Review: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Overview: The Doctor and Donna attend a cocktail party in 1926 attended by – among others – Agatha Christie. Mayhem ensues, infused with an extraterrestrial flavor until the mystery of Agatha Christie’s real life 10-day disappearance is finally solved.

Story: The Unicorn and the Wasp is primarily an homage to the classic Christie style detective stories of old that includes a significant number of winks at the genre, from the caricatures of the party invitees to the environs in which they coexist. The cast of characters includes a wealthy alcoholic British matriarch and her influenza-hobbled veteran of a husband, a youngish and affable vicar, a book-writing professor with the curious surname of Peach, a wealthy young socialite, the homosexual son and his love interest in the wait staff and, of course, the butler. There may or may not be an infamous jewel thief somewhere in the area, but Agatha Christie is the star attendee of the party – those familiar with her life know that this time period was not long after she discovered her husband was involved in an affair.

With the characters in place the setting is of course an old English country home, complete with beautiful gardens and climbing tea roses, a library conveniently placed for the occasional murder, a dining room with an easily blown-in window for dramatic moments at dinner during a thunderstorm, mysterious locked rooms and of course plenty of studies and parlors where the assembled can either explain their whereabouts or attend the final denouement where the real killer is at last revealed.

The initial mystery – the murder of Professor Peach, in the library, with a lead pipe – appears to be of a rather mundane sort until the Doctor discovers alien shape-changing goo…and then the story takes a decidedly extraterrestrial turn. Each of the attendees of the party is of course hiding something, but murders are being committed in a decidedly Christie-esque oeuvre. In fact, it would seem that the entire series of events seems to be some kind of sick homage or parody of the early works of Mrs. Christie.

There are twists and turns throughout the story – the entire thing is played extremely lightly but not quite to the point of camp. The Doctor and Donna are largely kept on their toes throughout, but the real focus of the episode is Mrs. Christie. The entire thing is essentially a love letter to her, told in her own style. I have always found Christie mysteries to be enjoyable – not as much as my wife, who is a truly devoted fan – but the thing about them that occasionally drives me a bit mad is how story elements and especially aspects of character histories just appear at the end of the plot with very little in the way of prior discussion. The Unicorn and the Wasp plays then very much like an exaggerated Christie novel, in that the entire resolution of who the alien is, why they are there and what Agatha Christie has to do with the whole thing is almost comically complicated to the point of near absurdity. But as I said, it doesn’t quite go over the line to camp – it’s very much a farce, but an extremely well-done one. Perhaps more Murder by Death than Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.

The real letdown of the story is probably the inclusion of the Unicorn, a jewel thief who has a throwaway mention at the beginning of the episode and has only a minor role throughout. The resolution of their identity is straight out of The Bat – “so and so never actually arrived, they have been impersonated the whole time” – and to be honest I really couldn’t tell why the Unicorn was there or why they were even called by that name. Perhaps they were included to make the episode title more catchy?

Characters: I should just copy the following two sentences and use them in each of these reviews. David Tennant gets better and better in each episode. Catherine Tate finds opportunities to be both enjoyable and annoying within a single 45-minute span.

To elaborate, first upon Mr. Tennant. The Doctor is an obvious fan of Mrs. Christie, and the hero worship shows. The Doctor is played as an earnest and entirely too enthusiastic participant in the murder mystery, and it’s nice to see Agatha (how strange it is to hear someone called by that first name) reel him in by remarking on essentially having fun during a tragedy. The Doctor soon settles down into his standard, “two steps ahead of the human companion(s) but not quite in step with the alien menace until the end of the episode” routine, but the ride is quite enjoyable.

Donna manages to be a little more annoying in this episode than in the past several – her command to the butler to open a locked room for her was quite a bit over the top, and her comedic mugging during the beginning of the cocktail party was a bit annoying…but then she does something like use her magnifying glass against the alien wasp menace and you think, “huh, she’s actually a pretty decent sort.”

Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Christie is quite good – her face and overall manner hearken back to the 20’s, but it was somewhat strange for me to think of Mrs. Christie as a young woman instead of the older visage you see of her pictured on the backs of books now in print. Her ability to largely keep up with the Doctor and level of self-doubt about her own capabilities played off each other in a pleasing way, making one root for her throughout the episode…yet I kept wondering, what is the connection with her? Why are these Christie-styled murders taking place around her? Of course the questions are answered, but I won’t really say if the answer is satisfying. It’s otherworldly and a bit complicated, but through it all Mrs. Christie is played as a caring soul who really wants to write great literature but sees herself as a dime-store detective novel author.

The supporting cast do a pretty good job of portraying caricatures of the archetypes they represent. It took the entire episode for me to realize that Felicity Kendall was in fact the Lady Eddison, whom utters the phrase, “we’re British” far too many times to be realistic but is great fun nonetheless.

Overall: I would give this episode a very solid review, but being a fan of the genre and author involved (and being married to a true Christie devotee) I should perhaps recuse myself from a final judgment. In the end I enjoyed this episode way too much and found myself laughing at all the little mystery staples, to the point where we practically rolled as the dinner scene unfolded during a truly “dark and stormy night.”

Next time the Doctor and Donna visit a big alien library where spooky things happen in the shadows. It looks pretty neat, but won’t be for two weeks…that crazy Eurovision is next weekend, so those of us celebrating and traveling during Memorial Day here in the states won’t miss out.

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