Wed, 4 June 2008
"The Unicorn and the Wasp" is the seventh episode in the fourth series of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which was aired by BBC One on 17 May 2008 at 7:00pm. Perhaps due to its later broadcast, it received an overnight audience rating of 7.7 million, making it the most successful episode this series since "The Fires of Pompeii". The episode is a pseudohistorical story set in 1926, in a manor owned by a character named Lady Eddison in which crime fiction novelist Agatha Christie is visiting, and is a comedic episode with a murder storyline.
The episode sees the Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) arrive at a dinner party hosted by Lady Eddison (Felicity Kendal) and her husband, Colonel Hugh (Christopher Benjamin). One of the guests is none other than Agatha Christie (Fenella Woolgar). Looking at a newspaper, the Doctor finds that it is the day of Agatha Christie's famous unexplained disappearance (December 8, 1926). Just as this revelation is made, another guest, Professor Peach (Ian Barritt), is found by Eddison's friend and companion Miss Chandrakala (Leena Dhingra) in the library, murdered with a lead pipe; Donna alludes to the similarity to the boardgame Cluedo. The Doctor finds morphic residue on the floor while examining the scene, meaning that one of the guests isn't human.
Aided by Agatha, the Doctor interviews the guests while Donna goes looking for clues. She investigates a locked room, which the butler explains Lady Eddison had sequestered herself in while recovering from a bout of malaria contracted in India forty years earlier and they had left locked after her recovery. Donna is attacked by a giant wasp after tracing a buzzing sound to a window. She scares it off with a magnifying glass. It escapes and apparently retakes human form before they can catch up, killing Miss Chandrakala along the way. Her last words are "The poor little child." At this point it becomes clear that the murder is being played out like one of Agatha's novels.
While the three mull over the evidence they've gathered thus far, the Doctor is poisoned with cyanide; however, it is not as fatal for him as it is for humans, and an odd combination of ingredients with a shock (in the form of a kiss) from Donna allows him to detoxify himself. In return, the Doctor "poisons" the guests' dinner with pepper; naturally this is not harmful to humans, but it acts as an insecticide to wasps. A buzzing sound can be heard moments later, to which Lady Eddison exclaims, "It can't be!" The lights are blown out by a sudden wind and they again fail to ascertain the identity of the alien. Roger Curbishley (Adam Rayner), Lady Eddison's son, is murdered in the confusion, and Lady Eddison's necklace, 'The Firestone,' is stolen.
In the sitting room, the Doctor and Agatha reveal several secrets about the guests and hosts. Robina Redmond (Felicity Jones) is a thief called 'The Unicorn' who coveted the Firestone and stole it in the confusion. Colonel Hugh is not actually wheelchair bound as he appears to be; he faked the condition to make sure Lady Eddison did not leave him. The truth of Lady Eddison's bout of malaria is also revealed; she was actually made pregnant by an alien known as a Vespiform, who gave her the Firestone necklace. The necklace is psychically linked to her son, whom she had given up for adoption and never saw again. Her son is actually the Reverend Golightly (Tom Goodman-Hill), who had come to associate Agatha Christie's novels with the way the world must work because Lady Eddison had been reading one when his alien biology was awakened in a moment of anger, and had killed those who were working against him in the manner of one of her novels.
Golightly, now enraged once more at being discovered, transforms into his wasp form. Agatha snatches the Firestone, and Golightly pursues her since she is now linked to it. The Doctor and Donna follow after her. Agatha leads the creature to the lake, where Donna throws the necklace into the water. Golightly follows it in and thus drowns. Still linked to the necklace, Agatha nearly dies as well, but Golightly chooses to release her as his last act. The trauma causes amnesia, and the Doctor deposits her at the Harrogate Hotel ten days later, explaining her disappearance.
In the TARDIS, the Doctor produces one of Agatha's novels, Death in the Clouds, and points to the copyright page in the front. The publication date is listed as the year five billion; Agatha Christie is quite literally the most popular novelist of all time. The cover features a giant wasp, suggesting that the amnesia was not total (although the wasp in the novel is in fact of the normal variety).
When the Doctor meets Agatha Christie for the first time, he mentions that he was just talking about her the other day, saying "I bet she's brilliant". This comes from the end of "Last of the Time Lords", when he was suggesting places where he and Martha could go after the Master's defeat.
Several previous episodes are referenced by both the Doctor and Donna. The Doctor produces items from a chest of items beginning with C, including a Cyberman chest-plate from "The Age of Steel" and the crystal ball in which the Carrionites are trapped from "The Shakespeare Code".
Donna mentions that meeting Agatha Christie during a murder mystery would be as preposterous as meeting "Charles Dickens surrounded by ghosts at Christmas", unknowingly referencing the events of "The Unquiet Dead". When Donna attempts to use 1920s lingo, the Doctor tells her to stop, just as he did with Rose Tyler (in "Tooth and Claw") and Martha Jones (in "The Shakespeare Code" and The Infinite Quest) when they tried to mimic local speech; the first slang phrase Donna uses ("Topping day, what!") is also used by the Third Doctor when interacting with 1920s characters in the 1973 serial Carnival of Monsters. When poisoned, the Doctor runs into the kitchen and asks for ginger beer. The Fourth Doctor was seen drinking ginger pop throughout The Android Invasion and the dislike of it by companion Sarah Jane Smith becomes a major plot point.
