Doctor Who: 711 “The Crimson Horror” Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert
“The bright day is done, child, and you are for the dark.” – Winifred Gillyflower
Upon learning that Mark Gatiss was returning to his original haunt in Doctor Who, the luscious pickings of Victoriana Britain, notwithstanding my concerns about The Crimson Horror (namely, the showcase, and reintroduction, of the Paternoster Gang), the period itself at least suggested a modicum of hope – especially after the mishap of Cold War. Returning to his origins, I’d thought, would revitalise Gatiss’ writing.
The Unquiet Dead had been expressively written with an undoubted passion and élan. The story presented a memorably ‘Gothic’ pseudo-historical horror. This was achieved through its evocation of the Victorian beguilement in the spiritual and other-worldly, literally manifesting the demonised ‘Other’ that typified Gothic literature. This was counterbalanced, and indeed complemented, with endearing subtlety and panache. This was evinced in its faithful depiction of a renowned historical personage, and his time, adroitly reconstructing the vernacular of the time, as well as the dynamic between its main characters. Sadly, The Crimson Horror did not entirely recapture the spirit of the past.
On the Paternoster Gang
Upon re-watching The Crimson Horror, I’ve had a change of mind. Under Gatiss, there’s potential in the characters of Jenny and Vastra (with their characters established in the audience’s minds, the worst, hopefully, is over; under Moffat, it seemed like they existed just to ‘spice things up’).
Kudos to Catrin Stewart: her performance is both understated and effortless. Stewart alone is the highlight of the episode. It’s disappointing therefore that Jenny’s shining moment – when she tackles Gillyflower’s Pilgrims – should so abruptly end. Jenny is comfortably down-to-earth: sweet, intelligent, resourceful, yet packing gumption – in short, I have no complications with the character’s portrayal here. Stewart provides a human anchor to the proceedings to the extent I’d be intrigued in a character of her disposition acting as the Doctor’s (one-off) companion: the voice of reason (and perhaps even tact) to the Eleventh’s nowadays-defining (and monotonous) childlike buffoonery. (The Doctor can’t take five seconds to answer Jenny’s questions about Clara? An example of dialogue: “Yes. The Clara you knew is dead. But she’s alive. In another time. Don’t ask me how. But I’m working on it.”)
I say this only because Clara, meanwhile, could have been dropped from the plot with no consequence, as with Cold War. Again, in a Gatiss plot, she’s practically ornamental, serving little to no purpose (she’s even ‘dollied up’ (“like pretty maids in a row”), and later enclosed within one of Gillyflower’s bell-jars, as if (flagrantly) dramatizing her only purpose is to show up, then be rescued by the Doctor). If Gatiss had no interest in Clara, or developing her character, then rather cumbersomely incorporate her presence into the plot, why didn’t he suggest Clara had temporarily resumed her nanny duties (say she’s feeling homesick), whilst the Doctor ventured solo, his path intersecting with the Paternoster Gang’s?
The issue lies with Strax: a character written in egregious taste. There’s nothing clever or charming in presenting painfully puerile ‘jokes’ pertaining to any mentally-challenged character’s struggle (or incapacity) to adapt to social mores. The character exists solely to entertain young children; even then, it’s an insult, displaying embarrassing underestimation of children’s intelligence, appealing to the lowest denominator. Children, frankly, deserve better.
Furthermore, it’s a criminal insult to Robert Holmes’ original design. Although the Sontarans’ design has been (lightly) mocked over the years, they have nonetheless retained a capacity to horrify, and perturb; a sense of dignity and respect as adversaries of the Doctor. Their design is a perversion of the anthropoid physiology, with their militant, bellicose philosophy a stark contrast with human notions of pacifism and morality. Strax’s childlike personality crosses the line – he’s even scolded like one.
Had The Crimson Horror been expressively written as a springboard into a spin-off series, starring the Paternoster Gang, as they stand, I’d staunchly advise it be reserved for CBBC, where it belongs – even then, it’d stale in comparison to The Sarah Jane Adventures. If there were any concerns about Doctor Who dissolving into (mediocre) children’s storytelling (and alienating the older audience – although not exclusively, as I addressed above regarding Strax’s function), The Crimson Horror embodies those concerns. Omitting Strax altogether, and focusing on Jenny and Vastra, would significantly enhance both narrative flow, and entertainment value.
The Story: the Positives
In addition to Catrin Stewart, Rachel Stirling was also enjoyable, as the tragic, sympathetic Ada: blighted and abused by her guileful, callous mother. Stirling’s understated performance elicits pathos: horribly scarred and blind, Ada’s only friend is her “monster” (in actuality, the Doctor, a survivor of Gillyflower’s preservation process, but with his limbs and joints virtually paralysed). She’s naturally distraught when the “monster” escapes its cell. I’m appreciative of the Doctor’s solicitude for Ada’s wellbeing: it’s a nuance that reassures me, personally, not all is lost regarding the Eleventh Doctor’s characterisation.
