3 years, 9 months ago
It’s May 17th, 2008. Madonna and Justin Timberlake have been at number one for substantially more than “Four Minutes.” Usher, Coldplay, and Kylie Minogue also chart. In news, attempts to provide relief aid for victims of Cyclone Nargis drag on, largely due to reticence on the part of the government of Myanmar. California’s Supreme Court declares that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. And, on the same day as this story airs, Portsmouth FC defeat Cardiff City in the final of the FA Cup.
Also on television is The Unicorn and the Wasp. There is a simplicity to this story. It is, of course, a Gareth Roberts script, which means it is a giddy, often very funny celebration. Roberts is not the writer you hire for critical and ambivalent takes on a subject, and so what we get here is wall-to-wall glee about how wonderful Agatha Christie was.
There are of course unsettling problems with this. Christie was a reactionary bigot of the worst sort- a fact that requires a complete whitewashing so that we can all revel in the Downtonesque glamour of the period setting without having to feel problematic in the least. It’s on the one hand difficult to be too upset about this - the point of the story, after all, is to be a big, frothy Agatha Christie pastiche in which the final twist is that the killer is an alien. Deconstructing the Agatha Christie style is a valid move too, but it’s a fundamentally different move.
Instead the point is to be absolutely, giddily bonkers. This is a story that’s supposed to be funny and inventive. And it is. The Agatha Christie title jokes fly fast and furious, well beyond what’s even remotely required. (I remember, about a year after this aired, solving a puzzlehunt with an Agatha Christie themed puzzle in it based on titles, and laughing out loud solving it as I realized just how many of the titles were what I had previously taken as perfectly ordinary lines from this episode.)
So Agatha Christie becomes not a historical figure but a genre, which is, of course, how Doctor Who generally prefers its history anyway. Then, added to this, is a cheekily recursive joke in which the Agatha Christie genre gets Agatha Christie thrust into it as a character. Roberts, being Roberts, was always going to write this as a giddy celebration of fannish love, and so we get the double recursion whereby it’s an Agatha Christie mystery starring Agatha Christie in which the reason the story feels like it’s straight out of an Agatha Christie mystery is, in fact, because the characters have been reading Agatha Christie. It’s gobsmackingly meta.
And so we get a story that, like any Agatha Christie story, is full of revelations. This is the standard structure of an Agatha Christie story - every character has some secret that causes them to act suspiciously. Typically the character who is the least obviously suspicious ends up being the murderer. This is, apparently, Christie’s actual process - her usual approach was to write most of the book, look back, identify the least likely suspect, and then go back and revise to make them the guilty party. In other words, Christie wrote her books to centralize the twist as a plot element. The entire point of the exercise is its unpredictability.
So the story takes great pains to have every character have some sort of secret, and largely manages it. Appealingly, this includes Christie herself, as the story hinges in part on the mild scandal of her disappearance and on the gossip surrounding her first marriage. But, of course, this plot element serves a different function than the other dark secrets. For most characters in a Christie story the point of their dark secret is to cause them to act suspiciously, thus making them suspects. The resolution for most characters is that they are, in fact, guilty, but they’re guilty of a crime other than the one the story is about - and indeed one that is unknown to the reader until it is revealed in order to prove that they are innocent of the central crime.
But Agatha Christie is never a suspect in the primary mystery The Unicorn and the Wasp - indeed, she’s uninvolved in either of the two title mysteries. Instead she is one of the story’s detectives, occupying the privileged space of characters who exist outside the dynamic of suspicion. But that does not mean she is above suspicion entirely By bringing in the quasi-historical mystery of “why did Agatha Christie disappear,” further complicates this by making her both suspect and victim in a secondary mystery - one that’s allowed to bubble silently under the surface for the bulk of the story to emerge in the climax, after the proper Agatha Christie-style mystery is solved. And so, curiously, the line between detective and suspect evaporates.
This is, of course, a very Christie trick. It’s central to And Then They Were None (a book that, on the third time of trying, finally managed to avoid being screamingly racist in its title), which combines the Agatha Christie mystery with what is essentially the base under siege format of Doctor Who, with a bunch of isolated characters steadily being picked off by an unknown menace who is, of course, one of them, such that every character is simultaneously detective and suspect.
But there’s a more obvious example, frustrated only by the fact that I have taken a solemn vow not to reveal the ending. Indeed, by the fact that the ending is, within the text, explicitly unspeakable. The text explicitly addresses the audience and asks that they promise not to reveal its ending. This is a curious maneuver on Christie’s part, and one we ought take seriously. What is unspoken and unspeakable is as large a clue as what is actually said.
