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Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (Review)

I’m the Doctor, and you’re nuts.

– the Doctor making friends, as usual

The Crimson Horror, much like Cold War before it, feels like a Mark Gatiss episode. Perhaps due to the fact he has been one of the most consistent contributors to the revived television show, Gatiss has developed his own technique and tropes, favouring particularly elements of Doctor Who, which tend to shine through in his scripts from The Unquiet Dead through to this latest instalment. While I’d be reluctant to name Gatiss among the strongest writers to contribute to the television show, it’s clear that he’s cracked a formula that works for him.

While The Crimson Horror feels a little too familiar in places, a little too conventional, it’s a solid instalment – much like Gatiss’ earlier addition to the season, Cold War.

He's got the formula down at this point...

He’s got the formula down at this point…

I’ll admit being a bit disappointed at the way that Moffat has been reusing writers this year. I’ll concede that tasking a writer unfamiliar with the show to produce a teleplay can be a difficult and troublesome task, but one imagines that the additional preparation time due to the split season would make the task of pounding those scripts into a workable shape just a bit easier. And it isn’t as if reaching out to new writers hasn’t paid benefits in the past. Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife might just be the best episode of the revived television show. Not to mention that it wasn’t too long ago that everybody writing for Doctor Who was writing the show for the first time.

To be fair, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat both contributed a large number of scripts to the show. In particular, Davies contributed eight of the show’s first thirteen episodes. The showrunner contributing multiple scripts to the same season makes sense, helping them solidify their vision of the show and even the particular season. However, it is especially frustrating to see so many slots on these half-seasons devoted to the same writers. Mark Gatiss will write one quarter of all the regular Doctor Who episodes to air in 2013. So will Neil Cross. Chris Chibnell contributed almost half of the regular episodes to air in 2012.

All going according to plan...

All going according to plan…

While that policy allows Chibnell to write The Power of Three and for Cross to contribute Hide, neither of their initial contributions were particularly noteworthy. It’s disappointing that there were no other script writers who could have provided something more interesting or exciting than Dinosaurs on a Spaceship or The Rings of Akhaten. One of the best things about the revival of Doctor Who has been the way that the show could be anything from week-to-week. Limiting the pool of contributors restricts what the show can be, and falling back on the same names time and time again means the show falls into familiar patterns.

It feels a bit unfair to hold this against The Crimson Horror, which is a solid episode. It just feels very familiar. Gatiss has a very particular writing style and approach to Doctor Who and the familiar plot and storytelling functions. He channels the show’s nostalgia in a very particular sort of way. It’s nice when that nostalgia is separated by a chunk of about thirteen episodes and a year. It’s less impressive when there has only been a couple of weeks since we last tasted this form of nostalgia.

Gillyflower is bloomin' trouble, if you ask me...

Gillyflower is bloomin’ trouble, if you ask me…

Gatiss can structure a script. He can tell a story. He knows the show inside and out. There are lots of nice continuity references and in-jokes (brave heart, Clara”), but they are not intrusive and none are liable to confuse casual viewers. There’s a monster, there’s a hook and there’s some very nifty visuals. The sight of the Doctor stumbling along after being dripped in “preserve” is delightfully creepy despite being a simple enough special effect for the team to accomplish. (Bonus points for having a prudish villain use a technique that is an anagram of “perverse.”)

The setting evokes a particular historical sensibility and the mood recalls the gothic horror of the golden age of the show. And, to be fair, The Crimson Horror has some good ideas. This fiftieth anniversary half-season has been quite introspective. Hide felt like an ode to the show’s ability to turn a monster story into any other kind of tale (including romance!), while Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS felt like an exploration of the show’s storytelling engine, the limitless possibilities found within a big blue box. As such, it feels strangely appropriate that The Crimson Horror should pit the Doctor against one of his most dangerous adversaries: Mary Whitehouse.

Blind to the real threat...

Blind to the real threat…

Of course, she has a different name here, but it’s clear that Diana Rigg’s batty old lady is meant to be a stand-in for that defender of moral certitude. For those unfamiliar with their television history, Whitehouse was a professional busy body concerned with the moral character of Great Britain, and took issue with Doctor Who during the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era, arguably the creative high-point of the show’s original run.

In particular, Whitehouse objected to depictions of violence in adventures like The Deadly Assassin, decrying it as “tea-time brutality for tots.” Her meddling caused no end of trouble for the production, neutering the series and arguably starting off a long slow death spiral that would lead to the show’s cancellation. So it feels appropriate that the Doctor should find himself confronting a rather thinly-veiled psychotic stand-in for the moral crusader.

Not quite bowled over...

Not quite bowled over…

While there’s no evidence of a red alien leech feeding on Mary Whitehouse, Mrs. Gillyflower offers an effective fictional counterpart to the bitter old lady so concerned about the nation’s moral fibre. Gillyflower is presented as something of a hetero-normative crusader. We’re told “she is only interested in the fittest and the most beautiful” for her “perfect community.” She offers stern lectures on the dangers of “moral decay.”

