious horror/sci-fi/mystery/class drama hybrid of an episode. It’s an episode that really benefits from the lighter tone of the fourth season. Despite some of the darkness creeping in at the edge of the frame, especially towards the final scenes, it’s an astonishingly light-hearted and playful episode.

In spite of Christie’s stern admonishings, it’s hard not to seize on the story with same glee as the Doctor does.

A sting in the tale...

A sting in the tale…

The Unicorn and the Wasp sort of fills the “celebrity historical” niche in the fourth season. Normally in a Davies season, these episodes tend to be situated in the first three episodes of the season – The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, The Shakespeare Code. However, the opening historical adventure here was set in ancient Pompeii, a long way from the fun running around adventures that audiences expected in the season’s first historical. The episode was built on heavier matters – exploring how or why the Doctor couldn’t change history to save innocent lives.

Despite the fact that The Fires of Pompeii is notably darker than the traditional opening historical episode, it’s worth noting that The Unicorn and the Wasp is considerably lighter. Episodes like The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw and The Shakespeare Code tend to draw on the iconography and atmosphere of the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show. They are the sorts of adventures you could imagine Tom Baker having in his deerstalker cap around deary BBC period sets.

Peppered soup for the soul...

Peppered soup for the soul…

Those earlier celebrity historicals feature legitimately scary monsters – witches and ghosts and werewolves. They put the fate of the entire planet at stake, as some unspeakable evil threatens to escape from where it has been locked away, hungry for conquest and for warfare. On a more basic level, the bulk of the action in those stories seems to unfold at night, as if these creatures only haunt the shadows and the darkness.

In contrast, most of The Unicorn and the Wasp unfolds during the day, in brightly-lit surroundings. The monster of the week isn’t a traditionally scary monster, it’s a giant wasp. Yes, giant wasps can be scary, particularly if you’re allergic, but it’s brightly-coloured and more of a surreal shout-out to the works of Christie than something children have been having nightmares about for centuries. And the monster of the week doesn’t want to build an empire or commit genocide. He just wants his mother’s love.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

Indeed, the wasp itself is a fantastic CGI creation, but there’s something intentionally and brilliantly cheesy about the transformation sequences between human and gigantic wasp. There’s a dramatic whisp of smoke – purple smoke! – to lend the whole thing a gleefully theatrical air. It feels rather old-fashioned, especially when compared to – for example – the painful physical transformation in Tooth and Claw. It’s not too difficult to imagine the transformation sequences here as an update of similar sequences in 1970s Doctor Who, albeit with more technical skill involved.

The Unicorn and the Wasp does have some very dark elements at its core, particularly concerning its handling of Christie as a character and the subtext of her disappearance. However, those elements are buried quite cleverly amid a selection of clever and witty gags, and riffs on familiar murder mystery tropes. An early The Unicorn and the Wasp, for example, features Gareth Roberts riffing on the “flashback alibi” tropes so common in television and film mysteries. He subverts the narrative given by the characters, he plays with flashbacks-within-flashbacks, and he even gives us an absent-minded flashback from one of the investigators.

Hacking away at this...

Hacking away at this…

Roberts has great fun here playing with audience expectations. There’s even a lead pipe! It’s basically a Christie mystery where “the murderer’s an alien.” Roberts even slips in some nice red herrings, playing with the idea that identifying the alien is as important as identifying the murderer. It’s hard not to grin a little bit when Robina remarks that she was “positively buzzing with excitement about the party and the super fun of meeting Lady Eddy.” Ha! I knew it, she’s a red herring for the space wasp!

Again, the fourth season plays to the strength of its two leads. Tennant and Tate has wonderful comic timing, as was obvious in The Runaway Bride and has been obvious throughout the season. An entire extended sequence here where the Doctor has been poisoned using cyanide could easily be cringe-inducing in the wrong hands. Instead, it’s one of the best scenes of the season, with the Doctor frantically miming what he needs while Donna tries to figure it out. (Because no classic house party is complete without a game of hyperactive charades.) “How is Harvey Wallbanger one word?”

Professor Peach in the study with the lead pipe!

Professor Peach in the study with the lead pipe!

The Tennant and Tate play very well off one another, and have wonderful chemistry – the fact that the obligatory “Tennant kisses the companion scene” works so very well, and that the kiss itself feels like an after-thought, is a sign of just how much fun the pair are having. I’d argue that Donna is probably the best companion to work with the Tenth Doctor, and the sense of fun at the heart of The Unicorn and the Wasp is one of the primary reasons. The fourth season could get bleak, but it’s easy to imagine an extended series of fun adventures like this featuring Donna and the Doctor.