It’s worth highlighting the scene where Ada and her mother attend dinner. Gatiss emphasises the contrasts between them. Ada retains decorum, behaving courteously towards her mother (inquiring of Mr Sweet’s absence from dinner – the vacant third seat, with a plate, glass, and cutlery prepared, is a deliberate nuance to mislead the audience, Winifred simply keeping up appearances). Winifred, conversely, is slovenly, uncouth (“Tolerable!”), deceitful (sprinkling salt around herself, claiming it’s “[t]o keep the Devil at bay”), and childish. The intimacy of the dinner scene discloses private behaviour, otherwise concealed during public appearances.
For example: Gillyflower’s sermon on ‘The Present Moral Decay and the Coming Apocalypse’. The scene foreshadows Gillyflower’s propensity for artifice, manipulating the weak-willed crowd with doom-laden prophecies, feigning sincerity. The scene also conveys Gatiss’ adroitness at (and fondness for) imitating the upper-class Victorian idiolect, Gillyflower’s oration peppered with simile (“her once-beautiful eyes, pale and white as mistletoe berries”), and eloquence (“moral turpitude can destroy the most delicate of lives”). It’s a glimmer of the past, when Gatiss was similarly challenged with the persona/mannerisms, and dialogue of Charles Dickens.
Another clever scene is Jenny’s discovery that the factory contains no manufacturing equipment/machinery at all: it’s gramophone speakers playing recordings; a twist loaded with a delightful sense of surprise.
The flashback sequence is suitably stylistic. It livens up the series’ cinematic leitmotif, certainly, by framing the flashback through a silent-era cinematographic ‘filter’, interposing scenes of dialogue with rapidly-edited montages of still images, as if captured by an antiquated camera.
The Story: the Negatives
Gillyflower herself is a childish, egomaniacal, sociopathic supremacist, who wants to seed the world with her master race. In other words: a string of clichés, accompanied by a hammy, yet somehow lacklustre, performance from Diana Rigg. Her character offers little new on a well-worn archetype. This wouldn’t be an issue as such: stock villains are copious, even intrinsic, within fiction (the designated hero requires an adversary; the conflict of good versus evil, etc.). What distinguishes one villain from the other relies upon their charm, and the bewitching quality of the actor’s performance – manifest through their tangible exuberance, or buoyancy, or goofiness, etc.; that which makes us laugh, good-heartedly, with delight. Gatiss himself wrote The Crimson Horror as a tribute to mother and daughter. So why not conceive a mother-daughter antagonism where they serve as strong and capable foils to the other, adults locked in a ‘duel’ for one-upmanship, yet respecting the other generation’s talents? The Doctor’s statement: “I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts, and I’m going to stop you” encapsulates the villain and her motives in a nutshell: tedious and uninvolving.
The plot walks itself, blindly, bizarrely, into clichés. The Doctor and Clara suddenly act like idiots, neither of them moving to stop Gillyflower from activating her rocket (despite having sufficient time). Why not have the Doctor and Clara arrive too late? It doesn’t avert an alternative cliché, but it’d make more sense than for intelligent characters to lose their intelligence, even briefly. Also: why does Ada go to her mother, the woman who betrayed and experimented upon her? Gillyflower, predictably, springs a gun, and holds her daughter hostage.
It’s questionable whether or not a rocket (and indeed, a prototype computer) could be constructed using contemporary Victorian technology, but imaginably it can be rationalised by Gillyflower’s stated engineering prowess. Characters also attribute Mr Sweet, an evolved specimen of the “repulsive red leech” that plagued the Silurians, with an intelligence of its own. It’s more likely to be Gillyflower’s delusions, as Mr Sweet is nothing more than a voracious, grotesque parasite. The ‘comedic’ fainting of Mr Thursday (excuse the pun) falls flat. Gatiss also repeats the same ‘joke’: the Doctor, armed with the sonic screwdriver, thinks of a plan, only for Jenny, the first time, and Clara, the second, to intervene. Gillyflower’s masterplan seems dubious: one vat of venom is supposed to exterminate the entire human race? It’s never explained how the Doctor revives himself, or Clara (unless the sonic screwdriver now provides miracle cures). What happens to those still preserved within the Sweetville homes? Although Gillyflower claims they will sleep only for a few months, is the paralysis temporary, and naturally wears off, or did Gillyflower derive an artificial means of revival? Finally, the bell-jars: it’s surrealism for its own sake. Startling – but there’s no substance to the image. (It’s curious whether or not the pairings within the jars are to be designed ‘partners’ for the reproduction of the species, post-calamity.)
In conclusion, when Gatiss pitches The Crimson Horror as a love-letter to, and pastiche of, the Victorian era, and its cultural idiosyncrasies, his writing excels. A forgettable villain, a redundant companion (within the narrative, of course), and crass and atrocious ‘humour’ (why does the young boy speak like a GPS? No-one talks like that; and the anachronistic speech is out-of-place to no effect), are contributing factors in the story’s downfall.