The Unicorn and the Wasp

waspAfter Dickens plus ghosts, Queen Victoria plus werewolves and Shakespeare plus witches, our celebrity historical goes a bit left-field here with Agatha Christie plus a giant wasp.  It is a choice that allows Graeme Harper to employ some classic murder mystery techniques. Spinning newspapers and wobbly screen flashbacks take a bit of getting used to in a Doctor Who episode, but it just goes to show how flexible the series can be: there are very few boundaries with Doctor Who; it can adopt any directorial style to suit the story. And what fun the writer (Gareth Roberts) has with those flashbacks, with the Doctor’s interviewees telling him one thing, while the flashbacks show us something completely different: Colonel Hugh ‘reading through some military memoirs’ as he looks at pictures of can-can girls, and Lady Eddison having ‘afternoon tea’ as she swigs from a hip flask.

Apparently Gareth Roberts and Russell T Davies had great fun with this script, adding in new references to Agatha Christie books each time a draft went back and forth between them, so all of the following get a name-check or reference:

  • And Then There Were None
  • Appointment with Death
  • The Body in the Library
  • Cards on the Table
  • Cat Among the Pigeons
  • Crooked House
  • Dead Man’s Folly
  • Death Comes as the End
  • Endless Night
  • The Moving Finger
  • The Murder at the Vicarage
  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • N or M?
  • Nemesis
  • Sparkling Cyanide
  • Taken at the Flood
  • They Do It with Mirrors
  • Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

At times this leads to some very contrived dialogue (“she had an appointment with death instead” is one of several examples). But mercifully we were saved from the following, which was included in one draft, according to The Writer’s Tale:

Donna: It’s like “Ten Little” –
The Doctor: Niggles aside, we’d better look in the library.

It’s a mercy that didn’t make it to screen, particularly in an episode that idolises an author who was not immune to casual racism.

Just as Roberts had little interest in showing any kind of realistic portrayal of Elizabethan England in The Shakespeare Code, here he understands that the viewers’ perception of Christie’s novels is more important than their actual content, and that perception is built on the basis of very few of the actual books, and also the wider world surrounding them such as the television adaptations and the clichés inherent in the whodunnit genre.  This is why some of the most obvious references are not actually from Christie at all, but from the game Cluedo (Clue in the USA), with virtually every character fitting into a role within the game.  Let’s have another list:

  • Colonel Curbishly = Colonel Mustard
  • Lady Eddison = Mrs Peacock
  • Miss Chandrakala = Mrs White
  • Professor Peach = Professor Plum
  • Reverend Golightly = Reverend Green
  • Robina Redmond = Miss Scarlet

With this kind of thing going on there is a tendency for a viewer to think: “hold on a minute, this is all a bit silly”, which Roberts addresses with an approach known in media studies as “lampshade hanging”, often shortened to “lampshading”, where the writer calls attention to some silliness as if to say “yes, this is silly, but it’s deliberate; get over it”.  So we get Donna saying “I mean… Professor Peach, in the library, with the lead piping?” and the same trick is played with the obvious repetition within Doctor Who of the famous author plus monster format:

That’s like meeting Charles Dickens and he’s surrounded by ghosts. At Christmas.

Of course, Doctor Who can’t just play an Agatha Christie mystery straight, because the Doctor has to fit into the narrative, so he becomes a detective (there are three, the Doctor, Donna and Agatha), but also a victim.  Being the Doctor, he is the victim who cheats death, and continues his investigation.  Agatha gets to play detective, but is also the subject of the secondary mystery, fulfilling the standard format of a Christie book where everyone has something to hide, but for different reasons than being the murderer, for everone but one.

The presence of Agatha herself in one of her own stories, observing the Doctor playing Poirot, allows her to make a metatextual commentary on the Doctor himself, and this is far more effective than all that on-the-nose “am I a good man” stuff that will happen further down the line.

How like a man to have fun while there’s disaster all around him.

