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