We’re back, with our new Doctor Who rewatch! Today we’re continuing Series Four with three episodes: The Unicorn and the Wasp, followed by a two-part story consisting of Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not watched these episodes!
The Unicorn and the Wasp: As a classy dinner party sets up, hosted by Lady Clemency Eddison, a Professor Peach is killed with a lead pipe in a library. As he dies, he gets a glimpse of a giant wasp.
The Doctor and Donna find themselves in the 1920s, and join the party. The guest of honor is Agatha Christie, who is notable but not yet as famous as she will be, having only six books on the market as yet. The Doctor privately tells Donna that today is the day Agatha Christie mysteriously disappears for ten days, to return with no memory of the time. However, he notes that she has just discovered that her husband is having an affair. They are interrupted when the maid Miss Chandrakala, discovers Peach’s body; Donna compares it to a game of Clue (or Cluedo, for British fans). The Doctor and Agatha separately start to investigate; the Doctor finds residue indicating the murderer might be an alien. Donna inadvertently gives Agatha the idea for Murder on the Orient Express, which has not yet been written. Agatha agrees to work with the Doctor, but chides him for his flippant attitude.
The Doctor and Agatha question the guests who were present before the murder: Eddison’s wheelchair-bound husband, Hugh Curbishley, who was secretly looking at pornography; their son Roger Eddison, who was having a secretly rendezvous with his gay lover, Davenport, one of the servants; Lady Eddison, who claimed to be taking tea, but was secretly drinking; Robina Edmond, who was secretly loading a pistol; and the reverend Golightly, who is the only one with nothing to hide, allegedly at least. All of them keep the truth secret, although the audience sees it in flashbacks; none of them have verifiable alibis. The Doctor and Agatha engage in some verbal sparring, and the Doctor notes that Agatha picked up a scrap of paper from the fireplace, with most of the word “maiden” on it, but there is no indication of what it means. Meanwhile Donna finds a locked room, and forces the butler, Greeves, to open it for her; he explains that Lady Eddison kept it locked for forty years after spending six months inside with malaria. She finds only toys inside, but hears bees buzzing. An enormous wasp breaks in through the window, and she temporarily stuns it with a magnifying glass, shouting for the Doctor. He comes running with Agatha; the wasp is gone, but left its giant stinger behind. He collects a sample of the venom, and concludes it can probably grow a new stinger.
While gossiping with the other servants, Chandrakala makes a realization about the murder. Almost immediately, she goes outside, and a statue is pushed from the roof to kill her. The Doctor, Agatha and Donna find her dying, and she mentions “the poor little child”; but they are driven into the house by the wasp; the Doctor realizes it is a shape changer, and probably has a human form. However, it hides near the other guests, and he loses its trail. The guests gather, and pressure Agatha to solve the crime, but she denies being able to do so, and puts the burden on the Doctor. In the garden, she talks with Donna, and they swap stories of unfaithful men; Donna encourages her about her books. Agatha doesn’t believe she will be remembered, and then notices a box that damaged some flowers. She takes it to the Doctor, and he finds a thief’s tool kit inside; Agatha attributes it to a thief at large called the Unicorn. However, the Doctor suddenly falls under the effects of poison; Agatha realizes his drink has cyanide in it. He runs to the kitchen and gathers a number of random ingredients (and an unexpected kiss from Donna), which he is able to use to stimulate his enzymes to block the poison and expel it from his body. Agatha can’t believe the scene.
At dinner, the Doctor laces the soup with pepper, an insecticide ingredient, hoping to expose the wasp. The storm outside blows a window open and puts out the lights, and the wasp bursts in and through into the hallway; when the lights return, Roger is found dead with a knife in his back, and his mother’s necklace—a priceless relic from India—is gone.
