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Saturday, 18 May 2013

Doctor Who - The Crimson Horror

A very silly, strange and lightweight episode that's a whole lot of fun


A few weeks ago, Mark Gatiss delivered his best Doctor Who episode to date (Cold War). The Crimson Horror, whilst not perfect, is now the owner of that accolade.

Set in 19th Century Yorkshire, The Crimson Horror is an unrestrained slice of twisted fun. Bodies are turning up in the river, except the flesh on the bodies has developed a deep red colouring. Local factory owner Mrs Gillyflower (Diana Rigg) is offering the chance of salvation from this disturbing fate, which has been dubbed the Crimson Horror by the people, in her idyllic village compound known as Sweetville; a place where only the best are welcome.

Past seasons of Doctor Who have attempted to lighten the workload of the Doctor and his companion by writing episodes which feature only one of the pair e.g. Midnight, Turn Left or episodes which leave them out of the action for most of the running time e.g. Blink. This truncated season can't really afford to apply this tactic over a full episode, but The Crimson Horror is noteworthy in that neither The Doctor or Clara appear on screen for the first 14 minutes.

In their place, the task of uncovering the mysteries of Sweetville falls to the crime fighting Victorian trio of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax the Sontaran (last seen in the The Snowmen). They are more than capable of carrying the episode in the absence of The Doctor and Clara, and it's an interesting and different start to the episode. It's Jenny Flint who gets the most screen time, employing her old fashioned sleuthing skills to infiltrate the factory.


The trio do some investigating in the Doctor's absence (image courtesy of soundonsight.org)
Elsewhere, Gillyflower's daughter Ada (Rachel Stirling; Rigg's real life daughter) has a secret monster that she has kept chained in the attic. Ada was blinded as a child and finds comfort in her monster, a reject that does not fit Sweetville's idealistic standards. Except the monster is in fact a red tinted Doctor, who presumably survived the conversion process because he's, you know, an alien.

After a short trip to a magic de-colouring cupboard, The Doctor is up and running, ready to find Clara and stop Mrs Gillyflower. It's a story which could so easily have fallen into an odd self-parody, but Gatiss balances the various plot and tonal elements with ease. It's silly but never ridiculous, it's funny but rarely at the expense of the story and it maintains a lightness of tone despite the macabre nature of the story.

A scene from the brilliant flashback sequence. (image courtesy of radiotimes.com)
Ada is now lost without her monster and is unceremoniously abandoned by her mother. Clara is found and takes a trip to the magic cupboard. The gang are brought back together (in sequences that include jokes about sat navs and... bodily functions). Mrs Gillyflower accelerates her plans to poison those not worthy of a home in Sweetville. It zips along brilliantly, again maintaining that playful tone.

The identity of Mr Sweet is a little underwhelming, lacking the menace that the build up had suggested. Even if it was more cute than terrifying, it was certainly unpredictable. The dialogue in these scenes is delightfully elegant. Ada gets her chance to confront her mother with such wonderful lines as "You hag, you perfidious hag!" whilst Mrs Gillyflower responds to the Doctor's concerns about the venom by holding up her hands and proclaiming "Do you know what these are?... The wrong hands."


Ada, brilliantly played by Rachel Stirling. (image courtesy of doctorwhotv.co.uk)
As with a lot of the episodes in this run, the ending is reached too quickly and it was all too easy to foil Mrs Gillyflower's plan. Ada gets the satisfaction of destroying Mr Sweet and revenge on her mother. With so many characters in the episode, it was inevitable that one would feel underused. Unfortunately, that character was Clara. Given her role as the big mystery of the season, she doesn't have a lot to do in the episode aside from throwing a chair and having to put up with that horrible haircut. With only two episodes left in the season, she has yet to make  a strong impact as companion.

That doesn't take anything away from The Crimson Horror which is perhaps the best episode of this current run. Although I am concerned about the role that the two children will play in the next episode, Nightmare In Silver.

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