Sunday, 5 May 2013

Doctor Who: Crimson Horror (Episode Review)

Despite the different writer, the Crimson Horror can probably be considered to be Dinosaurs on a Spaceship Mk II. It’s trying to be an open comedy and adventure, but unlike the previous experience it manages to tweak events enough to actually make it fun rather than a colossal failure.

You know what you’re in for when we get this exchange between two characters we’ve never seen thirty seconds into the episode:
Edmund: “If I’ve not returned in an hour you must fetch the police”
Effie: “Edmund!”
*the two kiss*
Edmund: “Don’t fret Effie my dear, all will be well! But we must get to the bottom of this dark and queer business no matter what the cost!”

A few seconds later the black laced stormtrooper brigade walks in telling us who the villain is, we hear Edmund's screams and they die leaving laughter inducing corpses. All of this is delivered with a degree of ham which could only be topped if BRIAN BLESSED decided to get involved, and it sets the tone for everything which follows.

Ironically, the episode moves at the usual breakneck Moffat speed and contains the same number of logical facilities and stupidity driven plot points but takes almost none of it seriously. As a result it’s overall quality is elevated by presenting what would normally be straight faced as effectively being a farce. Things like a clearly missing first act are not quite so noticeable due to the well delivered jokes and the fact drama only comes into play much later on.

Effectively this is a follow-up to The Snowmen with the characters of Vastra, Jenny and Strax in 18th century England. Approached by another potential client to investigate goings on in the north after the death of his brother, the trio discover the Doctor may be involved. Involved, and very much in danger.

Bringing back these characters is easily the best decision of the episode. They were genuinely likable in A Good Man Goes To War and in the utter disaster which was The Snowmen they stood out the best characters on screen. Providing the right level of humour and seriousness as and when needed. They desperately needed more time spent on them after their introduction and help carry the episode, playing off of one another to the right degree.

Besides the returning trio and the usual main characters a highpoint is definitely the villains in the form of Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada, played by Diana Rigg and Rachel Stirling respectively. The episode easily makes good use of the actors and brings them into the forefront at exactly the right time. Mostly keeping them apart from the main characters until the halfway point to help with their more serious performances rarely blending with those of the focus characters. Well, until quite some way in anyway.

Now, the plot itself is fairly ludicrous. Not in how it actually works, it’s just an old science fiction stock tale we’ve seen in every sci-fi setting imaginable, but the presentation. It feels like the effects and props team were told to use Flash Gordon or some of the cheesiest of science fiction designs as a baseline and then go from there. By the end it manages to go so nuts in bitchslapping the science fiction staple it would be hard to imagine Farscape doing a much better job.

This being said Gillyflower and Ada both serve as a surprisingly serious core to events at times. While they do indeed delve into the ludicrous as and when is needed, Gillyflower coming across like a Bond villain during the climax, any serious or emotional acting isn’t wasted. Rather than lurching between one emotion to the next and giving no tonal consistency, Gatiss manages to actually have the script shift gears. Quickly moving from one emotion to the next without it feeling jarring and having a few isolated scenes of seriousness which manage to work well amidst the episode’s more ludicrous elements. Ada is definitely the stronger of the two in this respect, having to carry less of the baggage of being a villain to the plot but they’re both handled with surprising skill.

Only appearing quite some way in, both the Doctor and Clara don’t have as much of a chance to shine as we’ve seen in previous episodes. There’s only one or two lines which really reflect the relationship they’ve had to this point and while there are a few nice exchanges they’re basically irrelevant to what takes place.

Saul Metzstein returns again to direct and it’s clear why. Whatever the quality of the episodes he’s previously done, the man has an eye of detail and shooting dramatic and large environments. He manages to capture the larger and more open scenes with a great deal of skill, especially in the finale. While other moments in the more enclosed spaces don’t seem to be quite so skilfully shot, he focuses on certain details and atmospheric elements which help to give a decent amount of atmosphere to the environment. Though this is usually only effective when he has a single point or shot in a sequence to emphasise upon.

This praise being given, the episode is still not without flaws and two very clearly stand out. This episode is a major example of modern Doctor Who being overly sexualised, with more than a few pointless jokes and moments really reinforcing the sentiment given by Warris Hussein. Even by this episode’s standards they feel truly out of place and one which feels exceptionally juvenile, causing a near universal rolling of eyes from those I spoke to who watched the episode.

The second is the conclusion. After a mostly comedic episode with her having little involvement, the final few seconds are used to try and take a massive leap forwards with Clara’s personal story. Having her suddenly learn of her presence in past lives and her charges learn of her time-travelling adventures. There’s no build-up to this and it feels completely out of place, serving as little more than an excuse to keep things going and lead into the next episode. Which, thanks to the presence of two child actors, suddenly looks worse as a result.

Still, these are minor issues to what was an otherwise very solid episode and I’d definitely recommend anyone give this one a watch. It’s easily the best one we’ve seen since the second half began with The Bells of Saint John and easily redeems Mark Gatiss for Cold War. Here’s hoping that next week’s return of the cybermen will keep this quality of writing.


Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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