The Unicorn and the Wasp
|Production Code||Series Four Episode Seven|
|Dates||May 17 2008|
With David Tennant,
Written by Gareth Roberts Directed by Graeme Harper
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.
|Synopsis: In the 1920s, Agatha Christie famously disappeared. Now we know why.|
Where Is Thy Sting? by Mike Morris 3/11/08
Here's a question I've started asking myself. The following may seem like a thinly veiled excuse to talk about my own paranoid self-doubts, but trust me, it's more than that. Generally, when I write these reviews, I do so in something approaching - well, not carelessness exactly, but... I assume they don't really matter. Shit, I've been writing reviews on the DWR for something like ten years now. That's a long time. And here's the thing... much as I've enjoyed the debate, and the argument, and the feeling of approaching the truth through dialectic and all that pretentious arse... generally I'm just sharing my thoughts here 'cos there's nowhere else to share 'em. I don't, I suppose, really think that anyone else reads them. In the abstract I do, but... occasionally I get an email from a complete stranger, and I realise that some people actually read these things. Some people actually care about what I write. I'm not sure what-
Getting sidetracked; I'll start again.
Here's a question I've started asking myself. When did I become the sort of person who just seems to hate Doctor Who?
Some background. I have been trying, for some time, to write a review of The Unicorn and the Wasp which vaguely qualifies as balanced. In one of my rare moments of objectivity, I have to admit that it's just... unremarkable. It's entirely throwaway, obviously. It has nothing about it that's memorable, obviously. It only exists to fill up the time allotted to it, obviously. Actually, at the time it aired, I sort of liked it. The emphasis is on "sort of", because at that point I'd seen The Doctor's Daughter and my expectations were at subterranean levels. There were several moments where I threw my eyes skywards, several moments where I sighed heavily. And yet I thought it was enjoyable enough, in a well-it's-clearly-kind-of-shite-but-it-passed-the-time sort of way.
So, I start to review it, 'cos I'm doing every story this season and that's that. I watch it again. I'm annoyed from the pre-titles, and the first twenty minutes induce nothing but continuous, nit-picking annoyance. I try, again and again, to write something that reflects the fact that I felt quite peaceable towards The Unicorn and the Wasp, first time round. But all I've got is bile. Irritation, and disillusionment, and general mean-spiritedness. Dammit, how did I get like this?
I mean, it's got some good lines in it, and I liked that Why Didn't They Ask Evans wordplay. And aside from that...
Shit. I've got nothing. And here's what I want everyone to understand; I want to have something. I want to like Doctor Who right now, just as I always have. Joe Ford describes Partners in Crime as a "brilliantly absurd 21st-century-comic-book opener." I'd love to think that. And yet, I watch it and all I can see is a fucking stupid 45 minutes of television that insults its audience, no matter how hard I try. I don't think it's "brilliantly absurd", I think it's gimmicky, shallow, smug and thoroughly uninvolving.
Man, I hate this. When NuWho came back, suddenly all these ridiculous dullards appeared, desperate to drag it down. God, how I hated them. I despised everything they said, every reason they had for existing, all the make-believe conspiracy theories about a mass army of RTD conformists trying to silence them. Ron Mallett actually referred to the Thought Police somewhere on this site, as if he's fighting a mighty cause against the masses of people pursuing a sinister agenda, rather than just being disagreed with by everyone because he's plain wrong. Or go look at Lawrence Miles. I admire him, I like his writing, and I think he's funny (even when he's wrong, which is often). But at some point on his website, prior to Series 4, he announced he was going to "act as the frustrated conscience of Doctor Who fandom... because some f**ker's got to do it." Er, sorry mate, what? You think I need you as myconscience? Who exactly are you, again? I mean, you're a guy with a website, opinions, inventive ways of looking at the world, and writing ability that dwarfs mine. But don't act like my conscience, because I have one and it works perfectly well, thank you.
It's just horrible. A belief that people are too stupid to think what they really think, that the general tide of opinion against Doctor Who is part of some sinister public delusion, that anyone who disagrees is either stupid, or malicious, or blinded by a mass-publicity campaign, or all three. What other reason could there possibly be for people liking stuff I don't like?
And now... I'm one of these people. Jesus Christ.
Take Catherine Tate, for example. Look, I'd like to like her. I do like her, in a well-I'd-go-for-a-pint-with-her sense. I just think that she's a rotten actress. Suddenly, though, the world seems to love her. She's nominated for awards. Awards! Fans and non-fans have raved about her performances in Who. I want to put this down to a simple difference of opinion, but... I mean, look at her. In her first appearance in The Wasp and the Unicorn, Catherine Tate tramples all over a joke that wasn't very funny in the first place, then Donna declares "Never mind planet Zog, a party in the nineteen twenties? That's more like it," and it just makes me want to slap her. After fifteen seconds of her being on-screen. Anyone who's more interested in sipping cocktails with posh people on the lawn than seeing the wonders of the universe can just sod right off and that's all there is to it. Oh, and there's that scene where she says "A wasp that's giant... I mean flipping E-NOR-MOUS," and I just can't believe I'm supposed to be looking at a real human being. Eye-rolling, shouty, arms flapping, generally acting like someone who's... actually, like no one at all. Sorry. No one behaves like that. Some people might put on that act if their boyfriend's left the towels on the bathroom floor again, but would anyone behave that way after a near-death encounter? Please.
So I'm finding myself thinking in the terms I object to so strongly; I wonder if Catherine Tate's popularity is some form of weird mass hysteria, a reaction to people a: having incredibly low expectations of her in the first place, and b: reacting to having a companion who's an actual character, rather than just another doe-eyed pretty girl, without asking whether she's really well-played. To be honest I just don't like Donna very much at all, I think she's brash, shouty, self-absorbed, and annoying (Turn Left excepted), but at least she's vivid. Put a proper actress in the role and you might have something memorable. But this is one of Tate's earlier performances, I believe, and I think she's bloody awful in it. Never, at any point, does she seem like a real person. Sorry and all, but there you go.
