It’s been a while since I’ve been this dually stoked and let down by an episode of Doctor Who. The last time may have been “Victory of the Daleks,” which suffered from a similar schizophrenia and was also written by Mark Gatiss, whom I slobbered all over just a few weeks ago thanks to his script for “Cold War.” “The Crimson Horror” is a marvelous, almost jaw-droppingly innovative episode … for about the first half of its running time. In its second half it falls victim to horribly clichéd villainy and stock evil sci-fi plans, that all feels like it’s been done before, probably because it has.
Before dwelling on the bad, let’s revel in the good, of which there’s a fair amount. At this point, any episode showcasing Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey) is an episode worth tuning into. There may be a point at which there’s nothing interesting left for the series to do with these characters, but that’s a long way off. Talk of a spinoff series set around this trio is a given, but it’s difficult to tell if it could actually work week in and out. Despite them figuring heavily into this tale, we’re not much closer to finding out after this viewing, as once the Doctor showed up, they were each marginalized to some degree or other. (Bit of a shame this wasn’t a true “Doctor-lite” episode such as “Blink” or “Love & Monsters” from RTD days of old.)
That said, the episode did loads of good for Jenny, who in previous outings felt nearly invisible next to her more colorful alien cohorts. Here she stepped forward and sort of dominated big chunks of the story through investigation, and was it perhaps a nod to Mrs. Peel when she kicked serious bad guy ass in what looked like the Victorian equivalent of a cat suit? It stands to reason that Jenny’s role would perhaps be of the utmost importance to that team, given that the other two scare the living bejeezus out of most folks. As a result of this episode, we now have a somewhat better idea of how this particular Scooby gang goes about solving mysteries, and as a group of recurring characters, they’re simply an immense amount of fun.
The idea of crimson-colored corpses surfacing around a working class town like Yorkshire is a bit mad, but then so’s this episode, and it only gets madder as it moves along. Diana Rigg is British TV (and to some degree film) royalty, and it’s a bit of a shame she didn’t get to be on Who years ago when she was in her prime, but then she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to chew the scenery with cringe-inducing effect, via a cackling crone like Mrs. Gillyflower, as she does here. Between this and her current stint on Game of Thrones, younger folks of today are watching this woman and likely have no idea she was a firecracker of a sex symbol once upon a time – so much so that she even managed to snag a marriage commitment from James Bond. But the good stuff is saved for Rigg’s real life daughter, Rachael Stirling, here for the first time playing opposite her mother. As dreadful a human being as the mother is, the scarred and blinded daughter Ada is her moral counterpoint, and then there’s the matter of her monster …
Almost nothing in “The Crimson Horror” tops the Doctor’s entrance: chained to a wall, unable to speak and mouth pried open, barely able to walk, covered head to toe in red – it’s the sort of thrilling surprise that can only be achieved by joining “an adventure in progress.” Gatiss has a field day playing this aspect of the tale as a riff on James Whale’s Frankenstein, and through the Doctor’s relationship with Ada, The Bride of Frankenstein, as well. That she refers to him as her monster is sort of the cherry on the cake, given what we know about the Doctor’s long life; she really cannot know the sort of monster he is.
Shortly after the Doctor’s entrance, he relays to Jenny his story right up until the point she found him, and the remembrance is told through this kind of early sepia-toned film technique that’s a lovely touch, even though the “film” as shown and heard from a technological standpoint wouldn’t have been around in 1873. Never mind; it works splendidly, and brings a lovely texture to the tale.
The pieces of the puzzle start coming together (sort of, but not really) once the Doctor gets his mojo back. There seem to be many, and it’s at this point the episode falters, mostly by doing some awfully paint by numbers Doctor Who, not to mention just plain awful. It isn’t a complete dramatic tonal shift in the narrative, and there are fine, maybe even grand moments along the way (particularly in regards to Ada, who’s such a splendid one-off), but once the episode starts to explore Mrs. Gillyflower’s plan to destroy and repopulate the earth it begins to crumble. It’s such a ludicrously over the top scheme and doesn’t really fit in with restrained horror that the episode is initially built around. This is serious Moonraker territory … not that there’s anything wrong with Moonraker. It’s also been done on Doctor Who before — “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (1974) — and with much better results.
Where the fuck did this batty old woman living in 1893 get a rocket? Or a computer, for that matter? From Mr. Sweets — a leechlike parasite from 65 million years ago? Where did she get the money to build Sweetville? I’m not sure any of it makes sense, or rather I can’t decide what does and doesn’t. The episode even seems to touch on the occult somewhat, but the ideas fall by the wayside, because there’s a giant rocket that’s going to destroy everything. So many random elements just start seeping out the woodwork and into what passes for a plot in the episode’s second half, I frankly began to lose count, and more importantly, interest. It felt like huge chunks were carved from the script in order to meet the 45-minute running time.
Some mention needs to be made of the episode’s final scene, set in the present day. I hate to make judgments about it since it appears to be set-up for next week, but boy did that feel rushed and sloppy or what? Those kids found old photographs of Clara on the Internet? Why were they looking for them in the first place? Surely Clara’s got enough TARDIS travel under her belt at this point to consider that the Victorian London photo could have been taken during an adventure she has yet to go on (even though we know differently)? Why did the Doctor drop her off in the first place? Was this solely so we could pick up the kids for the next episode? Man, those kids are sharp – a few old photos and they instantly deduced that their nanny is a time traveler? I’m suddenly having Pond flashbacks to poorly constructed ongoing narratives. Please don’t let this be the sort of stuff the season finale’s made of.
“The Crimson Horror” possesses much wonderful imagery, some great characterizations and a couple moments of shock that feel totally original for this series. Sadly, most of it gets buried beneath maybe three too many plot elements, and the whole thing sort of crumbles. It’s the sort of material the term noble failure was coined to describe. However, having made those declarations, if anyone has pieced together all of this into something cohesive, please post theories down in the talk-back section, as I’d love to love this episode.
Odds and Ends
- As mentioned before, once the Doctor is on the scene, Vastra and Strax especially are pushed off to the side. How refreshing would it have been for the trio to have solved the bulk of the mystery on their own, only to have that shocking entrance of the Doctor’s appear around the 30-minute mark, rather than at the 15?
- The numerous fainting gags were supremely lame.
- Those giant phonograph speakers, however, were stunning.
- The Doctor references his old companion Tegan, and even spins what used to be his motto for her: “Brave heart, Tegan [Clara].”
- The Doctor proclaimed there was “trouble at the mill.” Did one on't cross beams gone owt askew on treddle?
- The Doctor seemingly used his old alias John Smith, though this time he was married to Mrs. Smith, Clara…and their working class, Yorkshire accents were splendid.
- Clara destroying Gillyflower’s computer using a chair instead of the Doctor using the tried and true sonic screwdriver was one of the episode’s inspired moments.