Mark Gatiss marks his second episode in the current season of Doctor Who with a return to the Victorian era with his latest penny dreadful “The Crimson Horror”. What starts as a “Stepford Wives comes to Yorkshire” turns into a carefully layered storyline which takes in themes from previous Who adventures such as “Invasion Of The Dinosaurs” and the Doctor-lite stories such as “Blink” and “Turn Left” with the lead villain seeking to restore a misguided “Golden Age” alongside the Conan-Doyle atmosphere of a mystery to be solved, something that is echoed in Murray Gold’s score which tips its proverbial hat to the “Sherlock” television series and Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of the “Sherlock Holmes” legend.
I can’t recall a previous Doctor Who story being set in Yorkshire before, but the location for this story makes for historical credibility, given the role played by the North of England in the Industrial Revolution, along with taking the series out of the stereotypical favoured location of the Home Counties. The fictional location of “Sweetville” definitely has the atmosphere of a town built upon industry such as the mill towns of the North along with the famous town of Bourneville, traditional home of the Cadbury’s chocolate company, and combines it with the the Victoria Spa town idea of looking after people’s health, or in this case Mrs Gillyflower’s ideal of perfection.
The story structure is unusual as although this is a story where the Doctor and Clara eventually features prominently, the prologue and the first act of the story has an atmosphere of a Doctor-lite episode with the welcome return of the Paternoster Row gang of Vastra, Jenny and Strax taking the lead.
Neve McIntosh’s Madame Vastra is the enigmatic guiding hand of the gang on this occasion, taking less overt action in this story than in the character’s previous stories, “A Good Man Goes To War” and “The Snowmen”.
The majority of the action and investigation in the episode is taken by Vastra’s maid/wife Jenny, as portrayed by Catrin Stewart. As with the previous two stories featuring Jenny, there is, on the one hand, the facade of the genteel Victorian maid, albeit one with her working class accent laid bare whilst on the other you have the woman of action reminiscent of Emma Peel from the 1960’s British television series The Avengers, fitting given the guest casting for the episode.
However, as with “The Snowmen”, it’s Dan Starkey’s portrayal of Strax that steals the show again. Starkey is very much the comic relief of this episode in a role and ably demonstrates why the character is a fan favourite. For a character that could have been restricted to simply being a gruff Sontaran, Dan Starkey demonstrates great comic chops in changing the emphasis of the humour dependent on who Strax interacts with. In “The Snowmen”, Strax is imbued with a dry line in sarcasm, such as in the “Mr Holmes” scene, whilst in this episode he is a combination of an over-eager warrior who likes to use outrageously formulated weapons of war, the naughty schoolboy who sulks whenever he is sent to the naughty step and decides to go and play with grenades, and the faithful bat-man to his mistress. And who would have guessed that Strax would be the type to have a sweet tooth? If the maniacal laughing and shooting is the result of a sneaky munch of one of Jenny’s sherbet lemons, who knows what he’d be like if he has a Jammy Dodger.
When Matt Smith makes his entrance into the story, it’s a suitably shocking one with the Doctor covered by the effects of the Red Leech/Crimson Horror poison (Top marks for the episode title, by the way, Mr Gatiss) and being unable to speak with the viewer witnessing the after effects of The Doctor’s initial investigations before they are told what happened leading up to that point thanks to a clever montage of short exposition scenes.
The on-screen chemistry between Matt’s Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara is heading towards that point in the Doctor/companion relationship where the two are comfortable time travellers alongside each other, surprising when we witness how few adventures the pair have shared at the story’s post-script. The Doctor still shows the concern for Clara that he has done throughout the season so far, but the suspicions he has about her origins are muted, even to the point where the Doctor covers for her appearance with a stereotypical Doctor-like “It’s complicated” when Jenny asks about further information and his response that he can’t explain her origins towards the end of the story. This is a Doctor who is on the back foot and doesn’t have all the answers.
