“We are going to the North!”: ‘The Crimson Horror’ Review

To start on an interesting side note, ‘The Crimson Horror’ is officially the 100th episode of New Who, so congrats to the Doctor on making it this far! And what a crazy, bonkers episode this was. From the titular horrendous red make-up to the little street urchin-cum-GPS Thomas Thomas (I suppose he goes by Tom Tom for short?), from the revelation of the red “monster” to the shockingly violent finale, Mark Gatiss’ ‘The Crimson Horror’ is a delightfully loopy romp. It’s interesting to contrast this with Gatiss’ other Victorian episode, ‘The Unquiet Dead,’ which I recently re-watched. While ‘The Unquiet Dead’ used the more traditional, mainstream and wholesome Victorian traditions (Dickens, Christmas, ghosts) to explore themes of grief and the recovered zest for life in a very Scrooge-like story of redemption, ‘The Crimson Horror’ embraces that other, but equally true, face of Victorianism embodied in the Penny Dreadfuls. This is the Victorianism that produced things like Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper. It’s not about redemption or epiphany, but the worst aspects of humanity festering in the seedy underbelly of the mercilessly industrialized English cities. Gatiss’ choice to set the story in the north of England, where industrialization most took its toll, is telling, and the stereotypically cold, practical northern city of York lends to the dirty, rotten atmosphere of the episode.

Penny Dreadfuls were never really meant to make us think, however (though of course it’s an added plus if they do). They are pulp fiction defined: Stories printed on paper so cheap that even the unwashed masses can afford them (they cost one pence to purchase, hence the name Penny Dreadful). They are meant to shock and entertain. They are meant to be fun. Fittingly then, our leads in this annual Doctor-Lite episode are the wacky Paternoster Gang: Slithery and dignified Madam Vastra, her spunky consort Jenny Flint, and the recovering warmonger Sontaran Strax. Building on Moffat’s earlier suggestion of this team as proto-Holmes and Watson private detectives, these three are hired to investigate the strange disease killing the people found dead and floating down the river from Sweetville, a gated community and match factory run by Mr. Sweet and Mrs. Gillyflower.

Mrs. Gillyflower is played with delightful insanity by Dame Diana Rigg, who is currently kicking butt as the Queen of Thorns in Game of Thrones. Not having seen her in anything before this year, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying her as that crotchety old matron, and it seems at first as though Mrs. Gillyflower is of the same mold. As soon as her nefarious plan is exposed however, Rigg’s performance completely changes. She drops any pretense of stiff morality and becomes what she really is inside: A card-carrying lunatic with a prehistoric red leech living parasitically under her tight Victorian corset, a metaphor for the corruption lurking under buttoned-up propriety if I ever saw one.  We are given a hint of this when she spills the salt and laughs a little too maniacally at her own clumsiness, but by the end Rigg makes Mrs. Gillyflower one of the most determinedly crazy villains in all of New Who. It was also fun seeing Rigg act alongside her real-life daughter Rachael Stirling. I can’t help but feel that the final confrontation between the two when Ada rails at her monstrous mother, venting her rage and whacking her with her cane, must have been a little cathartic and more than a little fun.

Besides the sheer boldness of some of the visuals and performances, the thing that surprised me most about ‘The Crimson Horror’ was that, for a Doctor-Lite episode there was quite a lot of the Doctor. I have to admit that while I saw the twist with the Doctor coming a mile away that only made me enjoy it more. Perhaps it’s because we’ve heard the Doctor called a monster so many times, which is interesting in itself. As recently as ‘Hide’ we were told that “every lonely monster needs a companion.” Now, Ada refers to the Doctor as her “special monster,” and swears that outcasts such as them will find a place in the New Jerusalem, if only they can take care of each other. After she meets Clara, introduced as the Doctor’s friend, she repeats the most-repeated motif of New Who: “It’s not good to be alone.” Ada, as a blind girl who understands suffering and does not judge on appearances, fulfills the role of the ideal companion: One who sees through the Doctor’s seeming otherness to the lonely soul of a man who needs friends and help. It’s a good reminder of the Doctor’s need for his companions right before we head into the finale and the 50th Anniversary Special, in which who knows what aspects of the Doctor’s soul he (and we) will be forced to confront.

After all that madness, the end of the episode was equally intriguing. The thrice-repeated refrain of Clara being “the boss” was interesting, suggesting more than just the Doctor and Clara’s flirtatiousness. In what way is she the boss? The boss of whom? Is Clara, as I suggested before, going to judge the Doctor in some way? I was also delighted when the kids that Clara nannies popped up at the end, and happy that they’ll be included in next week’s adventure. One of Moffat’s weaknesses has been that you never get as much of the sense that his companions had much of a life outside of their TARDIS adventures. I know that part of this had to do with the plot, such as Amy’s home life being erased by the crack in the wall. And it’s not as though Amy lacks family, but the family we really get to know (Rory, River, Rory’s dad) end up becoming as much a part of the Doctor’s life as Amy. She lacked the kind of domestic texture that the Davies companions had. I thought he was beginning to correct this with Clara in ‘The Bells of St. John’ and ‘The Rings of Akhaten,’ but since then we haven’t seen any hint of Clara’s non-Doctor life. I’m really looking forward to the inclusion of the kids, and exploring the kind of tension between “real life and Doctor life” (as Rory put it) that Davies was able to explore with Rose, Martha and Donna. I also liked the twist of the kids discovering the historical photographs, and Clara’s revelation that there is one she doesn’t recognize: The one of her in Victorian London, seen in ‘The Snowmen,’ when she died for the second time. I’ll assume that she will be confronting the Doctor about this, directly or indirectly, in the near future, and he will really have to explain this time.

Whether it was Moffat’s idea or Gaiman’s, next week’s episode in which the Doctor takes Clara and the kids to the universe’s most awesome theme park is a brilliant idea, and if it’s anything as good as ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ we’re in for a treat.


About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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