As for the story itself: it's boring and yet irritating at the same time. There's some sort of swelling Doctor Who subgenre of the period runaround, and lots of people seem to automatically like top-ho stereotypes saying things like "quite topping." I liked it, in Black Orchid, which was a quarter of a century ago. But, like Gareth Roberts' previous story, this is so bloody smug that it makes me want to throw things. This is the sort of story that can have a flash of lightning at the moment when the Doctor says "If anyone can solve this mystery... it's you," and it's supposed to be clever and post-modern rather than just completely and utterly hackneyed and shit. The plot, and the reason for the killing itself, is absolute garbage. It doesn't even make the vaguest bit of sense. Anyone who disagrees, explain this to me: how the hell does the killer think that human society acts like a murder mystery, while retaining forty years' worth of memories to the contrary?
Or am I being stuffy? Am I overanalysing a good-humoured excuse to run around in the 1920s? Am I, in short, wrong? I love Williams-era stuff and indulge it all sorts of faults, so why doesn't this extend to NuWho's lighter, fluffier efforts these days?
I've recently done a Key to Time marathon, and I'd forgotten how much I loved The Androids of Tara. You know why? Because the plot's multilayered, and clever in spite of how funny it is. It's got moments of genuine human drama, it's got charm, it's got memorably OTT characters. The set-pieces are lifted wholesale from The Prisoner of Zenda, but you know what? They're rather good, as well as being clever. Oh, and most important of all - it's actually funny. And I like funny. Actually, here's something I'm going to acknowledge; when the Doctor gets poisoned, I chuckled gleefully. That scene is funny. Broad and silly, but it's funny. If all of it was like this...
I don't know where to begin with how widely The Wasp One misses the mark. The story keeps telling us that Agatha Christie is brilliant - well of course, it's a Tennant historical - but doesn't actually seem to hold that opinion in terms of its structure. The setup is that of a cheap, derivative and tawdry whodunnit, and this is apparently because it's based on an Agatha Christie plot? So how brilliant is she, then?
As it happens, I like Agatha Christie novels; they're well-structured pieces of throwaway nonsense, with memorable central caricatures. Hercule Poirot is a wonderful creation, and Miss Marple isn't far behind. And yet, there's a bizarre speech when the Doctor says she's brilliant because she has a peerless understanding of people. Sorry, hold on. Agatha Christie books aren't there to go straight to the heart of the human condition, they're there to be cleverly plotted. And you simply can't stuff your story full of cosy old stereotypes in supposed homage to your subject, tell us she's brilliant anyway, and then justify this muddle-headed stance by saying that she's the best-selling novelist of all time. It smacks of a sort of "well hey, I know she's shit really, but lots of people like her" attitude that I find vaguely disrespectful. I shouldn't expect anything more though; after all, it's pretty much the way that Doctor Who's writers defend the programme these days.
Indeed. Cosiness abounds here, more than anywhere else before or since. We're presented with the absurdity of the Doctor stumbling into an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery (with all the wit removed, obviously), and it's shrugged off with "it happens to me all the time." We have yet another reworking of the "no, don't do that" joke. In fact, one of the more annoying scenes is when the Doctor refuses to call in the police. He does this before there's been any sign of there being any alien involvement at all. We're not expected to ask why, though, are we? It's only Doctor Who, after all.
Do Doctor Who stories really have to be so stupid, these days? You can ask yourself why the hell a giant insect would keep trying to sting people to death when it could as easily stick its leg through their body, for example. But that credits this with being an actual story, a story that wants to justify its own existence. And that's the thing about The Wasp and the Unicorn; it just has no reason for existing whatsoever. Engaging story? No, it's a deliberately derivative take-off of Agatha Christie stories, with all the invention removed. Engaging characters? No, they're all dull stereotypes with generic stiff-upper-lip presentation and one discernible trait each (alcoholic, gay, old bore), applied so mechanically that a computer could almost do it. Any intriguing concepts? No, half-baked rubbish that expects us to believe that there's some kind of physiological link between an alien creature and Agatha Christie... because it's read one of her books.
Hey, lighten uuuuuup, don't overanalyse it, it's only Doctor Who.
I think that's where I've changed... or at least, where things have changed generally. Doctor Who used to be mine. It used to be a battered old thing I found on video, watched for nostalgic reasons, and discovered that it was so much more than that. It mattered to me, but similarly, it didn't matter to the wider world; if they'd heard of it at all, they certainly didn't care about it. But now... Doctor Who is watched by ten million people in the UK, and an awful lot of those are kids. It matters. When Joe Ford tries to defend The Sontaran Invasion by saying it would be a reasonably well-thought of Pertwee story, I just think that's irrelevant; worse, justifying something's existence by saying it's not as bad as some other stories that almost none of today's audience have seen, is insultingly dismissive of the wider world. It's not just that comparing a story to something thirty-five years old seems inherently perverse, but... there aren't millions of people watching Pertwee stories in Britain today. New-era Doctor Who gets to go out there and tell stories to a nation's entire youth, and don't tell me that isn't a position of influence. All of a sudden, Doctor Who is important, and I can't show it the indulgence I used to.
I found Series 2 disappointing, on balance, but I loved a lot of it, and - in hindsight - Tooth and Claw and Love and Monsters just make me forgive it everything except Doomsday (sorry). Series 3 I love as well. The stories are up and down, sure, but the run-in from Human Nature onwards is bloody marvellous, and I think the finale is unfairly maligned and actually rather lovely, thank-you-very-much. Besides, it gave me Gridlock. Again, I'll forgive a show anything if it produces Gridlock.
But... seven episodes into Series 4, it had yet to throw up anything worthwhile. Planet of the Ood is okay, but one out of seven is far from a good ratio. The Unicorn and the Wasp was just another not-very-good instalment of a programme that was showing no ambition and no drive.
