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Doctor Who Review: “The Crimson Horror” (SPOILERS)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71jLxk0hZYA&w=615&h=346]

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39 comments

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  • I mean if you count the end of time as a single episode. Each story in the spotty season is still counted as its own episode. Shame, because if they weren’t, that would push 100 forward 3 episodes and make it The Name of The Doctor.

  • There may be a slight margin for error on my part, but if you count the spotty David tennant season in 2010 and the End of Time as a single episode, then the Crimson Horror was the 100th episode of the revived series.

  • Not a fan. For starters (beside several cogent criticism made by others here), how does the whole Sweetville industry work? How are the hapless humans reduced to their underwear & a catatonic state? How come the ‘successful’ ones don’t stay red, while the rejects do? What was the point of the transformation — ‘Mr Sweet’ seemed to be doing just fine with one single human host — were the others designed for pudding?? Or what? And surely even in benighted Victorian Yorkshire, where a police force would already have been in existence, somebody would have got a bit curious about red stiffs in the canal and noticed that (a) there were a lot of them (b) they were all people who’d gone off to Sweetville. Plus what about that line about not slobbering ‘on my crinoline’??? Crinolines went out in the late 1860s and were replaced by the bustle, which is what the women were wearing in this episode (dated 1893, remember?).
    Too many gaps, holes, and a general impression of a hastily contrived plot stuck together with masking tape, a wing, and a prayer.

  • I personally say we get rid of moffat and gatiss let them be one show writers and put someone new back on top. Moffat has goten to dried up with ideas. And this last episode was of no use. It was a sprint through the story where you can’t make any connection. If we are lucky Moffat will quit after the 50th if we are really lucky he would before but that isn’t happening. Only decent part of this episode was it was a bit cute with some bad jokes.

  • I really loved the portrayal of Ada’s character; one of the best representations of blindness/disability I have ever seen on television. Not only did Rachael Stirling act it fantastically, it was written so beautifully – she felt like a character; she got disproportionately attached to a silent monster, someone who she could talk to without being rebuffed as ‘stupid’ and ‘worthless’, she felt loyalty to her mother even though she knew what she did wrong, and my favourite part of the episode, when she started to attack her mother and calling her insults. You saw the true anger in her face then, and… I just think it was fantastic.

  • I didn’t really enjoy anything about this episode. I mean, I always get a kick out of Strax, but I hate that he’s basically used as a one-line-joke kind of guy. This episode really didn’t need Clara or the Doctor at all; Vastra and Jenny had everything going for them and could have done a fine (if not much better) job of it than the Doctor did. I think the only redeeming quality, for me, was how wonderfully Ada was represented. I thought her to be a great character and her pain was very believable.
    Now, as for the children–so far they kind of annoy me (I think the girl is kind of a bitch) but I am curious as to how Gaiman uses them next week. I’m always excited for his episodes, he is such a wonderful writer.
    What would make me really happy, more than anything else, is using Clara as more than just a ‘mystery’ and a plot-bunny, so to speak. I think she had so much more potential than Moffat is presenting her with and so far, she’s probably my third-favourite companion (after Rose and Donna).
    I just hope that the finale and the 50th are better than the last season and a half has been, plot- and writing-wise.

  • There are so many things wrong with this episode. I was surprised to see that the reviewer like it. To me, this was the single worst Doctor Who episode this series and possibly of all time. Even the worst of Doctor Who (Timelash, That awful Daleks in Manhattan one) have some redeeming qualities. This has nothing. I don’t get the Jenny, Vastra, Strax love. They are flat characters who are sometimes funny. They are not well defined or interesting.
    Even if this wasn’t Doctor Who’s 50th, this series is the worst since its return in 2005. And I love Doctor Who.

  • This episode was a little bit of a dud for me, as the small alien parasite controlling a host has been overdone in Scifi. I could never really get into the Doctor’s friends Strax and Co. mostly because instead of actually developing their friendship through the show they kind of just show up one day akin to “Oh hey, these are the Doctor’s friends that owe him favors”. They should of built the characters more like they did with Jack Harkness so that the audience has to opportunity to really build a connection with the character(s).

  • While I agree that getting the kids in was completely ham-fisted, the next episode was written by Neil Gaiman, so it will probably be fantastic. And if Gaiman wants to write a Doctor Who episode with kids in it, you bloody well let him.

  • Agree that the Doctor (and Clara even more so) didn’t seem to be much needed in the episode – it really did feel like a canned “Lady Vastra Investigates” episode ported into the main series. It did get me thinking about how well stories in which the Doctor is the catalyst rather than the agent can work when well written, though – Blink being the obvious prime example.

    I’m surprised no-one’s mentioned the Doctor’s “Brave heart!” to Clara right after the Tegan reference – that was brilliant.

  • I really don’t like being Simpsons Comic Book Guy saying “Worst Episode Ever!”, but the scene with the kids at the end felt like shark-jumping of Cousin Oliver proportions. There is no way that their presence makes the next episode better, rather than worse, than the rest of this series. “We found the pictures at school…” OH COME ON.
    I don’t expect EVERYTHING on this show to be believable, but you remember how when you were 12 they used to show you random crew photos from Soviet submarines, right?

    There was so much promise at the start of this series, and it’s getting to the point where it’s going to be too late to salvage, no matter what happens in the end. Some great Clara resolution to wrap it all up doesn’t erase the fact that the previous 5,6,10 episodes have been weaksauce.

