Aired 17 May 2008
Doctor Who rarely presents itself as an all-out comedy, but that’s exactly what’s on offer in ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp,’ a tale that at the same time fills the celebrity pseudo-historical slot of the fourth series as the Doctor and Donna cross paths with Agatha Christie, played excellently by Fenella Woolgar. The end result is a joyous blending of genres in an immensely enjoyable story that never takes itself too seriously despite some of the darker themes that subtly underlie the proceedings.
Even in a more light-hearted series, ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ is notably lighter in tone than the previous celebrity-driven stories which all featured more overt monster scares and horror in very atmospheric environments. Instead, this is more of a daylight manor murder mystery with a brightly-coloured Vespiform wasp seeking his mother’s love. Even the transformation scenes as human turns to wasp is brightly-lit and features a cloud of purple smoke, a stark contrast to other more painful transformations the programme has show in recent years.
There are times when cliches should and should not be used, and ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp,’ in keeping with its almost tongue-in-cheek nature, uses the all too common alibi flashback sequences to perfection, keeping them fresh with humour, absent-mindedness, and even further flashbacks within the flashback. It’s quirky and it’s fun, and more importantly it manages to toy with expectations by offering several red herrings along the way. There are certainly some darker moments dealing with the real-life disappearance of Agatha Christie herself, but having her take part in a stereotyped version of one of her novels- albeit one with an extraterrestrial presence- is masterful.
Indeed, it’s the 1920s setting with its aristocratic ideals and the lengths that supposed outsiders will go to conform to those ideals that grounds the theatricality in some semblance of reality. The secrets people hold and the lengths they will go to in order to keep those secrets absolutely creates the requisite drama needed for a murder mystery. Even Christie’s ability to carry on after discovering her husband’s infidelity is characteristic of the British consciousness at the time, and at times it almost seems like the Doctor carries the mantra to carry on at all times as well. This does, at the very least, afford a very strong female character who refuses to be defined by her relationship, something Doctor Who has not always managed to successfully write despite is progressive nature.
Of course, the superb chemistry between Tennant and Tate must again be noted, and although Doctor Who is not noted as a comedy programme, the two prove wonderfully adept at delivering comedy and playing off of each other. In fact, Tennant’s scene in which he is poisoned by cyanide and manically hops around while searching the kitchen and miming to Donna turns out to be a delightful highlight, one that could have so easily collapsed under its ridiculous nature in any other hands. The scene itself pays homage to an earlier comic adventure, but bringing it to life successfully is a very tough task. As the story progresses, the two share some more touching moments amongst the comic blame game and sleuthing scenes as they discuss Christie’s legacy.
One of the most satisfying aspects of ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ is that its alien menace is involved in a real-life Agatha Christie murder mystery because it was influenced by a novelized Agatha Christie murder mystery. It’s a little touch, but it makes the entire episode more meaningful that having the whole set of occurrences come down to chance and happenstance. It was a tough task but, in the end, ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ straddles the line between drama and absurdity perfectly, offering a fantastic standalone adventure filled with brilliant performances from everyone involved as they struggle to keep their secrets, excellent CGI, and some nice character moments between the two leads and Agatha Christie herself.