Not all Doctor Who threats are created equal. The Doctor has, in this incarnation alone, rebooted the universe, cheated a fixed point in time, braved the Dalek asylum, fought the Weeping Angels while time ripped apart around him, and defeated an enemy he couldn’t even properly remember. Compared with monsters such as these, a mad eugenicist from Victorian Yorkshire and her symbiotic leech don’t seem particularly intimidating, even if they do intend to unleash a deadly toxin on all of humanity. In isolation, their scheme is unimaginably monstrous, but compared to the Doctor’s other adventures, this is just Tuesday.
Creating a scenario worthy of the Doctor is a frequent challenge for the show’s standalone episodes, and Doctor Who has hit upon a few effective solutions. It can remove the Doctor’s usual advantages—like the TARDIS or the sonic screwdriver—and strand him in a situation where he’s borderline helpless, as Mark Gatiss did in his previous effort this season, “Cold War.” It can purposefully choose a story with relatively minor stakes but then take the time to develop its characters and explain why all this is important to them as individuals, as Neil Cross did in “Hide.” Or it can turn the entire story into a meditation on the deeper meanings of Doctor Who lore, as Neil Gaiman did with “The Doctor’s Wife” (and, fingers crossed, as he will hopefully do again next week with “Nightmare In Silver”).
“The Crimson Horror” is none of thse things. Once the Doctor is revived from his leech-induced paralysis, he takes complete control of the situation and never looks back, indeed, the episode underlines this when the Doctor pops out of the revival chamber fully clothed and completely reenergized, going so far as to give his savior Jenny a kiss. Besides, anytime that the Doctor and Clara seem, however briefly, to be on the brink of defeat, their friends Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are there to save them, which essentially makes the Doctor even more formidable than he usually is. Diana Rigg—legendary for her work in The Avengers, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and, most importantly, The Great Muppet Caper—brings real bite and malevolence to the role of Mrs. Gillyflower, but the character fundamentally remains another of the show’s over-the-top one-off villains, prone to nasty one-liners and theatrical rants. Mrs. Gillyflower is a particularly effective example of this type of villain, in part because Rigg never shies away from just how insane she really is, and she fully commits both to her character’s thunderous sermons and the fact that she has a damn leech attached to her chest. But still, this isn’t an episode meant to be taken entirely seriously. It’s a fun episode, a romp, something that probably would have been described as a runaround if it had been made during the classic series.
Stories like this can be a fun breath of fresh air—especially when they are as immensely entertaining as this episode—as long as they don’t feel so lighthearted that they become insubstantial. “The Crimson Horror” ably sidesteps this by utilizing a bunch of unusual stylistic choices, most obviously the fact that the Doctor doesn’t show up until 15 minutes into the episode. Picking up where they left off in “A Good Man Goes To War” and “The Snowmen,” Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are the stars of the opening third of the episode, and they strike a good balance between goofy and efficient. Neve McIntosh is a natural leader as Vastra, Catrin Stewart gives Jenny a steely resolve without ever entirely betraying the character’s working-class 19th century roots, and Dan Starkey mines a lot of laughs from Strax’s Sontaran buffoonery. The trio proves entertaining even without the Doctor around, although I suspect the logistical and budgetary challenges with Strax and Vastra’s makeup means this is the closest we will ever get to a spinoff.
The Doctor’s grainy, sepia-toned flashbacks provide another welcome departure from the usual formula. The show’s visuals have been a consistent highlight of Matt Smith and Steven Moffat’s tenure—a natural byproduct of the production team’s growing experience making the show—and this is one of the more obvious visual flourishes in an episode that is generally great fun just to look at. This sequence is also effective because the Doctor is trying to keep his story short, so the episode distills the usual setup to its most basic elements. That means the Doctor and Clara instantly slide into their vaguely convincing disguises as a northern physician and his wife, and the pair are instantly captured by Mrs. Gillyflower’s army of supermodels. “The Crimson Horror” recognizes that the audience already knows the narrative beats for a story like this, so it only bothers with the shorthand version. That keeps the energy level high, but it also sets up the moment in which a Sweetville resident begs for help from an unresponsive crowd, and the Doctor simply responds, “We’ll listen.” The episode doesn’t make a big deal out of that moment, but it’s a quick, beautiful illustration of why the Doctor is different.
