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"The Crimson Horror" and a Return to Old-School "Doctor Who" Form

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV Reviews | May 8, 2013 | Comments ()


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Strengthened by the return of the mystery-solving trio of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, "The Crimson Horror" stands out as one of the best episodes of the season and certainly the strongest of the television episodes penned by Doctor Who jack-of-all-trades Mark Gatiss. It might be filled with preposterousness, but it's the sort of goofy fun that represents this program at its best.

The Doctor and Clara take a trip to 1893 Yorkshire, where they discover mysterious crimson-tinged corpses, victims of a crazy cult preparing for the apocalypse led by Mrs. Gillyflower (Dame Diana Rigg, making the most of genre scenery-chewing by appearing in my two favorite currently airing shows -- the other of course being Game Of Thrones). Gillyflower is attempting to preserve the most ideal specimens of the human race by perfecting use of a red poison produced by an ancient Earth parasite. Her candidates will develop an immunity and will be left in stasis, while the rest of the planet's population will be infected and die, or such is her plan.

To infiltrate Gillyflower's community of Sweetville, The Doctor and Clara pose as applicants, not knowing that the application process simply consists of exposure to the poison. Clara is preserved in stasis for the coming apocalypse, while The Doctor's Time Lord anatomy keeps him alive but left crimson and mostly immobile. Fortunately for him, Mrs. Gillyflower's blind daughter Ada (Rachael Stirling - Diana Rigg's real-life daughter) rescues him and leaves him imprisoned in chains as her secret pet "monster."

Vastra, Jenny, and Strax investigate Sweetville after the crimson corpse of a man that was helping The Doctor turns up with the image of The Doctor imprinted on his eye as the final sight before death, a side effect enabled by the nature of the toxin. Vastra recognizes the symptoms of the crimson horror as belonging to a plague that attacked her fellow Silurians millions of years prior.

Jenny infiltrates the community and is able to free The Doctor, who reverses his condition using his sonic screwdriver and machinery on the premises. The story effectively makes use of in media res, as The Doctor's reveal as a prisoner does not happen immediately, and the earlier inquiry by The Doctor and Clara is told in an entertainingly stylistic montage flashback.

The Doctor and Jenny are confronted by Mrs. Gillyflower's minions, and Jenny shows off her combat skills, holding them off long enough for Strax and Vastra to arrive and frighten them away. The Doctor finds Clara and restores her to healthy condition, although both Vastra and Jenny express confusion over how it is that the same Clara they met during the events of "The Snowmen" would still be alive. The Doctor does not elaborate on the situation for them.

The Doctor and Clara confront Mrs. Gillyflower and learn that "Mr. Sweet" is the evolved version of the old Silurian parasite, and this giant red worm is living in symbiosis with her, attached to her chest. Her plan is to launch a rocket loaded with the toxin into the atmosphere. The Doctor reveals that her blinded daughter Ada must have been a victim of her experiments, and Ada does not take this news well. Mrs. Gillyflower sees her daughter as disposable and takes her hostage. The rocket is rendered useless by Strax, Vastra, and Jenny, who steal its toxin payload before launch, and Mrs. Gillyflower falls to her doom in a firefight with Strax. Ada kills the fleeing parasite Mr. Sweet with her cane and pledges to make a happy life for herself.

The Doctor takes Clara for a visit back home, where she learns that the kids have found pictures of their nanny apparently time-traveling, and they demand a go at it, ensuring that next week's Neil Gaiman intergalactic theme park and Cyberman episode will include these children in the mix.

The use of Vastra, Strax, and Jenny reminds me a little of The X-Files' "Lone Gunmen," Frohike, Byers, and Langly. I do hope the show continues to bring them back occasionally in the future. They provide a convenient militant means for dealing with The Doctor's enemies that he would never employ, Strax's eager-for-combat humor is a nice touch, and Vastra and Jenny are fine examples for marriage equality all the way back in the Victorian age. It strains credibility to have this crew of three working as visibly as they do, but the gag works precisely because it is so outlandish and silly. The recurring fainting gag of the proper English gentleman seeing Vastra, Strax, and finally the TARDIS is cute.

Diana Riggs' aforementioned scenery chewing is another highlight; it's no surprise that she creates a memorable villain that revels in her lunacy and flaunts her charismatic leadership.

There was no progress on the Clara mystery this week, other than to remind us that it still exists. That's OK, as this was a pleasantly diverting stand-alone episode with a creative structure and a plot that brings to mind the Doctor Who days of old. Speaking of the days of classic Who, I particularly appreciated the reference to companion Tegan Jovanka from the days of Tom Baker and Peter Davison. There are two more episodes to go in the season, and I shall return to report on them!

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"If she hasn't made contact by nightfall, I suggest a massive frontal assault on the factory, madam. Casualties can be kept at perhaps as little as eighty percent."
"I think there may be subtler ways of proceeding, Strax."