The Doctor encourages Agatha to solve the crime, as she knows human nature very well—the reason her books are so good. The Doctor gathers the remaining suspects, and Agatha walks through the various suspects, analyzing their situations. She suggests that Robina is an imposter, as the thief kit was found under her bathroom window; she suggests Robina is the Unicorn, and stole the necklace. Robina admits to it, and produces the necklace. Agatha moves to Hugh Curbishley, who reveals that he can walk; he admits that he faked his disability to keep Eddison close to him, as she is still beautiful. He is not the murderer, however. Agatha discusses the necklace with Lady Eddison, who brought it back immediately before her six-month confinement; Agatha reveals that Eddison was pregnant, and concealed it from everyone except Chandrakala. The Doctor says the pregnancy was not normal; her offspring, it seems, is the wasp. She reveals that she was impregnated in India by a man who was not a man; he was from the sky, and could transform into a wasp. However, Christopher died in the monsoon of 1885. He left her pregnant, and gave her the necklace, the Firestone. Agatha says that Professor Peach worked out the truth, and came to warn Lady Eddison, who is also not the murderer—but the wasp intercepted him. The Doctor, rather circuitously, gets around to the reverend, who reveals he caught two thieves in his church last week; he uses this to make the point that the reverend is the missing son, and the wasp. He was raised in an orphanage, confirming it to Eddison. The reverend’s first transformation was on the night of the break-in at the church; since then, he came to the house to recover the Firestone, which is telepathically connected to him, and to Lady Eddison. Her experiences with Agatha’s books “programmed” him for murder in that pattern. Stressed, he begins to transform, and admits the truth. He fully transforms, and chases Agatha out of the house, as she has the Firestone. The Doctor and Donna follow in another car. She stops at the lake, intending to die, causing the wasp to die too, due to the telepathic link. Donna snatches the necklace and throws it into the lake, and the wasp dives in after it, and drowns.
Agatha collapses, due to the link; the wasp releases her at the last second, wiping her memory of what happened and knocking her out. They use the TARDIS to drop her off ten days later at the hotel where history records that she reappeared. The Doctor muses that some of the memories will survive, perhaps, and show up in her books; and he shows Donna that even the wasp will appear in a book…which is still being printed in the year five billion. She will go on to be the best-selling novelist of all time.
I am sorry to say that I never paid much attention to The Unicorn and the Wasp in previous views. Maybe that’s because it’s a historical (or technically a pseudohistorical, in that it does deal with historical events, but adds sci-fi elements other than just the TARDIS and crew), and I’ve never cared as much for those stories. Regardless, it’s better than I gave it credit for in the past. It’s actually quite a clever episode, with its structure mimicking the game “Cluedo” (or “Clue”, as we Americans call it—and if you’ve never seen the Tim Curry movie based on it, stop reading and go watch it, now. You won’t be sorry) as well as the mysteries for which guest character Agatha Christie is famous. As I type this, I just saw one of Twitter’s occasional emails, containing a tweet yesterday from Janet Fielding about the broadcast of Black Orchid part two, thirty-five years ago yesterday; it was a timely notice, because this story is very much in the same vein as that one. The two are set perhaps a year apart (1926 here, 1925 there), and in very similar surroundings; both involve high-class individuals with dark family secrets.
I have to say that Fenella Woolgar—the actress who plays Agatha Christie—steals the show here. I don’t know a lot about Agatha Christie beyond her work, but the performance here is very believable, as far as I can tell; and she takes over any scene she’s in, which is no mean feat when playing against David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Donna, on the other hand, is very subdued as compared to preceding appearances; she goes overboard for one comical scene, in which she’s “playing charades” with the Doctor to obtain some ingredients for countering cyanide poisoning, but otherwise she’s very calm here. Well, calm for Donna anyway. She does manage—in the same scene—to get in the obligatory kiss with the Doctor; every companion gets one in NuWho, it seems, sometimes regardless of gender. Here it’s played for literal shock value, in that he tells her to give him a shock so as to kickstart his body’s enzymes. Well done, I suppose?
There’s another link in the series arc here. Donna comments that the 1920s still has bees, unlike her time; the missing bees are a part of the events to be revealed in the finale. Most of the links this series have been pretty subtle, unlike the constant barrage of Saxon references last series, and this one is a blink-and-you-miss-it moment; I prefer it that way.
