Season 7, Episode 12: The Crimson Horror
If I had lived in Victorian Yorkshire, I’m sure I would have exulted in the “deplorable excesses of the penny dreadful,” so count me as a fan of the twisted gothic fun of “The Crimson Horror.”
As with most Who episodes, it took two viewings of this Mark Gatiss-penned ep for me to even begin to form an opinion. Even for a show that brought us that the Abzorbaloff (never 4-get), this one was weird.
Weird first of all in structure, as the Doctor doesn’t make his first appearance until nearly 10 minutes in. Before that, we meet a number of shady Victorian characters (and those who are suspicious of them) and reunite with the investigatory team of Jenny, Madame Vastra, and Strax, last seen in the Christmas special, the “The Snowmen.”
Diana Rigg – best known for being Emma Peel, giving us serious Dowager Countess of Westeros on GoT this year, and for letting Daniel Radcliffe fling a condom into her hair – has a scenery-chewing guest role here as Winifred Gillyflower, who has just about had it with the moral decline of society. She preaches to the “best and the brightest,” the well-heeled and respectable folk who will join her in “Sweetville,” a promised land of grace and decency. Like an old-timey Celebration, Florida.
Sweetville is so called in honor of Gillyflower’s “silent” partner, a mysterious Mr. Sweet. She worships and even seems to love Mr. Sweet, while her own daughter Ada can count on no affection from her mother. Instead, Ada is trotted out as a cautionary tale. She has been scarred and blinded, allegedly due to the sins of her alcoholic father – a warning to the pilgrims of Sweetville of the dangers of the outside world. In fact, her mother may not even bring Ada with her to the “new Jerusalem,” no matter how much she begs. Ada’s only comfort is her “monster,” a creature who has somehow survived her mother’s “process” and who she keeps locked up in secret. Guess who.
Madame Vastra sends Jenny to investigate after a newspaper man investigating the suspicious activities at the matchstick factory dies strangely – paralyzed, and with his skin turned completely red. Like, red-red. The delightfully unseemly coroner finds that the corpse possesses an “octogram” – the preserved snapshot of the last image poor Edmund ever saw. And who should it be but your favorite monster and my mine? Jenny rescues the Doctor from his chains, he sonics himself back to a normal color, and we’re off to rescue Clara.
Well done on the silent film-esque flashback, where we see that the Doctor and Clara’s arrival in Yorkshire was – as usual – an accident. The Doctor had actually been trying to materialize in Victorian LONDON. What were his plans there, I wonder? Was he planning on introducing Clara the nanny to Clara the governess? Did he think that meeting would shake the mystery loose? But we’re not in London, we’re in Yorkshire. And Madame Vastra and Jenny are as confused as we are to see her again. (“That girl, Clara. You haven’t explained.” “No, I haven’t.”)
Oh, Clara. Clara, Clara, Clara. Sometimes I feel like she’s written just a little too cute. Like all of her dialogue are punchlines. Like the only actual conversations she and the Doctor have are about him trying to get to the bottom of her. Who is Clara Oswald? What does she care about, besides her dead mother and 101 Places to See? In “The Bells of St. John,” she demanded that the Doctor treat her like an individual – not a ghost of someone else. I wish the writers would do the same.
Regardless of the shortchanging of poor Clara, the rest of the episode was tons of fun. The best part by far was the reveal of Mr. Sweet. The Doctor and Clara corner Mrs. Gillyflower in her secret evil drawing room to get the whole Bond villain sinister plot exposition. She plans on shooting a rocket into the sky and raining down “the Crimson Horror,” exposed by Madame Vastra as a prehistoric leech poison (obviously). Her preserved “best and brightest” will sleep while the rest of humanity is destroyed. But where does an old Victorian lady get PREHISTORIC LEECH POISON? Why, from the prehistoric leech himself! Mr. Sweet turns out to be a little – and frankly adorable – red leech latched on to Mrs. Gillyflower’s chest. Doctor Who: come for the animatronic monsters, stay for the crippling heartbreak.
