There is a mystery to be solved. Who is responsible is not immediately clear, but a crime has been perpetrated, of that there can be no doubt.
The felony has been uncovered by a curious gentleman who leaves us in no doubt that he has a surfeit of little grey cells. His name is Gareth Roberts, writer of The Unicorn and the Wasp, 45 minutes of the finest Agatha Christie style murder mystery. The crime? That ITV manages, in two hours, to brutally murder its recent series of Marple mysteries, when he is able to produce such a faithful homage to Mrs Christie’s work in less than half the time, even though it includes a giant alien shape-changing insect, something that never troubled Poirot.
The Unicorn and the Wasp is unlike any Doctor Who story in the programme’s history. Right now, after my third hungry devouring of its glorious combination of melodrama, comedy and high tension, I’d venture that I’ve just watched the best edition of the show since its 1963 beginnings.
From the moment the guests start arriving at Eddison Hall, trouble is afoot. In true Christie style, all the characters refer to each other by their full names in ways that nobody ever does in real life. And when the delightfully named Professor Peach slopes off to the library, we know that he’s unlikely to survive to see the opening titles. That he is offed by a giant wasp brandishing a piece of lead piping is gloriously ridiculous, blending a comedic Cluedo reference with Doctor Who’s more traditional alien menace in a seamless manner that sums up the episode as a whole.
When the Doctor and Donna arrive on the scene, using the now-familiar device of the psychic paper to gatecrash the party, the humour in the script allows us to acknowledge the setting, take in the cast of characters, and satirise the genre without ever once tipping into parody. It’s all done with such an air of effortlessness that so many key pieces of dialogue slip out unnoticed — exactly as Christie herself managed in her best works. And it’s here where we get our first view of Agatha Christie herself, here played with perfection by Fenella Woolgar. Here, Christie is still a young woman, hurt by her first husband’s betrayal, the author of a mere six novels and yet to create Miss Marple or loathe Hercule Poirot.
In so many of the series’ recent “celebrity historicals”, the historical figure concerned has been a writer — Charles Dickens (complete with ‘ghosts at Christmas’) in The Unquiet Dead, William Shakespeare in Roberts’ debut Who script, The Shakespeare Code. In many respects that’s down to the predilections of the episode creators, with writers’ heroes being other writers. Here, the use of Christie as a character feels a lot more natural, less forced. This is a woman who has recently discovered her husband is having an affair, is lauded for writing books she doesn’t really believe are of worth. She is lost, and like so many characters we meet in previous episodes, it takes the Doctor and his companion to show her that she does have her place in the world.
The supporting cast are excellent all round, with a troupe of suspects that again puts recent ITV adaptations in the shade. Felicity Jones demonstrates why she is one of The Stage’s Rising Stars of 2008, effortlessly shifting between society gel Rebina Redmond and her luv-a-duck alter ego, The Unicorn. But it’s hard to single her out, when her peers are similarly excellent. As the Doctor and Agatha interrogate the suspects, flashbacks are used effectively to indicate exactly why each of them has lied (save for the Reverend Golightly, the only character whose flashback matches his dialogue — a clue?). Roberts manages to work a believable gay relationship subplot that is both a joy to see played out, and a sideswipe at the rather clumsy way that ITV’s production of, say, A Murder is Announced managed to lose the nuance of the same-sex relationships implied in Christie’s original books. The revelations of its first intimations also serve to distract from the biggest clue in the whole cocktail party scene — more superb writing from Roberts.
Lest this review turn into one long ‘squee’ for the quality of the whole episode, there are of course a few negatives. There’s no reason why the Firestone would have attuned itself so tightly to Christie such that it endangered her life at the end of the episode — but that plot point is played with such conviction by all the cast it’s hard to argue too strongly against it. Catherine Tate’s Donna is more shrill and much closer to her shrewish sketch show characters than we’ve seen in previous weeks. To some extent that’s due to the increased comedy in Roberts’ script, but I suspect it’s more likely because The Unicorn and the Wasp was the first episode of this series to be filmed, and both the actress and the character have been able to calm down as filming progressed.
Like Donna’s occasionally jarring performance, Roberts’ trick of trying to sneak as many of Christie’s novel titles into the dialogue doesn’t always work — although it makes for a good parlour game on a repeat showing to see how many one can spot. And one final (albeit extremely minor) misstep is the inaccurate portrayal of Christie’s disappearance. The beautiful lakeside setting of her abandoned car is at odds with the true, and more dramatic story, where it was found see-sawing perilously over the edge of a chalk pit. Likewise, why drop Agatha off at the boringly named “The Harrogate Hotel”, when it’s a matter of record that she checked into the Swan Hydro in the same town? I suspect both decisions were made for production reasons, but in an episode with so much to give to Christie fans it’s a shame that such liberties had to be taken, however small. On a similar note, Christie’s disappearance occurred in December 1926 — hardly the time of year for cocktails on the lawn!
Minor niggles aside, this was a superbly paced and written episode, substantial enough to tide fans over for two weeks while the Eurovision Song Contest takes place next week. In a fortnight’s time, Alex Kingston guest stars in Steven Moffat’s two part story, Silence in the Library.