Features Unicorn and the Wasp - feat

Published on March 24th, 2013 | by Philip Bates

Introducing: The Unicorn and the Wasp

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’re looking back at some of the pivotal tales of all of time and space, taking on one Doctor each month, running up to November – and An Unearthly Child

There’s a murder, a mystery and Agatha Christie.

The Unicorn and the Wasp

Doctor Who’s been playing with the idea of pseudohistoricals since 1965’s The Time Meddler, and regularly since the show’s return in 2005, with The Unquiet Dead, which mixed Charles Dickens with – what else? – ghosts at Christmastime! The life and works of Christie are, of course, a perfect fit for Doctor Who (just look at The Robots of Death, or the novel, Ten Little Aliens, inspired by And Then There Were None), and she even watched the show in its infancy.

Now then: smell that air. Grass, lemonade – and a little bit of mint.

The Usual Suspects

The production team behind Doctor Who in the mid- to late-2000s was heavily populated with Agatha Christie fans. It was producer, Phil Collinson who first came up with the idea for a story solving the mystery of the ten days the author disappeared in 1926. Russell T. Davies, then-showrunner, offered the plot to Gareth Roberts, who’d written The Shakespeare Code for Series 3 and so had previous with pseudohistoricals and writing for well-known historical figures.

Gareth was also a big Agatha Christie fan.

He was particularly influenced by one of his favourite novels, Crooked House – Agatha even notes that the Eddison household is a ‘crooked house’ – and Davies pushed for the script to be funny; perhaps as a reaction to the somewhat darker tales that follow it, Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead and Midnight.


Aside from the humour, the story is laced with tropes familiar to Christie’s works. There’s a jewellery theft, a dinner party, plenty of family secrets including questions of birth rights, revenge, secret liaisons, a broken watch, love affairs, cryptic last words, ripped documents, and a revelation about Colonel Hugh Curbishly that mirrors a couple of Christie works.

Furthermore, the important Fire Stone, owned by Lady Eddison and soon stolen by the fabled Unicorn, is a reference to 1868’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, one of the earliest detective novels.

Obviously, a plethora of suspects was needed, and the 2008 episode boasted a cast including Felicity Kendal (The Good Life; Rosemary and Thyme); Tom Goodman-Hill (Spy; Moses Jones); Felicity Jones (Cemetery Junction; The Amazing Spider-Man 2); and Christopher Benjamin, who previously played Sir Keith Gold in Inferno (1970) and Henry Gordon Jago in 1977’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

The Unicorn

Tenth Doctor, David Tennant suggested Fenella Woolgar for the role of Agatha Christie after he’d worked with her in Bright Young Things and He Knew He Was Right. And Tennant even managed to get his father, Alexander McDonald, to feature in a cameo as a footman when the latter visited his son on set!

Connections with Christie

Surprisingly few cast members had already appeared in adaptations of Christie novels: Woolgar had starred in Lord Edgware Dies (and since in Hallowe’en Party); Catherine Tate in A Murder is Announced; and David Quilter (Greeves) in The Million Dollar Bond Robbery.

Nonetheless, The Unicorn and the Wasp is steeped in nods to Christie. Roberts and Davies even had a contest to smuggle in as many novel titles as possible. Some were quite obvious, particularly the Doctor’s attempt (“Murder at the Vicar’s Rage… Needs a bit of work”).  The Doctor also mentions The Moving Finger when summing up the evidence; Christie believed the Wasp to be a fake, stating that They Do It With Mirrors; and Donna talks of The Body in the Library.


Then there’s Cards on the Table, Cat Among The Pigeons, Taken at the Flood; N or M?, Nemesis – and plenty more besides!

Some are only cheekily hinted at. Professor Peach’s last words, for instance, are “why didn’t they ask…? Heavens…” (a reference to Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?).

And some are so subtle most would miss them completely. At the dinner, for example, in which the Doctor has laced the soup with the ‘jolly spicy’ pipperine, yellow irises are on the table; a nod to the short story, Yellow Iris, which was turned into Sparkling Cyanide (also quoted in the episode).