The Doctor looks suitably chastened by Agatha’s criticism of him, and it raises an interesting point – just how much does the Doctor enjoy the bad things that happen when he’s around? Our perception of what constitutes a hero is challenged.  But ultimately we need to be on the same side as the Doctor, and the genius of David Tennant is that he recognised that and never allowed things to go too far down that route.  He knew the boundaries, where other actors have crossed them.  Originally the Doctor was going to kill the wasp by ramming it into the lake with the car, but Tennant wasn’t having any of that because he didn’t want his Doctor to be a killer.  And that’s the benefit of employing an actor who really understands Doctor Who.  All scripts are a creative collaboration between writer, script editor, director and producer, but when that collaboration also includes a lead actor with an instinctive understanding of the character he is playing, then you get the David Tennant era.  RP

The view from across the pond:

If you’re planning on writing a mystery, there are few worthy of emulation like the best-selling mystery author, Agatha Christie.  And since Doctor Who often dives headfirst into a good mystery, it was inevitable that we’d see these two giants meet.  Christie featured in an actual mystery in 1926, so it should come as no surprise that the TARDIS would make an appearance during that period and, in typical Who style, give us a reason for her 10-day disappearance.

This is the first of the notable Jekyll alums to appear in Doctor Who with Fenella Woolgar taking center stage as the great mystery writer.  And before she was helping rebels steal plans for the Death Star, Felicity Jones was the notorious cat burglar known as the Unicorn in The Unicorn and the Wasp.   Both are fantastic in this story, capturing the feel of the era and bringing their characters to life.  Unfortunately, as mysteries go, it’s a bit silly with a main villain as a werewasp (aka vespiform) but there’s plenty to like about the episode.  Let’s go over “werewasp” first: this is a man who transforms into a giant wasp.  I guess if I’m being honest, it’s a wasp that can masquerade as a man.  But having the Reverend Green, I mean Golightly, start to transform making a Zzzzz noise is silly and hits the fear factor … not at all!  The entire thing seems so remarkably contrived that it loses something.  That said, it does not lose the humor and this is what I discussed in The War Machines.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which ends up making it quite enjoyable nonetheless.  Had it gone for a more serious attempt, I think it would have failed completely.  But if Doctor Who has a knack for mystery stories and it also has a knack for humor.  The Doctor and Donna play a hilarious game of charades providing some outright guffaws.

And then there’s also the board game Clue.  I’m a big fan of this classic board game, so this might have stood out to me to a larger extent than intended, but the Unicorn’s “real” name is Redmond, corresponding to Miss Scarlet (a shade of red) in Clue.  The game has one Colonel (Michael) Mustard (always the character I play) and we have a colonel in this story as well.  Professor Plum, of the board game is our Professor Peach in this and Reverend Green in the game is matched to Reverend Golightly.  Though I didn’t see a direct connection to Mrs. White or Peacock, it’s been a while since I’ve watched it, so it is possible that I’m merely forgetful.  And the references don’t stop there.  There’s a body in the Library.  Is there a shortcut to the conservatory?  Not sure…  There are also murder weapons like the rope, lead pipe, gun, candlestick and knife.  (I wasn’t kidding when I said it is one of my favorite board games but I want to come back to that in a second…!)

Once again, like The Shakespeare Code, there’s more chicken/egg shenanigans going on.  Donna mentions Murder on the Orient Express before it was written thus possibly giving Christie the idea for it; an idea she wouldn’t have if Christie had not written it!  There’s the aforementioned Body in the Library that was the title of one of her other works, but I have only read a few of her books so I only knew that one by title.  And then there were none and Murder on the Orient Express jumped out at me but I had to go online to see what other references there were.  For that, I had to pop to the superb, (where I learned that I was not alone in noticing those Clue references, although it does show the two characters that I did not pick up on).  Well the list is extensive!  Most, I’m disheartened to say, whizzed right past me which, as a guy who loves Easter Egg reference material, that stings like a wasp!

The Unicorn and the Wasp is a lighter episode during the missing planet story arc.  The enemy is not very captivating.  The resolution to the real life Agatha Christie mystery is weak.  But the episode is light-hearted fun and Tennant and Tate play it perfectly.  Tennant is an incredible actor with great range.  Tate knows comedy and you can’t help but laugh out loud as she guesses Harvey Wallbanger to save the Doctor’s life.  It probably won’t make any top ten lists, but it is a fun romp.