But for now we should point out a more proximate problem. Since we are discussing the very point I am honor-bound not to reveal, my vow is can only be upheld by declining to mention the title. And yet this unspeakable text is not just unspeakable within this blog post, but unspeakable within the episode. Of all of the Christie titles mentioned it never comes up, despite its title being far more straightforwardly evoked than something as arcane as N or M or Sparkling Cyanide. In an episode structured to get an end-of-episode sight gag out of the fact that one edition of Christie’s book covers featured a giant wasp, the failure to include such low-hanging fruit is striking, and, indeed, explained best by the simple fact that the text in question is, by its own design, unspeakable. The only explanation is hat the episode is caught in the same problem I am - because it has indulged in the central twist of breaking down the line between detective and suspect, it cannot mention the text in which this happens lest it break the vow.
But given this, the fact that the episode is equally mum about Christie’s reactionary poliics and racism becomes a fact that speaks with curious volume. By positioning Christie as a simultaneous observer and subject of the mystery and thus invoking an unspeakable text The Unicorn and the Wasp tacitly acknowledges its own unspoken and unspeakable critique of Agatha Christie. That her reactionary racism is entirely unspoken in a text in which her character is inexorably linked to an unspeakable title makes the critique implicit in every frame.
Here a peculiar factor of Doctor Who’s celebrity historicals becomes a clever twist. We know, of course, that whatever the answer to the real mystery of Christie’s disappearance is, it was almost certainly not her contact with a telepathic wasp monster. This is the central joke of most of Doctor Who’s “history with monsters” stories - that the end revelation is inevitably that some historical event was caused by aliens: the loss of Love’s Labour Won, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the royal family’s hemophilia, et cetera. And, of course, Agatha Christie’s disappearance. But, of course, these aren’t the real historical reasons. Within an Agatha Christie story - which is, of course, where we are - they would self-evidently be revealed as lies and deceptions covering the awful truth. And so the
But when the reality of Agatha Christie is already marked as a site of an unspeakable truth, the self-evidently false speech of Agatha Christie’s disappearance becomes a visible feint - a false story to be revealed as the suspicious lie that it is. But what is more interesting in this formulation is the presence of the Doctor and Donna. On the most basic level they are detectives, and thus exist outside the dynamic of suspicion. But since the rigid divide between detective and suspect is put under suspicion in The Unicorn and the Wasp, this doesn’t quite work.
It’s significant, then, that the Doctor moves into another category briefly, but, as is his wont, cheats to get out of it. He is poisoned such that he becomes a victim. It’s particularly worth pointing out that there is no antidote for cyanide. The Doctor is successfully murdered within the rules of an Agatha Christie story - Agatha Christie even says so. It’s only because he exists in another narrative logic which he briefly substitutes for the logic of Agatha Christie that he survives. It is also worth noting that the victim manifestly does not exist outside the web of suspicion. Indeed, it is the fact that the victim had a secret that is, inevitably, why they’re killed in the first place. The victim is always someone who, had someone else been murdered, would have been a suspect.
What does it mean, then, that the Doctor can be drawn into the system of suspicion? In many regards it makes sense - the Doctor’s roots are in the same Victorian colonial structures from which Agatha Christie emerges. If Christie is to be a tacit object of suspicion, the Doctor has to be as well. And ultimately their defenses are identical. Christie is allowed to have her myriad of personal political failings overlooked because her books are so much fun. Likewise, the Doctor survives his poisoning through an over the top slapstick sequence involving a joke about Harvey Wallbangers. Nevertheless, the grammar of the story highlights the problem even as it declines to address it. Even within dialogue, it draws attention to the importance of the unspoken. “Well, she’s British and moneyed. That’s what they do. They carry on,” the Doctor explains, highlighting how the appearance of normality is, within this story logic, the most striking clue that something is amiss.
|Buzz me up to heaven, baby|
The other thing that is very much worth pointing out is that there is one character who exists entirely outside the dynamic of suspicion and who does simply get to function as a detective who is above the fray: Donna. Indeed, she does not even spend the episode in any particular sort of danger. Each of her first three stories involved her having at least one scene where she’s a straightforward peril monkey, and she only avoids it in her next two by dint of having Martha around to imperil instead. But in this story there is not a single moment in which she is rendered helpless. The one scene in which she is directly attacked she repels the attack on her own and escapes without difficulty. She does not need to cheat, as the Doctor does - she’s simply narratively invulnerable.
As she should be, existing as she does well outside the class dynamic that both empowers and morally compromises the Doctor and Agatha Christie. She is the everyday and the material, and thus holds the only true position of power. And in doing so we see the real response to the critique of the Doctor and Agatha Christie. Yes, they both come out of fundamentally morally compromised traditions and cannot get entirely away from the worst aspects of those traditions. And yet they also expose the ways in which those traditions collapse, the Doctor by being a figure of endless transgression who thus rejects the very structure of order from which he derives his power, Christie by showing how the entire network of power she belongs to is, in fact, a morass of buried secrets and treacheries. What we are left with is a story in which the only form of power comes from those who are not actually invested in any intrinsically, but who claim it on their own merits and cleverness. In a story of British money and power, there is, in the end, only one true Noble.
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