Lately, I went to went to a family wedding with my UK relatives, and met some people I hadn't seen for years. Amongst them were some cousins, around the eleven year-old mark. They adored Doctor Who, and - here's a sea-change from the last few years - they thought I was cool because I liked it. They thought it was incredible that I'd had a Doctor Who short story published, even if it was only in a charity fanthology (Missing Pieces, since you ask). They looked up to me because I knew more about Doctor Who than them, I was as willing to wax lyrical about David Tennant as they were, and liked the Weeping Angels as much as they did. Their enthusiasm, and the joy the programme had given them, was just... dammit... wonderful.
Rewatching The Unicorn and the Wasp, I found myself thinking of them. I realised that the show isn't for me any more, and nor is it about me, and it certainly isn't about the Pertwee years. I'm sure they liked The Unicorn and the Wasp, because they like everything about Doctor Who, and it did have a giant wasp in it. But all I found myself thinking was that... well, they deserve something so much stranger than that. So much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.
A Review by Joe Ford 23/1/09
Who cares? That is my motto now. Who actually gives a damn that some old school Doctor Who fans cannot embrace the new series? I remember popping along to the Outpost Gallifrey forums after each episode to see how they were received and, despite an episode's quality (say Forest of the Dead or Blink), there would always be someone there dismissing it, pulling it to pieces and rejecting it. Fair enough, everybody is entitles to their opinion and it was a public forum but, and I will include the Ratings Guide, I am bored of listening to people whine on about the new series. Constructive criticism seems to have gone out the window and stabs at particular actor/actresses is in and it is all getting a bit out of hand. Frankly, if eight million people want to watch The Unicorn and the Wasp and the country wants to embrace it and my boyfriend (who tolerates but does not embrace the classic series) adores it, I am very pleased. The fact that I happen to think it is a witty and whimsical piece of murder mystery mayhem just pops a little cherry on top. I don't know if I think fandom is ungrateful for what we have been given or if the old school fandom just doesn't matter anymore, but I would rather spend my time writing a positive review about an episode than reading a wholly negative one. I will be tackling The Doctor's Daughter shortly and through much straining I will even find some positives to say about that too.
There are so many things to like about The Unicorn and the Wasp, chiefly amongst them the gushing fan letter to Agatha Christie. Well-structured pieces of throwaway nonsense they may be but I don't think we should ever forget Christie's contribution to the mystery genre, to plotting and to characterisation. Yep, I said characterisation. Aside from being constantly outfoxed by her labyrinth plotting, the thing I loved about Agatha Christie novels is her ability capture people with crystal clarity and she doesn't achieve this by writing detailed descriptions of what they look like or bombard us with first-person narration (although some of her novels, the genius Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is written in the first person) but through her dialogue. It is an amazing gift, but when I read the dialogue of a Christie character they just sound so real. She can sum up a personality in their speech without the book ever reading like a script. So I really don't think that saying she has a peerless understanding of the human condition is that over the top, her novels delve into infidelity, homosexuality, rape, murder, family, psychosis, abuse... she looks at the darker side of human nature and doesn't always have easy ways of dealing with it. A Doctor Who-style Agatha Christie episode is something I have longed for.
When I heard this episode was being written I thought this would be a nice cosy look at Agatha Christie's life when what I really wanted was a real life mystery adventure. Imagine my surprise when I switched on and suddenly bodies were being found in the library, there were ten or so suspects, secret rooms where being discovered, flashbacks were peoples alibis... what impresses first and foremost about this episode is how accurately it captures the tone and joy of a Christie murder mystery. If you go and watch some of the first season Poirot episodes they deal with a very simple plot over 45 minutes and leave room for David Suchet to charm the audience with his delightful turn as Poirot. It is only in the later seasons where they started making the books that the plotting became intricate and complicated. The Unicorn and the Wasp squeezes an entire Christie novel within 45 minutes but it does so without ever feeling rushed or by betraying the plot. There is even time for a glorious flashback overseas, a car chase and an explanation for Christie's historic disappearance. Gareth Roberts wrote us a witty and stylish love letter to Shakespeare last year and this year he has done us equally proud with Agatha Christie.
The list of suspects is beautifully brought to life by a stellar supporting cast. Felicity Kendal is a name I have longed to see in Doctor Who for many, many years so it was fabulous to finally see her making an appearance. She is the quintessential English bird so she has everything to make Lady Clemency Eddison an understated aristocrat. You've got love how Felicity Jones switches from social stunner to cockney thief in a second once her cover is blown. Christopher Benjamin is always good for a laugh, and Adam Rayner and Daniel King provide some nice eye candy. Like a good Christie novel you have lots of caricatures (the stalwart vicar, the common thief, the embarrassed homosexual, the gruff Colonel) but they are captured so well by the cast they become good characters in their own right. It is the characters that make this sort of story essential viewing so it helps that Graeme Harper, usually a great action director, has managed to assemble such a memorable cast. I love the Colonel reminiscing about the dancing girls in stockings. I love the two boys walking through the garden hand in hand. I love Lady Eddison gulping down a flask before afternoon tea. Little touches of characterisation that add to the overall effect to a great list of suspects.
How Mike Morris can say that this is an Agatha Christie novel with all of the wit removed is beyond me. This is probably the wittiest script of the year (with Fires of Pompeii not far behind) with some absolutely corking lines: "Typical, all the best boys are on the other bus!", "Flapper or slapper?", "How is camptown races one word?", "Tell me there's no Noddy!", "The Belgians make such wonderful buns!", "There's a monster...and we're chasing it!" and a hundred other lines that are brought to life superbly. There is a real affection for the subject matter that shines through in the dialogue and the little reminders of some of those genius Christie book titles doesn't hurt the episode one bit.
