Lisa Bunker plays Doctor Cludo...
Series Four's The Unicorn and the Wasp is a highly underrated episode of Doctor Who that often gets tarnished as a disposable stand-alone story, adding nothing to the overall narrative of the season. Whilst it is a stand-alone story, many of this type of adventure turn out to be regarded as season highlights, so quite why this Agatha Christie murder mystery with a Doctor Who twist is never included among them is beyond me as it is both beautifully crafted and executed, and an episode which completely revels in the world of the author.
Gareth Roberts did a great job on the script as even if you're totally oblivious towards Christie's works and don't know your Miss Marple from your Hercule Poirot, or have never heard about her mysterious ten-day disappearance, it doesn't really matter as Roberts had enough foresight and consideration towards the audience that we really don't need to know much other than the obvious 'Agatha Christie, murder mystery writer.' Also, being that Doctor Who always caters in some respect for the younger viewer, even if you're unfamiliar with the anatomy of a murder mystery the episode goes out of it's way to reveal the bare bones for the viewer's edification.
As for the mystery itself, the thing I loved is how it messes with your perception as to which plot elements are relevant and what are coincidental - even the title does that. Your natural instinct assumes that The Unicorn and the Wasp are linked in some way and that you don't even think about the actual implications of how the older woman's love for the works of Agatha Christie actually affects the story's direction. The writing deftly crosses twists and turns that has you constantly scrambling to work out the mystery and in doing so you are riveted to hang on to every word and action. Add all that to the intriguing blend of the science fiction elements and it makes for a refreshing spin on a familiar formula.
The execution of the 1920s is also very good. It's a decade I've always been intrigued by and how it was a time of gross overindulgence where anything goes. And I do mean anything. Women were beginning to display personal independence and people became experimental in practically every way you could imagine. Be it alcohol, drugs or sex, it was all on the menu. Frequently and often if you could afford it. Yet it was also very much a time of appearance, etiquette and public decorum. This all comes in to play during the Doctor's cross-examination.
The inter-cutting between the Doctor's deducing and the actual truths behind each of the guest's stories are totally in tune with the spirit of the era. Even the most noble individual had a secret, whether it be petty or shocking. Some could be a sound motive for murder and as they all unfold they entice you to find out how they connect to the emergence of the giant wasp.
Speaking of the giant wasp, I loved the irony that for once Donna is completely in her element when dealing with a giant bug, and I cheered when she was able to take it on with a magnifying glass. Add to that Donna's encounter with a famous historical icon and it makes for a dynamic equally as memorable and Martha's flirtations with Shakespeare, but yet different largely owing to how Donna empathised with Agatha Christie's self-doubt. It's always been something I've really liked about Donna, that she reaches out to people who may find themselves overwhelmed by the Doctor's world, and I think that's what has made her the most successful companion of the revived series.
David Tennant's enthusiasm for the material shines through and makes his performance here one of the most enjoyable of his entire era. Watching this episode you get the impression that Tennant would've loved playing Sherlock Holmes, and maybe one day he'll get the chance because it's so clear to see how much he enjoys playing detective. Pointing fingers, sussing out crimes and misdemeanors. Getting the chance to solve the mystery and feel like the cleverest person in the room through his deducing prowess, instead of his oft-arrogant Time Lord Victorious personality.
As for the guest cast, Fenella Woolgar is absolutely perfect as Agatha Chrstie, so stiff upper lipped and
British. It was David Tennant who suggested her for the role, I wasn't overly familiar with her beforehand but I've since become a huge fan
of hers. She is just a ridiculously good actress, and her summing up of the crime in this episode is just delightful. The Unicorn and the Wasp is also graced with television royalty in the form of Felicity Kendal, who still has it (whatever it may be, she sure does have it). I find it hard to believe she had never appeared in Doctor Who before, but thankfully she chose to do so before she gave up television work and concentrated solely on the stage (this episode remains her last on-screen role). It's also worth noting a young (well, younger - she's still young now) Felicity Jones as Robina Redmond. Soon to be seen in the lead role in the upcoming Star Wars spin-off film and recently nominated for Best Actress for her part in The Theory of Everything.
An awful lot of the success of this episode is down to director Graeme
Harper. Harper rarely disappoints, having made his Doctor Who debut back
with The Caves of Androzani, I was so pleased when he returned for the
revived series. Here he creates fantastic atmosphere and chooses his
very carefully and very well.
Russell T. Davies revealed he was inspired to commission this episode after chancing upon the paperback cover of Christie's 'Death
In The Clouds', which shows a small plane coming under attack by a
giant wasp. The same (real) cover is featured at the end of the episode, giving this pseudo-historical story an added twist and making the science fiction elements not really feel as much out of place in Christie's world as they might first appear (although I should note that the giant wasp doesn't appear in Christie's actual story).
The Unicorn and the Wasp is long overdue a reassessment amongst fandom. Simply put it's a triumph of plotting, performance, and style. The ensemble cast are all first rate, Gareth Roberts dialogue sparkles with resounding wit, and the plot intrigues and electrifies under Graeme Harper's competent and confident direction. It should be a contender for anyone's 'best of' list from the revived series.