I was especially pleased with the mystery-and-game structure of this episode. The characters correspond to Cluedo characters fairly strongly, and all of the murder weapons from the game are seen. It gets a little silly at points, but that’s intentional; the Doctor and Donna are completely in on the joke, and intentionally play up the references (“Professor Peach…in the library…with the lead pipe!”). As well, there is a lengthy list—too much to repeat here—of Agatha Christie novel references, which can be found on the TARDIS wiki. They play around again with bootstrap paradoxes a bit; Donna continually lets slip things that Agatha shouldn’t know about her own books, then claims credit for them. It’s glossed over at the end when Agatha loses some of her memories; the bits that leak through will survive, but not be attributed to Donna. Still, where did the ideas come from in the first place? Also, at the end, there’s a touching tribute to Agatha Christie, when the Doctor reveals that her books are still in print (in paperback, no less!) in the year five billion.
Some references: Agatha Christie was first mentioned in Last of the Time Lords, when the Doctor suggested to Martha that they visit her; she was also listed by the Eighth Doctor as a companion in Terror Firma. The Doctor’s alleged ability to tell time by smell (possibly faked here) wa mentioned in Scream of the Shalka and The Eye of the Scorpion (also possibly faked in the latter). He references the events of The Unquiet Dead. Donna mentions her dead fiancé Lance (The Runaway Bride). Donna will mention this adventure again in The End of Time. Curbishley mentions an incident in the Boer War; the First Doctor was present at that time (The Daleks’ Master Plan). There’s a bit of a flash-forward; the Doctor mentions saving Charlemagne from an insane computer, which will later take place in The Lonely Computer (presumably earlier in the Tenth Doctor’s life).
Silence in the Library: A young girl meets with her therapist, Dr. Moon, to talk about the massive library inside her mind. As she views it, the Doctor and Donna break into the library and barricade a door—and they can see her.
The Doctor and Donna land inside the Library—“so big it doesn’t need a name”—a whole world given to every book ever written, with its core as the index computer. But where are all the patrons? Why is the library silent? The computer only locates two humanoids—the Doctor and Donna—but it finds a trillion other lifeforms; but where are they? They are met by a computer node with a realistic human face, which tells them to run, because the library is unsafe and sealed; and it tells them that they must count the shadows if they want to live. The doctor warns Donna to stay out of the shadows. He admits that he got an oddly affectionate message on the psychic paper, summoning him here; and then the lights start to go out. They flee to another room, leading to the opening scene witnessed by the young girl—but there is no girl, only a floating security camera, which switches off.
The girl wakes up with the therapist, but suddenly hears the sonic screwdriver, which hurts her head. The Doctor is using it on the camera; he succeeds in reactivating it, and sees a text screen on the side, begging him to stop. The girl and the camera seem somehow to be one. She warns the therapist—and inadvertently, the Doctor and Donna—that others are coming. Donna queries another node, and is disturbed to find the face is real, donated by a dead person; she nearly stumbles into a shadow, which isn’t cast by anything. It moves, scaring even the Doctor. Suddenly a group of five spacesuited figures burst into the room—and one woman greets the Doctor with “Hello, Sweetie”. She introduces herself as Professor River Song, an archaeologist. The Doctor warns them to leave as quickly as possible, and to stay in the light until they do. The expedition leader, Mr. Lux, claims to own the library. River explains that the library has been silent for a hundred years. The Doctor explains that all species fear the dark; he attributes it to the Vashta Nerada, deadly creatures in the darkness and shadows. The Doctor, with River’s help, takes charge of the group, and warns them not to let their shadows cross, for fear of infection.
River pulls the Doctor aside and claims responsibility for the summons; she claims to know the Doctor, and has a diary of events that they shared. He does not know her, however, and she realizes to her horror that this is his first meeting with her—but it is late in her acquaintance with him. She is very affectionate with him, but when she realizes that he doesn’t know her, she declines to explain. A phone of sorts rings, as one of the group tries to call up the data core; it is ringing in the girl’s apartment as well, but only she can hear it. It stops before she can answer, and the computer terminal says “access denied”. Soon the girl sees the Doctor and the others on television, speaking with her. She recognizes him from her vision of the library, but then loses the signal with another “access denied”.