Russell even tried to smuggle in the original name of And Then There Were None, with Donna saying the situation was a bit like “Ten Little Ni – - ” (though Davies cut this, deeming it too risky).


The Real Disappearance

Sadly, the comedic nature of the episode is at odds with the life of Agatha Christie at that time.

Christie had been feeling alone and isolated in the London suburb of Sunningdale for some time, and she hit a particularly low-point when her mother, Clarissa “Clara” Miller died in April 1926. The brilliant author had been close to her mother her entire life, and was said to have felt an ‘inexplicable chill’ pass over her when she was sent for to visit Clara, ill with bronchitis, but didn’t reach her in time.

With her husband, Archibald “Archie” Christie, away, and her sister, Madge, forced to stay in Manchester, Agatha was left with no support, and appointed herself to sort out her mother’s affairs. Agatha was left Ashfield, her childhood home in Torquay, but Archie refused to visit her there, seeing the trip as unnecessarily expensive and inconvenient.

C for Carrionites

Grief overtook Agatha, and she once forgot her real name when signing a cheque.

Things got worse when Archie confessed to falling in love with another woman, 26-year-old Nancy Neele, a secretary, and he told his wife:

I can’t stand not having what I want. I can’t stand not being happy. Everybody can’t be happy. Somebody has got to be unhappy.

After telling her daughter’s governess (and Christie’s friend), Caroline “Carlo” Fisher, to take the day off, Agatha drove off in her car at 11 o’clock on the night of Friday 3rd December 1926.

She perhaps needed to get away after she’d had an argument with Archie and he had gone to stay with Nancy for the weekend.

Agatha’s car was found at Newland’s Corner on the Surrey Downs near Guildford, and with it an expensive fur coat, something she strangely left behind despite it being a cold Winter’s night.


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had found both Agatha Christie and her Belgium detective, Hercule Poirot, fame, so the press were free to speculate on what had really happened. The car had been found amongst the bushes, as if she’d lost control of it, leading some to ask if she were injured. Others suspected suicide or murder. Planting the idea that she had disguised herself and run away, in a fashion similar to some of her tales, Archie told the press:

I want to believe she is alive.

On Saturday 4th December, Agatha checked into the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate as ‘Mrs. Theresa Neele of Cape Town’ (using the surname of her husband’s mistress). Though she was very withdrawn and didn’t really mix with the other guests and hotel staff, some began to suspect her real identity – and two members of staff eventually contacted the police.

On 14th December, Archie was sent for and identified the author, but it was clear that she was very ill. The hotel’s manager, Mr. Taylor, witnessed their reunion, but said that Agatha greeted her husband as if he were “an acquaintance whose identity she could not quite fix.” She even struggled to remember her daughter, Rosalind, upon initially seeing her again.

Rounding up the Evidence


After returning to her home, two doctors confirmed she’d suffered “an unquestionably genuine” case of total amnesia. Even up to her death in 1976, Agatha said she couldn’t remember what had happened to her.

Still, she picked herself up and was determined to support herself and Rosalind solely through her writing. After selling their home, Styles, and being issued a decree nisi in April 1928, Agatha never saw Archie again (though she kept her married name as it has become a sign of quality detective fiction).

Her life did become more positive, thankfully, with Rosalind quickly settling into a school in Sussex, and Agatha booking herself on a life-changing trip on the Orient Express. As the Doctor claims, she remains the best-selling novelist of all time, with her estate states that her 66 detective novels, six romances and 15 short story collections rank third in the world, after the Bible and Shakespeare. Agatha truly is the “Queen of Crime.”

The Unicorn and the Wasp 2

8.41 million watched The Unicorn and the Wasp, and it received an Audience Appreciation Index of 86 out of 100, considered ‘excellent.’ Even though its positive, jovial tone didn’t match her state of mind in 1926, it did echo Agatha Christie life as a whole.

(Thanks to The Agatha Christie Book Collection.)


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About the Author


When he’s not watching television, reading books ‘n’ Marvel comics, listening to The Killers, and obsessing over script ideas, Philip Bates pretends to be a freelance writer. He enjoys collecting everything.