"I once spent a helluva long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport."
"What for?"
"Search me."

"Horse, you have failed in your mission. We are lost with no sign of Sweetville. Do you have any final words before your summary execution."
*neigh* *whinny*

"Strax, you're overexcited. Have you been eating Miss Jenny's sherbet fancies again?"

"I'm The Doctor, you're nuts, and I'm going to stop you."

"Mrs. Gillyflower, you have no idea what you are dealing with. In the wrong hands, that venom could wipe out all life on this planet."
"Do you know what these are?" *holds out her hands, laughs delightedly* "The wrong hands!"

"You hag! You perfidious hag! You virago! You harpy!"

"Forgive me, my child. Forgive me."
"Never."
"That's my girl!"

"What will you do with that thing?"
"Take it back to the Jurassic era maybe, out of harm's way."
*puncture* *squish* *thwak* *thwak* *thwak* *squish* *thwak* *thwak* *thwak*

***********

Aside: Want to see an old sketch with Mark Gatiss' comedic turn playing The Doctor himself?

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Classic Doctor Who Bonus:

This week I revisited the Tom Baker adventure "Horror Of Fang Rock," the only other serial with "horror" in the title. The Doctor and Leela lose their way in the TARDIS and end up next to an early twentieth century fog-shrouded lighthouse under attack by a mysterious alien force. The story moves a little slowly particularly at the beginning, but it has the distinctions of Baker's Doctor's grinning assertiveness, Leela's knife-wielding viciousness, and an unusually high body count for the supporting characters to live up to the title. In the second half, it takes a turn akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers / The Thing.

If you're interested in Leela's costuming, this is one of the two adventures in which she is not wearing her usual revealing (for Doctor Who) outfit. This was also the episode that ended with an incident (Leela's temporary blindness) that was included in order to allow her to give up her uncomfortable brown contact lenses and display her natural blue eye color going forward.

C. Robert Dimitri might faint at the sight of Vastra, Strax, and the TARDIS too, but only out of excited anticipation for a potential adventure.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • vic

    Liked Matt Smith's Northern accent, and nothing else. Also, did no else think the Doctor was more than a little patronizing to virtually every woman on the show this week?

  • Haystacks

    The Clara season has been a loss for me so far, at this point I am bored with the mystery and want a Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax spinoff. That would make me so so happy

  • BWeaves

    Seconded.

  • BWeaves

    I loved this episode. It was more along the lines of the campy classic Whos.
    Yeah, it made no sense, but do any of them?

    1. My favorite lesbian lizard lady, her kickass katsuited Emma Peel wannabee parlour maid, and their NRA card carrying Sontaran butler. "I'll just go play with my granades."

    2. Crazy ass Dame Diana Rigg and her daughter playing crazy ass Dame Diana Rigg and her daughter. Perfect. And Cheesy.

    3. I'm not sure how the Doctor cured himself and Clara with a closet and a sonic screwdriver.

    4. The recurring fainting gentleman.

    5. The fun and the bad puns and the call outs to previous Doctor's companions.

    6. It wasn't all about Clara, although there was a tie in to the Christmas episode.

    7. I liked the flashbacks being done in a style of old deteriorated film.

    8. Who knows how the kids got photos of Clara time travelling, but I'm always surprised what pops up when I Google myself, so who knows.

  • Milly

    All of that up there, I liked it.

  • Morgan_LaFai

    3. I am pretty sure he turned the closet into a sauna and sweated the toxins out.

  • janetfaust

    I too liked this episode. Very fun. I love Vastra, Jenny & Strax - I like to think of them as the Doctor Who version of Charlie's Angels. One note - Clara did see a picture of "herself" in 1893 London, not Yorkshire, as the kids assure her. So she sees the reality of what the Doctor told her last week (I think it was last week), that he has met versions of her before. I did wonder how the kids found those pictures though.

  • Tinkerville

    Except she doesn't remember the Doctor ever telling her that, so she doesn't understand yet what that picture means.

  • janetfaust

    Oh yeah, I forgot her memory of that is gone. My bad.

  • bleujayone

    1. I would have preferred if this story were more centric around Vastra, Jenny & Strax with the Doctor only showing up at the very end in much the same way the (10th) Doctor was mostly absent from "Blink" and "Turn Left" aka "a Doctor Who Lite story" It would have been better if the three of them did all the heavy lifting and freed the Doctor and Clara at the very end....as it was they still did all the important stuff, but were denied the up front glory.

    2. If the Doctor landed in a time and place where he had access to allies- especially after something VERY out of place popped up, why didn't he call V,J&S as back-up in the first place? Did he just assume it was something harmless or was he just showing off to Clara?