To say Catherine Tate is bloody awful is the sort of statement a five year old would come up with. She's not, and here's why. Tate is clearly having a blast with this story and she gets the chance to show off a range of emotions. Donna makes for an unwilling but surprisingly effective detective, she has a touching heart to heart with Agatha Christie, she gets to kill off the monster and defend herself, plus she gets numerous witty lines and moments where you just want to kiss her. Anyone who thinks she isn't the ideal companion for the tenth Doctor go and watch the sparkling cyanide sequence, where between them David Tennant and Catherine Tate manage to explode in a firework of chemistry, chills and laughs. It's still one of my favourite sequences of the fourth season. To have Donna hobnobbing it with the upper classes is as funny as it sounds and my Simon loved the opening scenes. When Catherine Tate joined the show we had a companion that we both adored and that makes her contribution to the show even more special for me.
As good as Catherine Tate is, Fenella Woolgar steals the episode with her beautifully understated and yet completely mesmerising turn as Agatha Christie herself. I have read up quite a bit about the woman behind the novels and this is as close to accurate a portrayal as I am sure I am likely to see on television. Interesting that she considered her own books as throwaway novels ("Try hard as I might, it's hardly great literature") and scoffs at the title "Dame Agatha". Her thoughtful consideration of Murder on the Orient Express and Miss Marple make for hilarious vignettes ("Copyright Donna Noble"). Beyond all the witty mentions of her work is a rather melancholic portrayal of a woman who is disillusioned with the world and seeking rest after her husband's infidelity. Woolgar's quiet but meaningful "Can't a woman make her own way in the world?" speaks wonders. Her contribution to the "all assembled in the study" wrap up is essential; she clearly loves theatre as much as Poirot when it comes to these moments.
The plot unravels beautifully in the conclusion, clues such as Lady Eddison being laid up for six months, the torn scrap of paper that says "maiden", the vicar being brought up by the Christian fathers, the stolen jewel, Lady Eddison being such a fan of Agatha Christie books all contributing to a number of stacked twists. This is another of my favourite sequences this year, the dialogue coming thick and fast, the characters' reactions to the surprises is magical and Donna is at the centre of it all trying to keep up with everything.
The abandonment of a few hardcore fans aside, I find it impossible to wholly dismiss this episode. It is one of those rare Doctor Who episodes that goes for the funny bone as much as the jugular, that looks positively stunning (on the production side, you have the glorious sunny location, the evocative sets and an absolutely chilling monster in the form of the wasp) and is bolstered by terrific performances. It's sharp, clever, imaginative and whimsical. For these reasons, if anybody was going to compare Doctor Who to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which some people might find a useless exercise, but let's not forget how superb that show was at the height of its powers) it would be this one that I would pick. And this is set in the 1930's.
To summarise, like my friend Mike Morris (our butting of heads will forever keep us friends!) season four has not been the disaster he makes out. You've had two sparkling historicals (Fires of Pompeii and this), a bonkers but assured opener, a dark and action-packed morality play (Planet of the Ood) and a two parter that juggles nostalgia and cliche in the same breath. Only The Doctor's Daughter could be said to be a stinker and that is because it tries to do too much at once. I have heard it mentioned that season four only earned respect once it leapt into its second half. I don't agree with that statement but I can only imagine they are starting that run with The Unicorn and the Wasp.
I'm very please Gareth Roberts will be writing more Sarah Jane Adventures and having another stab at Doctor Who in the gap year. Nothing in this superb episode dents his reputation as the most entertaining writer of the new series.
A Review by Finn Clark 12/1/10
I was wrong. A year ago, I watched this story and hated it. This morning, I watched it and loved it. Yes, I'm an idiot.
The key difference between this and The Shakespeare Code is that last time, Gareth had been dealing with real history. Here, he's spinning on a genre. I don't feel comfortable calling it either pastiche or parody... it's certainly pitched most of its tents in the latter camp, but it looks close enough to the real thing that that's how I'd been trying to watch it last time. Basically, it's Gareth Roberts. If you're expecting a proper murder mystery with a cast of characters rather than joke opportunities on legs, you've come to the wrong place. The pacing's all wrong, a strong cast is wasted and the Unicorn appears to have been included in the story purely to justify the cool title. Almost everyone is defined by stereotype, albeit sometimes in order to subvert it. Professor Peach is murdered in the library with the lead piping. Gareth has fun with the "questioning the suspects" and "explaining the plot" scenes. The actors play their roles enthusiastically, but it's an oddly awkward moment when Christopher Benjamin briefly bares his soul to Felicity Kendal. Where'd that come from, then? His character hardly exists outside those sixty seconds or so when Gareth has a joke to get off his chest.
Fenella Woolgar's Agatha Christie is superb, though. She's pretty much the only person here who can be called real, but almost everything about her I loved. Her backstory. Her modesty about her books. Her historically recorded disappearance, which plants a little seed of reality in the heart of the silliness. The only problem is that, as usual for a celebrity historical, she's treated with forelock-tugging reverence that seemed a bit much for Shakespeare and Dickens, let alone Christie. I don't hate her, but for detective stories give me Margery Allingham any day.
However, none of that matters, because the story's basically about its jokes. Remember I said The Shakespeare Code wasn't funny? This thing is hilarious. Just the pre-credits sequence made me laugh more than Gareth's entire previous episode. He's being as arch and playful as he's been doing in Doctor Who for years, with some absolutely cracking abuse of cliches. "I was going to say you're completely innocent." "It was you, Donna Noble." "It was you, Agatha Christie." The lying flashbacks are a scream. I howled at the Doctor's Basil Fawlty pantomime for ginger beer, peanuts and salt. I was expecting the murder mystery to stop messing around at some point and get down to business, but it never did. Felicity Kendal's backstory is, um, extreme. The whole thing's a romp from beginning to end, with the story only backpedalling into any kind of more realistic level once we've ditched the mob and it's just Agatha Christie fighting the giant alien wasp. There's a sentence you don't see every day.
Oh, and the gay characters are wonderful, being the best Gratuitous Homosexuality in Rusty-era Who by a gazillion light-years. They're so glorious that Roger's death becomes a little sad.
