Yorkshire, 1893. The seemingly benevolent and God-fearing Mrs Gillyflower is planning to rain down a biblical hell on all humanity from behind the gates of the seemingly idyllic Sweetville. But what is the truth behind the Crimson Horror, and can the Doctor and Clara, teaming up with Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax, stop her plan?
Too many ingredients?
No one who ever goes to live there ever seems to come out.
Mark Gatiss‘ second script this season (after Cold War) is a veritable mélange of themes, ideas and jokes, all crammed into a single episode like an entire box of Roses into a single confection. This starts with the seemingly idyllic factory-based village of Sweetville, which riffs on the real-life Cadbury-built model town of Bournville, which was started in 1893, the year in which this story is set. But there are also nods to the Temperance Movement and the dubiousness of Victorian values, religious concepts surrounding the Apocalypse or End of Days, Frankenstein (the whole relationship between Ada and her ‘monster’, and the Doctor’s stiff gait) and the TV series V (with its toxic red rain), not to mention an entire flashback sequence shot to represent an old-style movie, complete with sepia tones and film glitches.
It adds up to about three stories’ worth of ideas all crammed into one. In some respects this is great, but in others it makes the episode a bit of a schizophrenic mess, with an excess of one-shot jokes diluting the impact of an otherwise simple but effective old-school horror yarn which would have stood up very well on its own.
Diana Rigg throws herself into the role of Mrs Gillyflower, injecting some real depth into what could easily have been a one-dimensional villain, but without hamming it up excessively. The true horror is not the nature of her symbiotic relationship with the prehistoric red leech Mr Sweet or the way she uses her employees as laboratory rats by dipping them in vats of crimson venom, but rather the way in which she callously experimented upon her daughter Ada (Rachael Stirling) in order to further her own end and was happy to use her as a hostage without a second thought.
Vastra, Jenny and Strax – as previously seen in A Good Man Goes To War and the Christmas Special The Snowmen – provide an interesting distraction in an opening quarter of an hour which is Doctor and Clara-less and continue as an integral part of the story (to the extent where I wonder if they are being positioned for a potential spin-off series of their own). The Silurian Vastra (Neve McIntosh) is in full-on Sherlock Holmes mode. Strax (Dan Starkey), as usual, provides comic relief with his constant desire to utilise a range of exotic-sounding weaponry (‘triple-blast brain splitters’, anyone?) But it is Jenny (Catrin Stewart) who takes centre stage here, infiltrating Sweetville and rescuing the Doctor from his cell. In many ways, she is the central hero of this episode.
Again Clara plays a key role in saving the day, recognising the significance of a chimney that doesn’t blow smoke – it’s the housing which disguises Gillyflower’s rocket – and throwing a chair into her control panel to prevent her launching it immediately. (Although, when Gillyflower does activate the secondary launch mechanism, how does the rocket takes off without incinerating everyone inside the chimney?)
All the above, taken individually, make for elements of a potentially great story. But all thrown in together, it’s a bit like mixing together your favourite starter, main course and dessert into one dish and expecting the outcome to be the best meal ever. In that respect, The Crimson Horror is more of an Eton Mess than a Queen of Puddings. It’s edible, but it could have been spectacular. Sometimes less really is more.
- Rachael Stirling, who plays Miss Gillyflower’s daughter Ada, is Diana Rigg’s real-life daughter.
- What colour is the front door of Vastra’s residence? TARDIS blue, of course.
- Upon arriving in Yorkshire rather than London, the Doctor mentions to Clara that “I once spent a hell of a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow airport”. This is a reference to Tegan Jovanka, the Australian air stewardess who was a companion of Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor.
- “Horse, you have failed in your mission.”
- The urchin who provides Strax with directions to Sweetville in the style of a satnav system is named Thomas Thomas, which is rather reminiscent of a well-known brand of navigational devices, is it not? (Either that, or he’s an ancestor of the Australian helicopter pilot in Fireman Sam …) It’s an utterly gratuitous gag – or is it? – but it still raised a smile.
- “Oh, great, Great. Attack of the super-models.”
- Jenny stripping down to a black leather cat-suit and dealing with Gillyflower’s henchmen in the style of the Avengers character Emma Peel, a role made famous by Diana Rigg.