From Clara’s perspective, she appears to be more comfortable with her enigmatic travelling companion to the point of happily accepting her cover story of being “Mrs Smith” with a look of fondness at one point which starts to question if there is a spark of a romantic interest on her part, alongside the reference at the end by the two children to whom she is nannying that The Doctor is Clara’s boyfriend, to which she doesn’t object. However, it’s nice to see that, if it is a case of Clara liking The Doctor in a romantic sense, it veers more towards the playful rather than the simpering.
There is also a sense in this story that Clara is The Doctor’s equal in the relationship between the pair as she refuses to be overlooked when she has the solution to Mrs Gillyflower’s plot as to how the toxin is going to be delivered on the Earth’s populace and her challenging Mrs Gillyflower for answers near the story’s climax.
Whilst I like the puzzle about Clara being the “Woman Twice Dead”, I must admit that this story benefitted because this plot strand is alluded to in comparison to “Victorian Clara’s” appearance in “The Snowmen” rather than being pushed to the forefront and I am looking forward to this plot strand being resolved in “The Name Of The Doctor” so that this TARDIS Team can get the chance to create its own identity.
Of course, the main guest casting points of this episode are the much mentioned appearances by Dame Diana Rigg, in the role of Mrs Gillyflower, making her first on-screen appearance alongside her daughter Rachel Stirling, in the role of Ada Gillyflower.
Dame Diana’s performance in the role of Mrs Gillyflower ensures that she will be one of the more remembered human villains. Mrs Gillyflower is very much the embodiment of stern Victorian values with her sermons about the nearby city of Bradford being a den of sin and her singing of “Jerusalem” whilst joining the likes of Sir Charles Grover from “Invasion Of The Dinosaurs” by wishing to use the Crimson Horror toxin to wipe out the sin that she sees to create a perfect new world for her chosen few. She is also allowed an opportunity to have her moments of humour when she counters The Doctor’s assertion that the toxin would be lethal in the wrong hands by saying that hers ARE the wrong hands.
In fact, you could say that Dame Diana is dream casting in this episode as the character of Mrs Gillyflower is, essentially, a female version of Telly Savalas’s Blofeld from the Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, in which she appears as Bond’s love interest and ill fated wife Tracey. In the film, Blofeld seeks to exterminate humankind using his Virus Omega whilst Mrs Gillyflower seeks to use the Crimson Horror toxin to do that job.
Ms Stirling’s performance is beautifully nuanced in the role of Ada. She is given the tough task of not only selling the fact that Ada is blind, but also that she is, in effect, a victim of abuse by both of her parents through her father’s drunkeness in her childhood and her mother’s experimentation upon her to establish the correct anti-toxin against the leech venom.
However, throughout the story Ada is never seen as a weak damsel in distress – empowered firstly by her kindness in keeping The Doctor safe, albeit through the motive of looking after a person who is apparently as injured as she is, and, later, through her anger which leads her not to forgive her mother and kill the leech parasite/symbiote.
As with the previous episodes in this season, there are references to the programme’s past, most notably in this episode the character of the Fifth Doctor with his recollection of a “gobby Australian” and “Brave Heart, Clara”, both of which are references to companion Tegan Jovanka as portrayed by Janet Fielding from 1981 to 1984.
However, there are additional background references to Clara’s nature with Mrs Gillyflower stating that she was only interested in the brightest and the best which echoes the Daleks choice of Oswin for conversion into a Dalek in last year’s “Asylum Of The Daleks” and Miss Kizlet’s choice for Clara to be upgraded into the datacloud in “The Bells Of Saint John”.
This story also follows several stories under Steven Moffat’s time of show runner in intimating that the Doctor himself is as much of a monster as the actual monsters and creatures he rails against thanks to Ada’s nickname of “My Monster”.
All in all, “The Crimson Horror” sees a definite upward curve in the quality of Season Seven, Part Two, mainly due to the fact that it honours the show’s past in “Penny Dreadful” stories such as “The Talons Of Weng-Chiang” and “The Unquiet Dead” without feeling the need to cram the story full of nods to the programme’s past. If this trend continues, the remaining two stories of this season should be crackers.
P.S. – Loved the Thomas Thomas joke, Mr Gatiss.