What's particularly delicious is that it's the perfect genre to throw at the BBC. They've been doing detective story adaptations since dinosaurs walked the earth. If you cut them, they bleed 1920s. Thus, the episode looks delicious, with New Who's production values allowing a spot-on visual recreation of a prestige adapation of Poirot, Marple, Campion et al. The actors are excellent and aren't taking the piss, both of which are all-important. The sound editing is bad, though.
On a more prosaic level, wasps are a great idea for a monster. Everyone knows what a wasp looks like. It's physically threatening and it looks cool, yet it's conveniently vulnerable to any number of silver bullets. Unlike, say, Cybermen, there are lots of real things that kill a wasp.
It's also worth pointing out that this 1920s detective story manages to include both gay and non-white characters without being tokenistic about it. It's perhaps regrettable that the handicapped character can walk and that the only Christian character ends up recanting his faith, though.
I haven't mentioned the regulars yet. I've given up trying to find any flaws in Tennant's performance from 2007 onwards, but there's always more to say about Catherine Tate. On the one hand, her delivery of that Noddy speech is so poor as to be bewildering, while I also thought she could have done more with "I should have made her sign a contract". I've noticed before that she's not always good at changing direction in mid-flow. However those are just a couple of moments. As a comedienne, she's an invaluable asset for the story, clearly having a ball playing at being a 1920s lady. The way she puts on airs to the aristocracy and servants is a scream. If I had to pick out a showcase for Tate's Donna Noble, I'd be tempted to choose this, even if it's not one of her heartfelt episodes like Fires of Pompeii or Turn Left. "You're ever so plucky!" She also squeaks well.
Speculating wildly, might Gareth have been the unknown writer who turned in unusable scripts for the Tooth and Claw slot, forcing Rusty to step in and pen something at the last minute? I have no evidence for this whatsoever, but it sounds plausible and would suggest that he's become Mr Celebrity Historical. If this guess is correct, then his name would have been down for all three of David Tennant's entries in that pseudo-genre. I'd also like to mention my fan theory about the Christopher Benjamin character. Talons of Weng-Chiang was made in 1977 and set around the end of the 19th century, while this story was made in 2008 and set in 1926. That's a thirty-year gap in each case. Maybe Henry Gordon Jago and Colonel Hugh were the same character, or else brothers or cousins or something.
This viewing made me love this story, but it's still easy to take the wrong way. If you're not watching ironically, you'll probably find it hard to get past the undercooked characters and trivial story. I have quotes from people who reacted much as I did on my first viewing:
On the other hand, consider Gareth's 6th Doctor and Mel story for one of the Short Trips collections, complete with Pip & Jane dialogue. It's a brilliant story because it's deliberately terrible. The Unicorn and the Wasp is similarly lightweight, except when we're watching Fenella Wollgar. Trying to take its detective story seriously is the worst mistake you could possibly make. It's hilarious, but that's not any kind of excuse. Instead, it's the whole point. That's the reason why almost everything happens, rather than the usual engines such as character or plot. There's nothing lazy or stupid about Gareth's cliches here.
"The thrill is in the chase!" by Nathan Mullins 6/2/10
I had just sat down to watch a BBC3 repeat of Doctor Who, and it had to be one of the most unusual episodes to date. Now... this might sound really unusual and terribly silly in saying that the Doctor Who crew love to depict many of the villains as animals, quite like when we saw the Judoon march onto our screens, and the pigs in Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, as well as that pig in aliens of London. But there's nothing wrong with that. Having a wasp as a central character is no big issue whatsoever. In fact, if you take time to consider that much of series four had small references made to the bees disappearing, and then in The Stolen Earth, the Doctor pointed out that the bees were flying back home, well, if you can explain away that there are bees from earth and bees who are aliens, why can't you have an alien wasp? What's the big deal? I think that it's innovative and above all an intelligent move to make.
To move away from the issue of the wasp, the episode is a beauty. We have a "murder, a mystery and Agatha Christie!" as Donna put it. The subtle references to Agatha Christies novels were exceptional, even though they were such minor details to have them included. God! I have to say it. This episode is above all thrilling and terribly exciting. When the Doctor had found out he had been poisoned, it was almost reminiscent of that scene in Casino Royal when James Bond is poisoned, and makes for his vehicle. The end of that scene sees him fully recover, but the excitement drawn from that very scene reminded me, very much of Casino Royal. But back to The Unicorn and the WASP. The emphasis on that word; goodness me.
The characters all have a part to play, and all really contribute well to the story, each in their very own way. Lady Eddison has a dark tale, that is spoken of at the very end. The character also unlocks the truth behind another particular character, and each character is sort of played out as a red herring. You sometimes guess whether that character might be behind it all, but you guess incorrectly, and when it is all sussed out, you kick yourself. The Doctor and Donna are one hell of a team. Their characters are superb and really get you in the mood for adventure. David Tennant is a brilliant actor. There, I've said it, and so is Catherine Tate. But she is an actress, so pardon me. Catherine Tate brings the right enthusiasm to the role, as does David who has by this time already hit his stride. I wish he weren't leaving, but he is, and I've got to move on. But may I just add that I love him. Not in that way but in a way that he has really made Doctor Who worthwhile for myself, and others alike. His Doctor has been the best since... since... those before him. I wish he had stayed on for at least another season, but at least there are four more specials to look forward to, with him in them.
The Unicorn and the WASP has a great cast: Felicity Kendal, and the actress who played Agatha Christie is just remarkable. She plays her as though she were almost her double. David Tennant's dad also had a guest appearance. The only plot hole I found that had me confused was that the bloke in the white suit, who fancied the waiter, was not present at the very end of the episode, which I found quite confusing, and I mean before the WASP, aka the vicar, had been sussed out.