One final point on Clue, unrelated to Doctor Who.   In the game, you’re trying to decide the murderer, the room and the weapon.  But that’s worthy of a comedy all by itself.  First of all, the body is probably still in the room the murder took place in, so there’s no mystery.   If s/he is not, does it really matter what room the crime took place in?  Perhaps motive would make for a better thing to uncover.  Then for the weapon, if there’s a bullet hole, you’re probably not expecting death by rope.  Equally, if the body is hanging, do you really ponder where the knife is?  I think the game may fail a bit in that regard, but I still love playing it!  Now if only we added a vespiform to the list of suspects…   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Silence in the Library

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Doctor Who, Entertainment, History, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, Tenth Doctor and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Unicorn and the Wasp

  1. sandmanjazz says:

    Actually in the game Cluedo (or Clue if you prefer) Doctor Black’s body is found on the central staircase having been moved. Just to be pedantic 🤣🤣🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    • I used to play a computer game version of it that was quite fun. It’s a while since I last played the board game though.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Loschiavo says:

      i can live with that correction, but would it really matter where the person was killed as much as the “who” and the “why”? That said, even accepting that, the weapons would all leave unique traces with the possible exceptions of the wrench, candlestick and the lead pipe, all being bludgeoning implements. A knife would leave a distinctive mark, as would gun and a rope. And with all that… I still love the game! And do appreciate the clarification.

      ROG – on the subject of actors who actually get the role, I do think Capaldi understood what it was to take on that role. I think the idea that he stopped smoking in public so children wouldn’t see the Doctor smoking is proof that he understands the character. Didn’t stop him gunning down one of his own. I wish it had; I might be able to forgive Hell Bent otherwise…


      Liked by 1 person

      • sandmanjazz says:

        Surely the idea was the murderer intended to chuck the body down the stairs to mask any injuries

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I think Capaldi behind the scenes is a great ambassador for Who, but in front of the cameras there are times where he could perhaps have argued against certain things like Tennant did with this story, exercising the good judgement one would assume he has.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think anyone is taking as much interest in the episode itself as in your reference to the game. I would never have realised how comical it all was! But I can’t say the experience has entirely been ruined.
    We had guests over at our place when this episode was aired, and though I had been allowed to watch the show, it was quite embarrassing with everyone around. The first time some of them had a look at the Doctor and he was dancing in the kitchen, acting crazily and in the most “non-british” manner. His peculiarities are his USP, no doubt, but people won’t understand that on their first times. It was my favourite part of the episode.
    Thanks for pointing out how sensitive both Tennant and Capaldi are as far as their role is concerned. Now I won’t admire them just for their acting (and hair).
    I have almost reached the end of season 4. Soon Matt Smith will be taking over. I look forward to it but it still is sad. Getting over a doctor must be as difficult as it is for the Doctor to get over his companions. Even the Doctor seems to reflect my thoughts: he has been getting a lot emotional lately. He cried when the Master/Saxon died and again when his daughter died. The episode with his daughter was one of my favourites but I didnt like the ending. They could simply have killed her off instead of giving us so much agony and a hope which won’t be materialised.
    I also watched Silence in the library. I went from hating River for being cheeky and outsmarting the Doctor at every point to loving her by the end of the story. She does have a powerful punch!
    That episode, along with ‘The doctor’s daughter’ and the one set on the diamond planet, is among my recent favourites. The last one was quite underrated, I think.
    Now, before I go on to mention every little detail of my life, I’ll press the send button and bid you farewell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that’s Doctor Who for you! If a non-Who-fan visitor is in the room, it’ll always turn out to be embarassing in some way 😀 It can be tough when a Doctor changes and I think it’s especially difficult for children. It works well if the new one captures their imagination straight away. Unfortunately my first experience of that was Davison to Colin Baker, and if you get round to watching some of the older stuff eventually you will realise why that was a moment for a young child as I was at the time to give up and start watching The A Team on ITV instead. Luckily I came back to Doctor Who again eventually! Out of the episodes you mention, we will be looking at Silence in the Library next month, Last of the Time Lords will be in May, as will The Doctor’s Daughter. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Mike Loschiavo says:

      Vish, (I’m assuming that’s your name from your title, but if I’m mistaken, please forgive me), it’s great hearing from you again. As a fellow Whovian, feel free to write as many details as you’d like. It’s great reading your thoughts. Believe me, Roger and I can write aplenty!
      Roger is right, Doctor Who can be a little embarrassing when you’re worried about what others are thinking of it, but remember, it’s outlasted almost every other “popular show” in history, so you’re not “wrong” for loving it.
      Midnight is an insanely good episode. The Library is a great 2-part story. River is a great character. The Doctor’s Daughter is a decent episode, but I agree, it would have been nice if they could do more with her. Do you know the story around the real life of Georgia Moffett? The Doctor’s Daughter is an apt title for her in more ways than one!