Of course, the chemistry between the two leads is only one part of what makes The Unicorn and the Wasp works so well. The setting is quite ingenious, with the Doctor and Donna gate-crashing a 1920s high society party from the twilight of the aristocracy. Given how everything plays out – with soap opera twists and shocking scandals – it’s almost like Davies’ Doctor Who has briefly crashed into Downton Abbey, a show that wouldn’t air until two years after The Unicorn and the Wasp.

Filth, pure filth!

Filth, pure filth!

The episode is, after all, a story about the buttoned-down and repressed aristocracy, and the extents that people go to in order to “pass” amongst them. Robins is decidedly more working class than she lets on. Roger is very obviously gay (Donna picks up on it instantly), and yet can’t admit that even to provide an alibi for the first murder. The villain of the piece is a child who was abandoned by his mother because she couldn’t marry his father. (“Just like a man,” Robina deadpans. “Flashes his family jewels and you end up with a bun in the oven.”)

The Unicorn and the Wasp is full of people pretending, hiding secrets in order to better fit in. Roberts suggests this is what makes it the best setting for a murder mystery – so many secrets and concealed motives. Even Agatha Christie has her secrets. “She’d just discovered her husband was having an affair,” the Doctor remarks. “You’d never think to look at her, smiling away,” Donna observes. The Doctor explains, “Well, she’s British and moneyed. That’s what they do. They carry on.”

He came prepared...

He came prepared…

They certainly carry on. They endure. It’s part of the great British national myth, the ability to withstand impossible changes in circumstance and to keep going. It’s part of what the Doctor claims to love about Britain in The Empty Child, but here Roberts observes that the stiff upper lip can occasionally cause its own problems. “A terrible day for all of us,” the Doctor muses. “The Professor struck down, Miss Chandrakala taken cruelly from us, and yet we still take dinner.” Clemency responds, “We are British, Doctor. What else must we do?”

You move on, you get past it. The worst crime, it seems, is not being able to pretend that everything is okay. So Agatha Christie pushes her husband’s infidelity to the side, and concentrates on appearing sociable and friendly. In a way, Davies’ version of the Doctor is the embodiment of this trope – he keeps moving forward, pushing past the pain and suffering and trying not to acknowledge them. Only in the most dire of circumstances is anything less than fine.

A jewel of the season?

A jewel of the season?

This occasionally leads to a strange dissonance that the show has touched on before, most pointedly in Tooth and Claw – the idea that the Doctor is able to completely gloss over the human cost of his adventures and wandering. Even here, he’s less concerned about the death of Professor Peach than he with with getting involved in a literal Agatha Christie mystery. “How like a man to have fun while there’s disaster all around him,” Christie chides him. “I’ll work with you, gladly, but for the sake of justice, not your own amusement.”

Here we hit some of the interesting gender politics of the fourth season. Davies’ Doctor Who has always been more progressive in its portrayal of female characters than a lot of what came before. Most obviously, female companions no longer exist merely to pass the Doctor test tubes. They are fully-formed characters, with the arguable exception of Martha. And yet, despite that, there’s a sense that a lot of the major female characters are defined by a desire for love and an attraction to the men in their life.

He's got this covered...

He’s got this covered…

Martha was defined by her crush on the Doctor. Whenever she was brought back, the fact that she was married (or engaged to be married) was cited as evidence of how she’d made her way in the world. The fact that the show never seemed too bother who she was married to as long as she was married is a little troubling. In The Sontaran Stratagem, she’s engaged to Tom Milligan from The Last of the Time Lords. In The End of Time, Part II, she’s married to Mickey Smith.

It was suggested in Doomsday that Rose was devastated by her separation from the Doctor because she loved him, despite the fact that she had managed to reunite her mother and father and found a brilliant job and had everything else that she could want. Indeed, Journey’s End sees the plot contorting so that Rose can finally get the man she wants – a copy of the Doctor. In contrast, Mickey Smith decides to stay on Pete’s World to be with his gran, and decides to move home when she passes.

Body of evidence...

Body of evidence…

Similarly, Donna’s arc will follow a similar pattern. Forest of the Dead will suggest that Donna’s dream life is one where she’s married and has children, with the stinger suggesting that she narrowly missed out on meeting the man of her dreams. When Davies returns to Donna in The End of Time, Part II, he gives her a happy ending where she is conveniently married off. In fairness, this works a lot better than the Martha or Rose examples, because it gives Donna’s arc a sense of symmetry. However, taken in context, it suggests some troubled gender issues.