Donna refers to her own failed marriage in "The Runaway Bride", comparing it to Christie's husband's infidelity. She notes that her husband was colluding not with another woman but with a giant spider. She also mentions the disappearing bees, following on from previous mentions in "Partners in Crime" and "Planet of the Ood".
The Doctor has a flashback scene when unravelling motives with Agatha Christie. In it he's carving through Belgium with a bow and quiver of arrows on his back. His voiceover explains he looking for Charlemagne who was "kidnapped by an insane computer." Christie interrupts before he can paint a full picture; however the events are fully explored on Doctor Who's BBC website in the short story "The Lonely Computer."
The first episode of this series was called "Partners in Crime" - the title of one of Agatha Christie's books.
There are numerous references to either Agatha Christie's novels or to Christie herself. In a similar manner to the running gag between the Doctor and William Shakespeare in "The Shakespeare Code", both Donna and the Doctor refer to novels which Agatha has yet to write, ideas which she naturally finds to be intriguing — particularly Murder On The Orient Express, which Donna mentions. Other novels referenced are Why Didn't They Ask Evans, The Murder at the Vicarage, Cards on the Table, Appointment with Death, N or M?, The Body in the Library, The Moving Finger, Sparkling Cyanide, Crooked House, They Do It With Mirrors, Cat Among the Pigeons, Endless Night, The Secret Adversary, Nemesis, Taken at the Flood, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, Death Comes as the End, Dead Man's Folly and Death in the Clouds. When the body of Professor Peach is found, the Doctor remarks that the time of death was quarter past four. This is a reference to Agatha Christie's novel, "The Clocks" where there are clocks frozen at 4:13. Donna also mentions Miss Marple (whom Christie had not yet created), and the novelist remarks that she would make for an interesting character. The episode also claims that Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time (literally), which is true today as her novels have sold an estimated four billion copies. (The works of Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more copies overall, but are not novels.) The Doctor also makes a slight faux pas when he addresses Christie as "Dame Agatha", a title which she had yet to receive at the time the episode is set in.
The script also makes multiple references to the murder mystery board game Cluedo. The first murder took place in the library, one of the rooms on the Cluedo board, with a lead pipe, one of the suspected weapons in the game. The victim's name is Professor Peach, a reference to Cluedo's Professor Plum. The episode also features a colonel (Colonel Mustard), a woman wearing blue (Mrs Peacock), a reverend (Reverend Green) and a woman in red (Miss Scarlett).
The episode is written by Gareth Roberts, who previously wrote the pseudohistorical episode "The Shakespeare Code". Roberts was given a fourth series episode to write after executive producer Russell T Davies reviewed Roberts' script for "The Shakespeare Code". Several months later, he received an email from the production team which said "Agatha Christie".
Roberts, a self-confessed fan of Christie's works, made the episode into a comedy, the first Doctor Who story to do so since Donald Cotton's serials The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, in 1965 and 1966, respectively. Roberts based the episode on his favourite Christie works: Crooked House, which focuses on secrets within an aristocratic society, and the 1982 film adaptation of Evil Under the Sun. Speaking of both works, Roberts noted that it was "quite strange writing a modern Doctor Who with posh people in it. We don't really see posh people on television anymore, except at Christmas", and "there's something funny about the veneer of upper class respectability and the truth of any family underneath". He also stated that "there's really nothing nicer than watching a lot of English actors hamming it up in a vaguely exotic location... and then somebody's murdered!" The episode's title was deliberately chosen to sound "vaguely Christie-ish", but Roberts admitted that "[Christie] never used 'the blank and the blank' construction".
In writing the episode, Roberts aimed to make the episode a "big, fun, all-star murder mystery romp". He was influenced by advice given by Davies, who wanted Roberts to "go funnier" with every draft, and former Doctor Who script editor Douglas Adams' advice that "a danger one runs is that the moment you have anything in the script that's clearly meant to be funny in some way, everybody thinks 'oh well we can do silly voices and silly walks and so on', and I think that's exactly the wrong way to do it". Using this advice, he used the adage that in comedy, the characters do not realise the humour, and cited Basil Fawlty's mishaps in Fawlty Towers as an example.
In an interview with Doctor Who Magazine, Roberts stated that "to a certain extent [there was less pressure]" in writing the episode. He was pleased with the success of "The Shakespeare Code" and the The Sarah Jane Adventures story "Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?", but likened himself to Corporal Bell, a member of the administrative staff at the fictional Doctor Who organisation UNIT, in saying that he did not wish to be "in the middle of things" or writing episodes "where big, pivotal things have happened to [the Doctor]".
Actor Christopher Benjamin, who plays Colonel Hugh, previously starred in two serials of the original Doctor Who series, playing Sir Keith Gold in Inferno (1970) and Henry Gordon Jago in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). David Tennant's father Alexander McDonald played a footman in one of the early scenes, after being asked to act when visiting David on set. He had no lines.
Although the opening notes of the gramophone record playing at the garden party have an apparent similarity to the Doctor Who theme, it is in fact the opening of Twentieth Century Blues, originally from Noël Coward's 1931 play Cavalcade. The recording used here, edited together with other "period music," is a 1931 recording of Ray Noble and the New Mayfair Orchestra, featuring vocalist Al Bowlly.
The Harrogate Hotel where the Doctor leaves Agatha is fictitious. In actuality, the hotel where she was found was the Swan Hydro (now the Old Swan Hotel), a somewhat less imposing building than the one depicted in the episode.