Past Doctor Who producers have cited the “freedom of the format,” as one of the things that makes the show so exciting for the creative personnel. Russell T. Davies clearly agrees, as his run on the revived series has fully exploited the show’s ability to be set in any place, at any time. It also allows the show to explore various genres and use not just science and history as a launch pad, but past creative works from television to literature. This kind of versatility is virtually unmatched in all of television – and the writers and cast are more than ready to pick up the ball and run with it.
“The Unicorn and the Wasp” takes the show into 1920s England and introduces The Doctor and Martha to Agathie Christie at the start of her long and prolific writing career. Fenella Woolgar is terrific as Christie, giving a surprisingly layered and textured performance as the mystery author thrust into one of her own scenarios. But this isn’t all serious stuff here – the show is clearly having fun and playing around with the conventions of the mystery genres. And of course, it’s all done with a Whovian twist.
This episode also lets Catherine Tate let loose with her comedic chops. The back and forth between her and The Doctor is a lot of fun here. Whether it’s Donna freaking out about a giant wasp or trying out a posh accent at the party – I’m really starting to like the dynamic between these two. Tennant also reminds us how good he is at comedy. But seriously, what isn’t he good at? I feel like you could throw the guy a phonebook and a banana and say “Go!” and it would be one of the best things you’ve ever seen on television.
The giant wasp and the mystery surrounding the thief known as “The Unicorn” is actually a bit more preposterous than even Doctor Who‘s normal stock in trade. But it is fun to watch and it all comes together with the clever involvement of Christie’s widely publicized (at the time) and unexplained disappearance. The eventual unmasking of the perpetrator comes only after multiple red herrings and unveiled secrets – par for the course in a Christie mystery. The revelation involves some effects that aren’t quite up to the job, which may be due to the somewhat loony concept as opposed to the failure of budget or technical expertise.
The episode also posits a premise that seems to be one that’s perhaps lost in the cultural translation. When Donna wonders about Christie, The Doctor takes a book of hers out of box in the Tardis and shows her a far-future publish date. He explains that Christie is quite literally one of the most popular authors of all time. For some reason this just doesn’t seem that likely because, as this episode shows – her work has a specific date and culture tinge to it that seems less likely to stand the test of time. Nonetheless the episode serves as something of a love letter to Christie’s work and the genre she helped create.