13 Responses to Introducing: The Unicorn and the Wasp

  1. avatar docwho1 says:

    My two favourite things! Doctor Who and Agatha Christie. The only thing that could better it is Doctor Who with Harry Potter!

    • avatar Philip Bates says:

      The Shakespeare Code is about as close as we’re gonna get, I feel. :)

  2. avatar TimeChaser says:

    This is probably my mother’s favorite episode of the new series. She’s always re-watching it, whether its on TV or on DVD, and we’re both big Christie enthusiasts. I enjoyed catching the novel name-checks in the episode.

    I do think that if this were done more seriously, it probably wouldn’t be as good as it is. The whole point is the idea of a pastiche on Christie’s writing as the driving force of the story. Let’s face it, Doctor Who has seldom taken a close, serious look at the lives and troubles of its guest historical characters.

  3. avatar IGettings says:

    This is one of the most underrated stories in Who in its long history. I lived with two sisters for a while who, like me.were enjoying the Tennant era and also the works of Agatha Christie. For us this was a blinder of an episode. We watched it a number of times, laughing at the in-jokes and not so in-jokes. A perfect episode to show the best of British writing.

  4. avatar lozzer says:

    Series 4 is possibly my favourite, but sadly I wasn’t overly impressed with this episode. I watched it again recently, and as watchable as it is, it doesn’t really have a strong enough premise to keep you gripped. This episode and the Doctors Daughter are the weakest episodes of a particularly strong season – not bad episodes, just not that great. Donna’s still my favourite companion though, so it was good to see her enjoying the mystery unfold.

  5. avatar castellanspandrel says:

    I’m watching this one again soon, just out of curiosity, as it’s one from the newer series that I haven’t rewatched often. Maybe I’ve undervalued it.

    I enjoyed reading the article very much, but I would question the idea that it’s “pivotal”, regardless of its quality.

  6. avatar castellanspandrel says:

    I meant, of course, ” I’d question the idea that the episode is pivotal”, rather than questioning the article itself!

    • avatar Philip Bates says:

      Ah. Yeah. Okay, so I ignored the ‘pivotal’ thing at the top there. Ahem.

      What I’m trying to do with these Intro articles… well, a number of things, actually. If I get people to rewatch episodes, that’s great. If they re-examine them, that’s even better. If they learn something, that’s brilliant.

      But I’ve also got a bit of a checklist for this 50th anniversary. Firstly, and most obvious, I’m going through each Doctor. But I’ve also planned (in my head – a writer never writes stuff down, right?!) to cover specific areas of Who. And if I’m trying to get out of this ‘pivotal’ clause, then I’ll do my best to improvise and say that each of these areas are pivotal to the show. They make Doctor Who what it is.

      On the checklist to cover are obvious stuff: Daleks; Cybermen; you’ve already seen the Master in Frontier in Space, but he’ll get another outing too. Then there’s the Brigadier (and by extension, UNIT). Other famous, well-loved companions

      Then there’s themes, genres and things deeply associated with Doctor Who. Dark space epics (here’s looking at you, Fourth Doctor tale I’m not prepared to mention yet – also, Frontier in Space); comedy (The Unicorn and the Wasp); famous figures (yep, Unicorn again); the media and violence (Vengeance on Varos); regeneration (not what you expect); base-under-siege (coming soon to a website near you); missing episodes (2nd Doctor, of course); riffing off myths and legends; etc etc etc!

      And then there are underrated and/or overlooked episodes. Because they’re just as important as the big stuff.

      Hopefully, by the end of this year, the Introduction articles will create a snapshot of Doctor Who in its entirety.

      Glad you like this article by the way! :D

      • avatar castellanspandrel says:

        I did like it, and if I’m honest, enjoyed rewatching the episode too!

  7. avatar daniel says:

    best line is The Doctors ginger beer comment…subtle but very funny

    • Subtle as a sledgehammer!

      • avatar Philip Bates says:

        I love ‘Harvey Wallbanger? How is Harvey Wallbanger one word?!’

  8. Pingback: Historicals: A Thing of the Past – Doctor Who UK Webzine | The Fanatics

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