Series 4 of Doctor Who reaches its official midway point with “The Unicorn And The Wasp”, penned by Gareth Roberts, another returning guest writer from Series 3. “The Unicorn And The Wasp” is the traditional NuWho celebrity historical, which comes surprisingly later in the season than usual compared to its typical early slot. These sorts of episodes usually involve the Doctor and his friends teaming up with some famous historical figure to fight off a monster, and they sometimes offer up the show’s spin on unsolved mysteries surrounding the figure’s lives (like the night Agatha Christie lost her memory), with the answer almost always being that ‘aliens did it’. My favorite of them so far has been “The Shakespeare Code“, also penned by Gareth Roberts.
Naturally, “The Unicorn And The Wasp” is a period piece, set within the grounds of a quiet country estate during the roaring twenties, and since the guest character is Agatha Christie, this episode is also an opportunity for the show to spoof a certain genre of fiction. “The Unicorn And The Wasp” is a murder mystery and a classic whodunnit tale that embraces all the tropes, trappings and conventions of the genre, plays around with them, and has a lot of silly fun for forty-five minutes until the killer is revealed. As such, like “Partners In Crime“, I would probably rank “The Unicorn And The Wasp” as one of the more average episodes of the season, since it’s pretty light on substance, but it is another good opportunity to show off how much of a fun duo the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble are when they’re on a case. “The Unicorn And The Wasp” is also the last truly fluffy and ridiculous episode of the season. The following two-parter, “Silence In The Library“, marks the point where the tone of Series 4 starts to shift into heavier territory, and the rest of the season gets darker and darker from there, straight up into the finale.
As “The Unicorn And The Wasp” kicks off, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna find themselves attending a posh private party on a warm spring day in the 1920’s, when murder strikes – murder that was committed by an extraterrestrial, which means this mystery is right up the Doctor’s alley. As you would expect from Ten, who loves meeting historical figures, he is a top-tier Agatha Christie fanboy and is very happy to not only meet her but work with her as a fellow detective. Naturally, there are moments when he unwittingly steps on her toes, because Ten can be pretty bad at reading a room when he’s geeking out, and Agatha is feeling pretty prickly at the moment due to some personal drama. During their melding of the minds, the Doctor has plenty of knowledge about alien species that he can provide, while Agatha has a deep understanding about the complexities of human nature that’s her own area of expertise, allowing the two to balance each other out well.
Compared to several other episodes in Series 4 (like all the drama that just went down with his sudden and unexpected fatherhood in “The Doctor’s Daughter“), Ten doesn’t have an emotional arc in this episode – Agatha does, and to a lesser extent, Donna and Lady Edison – so the Doctor is in full exposition mode in this episode, a role that suits him quite well as the smartest man in the room. “The Unicorn And The Wasp” is an adventure that continues to develop his friendship and camaraderie with Donna, showing off the sillier side of their relationship and the nice comedic double act Tennant and Tate have. Case in point, there’s a very over-the-top scene mid-episode where the Doctor gets poisoned with cyanide, and he’s forced to play a deadly game of charades with Donna on a time limit to come up with an antidote (which she is not very good at, not very good at all).
Living up to their unofficial status as ‘partners in crime’, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) basically acts as Ten’s wingman and his assistant detective in this episode. She’s every bit as enthusiastic as him about getting to rub elbows with high society, and even though solving mysteries is more of the Doctor’s thing, when murder strikes she’s willing to play along with him and help him get the job done. Like in “Partners In Crime”, we’re shown how beneficial it can be for the Doctor to have someone else around to offer a different perspective from his own, because it’s Donna who gives him his first, really important clue – pointing out that the murderer is acting like a character in one of Agatha’s books, like a really twisted role-player, which seems even weirder once they discover the killer is a giant alien wasp.