      Hope to hear more from you! I enjoy these detailed reminiscences!


      Liked by 2 people

      • That’s my name, yes. The embarrassment is no big deal. People asking you to explain the show or the ongoing storyline( especially when it’s going on) is worse. It took me very long to figure out how it could be possible that River dies even before the Doctor gets to know her well and eventually they marry or something. And even now, I have a feeling that I might have got my concepts muddled up.
        I just looked up Georgia on Google. If I read correctly, she is the daughter of the fifth doctor. And she marries Tennant! She could have a tea-party with the Doctors! She could ask them to assume their characters! It’s brilliant😀
        I wish I were her. Thanks for bearing with my rants. This post made my day!

        Liked by 1 person

      • It was an amazing situation because David Tennant grew up watching Peter Davison as the Doctor. He was literally his childhood hero, because Tennant was a big fan of Doctor Who long before he became the Doctor (a subscriber to Doctor Who Magazine), so he ended up as the Tenth Doctor, with the Fifth Doctor for his father in law – talk about a dream come true!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mike Loschiavo says:

        I’m delighted that you’re so interested in the show. And yes, the idea that she’s the Doctors daughter, and his wife, is funny and pretty awesome for her.
        “I’m a child when it comes to this show” – that’s magnificent. You get to experience it all for the first time, and share those thoughts with us! Great for us as well. We’re old fans; getting your take as it happens … that’s FANTASTIC!


        Liked by 2 people

      • I agree, but less of the “old” Mike 😉

        Liked by 2 people

      • I am always jumping about, making references to this show which no one seems to understand and getting disappointed about it all. I wish more people would watch the show. Amd write about it too.
        Love your blog, people!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mike says:

        Good lord, do I know the feeling! I make references all the time and no one gets it. I even prompt with a little “huh…? get it…?” and people stare at me like I’ve sprouted an asparagus from the bridge of my nose!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Wow! And apt comparison!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike Basil says:

    Traditionally at best, we all have a morbid nature where such whodunits are concerned, or relative thrillers about isolated people being picked off one by one as I discovered in myself thanks to both Night Of The Living Dead and Alien. As Capaldi’s Doctor once said to a frightened kid, scared is a superpower, and we all enjoy Dr. Who for being a safe place to be scared for the thrill of it, without the need to experience the horrors in real life.

    Ray Bradbury once made the point that murder mysteries and thrillers can be an escapism in the sense that we can imagine giving into our primal desires to murder via the fiction we read or view on the screen, so that we don’t otherwise feel any urge to murder in real life. I can relate to this a great deal and even if it’s pure conjecture, it certainly beats the presumption that such violent and scary thrillers ultimately desensitize us into becoming violent in society. Because I can verify as a lifelong audience member of such thrillers, some I still reasonably enjoy today and others that can now instantly make me change the channel, that the audience has a choice. Audiences can have their pleasures, private or shared, with what they see in visualized fiction, but can still recognize it as either fair escapism or something that conditionally wouldn’t do in real life. Dr. Who makes the best point, as does Star Trek and X-Files, that no matter how disturbing an adventure can be, the potential to find strength and motivation from it is realistic if it somehow sees justice done.

    The Doctor may be more on the boastful side when opposing boastful alien villains. Because we must be the change we wish to see in the world and the rest of the universe is no exception. It is therefore refreshing when the Doctor, certainly Tennant’s for this resolution for Agatha Christie, is fatefully mellowed enough when he releases Agatha to her amnesia and fixed point in history. In the cases where the Doctor’s decision-making forcefulness can be adventurously enjoyable if we understand it enough as loyal Whovians, The Unicorn & The Wasp works the same way as most Dr. Who adventures, by honoring our expectations that the proper resolutions will play out in due course, including the Doctor’s continuing proof that there’s always more to him as a hero that the routinely inevitable defeat of alien villains. Especially in this case when the villain, even one that can still be capable of murder and carnage, may earn significant sympathy.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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