This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
The Crimson Horror
For the second time in this current run of Doctor Who series 7 episodes, Mark Gatiss has delivered an episode that blends together the tone and feel of different eras of the show. Set in 1893, The Crimson Horror mixes in elements of horror, period detective story, humour and science fiction, that – effects aside – feels like it could have sat as easily in the 70s as the modern run. The resultant episode is a fun one.
Interestingly, it’s an episode where the Doctor and Clara aren’t in it much, too. For large parts, they’re part of the mystery here, rather than the ones actively trying to solve it.
Back when Doctor Who ran in a continuous 13-episode run (it seems a long time ago now), it became traditional for a Doctor-lite episode to feature, ostensibly to help lighten the load and demands on the leading man. The series split we’ve had for the past two runs seems to make it less of a necessity, so it was a bit of a surprise to see it here. That said, it may not be a production demand in this instance, rather that it suited the story that Mark Gatiss wanted to tell.
Whatever the reason, after the Doctor’s image appears reflected in the eye of victim immediately before their death, we don’t see him for a good quarter of an hour this week, and not as often as usual after that. That said, there’s still enough Doctor and Clara here to service the story, as by the end we effectively end up with five characters trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on in Sweetville.
The other three? They’re accounted for by the welcome return of Jenny, Strax and Madame Vastra, science fiction’s finest, and most unusual detective agency (it would be remiss not to include our usual request for a spin-off series, so here it is. Please). Usually, it’s Strax the comedy Sontaran and Vastra who take the lead amongst the trio. This time, though, it’s Jenny who turns lead detective, and it’s welcome step into the limelight for Catrin Stewart. She’s at the heart of some of the key detective work here, although Vastra keeps herself busy as well. Strax, meanwhile? In an episode not short of light touches and humour, his dialogue is fused with potent chortle fuel.
The story, then. The basics of the core mystery are that people are being discovered, coated in red, seemingly victims of the ‘Crimson Horror’. Given that we’re in the 1890s, superstition and fear is rife, rather than people instantly looking for a strange old woman with a poisonous venom. And that paves the way for the appearance of Winifred Gillyflower.
Gillyflower, after we’ve met her pre-credits, is soon preaching the joys of Sweetville, a mill that’s an apparent respite from the incoming apocalypse and ongoing moral decay of, er, late 19th century Yorkshire. Gillyflower is played, as had been widely known beforehand, by geek icon Dame Diana Rigg, and wisely, Gatiss’ script gives her a reasonable amount of screentime. She’s good value for it too, not least the scenes she shares with her real life daughter, Rachael Stirling, who herself is on fine form. We hope they get on better in real life.
Behind the doors of Sweetville is a lot of smoke and mirrors, sound effects over substance, and posh-looking gramophone type things belching out industrial noises. So while at first glance it all appears a bit Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Sweetville has more lethal secrets behind its doors (although Augustus Gloop may disagree). By the time they’re solved, we’ve had Clara proving herself to be a decent detective, the sonic screwdriver usurped by a chair, and the requisite amount of northern gags required to generate at least one letter to Points Of View.
It’s a good, solid story this. Granted, it’s the structure of many a Who adventure to peel back a seemingly idyllic scenario and find something far more sinister behind the covers (you can’t beat a bit of Delta And The Bannermen). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, though. Here, Gatiss gathers together a bunch of entertaining characters, and gives most of them a sufficient amount to do. As a bonus, you get Matt Smith tackling a Yorkshire accent. If the Tetley Tea Folk ever come back to prominence, there’s a voiceover gig waiting for him right there.
Rigg is, as mentioned early, on good form in her villanous guest role. The part of Gillyflower, though, arguably brings a religious subtext back into play here, just as there apparently was in the The Rings Of Akhaten. Or maybe, not for the first time, we’re looking at this a bit too closely. We’d best move on.
One real highlight of The Crimson Horror was the way that the backstory of Gillyflower was relayed. It’s an exquisite sequence, which director Saul Metzstein adopts a grainy, old-style approach to put across. Here, we learn that nobody seems to return from Gillyflower’s mill, as it turns out – unsurprisingly – that she’s behind the Crimson Horror of the episode’s title. Using a lot of red gloopy stuff from the production department (no wonder Matt Smith isn’t in this one much: that stuff looks a sod to wash off), she preserves the best people, drops the rest in the canal, and attempts to do the bidding of Mr Sweet. It’s a lot of exposition in a short space of time, and it’s really well done.
Less successful? Well, built up to for most of the episode, the reveal of Mr Sweet didn’t really feel too impactful, with the creature living under Dame Diana’s top coming across oddly cute if anything. That may have been the intention, although when Ada smashes the thing to smithereens, Mr Sweet’s chances of landing a return visit to Doctor Who became a bit moot anyway.
There’s some broader Who stuff running through here as well, even though The Crimson Horror feels a bit more standlone. Given that we’ve not seen Strax, Vastra and Jenny since The Snowmen, there’s the small matter of Clara’s death to discuss, although we get no progress in uncoverering her mystery. Longer term Who fans might well appreciate the reference to Tegan that pops up though, as the Doctor recalls trying to drop an Australian at Heathrow Airport. Happy days.
The ending is worth a quick chat as well. Clara’s back at the home where we found her in The Bells Of Saint John (don’t forget, there’s still the mystery as to why there was a portrait of her back in the 1200s at the start of that episode). Most notably, the two children who she looks after have discovered her secret: her ‘boyfriend’ is a time traveller. Where’s that going to lead, we wonder? Is the Doctor about to get two pint-sized companions, or will it affect Clara’s approach to her travels? We’ve only got two episodes to find out.
The Crimson Horror was the 100th Doctor Who episode since the show returned to our screens in 2005 (thanks to Blogtor Who for the heads up on that), and perhaps it’s an indication of how much we take the show for granted that this one felt entertaining, but not fighting its way onto a list of episodes you’d necessarily regularly rewatch. That’s a crowded list already, to be fair, but if The Crimson Horror wasn’t a series high, it’s still a good, fun instalment. Frequently funny, yet with really dark moments (not least the revelations about Ada), it also left us thinking that it’d be good if Diana Rigg could be lured back again at some point, too. It would not be compulsory to bring the little red fella with her.
Next week? Can Neil Gaiman make the cybermen scary again, with Nightmare In Silver? After The Doctor’s Wife, It’s not just us looking forward to finding out…
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