The Doctor tries to look at River’s diary, but she stops him, and tells him it’s against the rules—his rules. The girl starts to play with the television remote, causing books in the library to fly off the shelves. The computer gives the Doctor a name: “Cal”. He asks Lux about it, who at first refuses. River and, reluctantly, Lux, reveal what happened 100 years ago: the library sealed itself, and sent a message saying “4,022 people saved”—the number of people on the planet at the time—but none were seen again. As they talk, a door opens at the girl’s command, and Lux’s assistant, Miss Evangelista, goes to investigate. She finds a reading room, then screams, summoning the others, who find only a skeleton in a shredded spacesuit. A copy of her psyche, a data ghost, is held in the comm unit on her suit, repeating the same things over and over as she fades from existence. Finally River stops the unit and lets her go.
The Doctor knows what has killed her, and intends to bring it out. First he quizzes River about her relationship to him, but she refuses to talk. In the girl’s apartment, Dr. Moon tells her to remember that the real world is a lie, and her nightmares—the library, and anyone in it—are real, and depend on her to save them. In the library, River talks with Donna as the Doctor sets up. She explains that the Doctor has not met her yet; they keep meeting out of order, but mostly in reverse from each other. However, she knows from him about Donna. The Doctor obtains some food, and tosses it into the shadows for the Vashta Nerada—“the shadows that melt flesh”. The food is consumed. He explains that they live on nearly all worlds, and usually feed on road kill, but there is little to eat here. They have no weakness; one simply runs from them. They prepare to leave through the “little shop”, but one of the team—“Proper Dave”—has two shadows. The Vashta Nerada have latched onto him. The Doctor gets everyone’s helmets on and sealed, and River increases the strength of the suits—revealing as she does that she has a sonic screwdriver very like the Doctor’s. The Doctor uses a teleport to send Donna to the TARDIS, but something intercepts her as she materializes.
Proper Dave has lost the second shadow. However he begins to repeat himself, insisting the lights are off—and there is now darkness inside his helmet. He thrashes briefly, and begins to ghost. He moves in to attack, and only a skull shows in his head—the Vashta Nerada swarm is now possessing his suit. River reveals a sonic gun like that once carried by Jack Harkness, and cuts a hole in the wall, allowing them out, but the suit follows. In the apartment, the girl announces that “Donna Noble has been saved”. On the run, the Doctor says that River’s screwdriver is just like his; she says that he gave it to her, but won’t elaborate. He says that he teleported Donna to the TARDIS, but the sonic screwdriver reveals she isn’t there; and he sees her face on a node, saying that she has left the library, and has been saved. Before he can inquire further, the suit chases them again, and they are forced to run.
Forest of the Dead: River uses her gun again to open another wall and get them away. The girl watches it on television. She changes channels, and finds Donna being delivered to a hospital by ambulance. Donna awakens to find Dr. Moon, who claims to have been treating her for years. He suggests that she walk with him by the river, and suddenly they are there. He calls the Doctor and the “blue box” a dream which has ceased. He introduces her to a man named Lee McAvoy. In similar jumps, her life progresses, and she finds herself dating Lee, then marrying him, then having and raising children, with large gaps between. Dr. Moon visits her in her new home, but briefly fuzzes out of existence, replaced by the Doctor, who sees her; but Dr. Moon makes her forget the vision. Back in the library, the survivors find a safe spot under a skylight, but the sun is setting, and soon the light will end. The Doctor says that a signal is interfering with his screwdriver; River gives him hers, which has settings he has not installed yet in his. She tells him he will one day trust her, but she needs him to do so now; so she whispers something into his ear, which stuns him. Convinced, he leaps back into action. He tracks the signal to the moon above, which is artificial; Lux calls it a “doctor moon”, meant to protect the integrity of the data core. Meanwhile, another crew member has two shadows. While they analyze the situation, the Doctor realizes there is also an extra person in the room—Proper Dave’s suit has found them again.
In Donna’s reality, her children are a few years older now. She is beginning to sense the time jumps now; and she sees a strange, robed figure outside. Time leaps ahead to night, where she hears a door open; and she sees the figure outside again. Lee finds a note summoning Donna to a meeting in the nearby playground. The girl, watching via television, urges her not to go. The next day, she meets the robed figure in the park. The figure explains about the time jumps. She explains that they have met in the library; she is what is left of Miss Evangelista. Back in the library, the group is still running; the Doctor confronts the suit, and gets the Vashta Nerada to talk via the comm unit. They explain that they are here because they were born in the wood that forms the paper of the books—this is their home, their forest. Suddenly another crewmember—the other Dave—is consumed, and his suit inhabited. Trapped, the Doctor activates a trap door, and climbs across the bottom of a walkway to get back inside. Donna asks about Miss Evangelista’s veil; she reveals that she wears it because her imprint was not captured perfectly by the library, and she appears deformed here. She says that Donna’s husband and children are not real. When she uncovers her face, the girl watching is terrified by it.
