Sunday, May 12, 2013

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror

There is a grand tradition in Doctor Who that when the production team recreate a Victorian setting, they do it really well. This results in stories as excellent and as rich as 1977's 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' as well as 1989's 'Ghost Light', and now we have another to add to the list ...

I loved 'The Crimson Horror'! I have to admit, on first viewing, its breathless pace and cornucopia of ideas left me a little bewildered, but a second watch confirmed that 99% of the explanations are there - they are just so fast! - and that the story as a whole packs so much into 45 minutes, that I was longing for a two-parter to really do it all justice.

What I like about 'The Crimson Horror' especially is that it brings a graphic novel approach to the storytelling, shortcutting things in a way to keep everything visual, but still managing to tell the story. Mark Gatiss has delivered, I think, the most clever and successful script yet to the show, and yet he manages to keep it all feeling fresh and original, while also touching on many inspirational elements from the world of horror films along the way.

Lets get going then, and see what 'The Crimson Horror' has to bring.

We open in Yorkshire in 1893, and another cool caption (I have a thing for these, and I love when they are integrated into the action! Probably my favourite use ever is in the film Zombieland ...) We find Mrs Gilliflower, perfectly played by Diana Rigg, with a brace of creepy girls, facing off against a woman whose husband ends up bright red on a mortician's slab. Shades of 'The Green Death' here. This death is, however, called the Crimson Horror! Mr Flower pays to see the body - it is his brother after all - and takes a photograph of the corpse's eye - an Optogram - as apparently you can see an image of the last thing the person saw recorded there. He then heads to London to secure the services of Madame Vastra (a Silurian for those of you who recall such things), but when she removes her veil to look closely at the photograph, Flower faints. But wait ... there's an image of the Doctor in the eye ... so Vastra and Jenny must take a trip up North!

There is so much story here already, and I think that to try and detail things as I usually do, will get long and complex, so I'll try and keep things short!

Back up North, Mrs Gilliflower is holding interviews for people to come and live and work in her new match factory, called 'Sweetfields'. Her daughter, Ada, is blind, afflicted by her husband in a fit of rage apparently, but has a speechless 'Monster' caged in a cell-like room (shades of Frankenstein and 'Ghost Light' here).

Jenny signs up for a place at Sweetfields ... acting as an insider for Vastra and Strax - who have a great line in humour threaded throughout - to see what's going on there.  I did notice at this point a poster on the wall advertising a 'Human Waxworks' run by someone called Carred Sam, and a poster advertising Circus freaks and 'Dastardly Donnai', but these seem to have no relevance to the story!

Jenny investigates, and finds that the sounds of machinery are just that - sounds - and sees people carrying jars of strange red liquid. She then discovers that the 'Monster' in the cell is actually a bright red Doctor! So she gets him out, and locks him in another cupboard where he returns to normal, apparently with the help of his sonic screwdriver. This is perhaps the one really unexplained thing about the story - how the Doctor, and later Clara, are returned to normal. A shame as there should have been something to explain how this happened.

I loved the vat of red liquid and the people being dipped into it - straight out of Carry on Screaming! 'Frying tonight!' - and the whole flashback where the Doctor explains what happened to that point was inspired. I loved the music for this sequence and the archive look and editing given to the pictures ... a very clever way of filling the audience in. Of course if this had been a two-parter, then all of this would have been in part one! I wish the Doctor hadn't snogged Jenny though! That seemed out of place.

Interesting too that Clara doesn't get a line until 21 minutes in! I was wondering if this was her 'episode off' and that we wouldn't actually see her at all!

We learn that Mr Sweet is Miss Gilliflower's 'silent partner' and that she is keeping people frozen under giant bell jars! So Clara and the Doctor are captured and 'dipped' - On Clara the process works, but on the Doctor it fails, and he would have been destined for the canal, but for Ada rescuing him and chaining him up in the cell.

It seems that Mr Flower fell into the vat (shades of Quatermass II) and then encountered the red Doctor, which is why the Doctor's image was in his eye when he died!