Her crusade adopts the imagery of the religious right. Her end goal is described as both a “New Jerusalem” and a “New Eden.” She describes the coming purge as “the Apocalypse.” She is hardly progressive, and clearly terrified by chance or anything which deviates from her vision of what the world should be. Addressing the show’s lesbian Victorian detectives, Jenny and Madame Vasta, she yells, “Die you freaks!”

Looks like he's got a screwdriver loose!

Looks like he’s got a screwdriver loose!

Gatiss’ whole “sweet” metaphor is quite clever, if hardly subtle. Her plans for “Sweetville”, complete with an artists’ rendition, evokes Walt Disney’s original vision for Epcot as a planned community for what he might have termed “the right sort of people.” The “preservation process” and her use of bell jars to freeze members of the community (along with her use of a relic left over from the Jurassic era) makes it clear that Gillyflower is against change and evolution, against the notion of society moving forward and improving.

“We’ve had enough of Victorian values for a bit,” Clara remarks as she and the Doctor plan to disembark. On one level, given Gatiss’ obvious affection for the gothic horror of the era, it does seem a little hypocritical. One senses that Gatiss could never have enough fun playing with the notions of Victorian values. However, it also makes it clear that Gillyflower’s values (and Whitehouse’s views, by extension) were very clearly regressive.

Better dead than red...

Better dead than red…

Whitehouse might have been penning angry letters in the seventies, but she was advocating a return to a Great Britain which hadn’t existed for decades. (And, even then, her own vision of it was quite different than the reality.) The fight between the Doctor and Gillyflower (and between Doctor Who and Whitehouse) was one of progress against regression, forwards against backwards. Whitehouse won the first round, just as Gillyflower does here. She manages to turn the Doctor himself into a monster (a “special monster”), but the Doctor will always win out in the end. That feels like an appropriate sentiment for the show’s fiftieth.

As one might expect, Gatiss does a rather nice pastiche of the gothic Victorian horror that we associate with the Hinchcliffe era. He doesn’t just trap an alternate version of Mary Whitehouse within a Doctor Who story, he casts her inside a version of the show she tried so very hard to destroy. Between Hide and The Crimson Horror, it seems like this anniversary half-season is having a Hinchcliffe and Holmes love-in. Given the iconic nature of that period in the show’s history, it feels about right.

A Sontaran stratagem...

A Sontaran stratagem…

Gatiss brings the expected trappings. As one character notes, the plot feels like something from a “penny dreadful”, with grotesquely disfigured bodies dragged from the canals. In particular, the fact that the nickname for this terror (“the crimson horror”) is rooted in the tabloid press of the time evokes comparisons to Jack the Ripper, a major influence on the iconic The Talons of Weng-Chiang, itself a major influence on every subsequent Doctor Who gothic adventure.

There are lots of other nice touches, like the notion of the “optigram” or Mrs. Gillyflower’s use of the organ, which evoke a sense of gothic horror. Gatiss knows this stuff inside and out, and The Crimson Horror is solidly entertaining Doctor Who, evoking a past era of the show remarkably well. It doesn’t really go any further, but it doesn’t need to. It’s well-constructed and it does what its set out to do with a minimum of fuss.

A lot to swallow...

A lot to swallow…

The supporting cast is great. It is fun to see Vastra and Jenny again. Strax is wonderful fun (“I’ll go play with my grenades…”), and the episode has a charming sense of humour – I especially like the recurring “fainting Victorian man” gag. All he was missing was a monocle he could drop in surprise. Dame Diana Rigg makes a suitably impressive villainess, and she plays well of Matt Smith. I can’t imagine it’s easy for a respected national treasure to turn in a performance as a truly nasty piece of work, but Rigg makes Gillyflower delightful unpleasant in the time afforded her.

Still, there is something faintly disappointing about The Crimson Horror. And it’s not the fault of the episode itself – it’s a number of contributing factors that all add up. If it were the only conscious throwback in this half-season, it might seem more entertaining. Hide already offered a better tribute to this era of the show’s past, and it has only been a few weeks since we last saw Gatiss’ narrative nostalgia at work. Despite the fun of seeing the Doctor come face to face with some version of Mary Whitehouse, The Crimson Horror can’t help but seem a little shallow and a little hallow.

Bearing closer examination...

Bearing closer examination…

Still, it’s good stuff – it just doesn’t feel as substantial as it might.

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

4 Responses

  1. Betting time – which Game of Thrones cast member will turn up in Doctor Who next? Rigg was brilliant in the role, and I think the same can be said for most of the supporting cast. But I do agree with your points; it feels like all too much of the same at the moment. Last night’s episode was almost like a relief in that way. I didn’t realise it in the Christmas episode, but the actress who plays Jenny is also in Stella, brilliant drama with Ruth Jones. Well worth a watch. Very Welsh though.

  2. I did like this episode… Not my favorite, but it was interesting to watch. I had a hard time keeping up with what was going on, and could not for the life of me figure out why she wanted to preserve people, until the very end. But it was still good, overall.
    I love how thorough your analysis of this episode is.

    • Thanks. I didn’t hate it, but I think it just suffered from being where it was in the year that we’ve had.

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