River is still with the woman with two shadows, whose visor was tinted by the Doctor. River explains that this is the Doctor, but not her Doctor, and that makes her fearful, though she still trusts him. He arrives as she explains, and denies that anyone can open the TARDIS with a finger snap, as she was describing. The woman asks what makes him trust River; but her phrasing tips him off to what is going on. The library isn’t making people “safe”, it is making them “saved”—like computer data. At the same time, Miss Evangelista explains the truth to Donna—the library teleports people out, then absorbs their patterns into the computer, literally “saving” them like software. The Doctor realizes it too, and realizes they must get to the computer core if they want to try to save Donna. Unlike the other team members, whose imprints were uploaded after death, Donna is a perfect copy, because she was teleported. Donna asks whose dream this is; Miss Evangelista tells her “Cal”. The girl causes Donna’s child to fall and get hurt, interrupting her and pulling her away, but miss Evangelista urges her to let the children go. As the girl becomes frantic, she accidentally deletes her father, and unintentionally starts an autodestruct sequence in the library with a twenty-minute countdown. Donna senses it as well. Dr. Moon comes to help the child, but she sends him away.
Lux insists they must get to the core. River finds a gravity platform that will take them there, and they descend. Donna is not handling this disruption well, and finds herself putting the children to bed; but the children also realize they are not real. Suddenly they vanish, alarming Donna. At the core, the Doctor and his group hear the child asking for help, but the computer is in sleep mode. The Doctor tries to wake it. Lux reveals that the control program is not a program; it IS the child. Her name is Cal—“Charlotte Abigal Lux”—and she was his grandfather’s daughter. When she was dying as a child, her father built the library to keep her alive, after a fashion, giving her a life she would otherwise never have. Cal, in the form of a node, says that she has saved everyone. The Doctor realizes that she has willfully forgotten her original life, so as to preserve her own sanity. The Doctor plans to use himself to reboot the system, but he knows it will kill him; River knows it too, and objects, but he insists. He intends to leave the Vashta Nerada to their forests, but take the others away with him, including the survivors inside the computer. The Vashta Nerada—who have now consumed the remaining crew member—don’t want to accept, until he forces them to look him up; then they retreat, and allow him one day. River then knocks him out, handcuffing him to the wall, and takes his place in the computer interface. When she awakens, she explains that she will die here so that all their other experiences will still take place; and she tells him about their last encounter, at which he gave her the screwdriver. She forbids him to interfere. He reveals that it is his name that she whispered in his ear, and that it could only mean one thing, but there is no time to say what. With a final goodbye, she activates the system, and dies—but Donna and all the other survivors are downloaded back into their corporeal forms. To Donna’s despair, Lee is not among them. Up in the main library, Lux greets the survivors.
The Doctor sees the survivors off into rescue ships, and meets up with Donna, each of them mourning their losses. He leaves River’s diary and screwdriver on a balcony in the library. He acknowledges that the diary contains his future, and offers to look Donna up—but both realize it’s better to leave it alone. However, as they leave, he realizes that something is still not right—why would he give away his screwdriver at that time if he knew River was about to die? Wouldn’t he have tried to save her? He searches the screwdriver, and finds it has an improved neural link in it, with a copy of River inside. He takes it to the core, moments before the copy would be lost, and uploads her into the library, saving her after a fashion, and giving Cal, Dr. Moon, Miss Evangelista, and the other uploaded team members a new companion. On the way to the TARDIS, the Doctor snaps his fingers…and the doors open, and close behind him.
