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Doctor Who: "The Unicorn And The Wasp"

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Here's an episode that doesn't try to be anything but fun and largely succeeds. Last week I wrote about this being the obligatory the Doctor-hangs-out-with-a-famous-writer episode but I didn't mean that as a complaint. I've enjoyed each of the forays into the literary past and this is no exception.

It's also written by someone who's taken this journey before. Gareth Roberts also penned "The Shakespeare Code" from the second season. Roberts is a Who veteran, who wrote novels for the franchise during the dark years of the 1990s when there wasn't even a TV show. Here he brings a different formula than before, dropping the Doctor and Donna in the middle of a classic whodunit.

And, of course, who better than Agatha Christie to help solve said whodunit? One of the cleverer lines finds Donna likening the silliness of solving a mystery with Christie to hanging out with Dickens and a bunch of ghosts at Christmas. It's both a tweak to the absurdity of the premise and a reference to a past episode. It's a self-referential show, this series, but it's rarely quite so post-modern.

Fenella Woolgar's quite charming as Christie, isn't she? I've seen her in a couple of things before but never really noticed her. (It looks like she has a role in Steven Moffat's Jekyll.) I like the way she captures Christie's supreme confidence at the one thing she knows she does well and her equally strong doubt as to whether that even matters. She is, after all, just a mystery writer. But by the end of the episode she's applied those skills to a real-life mystery and come to believe the Doctor's assertion that being the best mystery writer sets her apart, even if she doesn't remember a thing about the adventure.

I read tons of Agatha Christie when I was a kid and probably too young to get the subtler touches. I don't know how well her writing would hold up to my eyes today. But I do know it's not everyone who can define an entire genre. But you can trace just about any element of the drawing room mystery–or most TV procedurals, for that matter–to Christie by some route or other. This episode respects that, playing by the rules Christie laid out by giving viewers all the clues they need to solve the mystery somewhere in the narrative itself. It also plays by those rules fairly well, even if it does involve a character who can transform himself into a giant wasp, a device that probably never occurred to Christie.

About that wasp: I'm not sure if it's one of the best effects this series has had or one of the worst. It's certainly one of the most expensive-looking but it doesn't have a lot of gravity. But that might just be my anti-CGI prejudice acting up again. I thought Peter Jackson's King Kong had cured me.

So The Unicorn And The Wasp works as a Christie homage and even as a nice character study of its fictionalized Christie. But how does it hang together as an episode of Doctor Who? Rather well, I thought. The scene in which the Doctor sought an antidote for cyanide poisoning maybe went on a little too long but Catherine Tate is a lot of fun as she tries to fit in with the 1920s high society. And while the Doctor's flashback to his time with Charlemagne doesn't make that much sense, it's still a funny bit.

In the big picture, we don't really move that much further forward. Apart from a reference to bees disappearing, the season's overarchng goes untouched. But it looks like we're in for some heaviness next week. Maybe even enough heaviness to better appreciate a pleasant trifle like this.