Still, what really sets “The Crimson Horror” apart is the character of Ada Gillyflower. As played by Rachel Stirling—Diana Rigg’s real-life daughter—Ada first appears to be the archetypal Victorian invalid, a sweet, delicate creature who is crushed by the world and forges a relationship with her “monster,” the crimson Doctor. But when she blames herself for her suffering, the Doctor refuses to let her spout what he calls backwards nonsense. “Backwards” is a telling word choice, because it’s a reminder that the Doctor tries to respect other cultures, but only to a point, as he doesn’t allow Ada to get sucked into her native era’s primitive philosophies. And then, once Ada learns the truth about her mother, she explodes with shocking but entirely justifiable fury. She savagely attacks her mother, she later refuses to forgive her dying mother, and she pulverizes the ancient leech.
That last moment cleverly contrasts Ada’s vengeful rage with the Doctor’s removed perspective, one that allows him to calmly muse about the best way to deal with a genocidal parasite. The moment acknowledges that this story might have just been another fun little adventure for the Doctor and his friends, but this is Ada’s life, and she wants justice for all that was stolen from her. The episode doesn’t make any larger thematic points about the Doctor’s aloof tendencies—something that has come up several times before in the series—but it doesn’t really need to. The episode is entertaining enough that it can afford to be subtle in its handling of the show’s weightier elements.
The only major missed opportunity is the episode’s handling of the Clara situation. Jenny’s concern for the Doctor’s sanity when he talks about saving Clara is a nice touch, and there’s a great character moment for Vastra when she responds to the Doctor’s revelation not with doubt but with the simple observation that she knew the pair had unfinished business. Still, one of the reasons Vastra was so compelling in “A Good Man Goes To War” was that she was one of the only characters who dared speak to the Doctor as an equal, and so it’s a shame to not see them have even a moment alone to talk about the Doctor’s current course of action. But then, Doctor Who long ago decided to restrict its overarching narratives to just a select few stories, meaning the standalone episodes can only hint at the show’s serialized elements. As such, while it’s a little frustrating to hear the Doctor retort, “No, I haven’t” when Jenny points out he still hasn’t explained about Clara, that line is the right response in the context of this episode. “The Crimson Horror” is the fun adventure in which the Doctor and his pals drop in, save the day, and move on to the next case. The Doctor’s darker ordeal is still out there, and it will be here before long, so it’s best to enjoy stories like this while we still have the chance.
- The episode ends with Angie and Artie, the two kids Clara helps look after, revealing that they found a bunch of old photos from Clara’s adventures, plus a photo of her Victorian counterpart. This is mostly setup for the next two episodes, but it also works as a sly commentary on Doctor Who’s appeal to children. After all, they instantly work out that Clara is a time traveler and that the Doctor—her “boyfriend,” as they put it—is an alien, mostly because of the chin. All that would be an impossible leap of logic for an adult, but it makes perfect sense for these two kids.
- “Brave heart, Clara.” As a huge fan of Peter Davison’s Doctor, I liked how this episode boiled down his entire era to a series of failed attempts to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow, because, yes, that’s entirely accurate. I loved how it then brought back the Fifth Doctor’s old catchphrase, especially since Clara is, like Tegan, not the most naturally brave companion.
- Insane, Obviously Wrong Theory Corner: Jenny clearly thinks the Doctor is insane when he starts talking about Clara, and what if Jenny is right? What if the Doctor, mad from grief, has been hallucinating Clara this whole time, and everybody has been either too polite (Vastra, Jenny) or too stupid (Strax) to point it out? And any scene in which Clara appears by herself is really just the Doctor wearing a wig. Ah, but what about scenes in which characters clearly interact with both The Doctor and Clara, in a way that it couldn’t just be the Doctor very quickly talking to himself? Well then, that’s just the Rani wearing a wig… obviously.
- Between this and “Cold War,” Mark Gatiss has now written two of my favorite episodes from this season. Even as someone that liked “The Unquiet Dead” and will defend “Victory Of The Daleks,” I’m still shocked to be able to say that. It’s a very pleasant shock though.
- That said, the TomTom joke may be the single dumbest gag in Doctor Who history. It’s so silly and awful that it almost loops all the way back around to be awesome in its sheer shamelessness. The running gag with the fainting Victorian wasn’t much better, but the episode puts me in a good enough mood overall that I can forgive such goofiness.
- Strax is mostly a bumbling, blustering idiot in this episode, which is highly amusing but does rather undermine the Sontarans as monsters. Indeed, I would say that the show is really going to have to address how it’s reduced the Sontarans to comic relief, but I’m not sure the Sontarans were ever anything else. Outside of “The Sontaran Experiment” and maybe “The Time Warrior,” these have always been Doctor Who’s silliest recurring villains. At least “The Crimson Horror” shows Strax is still an effective warrior and a deadly shot.