THE CRIMSON HORROR
We’ve always said that Mark Gatiss, despite his many talents in other arenas, can’t write for Doctor Who. And having watched The Crimson Horror, we’re standing by it.
What!? we hear you say, leaping to your collective feet and shaking your collective fist. How dare you, you pack of presumptuous harpies! Anyone can see that The Crimson Horror is an instant classic! Grr! Argh! Rhubarb, rhubarb!
Well, yes ‘n’ no. We definitely agree that parts of The Crimson Horror aren’t just good: they’re exceptional. But the bits that are great aren‘t Who, and the bits that are Who aren’t great.
Of course, when we say something’s not Who, that’s not necessarily a criticism. Doctor Who is so elasticky that it’s a crying shame to wedge every story into a standard format. That’s why we like (half of) Love And Monsters when most people view it as if it’s just crawled out of a compost heap, for example.
It’s not as if nobody’s done Victoriana before in Who. Leaving aside Gatiss’s own Unquiet Dead, because that sort of doesn’t count, the primo example is the Fourth Doctor classic The Talons Of Weng-Chiang. That’s unmistakably successfully Victorian, but cut it in half and Doctor Who runs right through the middle. The Crimson Horror is also successfully Victorian, but for half of its time feels like something else altogether.
The Crimson Horror is Gatiss where he’s most comfy: Victorian, detective-esque, creepy. ("The Crimson Horror" could easily be the title of one of his beloved Sherlock Holmes stories.) And the first half of it is an absolute, unadulterated cracker. The start’s deeply intriguing, and Diana Rigg starts as she means to go on, classing up the joint with a sinister, chilling and utterly convincing performance. We’re thoroughly hooked by the mysterious fate of the scarlet Mr Thursday and the plight of his wife and grieving brother, and that pathologist is straight out of The League Of Gentlemen. (For the avoidance of doubt: that’s a very, very good thing.) We also love the way the concept of the octogram is worked in and given a plausible explanation to get the Doctor into the story.
Then, without losing any of the suspense and atmosphere, the story takes a beautifully judged turn to the comic. While we’re still not entirely sure about comedy Sontarans, if we have to have them, Strax is a belter: he’s completely hilarious here. And all that stuff about the North plays on a Doctor Who tradition going back via the Tenth Doctor and “Lots of planets have a North” at least as far as The Ribos Operation and “We’re from the North” (not particularly slide-splitting on the face of it, but you have to be there - and if you haven’t been, you seriously, seriously should). We know that in the past we’ve seen the Paternoster Row trio as a bit too fan-pandering, but they’re so good as they go about their business here that to be honest, we were hoping the Doctor would never show up.
Mrs Gillyflower and her Present Moral Decay tirade about the apocalypse is both a true to the period play on Victorian values and another whack, Rings of Akhaten-style, at religion. And did we imagine the link between Sweetville and Cadbury’s idealistic worker’s village Bournville? If not, the sweet part is a particularly, er, sweet touch.
Then there’s her daughter, ably played by Diana Rigg’s real-life daughter Rachael Stirling. Ada is a far more complex character than she looks: at first, all we see is her blindness and her enslavement to her mother. Then we see her feeding her “monster” (no prizes for guessing who this might turn out to be) and her turning to the side of good against her mother. But she’s not all sweetness and light: just look at the way she belabours her mother with her cane and refuses to forgive her (and bloody good on her too). Also, yes, she looks after the monster, but isn’t that just for her own benefit so she can keep him as a companion? If she really cared for his welfare, she could just as easily have sneaked him to freedom instead of locking him up as her mother has effectively imprisoned her. Agency And Learned Helplessness In The Context Of Domestic Abuse: Discuss.
Needless to say, Sweetville isn’t all it seems. We love the giant gramophone horns, Jenny’s derring-do and her unflappability in the face of being grabbed by a crimson paw.
Then, some fourteen minutes in, the Doctor enters stage left, but not the Doctor as we know him. We really enjoy the Frankenstein’s monster take on him: certainly makes a change.
Even after the Doctor shows up, still not feeling like Doctor Who at all. It does, however, feel gripping, atmospheric and beautifully characterised, so that's not a problem at all. If that’s how we’re doing Who these days, that’s fine by us.
And then? The giant red sheep dip of doom, followed by the Doctor as we do know him. And a particularly lovely sepia-tinted recap of what he’s been up to: economical, period-appropriate and atmospheric (love those bell jars). But again with the not quite so adorable side of Ada: that scene of her chaining up the Doctor and fondling him when he’s helpless to resist is really quite icky. Do they actually understand what they’re showing us? Remind us again why they only point out she saved him and not the rest of it. (That's not the only moment of this kind, either. The Doctor forcing a kiss on Jenny is something very different from the adorably eccentric behaviour they're presenting it as.)