    3. I liked Jenny's catsuit. It was very reminiscent of Emma Peel's Avengers outfit in a 19th century way. It also showed all the more that she's more than just a sneak-thief, she really can look after herself.

    4. I know it's going to happen to all of us, but I was really bummed out to see Diana Rigg so....old. And while make-up has made her look that much older. I know they didn't use THAT much of it. Uma Thuman, Mimi Rogers and Elizabeth Hurley might be able to duplicate the look, but there will only ever be one Emma Peel, eve if the sands of time have taken her away.

    5. Staying on the subject, if Rigg's Gillyflower chewed any more scenery she'd have pooped toothpicks for a month. Simply being "nuts" isn't enough real motivation. I was rather hoping there was going to be something more primitive as her motivation. Maybe the offer of eternal youth. In any event, if she were a man, I'd have expected some mustache twirling.

    6. By comparison, I thought Rachael Stirling performance as Ada hit it out of the park with her performance. I really did feel her expressing pain and loneliness. I think she knew long before her mother said so, t hat there would be no place for her in her mother's new world and the anguish she showed after being told as much was palpable as was the rage she had when told her blindness and scarring her from her mother using her a s a guinea pig rather than at her father's abuse (which might not have even existed in the first place).

    7. You mean to tell me that between the Doctor, Vastra with her knowledge of this creature and Strax with his battlefield medic skills that have already shown to be on par with modern medical doctors, not one of them could even make an attempt to repair the damage done to Ada in any way? Not even the scars?

    8. I didn't mind that "Mr.Sweet" was cutesy. I would have liked a blending of two voices when Gillyflower final showed it being a suckling parasite. There needed to be some indication of how the two were communicating. And I would have really liked to have seen how these two shacked up and something dangerous about it other than the venom it secreted. To me, it just reminded me of the "space herpe" from the movie "Ice Pirates".

    9. I still cannot believe the Doctor would even consider taking "Mr. Sweet" back in time where it could just live to cause more damage again. Ada beating it to death with her cane was not only expected, but I think it was earned in light of all the pain it caused.

    10. Unless the Great Intelligence somehow fed the information to Clara's nanny kids. How in the hell did they find what was undoubtedly classified photos of Clara on a Soviet submarine, of her "ghosthunting" and a picture of her doppelganger in the past? I mean how did these kids even go about looking about for this stuff? It's not like they were looking for things about the Doctor. And it's not like these pictures would be filed under Clara's name. I might believe it if Clara put the pictures up on just her laptop alone after each adventure and the kids just happened upon that particular computer- but it still wouldn't explain the picture from "The Snowmen" and when did anyone have time to take pictures anyway?

    11. Kind of a silly nitpick, but Jenny's queue-mate Abigail (the one with less than perfect teeth) Did in fact look like she had perfect teeth but just had a look one might have after eating half a bag of Oreos. I know there's much more convincing make-up effects out there that are dirt cheap. All I wanted to do was offer this girl a glass of milk.

    Here's hoping the money they've been squirreling away to upgrade the Cybermen is put to good use.

  • BWeaves

    11. Good, I wasn't the only one who thought she'd eaten either dirt or a bag of Oreos.

    Then again Mr. Sweet was one puppet away from a Troughton era Cybermat.

  • Milly

    C.Rob - Have you ever watched Gatiss' in anything else? I'm not referring to Sherlock, but to the indescribable 'The League of Gentlemen' (more particularly the series of the same name).

    If a Who episode was ever written in the same vein as that, I doubt it would ever be produced.

  • periwinkled

    I loved this episode. I love it when we get fantastic fun one-shots, and I thought it had just the right amount of silliness. The only thing I wasn't thrilled with, honestly, was the Tom Tom gag, which seemed dated.

    And I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought the trio was reminiscent of the Lone Gunmen!

  • DataAngel

    How much would I rather have Jenny as a Companion instead of Clara?

    A ... lot. Like, a lot-lot. Like. Completely.

  • NateMan

    I think that would be an interesting idea. As much as I liked Clara's first appearances, I'm finding her a bit too 'twee' in the actual series. She's stunning, she's a good actress. I'm just not as in love with her as I expected her to be.

  • DataAngel

    That's it exactly. She's cute. She's cheeky. She's smart! She's mysterious! She's too "perfect".

    Clara's written and acted like there's some inside joke that the viewer is supposed to get. I keep expecting her to play to the camera, with asides and winks in a "ho ho ho we've got this one over the Doctor, haven't we". She's too... actory.

    Jenny's cute, cheeky, smart, strong, confident, and totally competent and a lot more "honest". She's a real woman. She's a real person and Clara is just a character.

  • Tinkerville

    Precisely. I'm having the exact same feeling about Clara. I loved her first two episodes and was thrilled that she was becoming the new companion. Now? She seems to lack everything that made her capable and interesting in Asylum and Snowmen, and is behaving far more like a "cutesy companion archetype" instead of an actual developed person. I'm still holding my breath for a turnaround with her since I think Jenna Louise Coleman's clearly capable of doing great things.