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead gave us the character of River Song. I could end the review here, and still have said the most important thing. It’s impossible to overstate how important River is to the Doctor’s story, which is really saying something given that nearly every televised appearance of the character occurs within a single incarnation of the Doctor’s life (spoiler alert: not this one). Although this story doesn’t go into it, future episodes will establish that she is the most improbable thing of all: the Doctor’s wife (not to be confused with the episode of the same name, which refers to the TARDIS instead). This story does a fantastic job of something that writer (and future showrunner) Steven Moffat is very good at: placing threads and plot elements that can be easily picked up again, to great effect. I say “can” because sometimes he doesn’t; but often he does, and you end up with a River Song. I can’t speak highly enough about the way her part is played here, especially with regard to how she looks at and speaks to—and of—the Doctor. It’s utterly convincing, and you walk away knowing exactly what she was suggesting about the two of them, even though she never once comes out and says it.
It’s very hard now to discuss this story without also discussing The Husbands of River Song, her final appearance to date (and probably permanently). The two stories bookend River’s life with the Doctor, from his point of view at least (for her point of view, we would have to say this story and A Good Man Goes To War, I suppose). It was done very cleverly; over seven years we get this long-drawn-out romance, and we end by showing the very story that River tells here, of their visit to Darillium and the Doctor’s gift of a sonic screwdriver. We knew the answers—that is, why the Doctor gave it to her, and built in the psychic link that saved her imprint—from the very beginning, but seeing it played out was another thing entirely. Even when the next regeneration happened, and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor began to interact with River…well, no one imagined it would be Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor that had that final, emotional appearance with her, except maybe River herself, but no one can argue the choice, either. I’ve been critical of Capaldi’s tenure, but this one thing was exactly right. We’ll talk more about it when we eventually reach that episode.
We also get the Vashta Nerada in this story. I give them credit for being the greatest “villain that isn’t a villain” in the new series, possibly matched only by “are you my mummy” child from Series One. They’re not evil—spited, maybe, but not evil. They’re hardly even intelligent. They simply want to survive, and humans are incidental to that. They’re parasites, really, and they’re all the more terrifying for that. Some things not clearly stated, but obvious in hindsight: For one, they are a hive mind. That’s clear from the scene where the Doctor tells them to look him up; wherever that information is stored, it’s not right there where the Doctor is standing, and therefore had to be transmitted to the Vashta Nerada on that spot. For another, they probably can interact with the computer systems, even though their intelligence is probably less than human. It’s very likely that obtaining the information they needed so quickly required computer access rather than the reading of print books. They’re downright terrifying, and very well played.
I wouldn’t mind more stories set in the library, prior to this one. It’s a fascinating location—a human-built library that covers an entire planet. We really only see a few very small portions of it. Libraries have figured into any number of stories (a prominent example is Love and War, which I covered last week), and this one can top them all.
References: As far as I can tell, there is no series arc reference in this story, which is unusual but not unprecedented. Many continuity references are to future stories, which is understandable given the nature of River’s relationship with the Doctor (meeting out of order). She mentions their final date on Darillium (The Husbands of River Song) and the crash of the Byzantium (The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone). Lux refers to the Doctor and River as “bickering like an old married couple” (The Wedding of River Song, many other references to their marriage). The Name of the Doctor will place a version of Clara Oswald here, though unnoticed. The Doctor’s affinity for “little shops” is repeated here. The psychic paper was also used to summon the Doctor in New Earth. The TARDIS’s “Emergency Programme One” gets a mention; it was seen before in The Parting of the Ways. River’s knowledge of the Doctor’s true name will be used again as a misdirection in The Wedding of River Song, but will prove to be real knowledge on her part in The Name of the Doctor. The “finger snap” trick to open the TARDIS will appear several times with the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, and will be learned by Clara as well; it next appears in The Eleventh Hour. River’s reference to armies running from the Doctor probably refers to The Pandorica Opens. River’s “squareness gun” has been implied to be the same one that Jack Harkness owned, having been left in the TARDIS for her to find at some point, although she is never seen here to use it to repair a wall.
Overall: A very clever episode (which I previously underestimated) followed by a very dramatic story (which can’t be overestimated). Not a bad way to continue at all.
Next time: We’ll begin ramping up for the series finale, with this series’ companion-lite and Doctor-lite episodes, Midnight and Turn Left! See you there.
All episodes may be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.
The Unicorn and the Wasp
Silence in the Library
Forest of the Dead