‘The Crimson Horror’, by Mark Gatiss, is another strong episode. Taking the Doctor up north, it features a welcome return of Lady Vastra, Jenny and Strax. Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling are fabulous, bringing pathos and camp in equal measure to a story that captures the magic of Doctor Who.
Spoilers From Here On In!
In my review of ‘Cold War’ I proclaimed it my favourite of the Mark Gatiss penned episodes. ‘The Crimson Horror’ has immediately knocked it from that top slot. I found it entertaining and very well written.
Where as ‘Cold War’ reminded me of the 2nd Doctor era this story was very reminiscent of the tv series ‘The Avengers’ and not just because both featured Diana Rigg. ‘The Avengers’ would revolve around eccentric, mysterious organisations that Emma Peel and John Steed would need to infiltrate in order to uncover the outlandish plot of the villain.
Unusually it is the Victorian trio of Lady Vastra, Jenny and Strax who initially take centre stage, further reinforcing my belief that they could support their own spin-off series. For nearly the first quarter of the show the Doctor is absent, glimpsed only in the image from a dead man’s eye.
Mark Gatiss perfectly captures the language and tone of the Victorian period, as Lady Vastra is asked to investigate a series of murders, the victims skin having turned crimson. This leads to Sweet Ville, a community overseen by Mrs Gillyflower, a haven from the evils of the world.
As well as some great banter from the ever dependable Strax, there are some great creepy moments. The scene in which Jenny infiltrates a factory only to discover the thunderous noise of machinery is issuing forth from dozens of giant phonographs is bizarre and unsettling. A revelation that shows that Sweet Ville is a facade and makes us further question its true purpose.
When Jenny does find the Doctor he is locked up, a lumbering crimson skinned monster. A secret friend for lonely Ada, the blind daughter of Mrs Gillyflower, this only strengths the thematic connection to the Frankenstein monster the Doctor now resembles.
Once freed and revived the Doctor reveals how he came to be in this situation. Director Saul Metzstein does a great job here, rushing us through the Doctor and Clara’s investigation using sepia toned scratchy images providing us will the salient points while maintaining the tone.
The crimson horror is a side effect of Mrs Gillyflower’s plan to preserve the worthy to survive an apocalypse. In her perfect little homes her perfect followers sit in glass domes in suspended animation, a display case for humanity. All of which is made possible by Mrs Gillyflower’s silent partner, Mr Sweet.
From here the plot shifts from a Victorian mystery to a pulpy adventure. The search for Clara is on, with Mrs Gillyflower’s pilgrims in hot pursuit of the heroes. Mrs Gillyflower reveals her true colours to her daughter, proclaiming that there will be no place for her in the heaven she is creating.
The plot becomes even more ludicrous when it is revealed the factory chimney is in fact a rocket, designed to poison the air, ensuring the apocalypse. While silly it is still in keeping with the tone of the episode and not outside the realms of possibility for the Doctor Who universe.
Amongst the action, with Jenny indulging in a little cat suit wearing violence, there is still time for some nicely acted scenes. Clara’s rescue raises questions for the Victorian trio who saw her die, which the Doctor seems very reluctant to explain.
There is also a lovely scene with Ada, brilliantly performed by Rachel Stirling. Initially presented as a villainous cohort of her mother we see the lonely world in which she lives, shunned by her parent and kept in the dark. We understand now why she imprisoned the Doctor, if only so she could have a friend.
Ada is a victim, blaming herself for violence and mistreatment she suffers at the hands of those around her. The Doctor’s tender attitude to his former jailer is much more pleasant than his wilfully negligent behaviour we’ve seen in the last few episodes.
Coming face to face with Mrs Gillyflower her partner, Mr Sweet, is revealed to be a prehistoric parasite. The effects here are simple but effective, creating a grotesque but believable creature to life.
Diana Rigg seems to have great fun here, revelling in the villainy of the character. Witness her gleeful delivery of her ‘Wrong Hands’ line. Mrs Gillyflower is interesting as villain who is steadfast in her evil convictions, even more so as these stem from a religious belief.
The ending is exciting and tense, with Ada taken as a human shield by her own mother. Everyone has a part to play, from Lady Vastra and Jenny removing the rockets poisonous pay-load to Strax, who finally gets to kill the villain. It is only a shame that they only had his shot cause Mrs Gillyflower to fall to her death, rather than kill her directly.
I found it interesting that considering the shows usual ethos of forgiveness that it culminates with Ada refusing to forgive her dying mother and brutally beating Mr Sweets to death, who even the Doctor was willing to take back to the prehistoric period.
The episode ends with an unexpected plot development, much akin to the Master’s reveal in ‘Utopia’ or Amy’s kidnap in ‘The Almost People’. Returning home Clara is confronted by the children she looks after who have uncovered her time travelling secret, black mailing her into a trip in the TARDIS.
Not only does this have some fun developments for the next episode but Clara discovers that there is photo of her in Victorian London, for the first time revealing to her the existence of her other incarnations.
I greatly enjoyed this episode. The pacing problems that plagued the last few episodes were completely absent. There was plenty of plot, plenty of action and a good resolution.
Mart Gatiss love for the series is never more clear than here. He writes the characters with affection and I loved the mention of Tegan. The story plays to the strengths of the production and the cast.
The production team do a fantastic job of turning Bute Town into Victorian Yorkshire. The costumes and props creates a convincing glimpse of the era that really helps ground the silly motives of the villain.
My only complaint was the side lining of Clara, who is absent for nearly half the episode. She does shine when she appears, particularly in her banter with the Doctor about the superiority of the chair to his sonic screwdriver, but I still feel that she isn’t as flesh out as Amy Pond was by this stage in the series.
Nonetheless I was entertained by this episode and can even forgive the terrible Tom Tom joke.