After 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?
- 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 Tardis.wikia.com, (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