  • NateMan

    Also: She talks FAR too fast. I get like one word in 3, even sober.

  • Drake

    Well, I thought this was a very fine episode, and as noted by C-Rob, included all my favorite elements of campiness, a wonderfully hammy villain, bad special effects, and lots of running (or lurching, from the Doctor, pre-restoration). My favorite episode of the season so far too (although I fully expect next week to jump to the top).

  • NateMan

    After a day of doing serious heavy lifting and yard work, I got stoned to make my back pain go away and then watched this episode. That was a bit of a mistake, as I apparently picked the most wonky Doctor Who episode ever to watch high. I had no idea what was going on. The weird scene shifts, the incredible quantity of exposition, strange camera angles. I thought it was me, but my entirely sober wife confirmed it was weird as shit. I liked it. I think. But I'm really not sure.

  • McSquish

    Did anyone else notice the absolutely dreadful Tom Tom product placement? Thomas Thomas my ass.

  • Milly

    It was fun. Why shouldn't there be a time for fun and groan inducing gags on the telly on Saturday teatime?

  • BabyBearStrikesAgain

    My husband's reaction to that scene "I hate myself for laughing at this"

  • NateMan

    I didn't get it. But that's actually kinda funny.

  • BabyBearStrikesAgain

    Seriously? I did NOT like this episode. At ALL. Like, this was the worst episode of the season for me.

    The story lines were a mess and made no sense, the first 15-20 minutes were incredibly boring even with the lovely Vastra, Jenny & Strax, Clara was basically a prop with a chair, and even the Doctor was especially manic and annoying. The only redeemable part was Diana Rigg. In fact, this episode confirmed last week's Think Piece saying that Matt Smith and Jenna Louise-Coleman's acting chops are the glue holding the pieces of Doctor Who together. I'm so disappointed in Doctor Who, it makes me sad.

  • OR

    The Doctor didn't do anything. He could've been cut out of the episode and it would've turned out the same.
    And the villain was an old frail woman with a parasite. Why couldn't Clara or the Doctor stop her from flipping that switch (or whatever that was)
    Just punch her. Seriously. Or grab her frail old woman wrist.
    You might suggest that she was stronger than she looked, or that her symbiote gave her some kind of enhanced strength but no, she was easily beaten by her blind daughter.
    And the "Thomas Thomas" joke was appalling. It didn't even register as a joke until an hour later and then it gave me diarrhea.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    Have you watched Doctor Who before? There have been episodes like this sprinkled in since the beginning, and I think that episodes where The Doctor is more of an observer than a hero make for a nice change of pace once and a while.

    If you've only been watching for a season or two, you may not know that this show has long been celebrated for its campiness. This was a return to fun, campy form, right down to the silly-looking parasite.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Yes, episodes like this are part of the series. However, the Doctor has been like this at least since Clara turned up. He's all over the place, being silly as well as totally incompetent, reminding me of an hyperactive kid. Clara had to save the day again.

  • Milly

    Exactly, Doctor Who is at its most entertaining - not necessarily its 'best' - when it is silly.

    That kind of episode hooked up me when I was growing up and then I stayed for the more serious ones, hoping that something silly was about to happen.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    When Jenny pulled off her dress to reveal her battle garb, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was badass and sexy, but NOT sexualized in any way (beyond any preconditioned response to black leather, that is).

  • Garferty

    The Doctor's sonic screwdriver sexualised this scene in just about the bluntest way possible, though.

  • NateMan

    I had that very same thought. It was sexy without being trashy. And designed in a very reasonable way.

  • toblerone

    I thought this episode was a total mess and a waste of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax (and Diana Rigg and her HOT daughter Rachael Stirling). Easily the worst episode of the current season.

    You are correct in that It did nothing for Clara's story (other than confirming to her that she had a Victoria doppleganger) and it only really served as a set up to Nightmare in Silver.

    That is all.

  • Morgan_LaFai

    That's to bad. I quite enjoyed this episode. I thought it was a fantastic bit of stand alone campyness (US definition of camp not UK). And yeah, the lobster puppet made me laugh but in the good, aforementioned, campy way. Ah well, to each their own, it takes all types, and all that jazz.

  • toblerone

    **Further - WTF was this? Hopefully they didn't blow the entire FX budget on Journey to the Centre of the Tardis because I have huge expectations for the Cybermen.

  • Patty O'Green

    Actually, for a hot minute*, I thought it looked like a giant, swollen d**k. Then, you know, I saw the claws... as I understand those are not standard?

    (*in Hell)

  • Tinkerville

    It's like a lobster mated with a Furby. I actually laughed when it turned around.

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