There were also a lot of comedic moments, like when the Doctor began to panic as he had stuffed a load of food in his mouth, and then tried to spell out the word salt to Donna, which - take my advice - do not try this at home, especially when you've got half a ton of food in your mouth. The WASP that gave chase at the very end, and the Doctor driving a car that almost resembled Bessie, but had been painted black, gave me goosebumps. The Wasp looked terrific, and the CGI effects are outstanding throughout.
Honestly! I don't know why people bear such a grudge when they sit down to watch this episode. What's not to like? There's a car chase, half a dozen murders, a giant WASP, the Doctor and his plucky young assistant, a mystery, and Agatha Christie! Everything you could ever hope for to have in a Doctor Who episode!
A Review by Aengus Fallon 17/3/11
I was fairly disappointed by this episode, I have to admit. It wasn't nearly as funny as I expected it to be despite a stellar cast and a promising premise.
In all honesty, I got a little tired of being told Agatha Christie was a genius. I've read several of her books and, while always entertaining, they are a bit lacking in the characterisation department, among others. Compared to her contemporaries as well as authors of previous generations, she's hardly the best. They put her on too high a pedestal for my liking. I mean, she's hardly Shakespeare, is she?
If I was writing this episode, I'd have tried to get a good feel for her as a person (meaning both the good and the bad) rather than going about it completely uncritically like a fanboy. The series' portrayals of Dickens and Queen Victoria in The Unquiet Dead and Tooth and Claw were far better in my opinion for this very reason, particularly the former. Unlike her, they actually seemed to be real people. And Gareth Roberts himself did a much better job of humanising Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Code. Don't get me wrong, she was undoubtedly a talented writer but, that said, I could name a good 20 or 30 other writers from Britain alone whom I would consider better than her. Quite frankly, I find the thought of her being the most widely read author of all time to be slightly depressing.
The giant wasp rocked and it was wonderful to see Christopher Benjamin return to Doctor Who (albeit not as Henry Gordon Jago) but this episode was very little else to recommend it. A misstep in the otherwise extremely good fourth season.
How is Harvey Wallbanger one word?! by Evan Weston 30/3/16
I can't knock Gareth Roberts for not having a specialty, that's for sure. Hot off the heels of Series 3's The Shakespeare Code, Roberts has once again penned a historical with a famous author as the central supporting character, with the story aping one that said author might have written. While I complained there and will here that Roberts seriously overestimates his capabilities in terms of matching his idols, he can definitely pull together a fun romp. The Unicorn and the Wasp threatens to fall apart on numerous occasions, but the humor and a compelling guest performance from Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Christie hold it together to the end. And thank God for that, too: I was close to quitting this exercise with all the Series 4 rubbish I've been forced to endure. You're welcome.
Anyway, let's chat about Woolgar, because she turns in what has to be the show's best guest appearance since at least Clive Swift's Mr. Copper all the way back in Voyage of the Damned. Her Agatha Christie is going through what Roberts sets up as the darkest period of her life, and she captures the author's despair wonderfully. She's aided by the script, which (for the first time in what feels like an age) actually encourages the actors to provide character development through action rather than spell out what's happening for all to hear. Woolgar takes advantage of what she's given and provides a touching performance, especially in her quieter scenes with the Doctor and Donna. Catherine Tate rises to halfway-meet her in what amounts to Tate's best performance of the series so far, and David Tennant has one of his better go-arounds as well.
The other main strength of The Unicorn and the Wasp is the comedy. This is one of the funniest episodes of Doctor Who I can remember, and it's the first episode of the series built on humor that's managed to work overall, unless you count Aliens of London/World War Three. A lot of this is due to the hilarious kitchen scene, in which Donna tries to help a seizing Doctor overcome poisoning. Her misinterpretations of his charades are Tate doing what she does best, and it's her finest moment on Doctor Who before or since. Tennant plays the straight man perfectly, allowing Tate to bounce her ridiculousness off him with ease. His exasperated "Camptown Races?!" gets me every time. The kiss is a terrific climax to a scene that had me rolling on the floor upon rewatch. The episode is littered with little comedic bits all over the place (the best of which is the Colonel's unprompted revelation near the end), and the whole thing has an unfiltered silliness to it that really helps with the whole aesthetic.
Unfortunately, this means the plot is pretty thin, and it takes a lot of heavy lifting for the story to work out. Roberts, like when he tried to write Shakespeare, is not nearly good enough to write an Agatha Christie novel, and his plotting is shoddy throughout. It's patently obvious from her first appearance that Ms. Redmond is the Unicorn, and I don't think the episode even tries to hide it. This seems like a clear missed opportunity for development, but the first villain in the title is almost a throwaway. The real mystery concerns the Wasp, known to the Doctor as a Vespiform and to everyone else as the charming Reverend Golightly, who turns out to be Lady Eddison's son. This plot twist seems more like standard Who than standard Christie, and the mixing in of the firestone is just awful. It's a horrible McGuffin, inserted only to explain how Christie loses the memory of her 10-day disappearance.
I suppose the whole thing just feels very light, and, while that's obviously the point, it's the moments where The Unicorn and the Wasp tries to take itself seriously that fail. The ending is treated with a sudden seriousness that betrays the episode's tone, and there's a good deal of death in what is basically a comedy episode. Roberts doesn't quite go all-in on the funny, and that's where this one almost loses me. It's certainly not a good story on its own.
But, like most Who, it pulls itself together based on what surrounds it. The supporting performances are almost uniformly good, though Felicity Kendal hams it up a bit too much as the alcoholic Lady Eddison. No one else really gets to do much - which hurts the mystery aspect of the plot, as you never really care about any of the other characters - but I really enjoyed Tom Goodman-Hill as the evil Golightly, and I'll admit I didn't call him as the villain until right before the revelation. Christopher Benjamin is hysterical as the portly Colonel, and Adam Rayner is solid in his limited screentime as the Eddisons' son Roger. While the script chooses to focus on Christie, and it's not wrong in doing so, the other characters are a good deal of fun.
