• 18th May 2013 • Review by Julian Hazeldine •
Fx: Body falls to the floor
GENTLEMAN: Let me through! I’m a doctor; I specialise in fainting!
Fx: Body falls to the floor
SEAGOON: So he does.
-Robin’s Post, by Spike Milligan
After the first half of Series 7B, competent enough save for sophomore slump but lacking in spark, The Crimson Horror arrives like a bolt of lightning. Mixing arch social commentary with a restoration of the programme’s sense of fun, this out & out comedy proves completely riveting, with enough unexpected turns to prove just as satisfying when repeat viewings lack the shock of the new.
It’s impossible to imagine any Doctor Who fan disliking Mark Gatiss. A brilliant and dedicated ambassador for the programme, the Renaissance man has not allowed his glittering career outside of the show to interfere with a constant string of projects involving the Doctor, from his early work with Virgin Publishing to his scripts for Big Finish, and more recently his regular contributions to the revived series. For all that, though, his stories for the televised programme have often failed to gel. Alongside the thoroughly successful Unquiet Dead and the fun-if-flawed Victory of the Darleks, we have The Idiot’s Lantern and Night Terrors, both crippled by some tin-eared characterisation. In particular, Gatiss seems to have a weakness concerning his ‘villainous’ characters, with the resultant figures often looking like escapees from an episode of Chucklevision. Cold War continued this mix of competent storytelling with shadow persona drama, which makes the sudden leap seen in The Crimson Horror such an unexpected and startling delight.
What makes the pieces fall into place shouldn’t be such a surprise in retrospect. The writer’s breakout success was his part in the black humour of The League of Gentlemen, and it’s firmly in this mould that he gives Doctor Who an all-time classic. The same shallowness of character lingers, but is hard to view as a failing when gripped by uncontrollable laughter at Mrs Gillyflower’s missile-launching Wurlitzer. Such a splicing of Victorian period drama with Bond-villain campery sums up the episode entirely, with Gatiss’s borrowing the plot of Moonraker (the novel, not the film) a perfect way of acknowledging his debits and intentions.
The genius of the episode lies in the continual subverting of expectations. As viewers, we smugly watch as Jenny unlocks the door to what we are confident is a horrific monster, only for her to stumble upon the Doctor instead. The ghoulish mortuary attendant finds his attempts at building the legend of The Crimson Horror undercut firstly by a grieving brother and then by a surprised Silurian. We’re constantly waiting to meet the sinister Mr Sweet, mastermind of the whole nightmare, only to find a mute grub that contributed only secretions of poison; the scheme was Gillyflower’s after all.
The writer’s sure grip on the Vastra trio comes as no surprise given his Lucifer Box novels, the mock-Victorian campery of which proves a better grounding for the characters than Steven Moffat’s slightly strained Sherlock Holmes analogies in The Snowmen. The decision to bring Jenny to the fore proves timely as well as economical, with reduced screen time for the fully-prostatic Vastra and Strax presumably allowing for the large number of settings shown in this lavish episode. Strax may be a one-joke character, but as many have observed, it’s a joke that keeps on being funny, with his threats to his horse a particular highlight. Equally successful is the inspired decision to have Vastra be the figure who explains Mr Sweet’s origins, allowing her to keep her status as the senior figure in her entourage and to give a sense of grandeur to the threat that would be lacking if the Doctor had suddenly recognised the leach as an alien species.
The only slightly disappointing element of Gatiss’s creation is Ada. Rachel Stirling is clearly having a ball acting alongside her mother, but while her cane-based mannerisms initially help establish the tone, they soon come to look overdone, and literally slow the story down. In terms of the standard architecture of the series, the writer sadly inherits Series 7B’s standing problem; Clara Oswald. Many fans have been sat on the fence since the arrival of the ‘true’ version of the character in The Bells of Saint John, but for me, The Crimson Horror was the moment when I felt compelled to give the thumbs down. Jenna Louise-Coleman is a talented and likeable actress; her earlier showings even in this very programme are magnificently entertaining. Modern-day Clara, however, just feels a hollow and unsatisfying creation, lacking in texture and believable quirks. With her story arc being heavily orientated towards what she is, there seems to have been little thought given to who she is. The half of the programme when Clara is off-screen is simply more fun.
The episode’s moral heft comes from a message more universal than the parodying of Victorian philanthropy would suggest. The Doctor’s “Attack of the supermodels” quip is no accident, showing how the straight-faced Puritanism and fascistic undertones reach beyond the jam & Jerusalem trappings. Admittedly, the Victorian setting does add a lot to the message, with some subtle barbs. Gatiss’s selection of Mrs Gillyflower’s business as match production is obviously no considering the agonising deformities that phosphorous poisoning afflicted on those who worked in that sector. The preservation of Gillyflower’s chosen in bell jars more than hints at the period’s disturbing-in-retrospect fascination with taxidermy; the only way that some of its members could force nature to live up to their perfectly posed ideals. The script skilfully keeps these undertones bubbling away, coming to the surface in the Gillyflower’s final battle cry. In dismissing our beloved heroes as ‘freaks’, she makes clear her xenophobia, no longer hidden behind the antimacassars.
On repeat viewings, it’s the little moments of inspiration that leap out. Vastra’s front door resembling the TARDIS. The sepia-tingled flashbacks, and the freeze-frame snapshots which add so much to the tone. The wrong hands! Gatiss’ perfectly-judged script and Saul Metzstein’s bountiful imagination combine to produce a whole of quite staggering richness. Victorian values may have taken a kicking, but this is a golden age I’ll be returning to for some time.