POSITIVES: A clever script, fabulous guest stars, and a great team of recurring characters made this episode fly.
NEGATIVES: More comedy northern accents than you could set a pack of whippets on.
The scene is Yorkshire, 1893. Everyone’s favourite Silurian private investigator, Madame Vastra, has been approached by the brother of Edmund Thursday to investigate his brother’s mysterious death in the model town of ‘Sweetville’, which has set up by the imperious Mrs Gillyflower to house workers from her nearby match factory. But all is not as it seems: those recruited to work in the factory appear to write but once to extoll the virtues of working and living in Sweetville before never being heard of again, whilst bodies stained with a mysterious crimson hue have been surfacing in the local canal, including Edmund’s. Mr Thursday is convinced that Vastra can solve the mystery and urges her to look at the ‘octogram’ – the image from the dead man’s eye, showing the last thing he saw. Vastra and her side-kick/companion/wife Jenny are shocked to discover that the last thing Edmund saw was, in fact, the Doctor. What follows is a double investigation, not only to determine the truth behind the mysterious Sweetville, but to locate the Time Lord.
It is this clever plot device that allows the supporting cast of Vastra, Jenny and the Sontaran Strax (arguably the star of the trio) to shine, certainly in the first half of the episode where the Doctor and Clara are largely absent. This provided for plenty of witty dialogue and playful interaction between this popular collection of recurring characters. Vastra (Neve McIntosh) assumes her powerful and aloof role, dispatching Jenny to Bradford to infiltrate a meeting run by the mysterious Mrs Gillyflower (Dame Diana Rigg). Jenny (Catrin Stewart) plays the part of infiltrator whilst Strax (Dan Starkey), our perpetually battle-frustrated warrior, agitates for death and destruction throughout.
Gillyflower is recruiting lots of bright young things to Sweetville through her fire and brimstone monologues decrying the breakdown of moral values and how, when the apocalypse comes, they would be judged better if they were living a purer life in Sweetville. As proof of the moral breakdown of Victorian society, Gillyflower parades her daughter – Ada – before the shocked company, claiming that Ada’s blindness was inflicted by her own father. Jenny immediately catches Gillyflower’s eye and Vastra instructs her to sign up for Sweetville, telling her she will find the Doctor by running towards ‘any danger that presents itself’ or going through ‘any locked door’, which is exactly what Jenny sets out to do.
The chemistry between Vastra, Jenny and Strax is as fresh and infectious as ever. Strax gets the best deal out of Mark Gatiss’s script, constantly agitating Vastra to allow him to pack more weapons and explosives for the simple reason that, as he says, ‘Remember, we are going to the north‘. At one point he also suggests the inevitable frontal assault on Sweetville, promising to restrict casualties to a mere 80%… By far his best line of the episode was his berating of his horse upon getting lost – ‘Horse, you have failed in your mission!’ – and proposing to execute the horse before being set back on the correct path by a local lad who seemed rather unfazed to be presented with a Sontaran driving a horse-drawn carriage.
Jenny’s mission reveals suitably bizarre goings on in Sweetville. For starters, the sounds of the factory are being supplied by gramophones, so whatever is happening in Sweetville certainly has nothing to do with matches. For seconds, Gillyflower’s daughter (played by Dame Diana’s real life daughter Rachael Stirling), is rattling around the factory feeding some sort of monster locked in the attic. And added to this, where exactly are the Doctor and Clara? When Jenny eventually locates and frees the Doctor, the story of his and Clara’s arrival at Sweetville is told in a series of flashbacks.
These flashbacks are a great strength of this episode: they bounce around with crazy, circus-like incidental music and a bizarre old-fashioned gravelly-film quality. We discover that the Doctor and Clara were already well on their way to investigating Sweetville before they were captured and processed in Gillyflower’s quest to create her own little perfect society before engineering, yes you guessed it, the end of the world. Their rescue alters the pace of ‘The Crimson Horror’ in a very effective manner as up to this point, it really has been Vastra, Jenny and Strax’s episode.
An acceleration in the plot was actually essential as Vastra and Jenny are obviously perplexed at Clara’s apparent resurrection from the dead and begin asking questions that the Doctor cannot answer, thus the developing crisis in Sweetville allows him to brush the unexplainable aside. Aside from this, the chemistry between the Doctor and Clara continues to develop nicely, giving Clara much more opportunity to seize the initiative, in this case with a handy chair. There are also some coy asides to the classic series, the Doctor making reference to previous companion Tegan Jovanka. His utterance of ‘Brave heart, Clara’ presumably delighted fans of the classic series.
It seems that it should go without saying, but it deserves to be said; Dame Diana Rigg excelled as the evil Mrs Gillyflower. Her performance was camp and over the top – she even has a comedy organ that doubles as a control panel – but she did it in a thoroughly gruesome fashion that completely suited the character, especially when the horrific truth behind the relationship between her and her mysterious ‘partner’ Mr Sweet is finally revealed. Her callous manipulation and rejection of Ada is done with steely and shockingly believable aplomb. Additionally, Ada’s own journey from unquestionable subservience through to her brutal retaliation against her mother was also absorbing. Perhaps it was the fact that a mother and daughter partnership depicted the characters that gave this its intensity.
Of course, ‘The Crimson Horror’ was a variation on the theme of the end of the world. Mark Gatiss of all people knows that the end of the world is a pretty constant theme in Doctor Who, hence he plays with it so well, especially in the dialogue, which seemed to self-consciously play up to this theme; for example, when the Doctor warns Gillyflower that what she is sitting on could mean disaster in the wrong hands, she responds with ‘Do you know what these are? The wrong hands!’ The only possible negatives here are that some may find the northern stereotypes somewhat grating. Indeed, Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman have their own turns at the comedy northern accent, and there’s even an utterance of ‘Trouble at mill’.
Ultimately, what we had here was atmosphere in abundance, fantastic supporting characters and casting, and a cleverly written script. Visuals were pretty stunning throughout – of particular note was the room full of gramophones belting out the sounds that mimic the factory – and the whole episode was shot and directed very well. What could have been ‘another Victorian England story’ was actually anything but, and ‘The Crimson Horror’ was actually that rare beast whereby it was the full package – it may just possibly prove to be the best episode of this run.
Doctor Who is on BBC1 every Saturday at 6.15pm