The 1920s mansion looks nice enough, with the outdoor scenes and the costumes portraying the time period fairly convincingly. Of course, the major production aspect to consider is the CGI Wasp, which receives a surprisingly large chunk of screentime and is rendered to burst through glass windows, zip through hallways and stab wooden doors. The wasp never really gels with the surroundings, but the design is great, and it'll certainly scare anyone with a fear of bees. In fact, it's almost too scary for this particular episode, but it's exposed enough that it ceases to be all that frightening by the end. Its final appearance, in the climactic car chase, is a good bit of fun.
Mostly, that describes The Unicorn and the Wasp. This is not a story to watch if you're looking for serious science fiction or even a good mystery. And yes, the plot is extraordinarily light and not well-put together by any means. But Gareth Roberts has once again successfully written a historical author into Doctor Who, and his Christie succeeds primarily because of Woolgar's excellent performance. Perhaps most importantly, even if it's not that great or even that good, The Unicorn and the Wasp does something that Series 4 hasn't in a long time: it made me smile, and that counts a lot.
Grass and Lemonade by Hugh Sturgess 18/5/19
This is a tricky one for me to judge fairly. (I was going to write "objectively", but, since all criticism is ultimately subjective, "fairly" seemed more accurate.) I don't mind saying that I hated Series 4 on first viewing. Part of my reason for that - that lots of it was "silly" - I don't agree with anymore. Other parts of it - the complacency - still stand. The Unicorn and the Wasp became the target of a lot of my hatred, and I truly despised it. I can see now that it's entirely undeserving of such a level of contempt, but it's impossible for me to judge this one as fairly as I would if this were an episode from another season.
This episode is hardly unbearable. It is a light and frothy story that doesn't ask too much and is routinely quite funny. The interrogation scene, wherein each character gives a respectable explanation of where they were, while in flashback we see them doing something else (e.g. the colonel thinking about dancing girls instead of Mafeking), is very funny, as is the outright slapstick of the Doctor's detox. That Roger is, to the Doctor, Donna and the audience, obviously gay but apparently not to the other characters is also very funny, and the later comment from the colonel that it's unlikely there ever will be children in the house again is a nice moment in that it shows they aren't as oblivious as they seem. There is also something genuinely clever in making Agatha Christie a character in an Agatha Christie story, which is explained by the villain believing the real world is modelled after Agatha Christie stories.
But let's focus on trying to explain what I didn't like about the episode in 2008 and why I still don't like it. I suppose part of my problem with it was that it's a very silly episode. It is clearly not taking itself remotely seriously, creating a charmingly enthusiastic pastiche of an Agatha Christie plot and plonking the Doctor and Donna down in it. By sheer dint of the episode's nostalgia for Christie, the episode can't take the situation at all seriously. The basic formula of a Christie plot is so well known that the only reaction to the set-up can be affectionate mockery. Donna eats all through the climax, trying to predict who the murderer is. This creates a problem I'll return to, that a writer praised throughout for her intricate, "clever" plots has her style reduced to a formula so familiar that everyone knows what's going to happen.
The overall tone is a total lack of jeopardy. This is the Black Orchid of the new series, a jolly day out for the Doctor and Donna, who get to go to a garden party and then take part in a charming recreation of a Christie mystery. The stakes couldn't be lower, and the episode shows it. So that probably ground my gears, when I was serious and teenaged. But Partners in Crime is also a ridiculous, fun, farcical episode, and I loved it. So there must be more to it.
So let's return to the point I made earlier, which is that this is an unapologetic ode to Christie's work that nevertheless reduces her work to a joke. Agatha Christie herself displayed signs of racism, anti-Semitism and classism in her novels and her private life, in ways that are fairly unremarkable for - though perhaps a touch more extreme than - most of her contemporaries. The episode completely excises any questions of Christie's own character deficiencies, which I suppose we should forgive as, if there is any point to this at all, it's to encourage kids to read some of her books, and making it clear she was a racist hardly serves that end. It does make the Doctor's suggestion to Martha at the end of Last of the Time Lords that they visit Christie a bit off. (However, the episode could have made a joke out of that too, as Russell T Davies, in an effort to include as many of Christie's titles as dialogue in the story, suggested that Donna could compare the plot to that of "Ten Little -" and the Doctor, interrupting, would say "Niggles aside". This awful idea was thankfully abandoned by Davies almost immediately, on the grounds it was "too risky". Yeah, you think?)
So the episode entertains no questions as to Christie's bad points, turning a celebration of her work into a hagiography of Christie as a world-historical thinker whose genius glitters on every page of her books. There is, of course, the general literary consensus and my own opinion that this may be a bit strong a description of a competent, entertaining if formulaic writer, but that is, in the end, just an opinion. But the episode's depiction of Christie clashes with its own treatment of her books too. Fundamentally, it's hard to see her as a genius when her default plot (a cast of characters being killed off in an isolated location) is treated by the episode as a joke everyone knows.
The episode plays out the beats of a Christie novel with friendly enthusiasm. The setting (a manor house in summer filled with simply frightfully nice people), the murders, the secrets of the characters and the final fireside scene wherein the detective reveals all - all these are instantly familiar as "Christie-esque" plot points. So what, exactly, was so damn clever about Christie if "everyone knows" all her books are like this?
The episode regularly avers that Christie, as the author of a lot of mystery novels, should be able to solve this real-life mystery. Even the Doctor says it, and we are to assume that he is right about this. This argument is ludicrous on its face. (Christie was able to "solve" the mystery in, say, Murder on the Orient Express because, I feel compelled to say, she created it.) Her argument that writing books in which people solve crimes does not help one solve crimes oneself is perfectly and unanswerably fair, yet we're meant to believe, I think, that this is part of her feelings of literary inadequacy (that is, her belief that her books will be forgotten). Ultimately, she is able to solve some of the mystery (though not, it must be said, the identity of the murderer, which is kind of a big oversight), but only because the mystery perfectly resembles one of her books. Uncovering the identity of the Unicorn, for instance, depends on the thief never bothering to reclaim her safe-breaking tools from the garden bed, and that this world is too small, apparently, for two thieves at once. Frankly, I could have guessed the person who threw safe-breaking tools out a window was probably a thief - and as for Donna's claim that only someone as brilliant as Christie could have noticed that the garden bed had been disturbed... Yeah, and, I don't know, a non-blind person as well?