Meanwhile, comedy turn Strax gets lost in the streets and finds an urchin called Thomas Thomas (Tom Tom ... satnav ... geddit?) who can direct him. This fairly obvious pun is groan-worthy, but allows a respite from the fast-paced drama.

Okay ... The Doctor finds Clara frozen under one of the bell jars and puts her in the same cupboard he was in to save her - it works and she is fine!  Not sure at all how this works though - she didn't seem to have the sonic screwdriver with her this time!

Anyway, when Miss Gilliflower attacks with her creepy women (no explanation too as to who her 'pilgrims' are or why they are so subservient to her ... I assume she hypnotised them or something, but it's not explained), Jenny strips off to a black catsuit and kicks some ass (in true Diana Rigg/Avengers style, which is a nice touch) until Vastra and Strax arrive as reinforcements and drive them all away.

We now learn that the red liquid is a venom-like poison secreted by a red leech 65 million years ago ... but what is it doing in Victorian Yorkshire? Suddenly Clara mentions a chimney which doesn't blow smoke - now I might have missed something here. Was this mentioned earlier? I didn't make a note ... and if not, then I'm not sure how Clara comes to this assumption. Maybe something was lost in the editing here. Anyway, the chimney houses a rocket, and Miss Gilliflower intends to rain the poison down on the World! She also has a pipe organ (shades of The Abominable Dr Phibes) which hides behind it a control panel for the rocket.

So ... what's really happening here is that Miss Gilliflower has one of these red leeches on her chest, and she has been feeding it!  I loved that the creature was real and not CGI, and I like the rather rubbery look of it, suggesting films like Basket Case as well as various portrayals of freaks in the movies over the years. Somehow the leech has driven her mad, and she wants to wipe out humanity - all except those perfect specimens that she has dipped in the venom and which have survived. They will apparently awake several weeks later and inherit the world. Which is of course shades of 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs'.

She had to experiment on her own daughter, Ada, to find the anti-venom to protect herself, a process which blinded the girl. A nice touch, and in keeping with the characters and story we are presented with.

So we move to endgame. Miss Gilliflower launches the rocket and it takes off, but Vastra and Jenny have removed the payload and it's therefore harmless. Not sure how everyone survives being in such close proximity to the rocket mind you ... Meanwhile Strax is atop the chimney, and fires down, causing Miss Gilliflower to fall to her death down the gantry. As she dies, so 'Mr Sweet' - the leech - leaves her body and is then beaten to a pulp by Ada as it tries to crawl away.

So all is well ... I guess the people turned into waxworks by Mrs Gilliflower will recover in time, and Vastra, Jenny and Strax return to London to continue their sleuthing. Then Mr Flowers arrives again, and seeing the TARDIS vanish, faints again ... another running thread of humour in the production, which I'm sure echoes a horror film, but I can't recall which. Where the detective faints away every time he's confronted by a body. I'm sure someone will tell me!

We end with Clara being returned home by the Doctor. I'm not sure about this. Why does she need to go home after each adventure? It's a little weird I feel. But anyway, doing this allows her to be confronted by the two kids she nannys for, who have found photos of her in all her adventures with the Doctor - including one of her as a Victorian Nanny, which of course isn't this Clara at all. They say they want to go time travelling with her, or they'll tell their dad that their nanny is a time traveller! Personally I'd have told them to do just that and see how far they got!

Now I'm sure this last bit was added by the production office as, for some reason, they wanted the kids in the following story ... but it's all a bit Sarah Jane Adventures/Tracey Beaker/CBBC for me, and not really necessary.

Overall then, a truly cracking and awesome episode, that actually makes sense from start to end - with only a couple of unexplained McGuffins - and which thrills and entertains too. There's great performances from all the cast, comedy from Strax, kick-ass catsuited women, Clara looking divine in a lovely Victorian dress and hair-do, and Dame Diana Rigg!  It's worth mentioning that Rachel Stirling who plays Ada, is actually Rigg's real life daughter, and she is also so good in this production!

It's a cracker, as they say, and while it could have benefitted greatly from more time, it stands as one of the best episodes yet presented for the 11th Doctor.

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