On first seeing the trailer for this week’s episode, The Crimson Horror, Penny from The Big Bang Theory popped into my head with that line about Doctor Who always ending up in Victorian Britain despite having a time machine that can go anywhere. I had that same ‘Here we go again’ feeling, further compounded by the thought that this was going to be one of those seemingly throw-away genre episodes like The Curse of the Black Spot. When I found out it was Mark Gatiss at the motherboard I had mixed feelings; love his dark comedy writings but then there’s The Idiot’s Lantern, one of my least favourite episodes. My disappointment lay in the knowledge that here’s a man who knows how to write ‘dark’ extremely well and yet seemed to be a holding back. I know you can’t dish the kids up a helping of The League of Gentlemen in a Blue Box - not unless you can also afford their counselling sessions – but still, it felt like a swig of diluted Mark Gatiss.
Not so The Crimson Horror, which was like Mark Gatiss concentrate. Now here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to enthuse for a bit, sometimes gushingly so, and then I’m not. Just so you know. Anyway, The Crimson Horror was pure Gatiss, combining his love for Doctor Who with that of Hammer films and Sherlock Holmes – the title itself is not only reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation but it also brings to mind the Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls.’ His fascination with Victorian England is one that lingers on the grotesque, very much like David Lynch’s in The Elephant
The scene where Man. ’s scars are revealed to a gasping
audience is, it appears, a direct nod to the film. Ada
Setting the episode in the Victorian north rather than the usual
locations proved to be an inspired
touch as not only did we get Matt Smith’s Doctor busting out his northern
accent but the obsession with moral perfection, so prevalent in the Industrial
Revolution’s northern factory communities, contrasted beautifully with the
grotesque. The hypocrisy of those demanding such moral perfection was,
thankfully, subtly explored through the relationship between London and her breathtakingly insane mother,
Winifred Gillyflower, played by off-screen mother and daughter, Diana Rigg and
Rachael Stirling. Ada
On hearing that this episode had been tailored to allow mother and daughter to appear on screen together for the first time I had my misgivings (I get a lot of those. Does it show? Let’s call it Moffatitus), as that being the motivating force behind a story can result in the whole venture feeling a little too forced. It transpires, however, that they were slotted into an already existing story, and a ripping good yarn it was.
Beginning the episode with the Doctor in need of rescuing felt like a fresh approach and added to the growing sense that the Doctor is vulnerable; an invincible, undefeatable Doctor doesn’t really work for me, it’s the Superman syndrome, the character becomes a bit boring. Having the Doctor be the Hammer Horror ‘beast in the cellar’ hooked me; a masterful bit of storytelling. It wasn’t only the writing that won through here though; the flashback scene really intrigued me for the reason that it was so risky. For a moment it jolted me out of the story, the sepia look and the damaged-celluloid effects felt too affected, but then the pace and editing had me hooked again and I ended up wishing that the show would take more risks. I believe a shout out is due to Director, Saul Metzstein, and Film Editor, Matthew Cannings, for this.
Overall The Crimson Horror proved to be hugely entertaining. It was fun. It was also genuinely funny. The scene with Strax talking to the horse and the Doctor’s Pythonesque‘trouble at mill’ northern facade were very funny, as was the Doctor’s reference to Tegan as a ‘gobby Australian’ – following this up with the Doctor calling Clara ‘Brave heart Clara’, another Tegan nod, left me wondering if we now know who Mark Gatiss’ favourite companion is. Mr. Sweet was both hysterical and repulsive; calling him Mr. Sweet was genius and resulted in some wonderfully absurd dialogue. The whole Hammer Horror feel took me back to when I were a nipper – sorry, couldn’t resist – and BBC2 used to show a late-night Saturday horror movie double bill. Diana Rigg delivered a spectacularly mad and unrepentant villainess, and the inclusion of Strax, Vastra and Jenny from The Snowmen worked well, thankfully avoiding the saccharine commraderie-cliches that usually accompany such team-ups.
But then it all went horribly wrong, or least threatened to. Clara returns home to find that the children she is looking after have discovered she’s a time traveller through the eye-rollingly coincidental discovery of conveniently posed photos from all her adventures. No, really, it’s OK, I can make this square peg fit into this round hole, don’t worry. All I need is a hammer and a chainsaw. Look! It fits! The whole thing felt forced and I could feel my Moffatitus playing up again. A couple of wise-cracking kids in the TARDIS? Please, no. I sense that there may indeed be ‘trouble at mill.’