The episode inverts the reasoning of Vincent and the Doctor, which claims its special guest star was a genius but struggles to justify it beyond references to an ineffable vision no one else could possess. Here, the episode walks us through the kind of stories Christie told, but in such a way as to show their fundamental, grinding predictability. She can't be that great if just anyone can write a pitch-perfect pastiche of her style. The Doctor makes reference to her brilliant understanding of people, which helps her write such gripping mysteries, yet the characters in the story are all archetypes of "characters in a Christie story": the vicar, the butler, etc. I find it hard to believe that anyone has ever read a Christie book and wowed at the vivid portrayal of human nature contained within. The episode rhetorically praises Christie's brilliance but actually appears to demonstrate again and again that she wrote entertaining potboilers that, once one has consumed enough, be readily replicated.
Perhaps the most damning moment is the central mystery itself. It's obvious from the start who the killer is in The Unicorn and the Wasp, at least to anyone who knows the works of one Agatha Christie. When we're not distracted from the question by a giant wasp (and it's a fairly inventive way, I'll grant you, to hide an obvious mystery from the audience), it's clear that the vicar has to be the killer, because he is the only character who has a perfectly banal, non-funny, non-secretive explanation of where he was at the time of the murder. As anyone who has ever read a Christie book knows, it's always the character who is least obviously guilty who is, in fact, guilty. Supposedly Christie herself operated this way, by writing to a certain point in her story, identifying who was least suspicious and then rewriting the manuscript to make them the guilty party. (So much for her unparalleled understanding of people...) With this in mind, the person with the least reason to murder anyone, the one who has the most ostentatiously innocent backstory, is the Rev. Golightly. And the line about Golightly apprehending two thieves in his church... a little too pointless a detail not to be pointing in some very suspicious direction.
A defence of Christie can be offered here. This misdirection (the most innocent-seeming person is actually guilty) would be familiar to virtually any consumer of crime fiction nowadays (go look at Midsomer Murders, for instance), but this is actually a testament to Christie's influence on the genre. Indeed, she is certainly one of the three biggest influences on the crime genre, along with Conan Doyle and probably Raymond Chandler. But her influence is, in my view, on the most predictable, procedural forms of crime fiction, where the audience can play the game of guessing the killer, but the audience members who know how these stories inevitably work will have the advantage. The TV series Elementary, which for all its premise actually has more in common with Christie than Conan Doyle, relies on this formula so heavily it is possible to guess the villain about a third of the way into each episode, as he or she is inevitably a seeming side character who displayed no motive for murder and whom the episode clearly wants to us to forget about. It bears spelling out that the mystery in The Unicorn and the Wasp can be solved simply by applying the cliches of the works of Agatha Christie, if one can avoid being distracted by declarations of Christie's unique genius as a literary auteur.
Selling us on the idea that Christie was genuinely one of the greatest writers who ever lived was always going to be tough. The ways the story tries to convince us of Christie's genius seem so out of keeping with the affectionate mockery of the formula we all know she followed that it feels forced, as though Gareth Roberts intended to write a mild homage or pastiche of Christie, but Davies insisted that the episode venerate her a bit more. The episode even appears to recognise it may be overselling its star attraction, as the Doctor downgrades his initial praise that her books "fooled him every time" to fooling him just once. For a writer whose sole claim to genius is writing "clever" mysteries that are hard to solve, this is very much damning with faint praise.
We are straying close to a flaw at the heart of the celebrity historical, at least as it has been done in the RTD and Moffat eras. The reverence the episodes have for their guest stars, from Dickens to Churchill, requires each to ignore everything unsavoury or negative in their real-life characters, presenting an unambiguous Great Man (or Woman) view of history wherein progress comes from uniquely brilliant or heroic figures to whom the proper response is fawning adoration. When the subject is an artist, the outcome inevitably falls on the side of populism. We've already seen this problem with Vincent and the Doctor, which says that he is "the most popular great artist". It isn't enough for the episode to discover the personal brilliance of Dickens, Shakespeare or Christie (indeed, as human beings they all had a lot to be desired). We need to begin from a position of accepting their genius. The Doctor needs to be Dickens' "Number One fan", consider Shakespeare to be "the genius" and once have been fooled by the "great mind" of Christie. It's a view of art that is virtually uninterested in art itself and instead considers it great because it is the work of canonical geniuses, who, in order to be fully and unashamedly venerated, need to be reduced to bland, ungainsayable versions of their true selves. We neither learn to admire the art nor respect the real artists. The episode ends with the Doctor telling Donna that Christie is the best-selling author of all time, which either represents the endorsement this nice lady Christie deserved or equates popularity with quality, a correlation that may be the fatal flaw of the RTD era. It's perhaps inevitable that Davies seriously considered an episode starring J.K. Rowling as herself, so as to show kids that "not all the great authors are dead".
And that's my main problem with The Unicorn and the Wasp, both then and now. It's an homage to an artist by people who can't tell the difference between J.K. Rowling and Shakespeare. It considers particular books to be works of genius because they're bestsellers. I'm sure there are people who will respond to this argument by saying that The Unicorn and the Wasp is just a harmless bit of fun and is too thin a reed to support such a profound critique. That might be true. But it's a hard argument to square with the fawning showered on a writer of middlebrow, predictable fiction. To effortlessly recreate a predictable formula, knowing that every viewer will recognise the ultra-familiar tropes and then hold up the supposed fiendish unpredictability as worthy of praise because it's very popular is to abandon the protection that being middlebrow offers against criticism. Then again, that is, in its way, a criticism of a lot of this most formulaic era of Doctor Who itself.