As she learns about Agatha’s personal problems, Donna sympathizes a lot with her insecurities: she knows what’s it like to feel like you haven’t done anything truly meaningful with your life, so she (ironically) encourages her to not to be so down on herself, and she can’t help feeling a bit demoralized about the way this episode wraps up for Agatha. “The Unicorn And The Wasp” has a rather bittersweet ending where Agatha gets mindwiped – losing all the personal growth and renewed confidence she had gained from this adventure. However, this episode makes it clear that even though Agatha doesn’t remember it, it still happened and it still mattered – she was still a brilliant woman when it counted, and she saved lives. With foreknowledge of how Series 4 ends, “The Unicorn And The Wasp” clearly foreshadows Donna’s fate in “Journey’s End”, with Agatha’s arc serving as a small-scale parallel to Donna’s journey all season. As the climax of the season gradually approaches, Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts are already stealthily trying to prepare the viewers for it and preemptively soften the blow of Donna’s very cruel exit from the TARDIS.
As you would expect, Agatha Christie is given a large amount of focus in this episode: Gareth Roberts recycles a lot of his jokes from “The Shakespeare Code”, where the Doctor and his friends keep letting future knowledge about her career slip in front of her, which prove to be a lot less funny the second time around. I always find it interesting, the line Doctor Who tries to walk when it comes to fictionalizing notable people who are long gone – because on the one hand, the show obviously tries to stick to historical accounts of what they were actually like, but on the other hand, it also tries to humanize them as one-off characters with flaws in their own right.
Gareth Roberts writes Agatha as an intelligent and accomplished woman, who’s currently feeling rather bitter and morose because she’s just been hurt by the betrayal of her husband’s affair. The fact that the man she loved would cheat on her with another woman has clearly dealt to a blow to her self-esteem: she considers herself to be an amateur author who’s work will eventually be forgotten once the initial hype dies down (not unlike Charles Dickens’ depressed pessimism). Still, even if Agatha doubts herself, she’s shown to be a good writer who possess a strong and complex understanding of human nature. Here, as she’s confronted with the impossible and her changing perception of the world, she puts that skill to good use when she tries to help the Doctor track down a dangerous killer. Everyone puts a lot of pressure on her, counting on her genius, and she nearly buckles under the strain of her own self-doubt several times, but she comes through in the end – and by this story’s end, all the remaining survivors in the Edison estate owe their lives to Agatha just as much as the Doctor and Donna.
None of the suspects in this murder mystery are quite what they seem at first glance. As members of high society, putting on airs and graces in respectable company, they all have skeletons in their closets that they’re covering up to adhere to social norms. Roger, the heir to the Edison estate, is a gay man who’s having a secret fling with one of the servants (and doing a pretty poor job of concealing it). Lady Edison appears to have a drinking problem that she’s keeping under wraps, while her husband isn’t really a disabled man, he’s simply pretending to be one to try to maintain their marriage (which is actually pretty manipulative). Mrs. Redmond isn’t a visiting aristocrat at all, but a thief from London posing as one, who serves as a red herring to the real killer.
Most of these reveals are played for laughs, but the overall theme of all these suspects creating these fake versions of themselves (to get ahead or protect their reputation) does pay off in a more serious way, when the true killer is revealed and Lady Edison turns out to have another, darker secret. When she was a young woman, she had a child with an alien lover out of wedlock. Since such a thing was considered to be scandalous at the time, she covered it all up and gave the child away to protect her reputation. Years later, her now insane son came home, looking for revenge. First, he killed anyone else who knew of his existence; then he killed her second son (his half-brother) Roger, presumably out of jealousy; and eventually he would have worked his way up to killing her if he hadn’t been stopped – having learned all about the art of murder from Agatha’s books. As ludicrous as the idea of a giant killer wasp is, there is something tragic about the way this storyline played out: Lady Edison now has to live with the guilt and grief of knowing the son she gave up became a psychotic murderer, while the son she kept was murdered by him, and that’s going to take a nasty toll on her mental health.
“The Unicorn And The Wasp” is helmed by Grahame Harper, whose direction is a lot less sharp and engaging than usual in this episode, presumably because this is a comedic, frothy episode and not a dramatic adventure that’s related to the series arc, like the kind he usually handles (“The Age Of Steel”, “Doomsday”, “42”, “Utopia”, “The Stolen Earth“). Matching the tone of the episode, Grahame Harper’s direction throughout the hour is very silly and tongue-in-cheek, filled with exaggerated zoom-ins, wavy dissolves for the bizarre, wandering flashback sequences, and some spinning newspapers tossed in for the flash-sideways – even the lighting, filled with pronounced shadows in some scenes, contributes to the surreal, old school atmosphere in this installment.
