With “The Crimson Horror,” the new series of Doctor Who notches its 100th episode. It’s an achievement that would have seemed outlandishly improbable when the series debuted in 2005, turning the franchise from a fading memory into a pop culture juggernaut that shows no sign of slowing down as it approaches its 50th anniversary. Writer Mark Gatiss, who helped launch the new series with a story set in the Victorian era (“The Unquiet Dead”), revisits one of Doctor Who’s favorite time periods with a wonderfully lurid tale which provides splendid entertainment, but also ties into and advances the ongoing arc of the season.
Gatiss’s script is entirely different in feel from “Cold War,” which achieved its effect by keeping characters, events, and environment as realistic as possible. The episode starts with Mrs. Winifred Gillyflower (Diana Rigg) railing against the “moral decay” of the grim industrial towns across the north of England, but the nod to social realism is soon left behind as the story getting wilder and wilder. Mrs. Gillyflower is gathering recruits for a new “perfect” town: Sweetville, named for her unseen partner Mr. Sweet. She subjects them to submersion in a strange red liquid that’s supposed to preserve them against a coming apocalypse. Except for her daughter, Ada (Rachael Stirling), who’s been left blind and scarred, those whose bodies can’t withstand the preserving solution are dumped in the local canal, their bright red skins a mystery for the authorities. By the time it emerges that her plan is to explode a rocket full of the toxic red substance into the atmosphere, killing everyone except her chosen “pilgrims,” and that the source of the poison is an ancient parasite symbiotically bonded to her chest, “The Crimson Horror” has become a full-blown steampunk action adventure, and Gatiss controls the changing tone of the episode expertly.
The story also benefits from being told almost as a tale from a spin-off series starring Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey), three characters last seen in “The Snowmen.” In the exaggerated reality of this episode, a lizard-woman detective, her maid who’s also a martial arts expert, and a Sontaran warrior who serves as a butler don’t feel at all out of place. For the first third of the episode, the Doctor (Matt Smith) appears only as an enigmatic image apparently recorded as the last thing seen by a dead man, the catalyst for Vastra, Jenny, and Strax’s investigation. When Jenny eventually finds him, he’s a paralyzed victim of the “crimson horror”; with her help, he revives and tells her how he and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) arrived in Victorian Yorkshire, a flashback playfully presented by director Saul Metzstein as a series of jerky, sepia-toned sequences. Pleasingly, Vastra’s involvement in the story is more than just a whimsical reuse of a popular character; the Silurian has encountered parasites like “Mr. Sweet” before, and her knowledge turns out to be crucial.
The roles of Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada were specially written by Gatiss for Dame Diana Rigg and her real-life daughter, Rachael Stirling, and both acclaimed actresses clearly relished the opportunity to portray a particularly perverted mother-daughter relationship. Rigg’s character is the more straightforward of the two, but she makes the most of moments such as when she rebuffs Ada with “Kindly do not claw and slobber at my crinoline. You know I cannot bear to look at sick people.” However, the star performance of the episode is Stirling’s. Ada starts out as a pure grotesque, with her filmed-over, sightless eyes and scarred face, but becomes steadily more rounded and human as the story progresses. She’s particularly captivating in her scenes with Smith, showing Ada’s attachment to the paralyzed Doctor, her distress when she loses her “monster,” and her climactic moment when she destroys the parasite creature.
Unlike several other recent episodes, even the minor characters are vividly drawn: The leering mortuary examiner (Graham Turner) is a delight, as is the brother of the initial victim of the crimson horror (both played by Brendan Patricks) who contacts Vastra to ask her to investigate (the way he keeps fainting whenever he sees anything he can’t understand makes for a great running gag). Also rewarding for the long-term fan are references to moments from other Victorian-era stories in the series: the imprisoned “monster” being given food through a hatch in its cell door recalls 1989’s “Ghost Light,” while the examination in a mortuary of a disfigured body found floating in water is a homage to 1977’s “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.”
Smith gets to have fun putting on a Yorkshire accent and doing some zombie acting, and his summation of Mrs. Gillyflower is one of the most succinct and memorable lines from the Doctor to any villain ever: “I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts, and I’m going to stop you.” Coleman doesn’t get much to do as Clara this week; her main purpose is to bring the plot threads from “The Snowmen” back to the surface, as Vastra and company saw Clara—or rather, someone who looked exactly like her—die then. The series is still managing to put off telling us what’s really going on with the character, but right at the end of the episode, the arc-plot begins to finally move. Clara returns to the present-day home of the children she’s caring for, only to discover that they’ve found photographic evidence on the Internet of her jaunts with the Doctor to the past—including one in Victorian London that she knows nothing about…
Next Week: Neil Gaiman, whose episode “The Doctor’s Wife” was one of the highlights of the 2011 season, returns to Doctor Who, as do the Cybermen, with a “Nightmare in Silver.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: For another overstuffed extravaganza of Victoriana, check out the final story ever made (albeit not the last one broadcast) for the classic series: the wonderfully intricate and macabre “Ghost Light,” starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred.
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