The Doctor and the gang (he loves a gang) manage to stop the launch process and Mrs. Gillyflower, thanks to the help of Ada, who realizes finally how her mother has been using her all along. Ada has got some serious latent anger issues. Instead of letting it all out on a pillow with a Nerf bat in therapy in a few years, she’ll beat the crap out of that “perfidious hag” and her pet leech with a fire poker right now. And the Doctor’s a monster? Kettle, this is Monica – you’re black.
Gatiss’s last episode “Cold War” left me a little, well, cold. “The Crimson Horror” certainly wasn’t boring, and it hit a perfectly Doctor Who note of well-constructed and sincere zaniness. As usual, the episode sparked plenty of debate: on the Doctor’s unconcerned reaction to Mrs. Gillyflower’s grisly death; the portrayal – or lack thereof – of Madame Vastra and Jenny’s relationship; on the Doctor and Jenny’s melodrama-inspired kiss; and finally, on the ambush by Clara’s charges, who seem from next week’s promo to have blackmailed their way onto the TARDIS. On the first subject: guys – this is the Doctor. This isn’t the first time or the last that we’ll see his sympathy stores depleted. And remember, he had formed an attachment to the lonely Ada. He understood long before she did the crimes that her mother had committed against her. He may not have been happy to see her take that fall, but he wasn’t going to cry over it either.
I don’t even know how to address the next topic. I get that fans take issue with the way that the Moffat-era deals with sexuality, but what’s the definition of a satisfactory portrayal of a romantic relationship? Jenny/Vastra has been explicitly acknowledged in every other episode they’ve been in. I don’t think the show was shying away from it here, rather that the structure of the episode didn’t allow for more development. Also, it was written before “The Snowmen,” so at this point, Gatiss might not have been aware that they were going to be written as married in that episode.
What exacerbated the Jenny/Vastra criticism was the Doctor laying one on Jenny after she rescued him from his cell. Some were angry because they perceived him as “disrespecting” their relationship (since when has the Doctor respected relationships?); some that he initiated the kiss without asking her first. I even saw the words “sexual assault” bandied about a few times. Okay. I feel like getting into the mire of this heated debate will only result in frustration on all sides. But. BUT. I don’t remember hearing any of these complaints when Eleven gave Rory some surprise lip-action in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” Eleven is probably the most outwardly affectionate of all his regenerations. He’s constantly kissing foreheads and holding hands and stroking faces (with those lovely, large hands…..sigh….). He was ready to kiss that guy from Cold War. Even Strax got some action. Right or wrong, that’s how he shows his joy, love, and appreciation for his companions and allies. And Jenny’s slap let him know that sometimes he goes too far and should make an effort to restrain himself. Honestly, I was more turned off by the sonic boner joke. Don’t get me wrong – I like that the Doctor has a bit of a crush on Jenny, and I usually LOVE a good dick joke. But this is Doctor Who, not Guys with Kids. It felt a little try-hard and out-of-character.
Finally, the kids. I buy that they could have found a photo from one of Clara’s trips in passing. But what’s the likelihood that they could find as many as they did, all from different eras? It’s not as if there were any common themes or names to Google. The Doctor conspiracy theorist we met way back in “Rose” devoted his LIFE to cataloging pictures and other evidence from throughout history of the regeneration he knew. But kids today and their apps and their MySpaceBooks…
Timey Wimey Observations:
- Everyone in this episode sounds like Nine, which makes me very happy-sad.
- Does Madame Vastra have a first name?
- The Strax jokes can be wearing, but every once in a while, there’s a home run.
- Can we not with people directly or indirectly referring to the Doctor as a “monster”? It hurts me. Whatever happened to the “lonely angel”?
- “Just when you think your favorite lock-picking Victorian chambermaid will never turn up.”
- “Brave heart, Clara.”
- The little urchin moppet who gives Strax directions is named Thomas Thomas. Or Tom Tom. Like the GPS.
- “Do you know what these are? The wrong hands.”
- Moffat, when he’s alone in his office:
Next week we’ve got Neil Gaiman and the Cybermen, and our expectations are understandably Everest-high. Kim will be on it next week, covering an episode that will hopefully meet the standards set by the excellent “The Doctor’s Wife.”