  • I could have 100% done without the TomTom joke and the gratuitous tightly-clad-Jenny-kicks-ass and associated sonic screwdriver boner joke. In exchange, at least a LITTLE moral debate over what to do with Gillyflower and the leech at the end would have been nice, rather than having convenient circumstances sweep that under the rug. Because if anything should be a serious moment on DW, it’s the murder of the /last survivor of a sentient race/, no matter how evil or gross or leechy it is. They could have even used it as a chance to develop and show Clara’s character, God forbid! I’m sick of her being a clever plot device first and a character second, which is really unfortunate because I really relate to the few glimpses of her character that we’ve seen.

  • Mike hit the nail on the head. Narratively speaking, this episode did not need the Doctor or Clara. Vastra, Jenny and Strax investigated & removed the red venom, which they could have done by themselves, since Vastra was the one who knew what the substance was anyway. I enjoyed this episode, because it was the most light and fun so far of this series. However, the coda with the smartass brattish kids at the end was clumsy and implausible. They would have done better to work their kids’ suspicion in gradually over two or three episodes.

  • I liked the episode somewhat but I came away from this one with the feeling it didn’t even NEED The Doctor OR Clara. The only things they were needed for was to magic away their own venom, their own backstory, and exposition with Mrs Gillyflower. The relationship with Ada was the only important part with The Doctor and I feel that could’ve been handled just as well with Jenny or Vashra. But I’m giving this one bonus points for being an episode that you can show to your friends as their first since no questions get answered and there was no real development with the characters.

  • *sigh*
    this series just feels like a collection of second rate filler episodes that have a few scenes dropped in to build up to the 50th anniversary.

  • I agree about it feeling old school Dr Who. Have we met the kids before this? I have missed a couple of eps this season, still this is my first experience of the kids and I already find them annoying and unnecessary. They’re going to too gobby and they won’t do what they’re told: I can feel it in my bones. And those photos were just a little bit too convenient: remember when the Dr got Mickey to erase all pics of Rose from existence on the internet?
    I seem to be the only one who got a bit of a Willy Wonka feeling from this episode (maybe it was the reference to sweets and dipping things in vats and the prop being 10c short of a dollar) but obviously with Victorian morals instead of lollies.
    thanks for the review though; I got a lot out of it.

  • Sadly, everyone would have been incinerated by the rocket launch. Covering one;s face with one’s hands notwithstanding. Also, what evil mastermind would launch a rocket without making sure that damn virus is on board first. Yet again the day is saved by the villain’s own stupidity. Which is good, because the Doctor was totally useless.

  • The problem is, I don’t care about Clara’s mystery because she doesn’t *do* a whole lot so she’s not that interesting. She needs to be an interesting character first and a mystery second.

  • But she isn’t a companion in the usual sence. He’s trying to solve a mystery about her. When all is eventually revealed she will probably just settle in to the companion slot. & I agree that dragging kids along is a bit too CBBBC for me. She could just call their bluff & tell them to tell the parents she’s a time traveller, perhaps she will.

  • This episode really solidified something that’s been bothering me for this entire half-season: Clara doesn’t feel like a companion. She feels like a passenger. She isn’t being written with the same agency in the stories as previous companions have, she’s just sort of along for the ride.

    This is bad, and needs to be fixed.

  • Diarra, it’s common for prominent critics to get episodes for various series days or weeks ahead of time. They are called screeners. Given Chris’s connection to BBCAmerica, no doubt they gave some to his site’s reviewers too. Thus the quick review.

    it’s nothing unusual, just how it all normally works.

    Anyway I thought this was the worst of the new batch of episodes. Diana Rigg did her part well as she always does, and I love Clara but the rest was pretty dire.

  • I thought this episode, and all of the episodes with the Victorian crime solvers, felt like a Sarah Jane episode, and the next one, with the kids, certainly feels like one too. This one strangely felt like the old Doctor Who to me at times, too. I wish they’d do some hour and a half shows like the old stories, the 45 minute ones just seem too American-action-showy a lot of the time. And the Doctor’s need to make one person or family’s life better every episode, like he did by convincing Ada everything wasn’t her fault, or straightening out everything with the brothers in the last show, is getting a bit too self-important for me.

  • In regards to the review being up so quick I wouldn’t be supripsed if he caught the MEDIA early in his chrome browser and that’s a HINT. Five hours early for the win..

  • “Trouble at Mill” isn’t strictly a Monty Python reference. It’s a general Northern UK reference, as it’s the home of the Industrial Revolution, originating from a kitchen sink drama called “Inheritance.”

  • The crowning moment for me came when Jenny stripped off her Victorian garb to reveal a black outfit that was an almost exact twin of the outfit the Diana Rigg wore as Emma Peel in the Avengers series. Then Jenny employed some Emma Peel moves and made quick work of some minions. That was incredible.

  • I have to say, this is possibly my favorite episode of this half of the season so far. And any episode that makes me utter, out loud, “No, oh no! Oh- OH FUCK!” while I’m by myself (which really happened when Mrs. Gillyflower reveals Mr. Sweet on her bosom) is a good episode in my book.

  • @Ben Adams

    Regardless of the explanation(which I got, since I own a TomTom GPS) it was still a really poor joke. The rest of the episode was rather great fun though, with the larger appearances from Jenny and Strax being welcome.

  • Regarding the kid .. . you got the pun, right? He was like a walking navigation system, and his name was Thomas Thomas . . . or TomTom, which I believe is the UK’s leading brand of navsat.