“The Unicorn And The Wasp” is noticeably one of the low budget episodes of Series 4, alongside the bottle episode “Midnight“, which makes sense, since it’s sandwiched between “The Sontaran Stratagem“, “The Doctor’s Daughter” and “Silence In The Library” – all of which are stories that are heavy on stunts, explosions and CGI – so the show would need to have a smaller-scale story to save money somewhere. As such, the action in this episode is mainly set inside one manor, with a lot of lovely outdoors shoots done in the scenic countryside of Newport. Throughout Series 4, the Mill has shown a lot of improvement when it comes to integrating CGI elements within a real, tangible environment, but they take a step backwards with the giant killer wasp in this episode, which sticks out like a sore thumb compared to everything else surrounding it. Murray Gold’s score for “The Unicorn And The Wasp” is probably his most unremarkable one in Series 4 – it’s ambient and inquisitive, but otherwise bland and forgettable, and summed up quite well by “The Unicorn And The Wasp” suite on the soundtrack album.
Like “Partners In Crime”, “The Unicorn And The Wasp” is a solid and serviceable outing which doesn’t do much to stand out as a whole, but it provides the last bit of fluffy fun the season will have before the intensity level starts to pick up with the following two-parter.
* “What do you think? Flapper or slapper?” “Flapper. You look lovely”.
* “Some of these young boys deserve a descent thrashing” “Couldn’t agree more, sir” Davenport is feeling a bit thirsty, I see.
* “The plucky young girl who helps me out?” “There are no policewomen in 1926” “I’ll pluck you in a minute”.
* “No, but isn’t that a bit weird? Agatha Christie didn’t walk around surrounded by murders. Not really. I mean, that’s like meeting Charles Dickens and he’s surrounded by ghosts at Christmas” “…Well”.
* “Oh, come on! It’s not like we could drive across country and find Enid Blyton having tea with Noddy. Could we? Noddy’s not real. Is he? Tell me there’s no Noddy” “…There’s no Noddy”.
* “You’ll need this” “…Is that for real?” “Go on. You’re ever so plucky” Donna looks like she knows exactly where she’d like to put that magnifying glass.
* “It’s only a silly little insect” “When I say a giant wasp, I don’t mean big, I mean flipping enormous!!”
* In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag, Roger and Davenport had apparently been spending some special alone time in Roger’s room when the Doctor came bursting in the hallway.
* “I found my husband with another woman. A younger, prettier woman. Isn’t it always the way?” “Well, mine was with a giant spider, but, same difference”.
* “What do you want, a Harvey Wallbanger?” “Harvey Wallbanger?! How is Harvey Wallbanger one word?!”
* “A terrible day for all of us. The Professor struck down, Ms. Chandrakala taken cruelly from us, and yet we still take dinner” “We are British, Doctor. What else must we do?”
* “And then someone tried to poison me. Any one of you had the chance to put cyanide in my drink. But it rather gave me an idea” “And what would that be?” “Well, poison. Drink up” Turnabout is fairplay, after all, and the Doctor is ready to get his murder on.
* “My son! MY CHILD!” Hot damn. Showing that huge knife buried in Roger’s back where the reverend shanked him is surprisingly graphic for this show.
* “Just like a man. He flashes his family jewels and you end up with a bun in the oven” The holy reverend grimaces at that line for a variety of reasons.
* “At this point, when we consider the lies and the secrets, and the key to these events, then we have to consider it was you, Donna Noble” “What? Who did I kill?”
* “Don’t make me angry!” “Why? What happens then?” You won’t like him when he’s angry.
* “Damn it, you humans, worshiping your tribal sky gods. I am so much more! That night, the universe exploded in my mind. I wanted to take what was mine. And you, Agatha Christie, with your railway station bookstall romances, what’s to stop me killing you?! What’s to stop me killing you all?!”
* ” Donna, that thing couldn’t help itself” “Neither could I!”