(And, to be fair to Steven Moffat, who has come under frequent criticism for his handling of gender roles, he made of demonstrating that marriage doesn’t necessarily represent the end of a character arc for female characters. Amy spent the majority of her time in the TARDIS after she got married to Rory. Indeed, Moffat suggested that marriage was more of a big deal to Rory than it was to Amy. Moffat has made some very questionable choices – including some in Forest of the Dead – but those issues aren’t unique to his tenure.)

Quite a stinger!

Quite a stinger!

The Unicorn and the Wasp does feature some strange reverse sexism (“how like a man…”), but it also features a strong female supporting character who refuses to be defined by her marriage. “Er, is, er, Mister Christie not joining us?” Clemency asks. Christie responds, rather bluntly, “Is he needed? Can’t a woman make her own way in the world?” It’s a very valid point, and it’s a nice way of underscoring one of the nicer recurring themes of the season. Donna isn’t romantically interested in the Doctor. Like Christie, Donna has been burnt by a past relationship.

And here’s where The Unicorn and the Wasp gets quite dark. Roberts draws from a piece of true history – Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance. It’s a subject of much discussion and debate – a mystery in the life of one of the great mystery writers. There are any number of theories. In Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days, Jared Cade suggested that Christie was trying to embarrass her husband, and was shocked by the scale of publicity it received. One of the more recent theories suggests that Christie was in a “fugue state” due to depression and personal issues, related to what was going on in her life at the time.

Yes, the party is quite full of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, why do you ask?

Yes, the party is quite full of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, why do you ask?

A fugue state suggests a period of time when Christie was not herself, from which she has no memory. It’s a fairly dark moment for any person. Reportedly Stephen Fry entered a fugue state before travelling to Bruges, without giving anybody he knew any warning or indication. It’s an absolutely terrifying experience to imagine – waking up in a completely different place with no memory of how you got there, or what you are doing.

It makes for an effective parallel with Donna, who will find something similar happening to her at the end of the season. Like the death of the Ninth Doctor, it’s amazing how well-constructed and foreshadowed Donna’s fate actually is. The fourth season has a lot of little indicators pointing a lot of different directions (another reference to the bees here!), but Donna’s fate is a consistent thematic undercurrent that runs through the entire year.

A healthy glow...

A healthy glow…

And so the episode’s final reflections from the Doctor and Donna gain a lot more weight on re-watch. Little dialogue touches (like Donna’s fear of being forgotten) seem quite clever, as does the Doctor’s attempt to convince Donna that it’s not all bad. “What happens to Agatha?” Donna asks. “Oh, great life,” the Doctor replies. “Met another man, married again. Saw the world.” Seems like pretty clear foreshadowing, eh? There’s even a little bit of hope. “Somewhere in the back of her mind, it all lingered,” the Doctor observes.

Once again, the show seems to focus on legacy and immortality, an appropriate theme for Davies’ final full season working on the show he helped to resurrect. “Well, no one knows how they’re going to be remembered,” the Doctor muses. “All we can do is hope for the best.” It’s not too hard to imagine that Davies was feeling the same way at this point in the show’s run, considering how he might be remembered in the years after he departed the show.

Studying the evidence carefully...

Studying the evidence carefully…

So Christie’s insecurity about her artistic legacy feels like more than just a rethread of Charles Dickens’ difficulties in The Unquiet Dead. It feels like an attempt by the show to reflect on its own importance and merits. “Try as I might, it’s hardly great literature,” Christie confesses. “Now that’s beyond me. I’m afraid my books will be forgotten, like ephemera.” Later on, she argues, “I’m just a purveyor of nonsense.” Given the fact that Davies’ Doctor Who was one of the most iconic and popular television shows on British television, and still dealing with what Davies described as institutional “snobbery.”

Indeed, in keeping with the generally celebratory sentiment of this fourth season, The Unicorn and the Wasp feels very reflexive. Unlike the ghosts at Christmas in The Unquiet Dead, the show doesn’t write off the murder mystery with Agatha Christie as mere coincidence. Instead, the show makes a point to reveal that the creature was influenced to craft a murder mystery by the works of Agatha Christie. It’s shaped like an Agatha Christie murder mystery because the creature was inspired by an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

Eye spy...

Eye spy…

In a way, this feels like a reflection of the general trend in the fourth season, where Doctor Who seems to celebrating itself. The vast majority on new series companions return for the season, along with lots of shout-outs to both the classic series and the revival. Much like The Unicorn and the Wasp is an Agatha Christie mystery that happens to be shaped in homage to an Agatha Christie mystery, a lot of the fourth season feels like Doctor Who shaped in homage to Doctor Who.

And that is quite brilliant.

You might be interested in our other reviews from David Tennant’s third season of Doctor Who:

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