Oh, Victorian times. They are always something at which the BBC excels. Period costume drama is like its bread and butter, which is why I always look forward to Victorian episodes of Doctor Who. This episode, “The Crimson Horror,” was a good deal different than most such stories in a number for very interesting ways. I always applaud when chances are taken and can more or less be said to pay off. This is Mark Gatiss’ second episode of the series and, while I was quite critical of “Cold War,” I have much less to nitpick this time from a structural point of view. This may be one of his best scripts, actually. And how could you not love an episode with Vastra, Jenny, and Strax? And a Monty Python reference?
This is one of the more atypical stories in terms of its structure. We’re introduced to the narrative through the aforementioned Victorian Detective Squad who have been tasked with finding out what happened to a man’s reporter brother in Yorkshire in 1893 (Gatiss’ last episode took place in 1983… coincidence?). We see that something horrible has happened to him and his wife at the hands of the sinister Mrs. Gillyflower, played by the excellently wicked Diana Rigg. Rigg can currently be seen as Lady Tyrell on Game of Thrones, and she is killing it. The brother is all red, which the rather grubby undertaker gleeful calls “The Crimson Horror.” In his eye is the image of the Doctor’s face. Dun, dun, a-dun.
We then get quite a long sequence of the trio traveling up to Yorkshire and beginning the investigation. Jenny, being the only human one, tries to infiltrate Mrs. Gillyflower’s fire-and-brimstone sermon about the end of the world and the best being chosen to live in her perfect community of Sweetville, named after her silent partner, Mr. Sweet. Nobody has seen Mr. Sweet, least of all Gillyflower’s daughter, Ada (played by Rigg’s real life daughter, Rachael Stirling), who was blinded by her father many years earlier. We also see that Ada has befriended something she calls “The Monster,” which lives in a locked room and has red arms. Jenny breaks into the mill and finds it not to be a mill at all, but a place with vats of red liquid. A Clamato factory?
Jenny eventually makes her way to the Monster’s room and unlocks it, revealing… the Doctor! All petrified and red-skinned. I was certainly not expecting that. Jenny helps him get to a chamber wherein, with the help of the sonic screwdriver (aka magic wand), he emerges as good as new, ready to jump around and kiss Jenny, much to her chagrin. I’m not sure I’m okay with all of this kissing Matt Smith’s been doing lately. Innocent or not, it’s very bizarre. It appears that he’s been like that for weeks, and now he has to find Clara, which takes us to my favorite section of the episode.
The flashback section, in the narrative, speeds its way through showing us things we need to know but don’t really have time to see play out. It also allows us to guess what’s going on before actually knowing what’s going on. I loved director Saul Metzstein’s choice to make this sequence look like an old film strip, complete with popping and flickering sepia tones. There are some terrific little jokes in there, not the least of which being, upon Clara’s acknowledgement that they don’t always go where they set out to go, the Doctor saying it took him ages to get a “Gobby Australian to Heathrow.” This was such an excellent reference to the Fifth Doctor’s rather ridiculously long attempt to take air hostess Tegan back to her job throughout the entirety of Season 19. Also, the Doctor, in his Yorkshire accent, says “Trouble at mill,” which is almost surely a reference to the opening line of Monty Python‘s famous “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. One joke that I did not like at all was the “Thomas Thomas” kid. I don’t know why that was in there, save the “oh, ha ha” moment, and really took me out of the story for a moment.
I think the idea of turning people into, essentially, living stuffed critters, complete with glass cases, is very creepy. Leave it to Gatiss to employ something so insidious for his story. While the revelation that Mr. Sweet is actually a parasitic creature that secretes paralyzing venom from the Jurassic period is a bit silly, it was explained well enough within the confines of the story. How they built a rocket ship is totally beyond me, but that, oddly, is something I can overlook.
Gatiss has the tendency to put too much story into his episodes, thus necessitating the need to move too quickly through resolution. His setups are almost always amazing, but they fall apart due to lack of time. If each Doctor Who episode were the length of a Sherlock episode, I think he’d be much more at home. That being said, “The Crimson Horror” gets around a great deal of that, partially through the flashback portion and partially because of not having extraneous characters.
Ada is a great character, and her plight is very relatable. Her mother is a nutter and does eventually just become a frothing Bond villain, but Rigg plays it so well, it doesn’t bug me very much. I never dislike seeing Vastra, Jenny, and Strax and it was great to see them take point for the first act of the story, though they do sort of fade away toward the end. The lack of a spinoff (like Torchwood or Sarah Jane Adventures) this year is lamentable, and I will again state how much I would adore watching a show with those three. Love them to pieces, I do.
The ending of this episode… Hmm. I’m not particularly looking forward to the kids Clara nannies being part of the next story, and possibly more. I actually rather liked having a companion whose family dynamic was never really much of the narrative, save the Doctor learning about her folks. Having the two kids find weirdly Photoshopped pictures of Clara and the Doctor (taken when they couldn’t possibly have been) and confront her about it seems out of place. Who needs them?
That scene was almost surely a Moffat addition, so I’ll refrain from talking about it too much. Suffice to say, “The Crimson Horror” is easily my favorite Gatiss story since “The Unquiet Dead,” and he has more or less redeemed himself for the conceptually fantastic but narratively flawed “Cold War.” It’s not a perfect script by any means, but it’s a great deal of fun and has amazing elements to it. This makes me very pleased. More stories like this, please, Mr. Gatiss!
Next week, we have Neil Gaiman’s return story, “Nightmare in Silver,” which sees the return of the proper universe Cybermen and takes place in a creepy-ass theme park. It’s directed by Stephen Woolfenden, who doesn’t have many directing credits, but was the second-unit director on the last three Harry Potter films as well as the first assistant director on the TV adaptation of Gaiman’s Neverwhere.Also, Warwick Davis is in it! How cool!