Wow, series 7 of Doctor Who is going by fast! Episode 12/14, now. I really am starting to miss the two-parter episodes we have become accustomed to for the last 7 years. It’s difficult to explain why, but I really think the series is suffering because of their absence; it’s like there’s no place to benchmark where we are on what’s happening, and instead there’s a random stream of sharp, rushed stories. Generally good stories, sure, but… Hm. I found out this morning that The Crimson Horror only got around 4.6 million overnight views which, while still promising over 6m views with the timeshift, is undeniably a decline. I’ve never approved of head-writer Steven Moffat’s manic obsession for ratings, giving episodes, in his words, ‘slutty’ but irrelevant titles like Let’s Kill Hitler, or his admission that getting rid of two-parters is purely to increase views, rather than to increase the quality of the show. So I suppose I’m gleaming some savage, “I told you so” pleasure in seeing this happen, though I dearly hope the show won’t lose too much popularity.
Rant aside, episode 12 by Mark Gatiss, The Crimson Horror, looked set to be an interesting but conventional addition to the series. Gatiss is not known for his groundbreaking ambitionwhen writing scripts, but I should have learnt after Hide not to put an episode down as ‘dull’. It’s directed by Saul Metzstein, who has proven his abilities by directing several well-made episodes of Doctor Who over the last year, including The Snowmen – so no worries there. It also sees the return of the Doctor’s Victorian Gang, comprised of Silurian Madam Vastra, her wife Jenny and the Sontaran Strax, who are always entertaining.
I must admit, Gatiss surprised me with this one. This has to be one of the scariest episodes I have watched in a long time. So many terrors: the red, semi-frozen creaky people; people getting forcibly dipped into red goo; the grotesque ‘Mr Sweet’ attached to Mrs Gillyflower’s chest… The episode made my shudder so many times. There’s an interesting contrast of horror and comedy which Doctor Who does so well, blown up to the extremes here. For every moment of intense horror there’s a joke (“Horse! You have failed in your mission!” … A satnav-boy called ‘Thomas Thomas’, etc) and it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the two hardly contrast at all. One aspect of the tone which may have let the episode down slightly was its tendency to go over the top at times – Mrs Gillyflower’s pantomime performance: “DIE!! DIE!!!” for instance. Not a huge detractor, but was a little distracting. It was also interesting to see a return to “human on human” violence. There was nothing very graphic, but having Ada batter her mother with her cane or Mrs Gillyflower firing at the Doctor twice with a revolver felt very odd. Not wrong, but odd. Humans being nasty to each other was a common feature of the ‘Classic Series’, but it’s mostly been replaced by ‘fantasy violence’ in the newer series. Mark Gatiss has said that out of all the episodes he’s written, this feels the most “him”, and you can tell.
Some people have criticised the decision to spend roughly the first half the episode centered around Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax, but I don’t have a problem with it. It was nice to see more of Jenny’s character, who has in the past been sidelined by her stranger friends. Perhaps the Doctor and Clara got caught too easily in Mrs Gillyflower’s plans, but I like that he has a safety net of friends to help him out just in case. The villain’s plot was a bit bizarre – wiping out humanity with an ancient parasite and then replacing them with biologically perfect “Adams and Eve.” It’s a common idea in science fiction, but is written creatively. I quite enjoyed hearing Mrs Gillyflower invent fascism 30 years early – even referring to a Golden Dawn. And I liked the idea of the… Octogram, was it? Having the corpses’ eyes recording images was a clever way to quickly advance the plot. The setting in general works well, feeling the most authentic ‘Victorian episode’ we’ve had for a while. I enjoyed hearing the grand variety of accents, from the Northerners who populated most of the episode, to Jenny’s London tones, Vastra’s Scots and Strax’s Welsh. The plan was a bit easily defeated, which is kind of understandable when you consider that Mrs Gillyflower has simply become a mad old woman with an intelligent leach, though for all her earlier successes in planning I’d have thought the team might have found stopping her a bit more challenging once they had got going. But these are really tiny niggles.
The mystery of Clara is continuing to be mentioned. I do like the low-key way it gets brought up, although we’re getting very little development. It’s hinted that the Doctor intended to take her to Victorian London to see how she reacts, which shows he is still unceasingly trying to figure out, but we’re not getting any more clues. We don’t need more clues, but every time she gets brought up we’re getting the same “dunno who she is” response. This is meant to infuriate the Doctor, so perhaps this irritation I’m feeling is also intentional? Builds excitement for the finalé…
The characters were all very entertaining in The Crimson Horror. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman great as usual, and the trio of Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart were very entertaining. I found some of Strax’s lines, although humorously performed, a bit repetitive, and I’m still waiting for an explanation regarding his lack of death. Oh well. Mother and daughter team Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling were performed well in their roles. Rigg sold the part of the “nuts” Gillyflower, and Stirling’s performance brought such a rawness of suffering which added to the moments of horror. I can’t recall the last time a character has convincingly suffered so much in the show. Honourable mention goes to the man in the morgue, whose nonplussed response to Freaky Red Corpses verging on amusement made for many laughable moments.
As expected, Metzstein’s direction was highly skilled. I was awed in the first seconds alone by that shot rising up above the terraces, revealing Victorian Yorkshire into view. He’s created a tense, atmospheric episode that gave me many genuine scares. And other little touches, like the slow pan-out to huge industrial noises, only to subvert the viewer’s expectations by revealing a trio of huge gramophones. There were many lovely surreal touches, including the ‘Adams and Eves’ inside glasses attached to pumps. Oh, and that flashback scene! The colours went sepia tone, grains appeared and the audio became muffled. Made absolutely no sense but I loved it as a storytelling device; it really set the scene.
All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable episode, and by far the best piece of writing I have ever seen Mark Gatiss produce. I’m looking forward to seeing the team back in the season finalé, The Name of the Doctor. And Cybermen next week, written by Neil Gaiman… Hopefully this series will go out with a bang.
Final rating: 8.5/10