At this point, about halfway in, the wheels begin to wobble. At first just a bit, and then alarmingly.
First of all, there’s a ton of blather about Clara and how she previously died. WE KNOW. Do they have to use up precious running time going on and on about it? Then there’s the TomTom joke, which is an error of judgment. Fine, do comedy within the framework you’ve set up, but why waste a lot of time, effort and really good actors only to pull your audience right out of the story?
All the atmosphere and intrigue so carefully built up in the first half now starts to crumble in a welter of illogic, abandoned plotlines and poorly thought-out denouements. It drew us in expertly, but now it unravels so badly we end up not caring at all.
The impressively sinister Sweetville? Whatever. How they managed to get all those people (including the Doctor!) into a dippable state we have no clue. And where does Mr Sweet fit in? Does he have anything to do with all the religious stuff other than providing the venom? (And speaking of Mr Sweet, isn’t he just a little bit…kawaii?)
How come Mrs Gillyflower’s getting away with spiriting away all those people without more of their friends and relatives trying to find out where they are? Why isn’t there an outcry about all those red corpses bobbing along in the river? The original corpse, Mr Thursday’s brother, was a newspaperman and he and his wife were undercover. Wouldn't his employers come looking for him?
And then there’s the rocket. Leaving aside the vexed question of how one titchy little jar of venom is going to poison the entire world fron one explosion, how, exactly, does the rocket take off without toasting everybody standing underneath it? (As far as we’re concerned, only Wallace and Gromit are allowed to get away with launching a rocket without incinerating the local countryside.) They’d be better off spending less time trying to shoehorn in film references and more time thinking up a plot resolution that doesn’t leave the audience scratching their heads.
It’s all over the place. They even chuck in a random ecological message about Mr Sweet “growing fat on the filth pumped into the rivers” by nasty old humankind. In case there wasn’t enough left dangling already.
And who actually saves the day here? In the end, it’s Strax, both with the supermodel posse and with Mrs Gillyflower. With a gun. Lovely.
And that’s that. All the great stuff we started with has pretty much been thrown away. The fate of the dipped? Who cares? Not the Doctor: he’d “love to stay and help clear up the mess” but apparently can’t be fecked, despite the fact that he’s no doubt the only one who has any chance of returning them to their former selves. And remember the touching figure of Mr Thursday, the tragic and dignified figure so concerned about his brother’s plight and determined to get to the bottom of it? Well, sweep him from your mind, because buy into him as a character though you might, he turns into nothing more than a punchline.
We know that there are a lot worse episodes than this. It’s not that The Crimson Horror is egregiously terrible: in fact, the first half is some of the best Who we’ve seen. The trouble is, however, that bringing in the stuff that’s compulsory to make it a Doctor Who episode rather than part of the currently imaginary Paternoster spinoff series is the point where it skids rapidly downhill. It’s incredibly disappointing after such a superspectacular beginning. We just don’t understand why they would create a setup so lovingly and effectively, then spend the rest of the episode dismantling it while taking the piss. Also, why do they insist on doing it in one episode? You just can’t force a story of this size into 45 minutes without too much of it being crushed into oblivion, and it baffles us why they keep trying.
Want a really gripping, atmospheric Victorian horror/mystery? Mark Gatiss is indubitably your man. Let him throw the Doctor into the mix, however, and time after time it all turns to fish-finger-flavoured custard.
MORAL: Don’t trust an employer who invites you in for a jar.
TROUBLE AT T’DARK SATANIC MILL
What a stirring scene when they all patriotically sing Jerusalem. Except that it wasn’t actually composed until 1916.
BETTER DEAD THAN RED
The red clearly comes off the corpses - the Doctor takes some to analyse. So how come it isn’t poisoning people who touch them?
TIE ME KANGAROO DOWN
“I once spent hell of a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport.”
Allow us, Doctor. Because if you had a pixel of sense you were trying to bundle her off as far from you (and us) as possible. We only wish you’d been more successful.
I LIKE BIG BUSTLES AND I CANNOT LIE
“Kindly do not claw and slobber at my crinoline.” Crinoline? They went out decades before. Bustles were all the go at this point - and that’s what the women, including Mrs Gillyflower, are wearing.
KIDS! IN! SPACE!
Ugh, those brats at the end are insufferable. But suffer them, it seems, we must.