One consistently recurring question among fans over recent years has been why accomplished writer and performer Mark Gatiss hasn’t been able to deliver a follow-up to match “The Unquiet Dead,” his first Doctor Who episode back in 2005. There was the undercooked ‘meh’-ness of “The Idiot’s Lantern” for example, and the flat-out disappointment of “Victory of the Daleks” which was only partially the result of the new-model primary-coloured candy-floss iDaleks. Even 2011’s “Night Terrors” felt like it should have been so much better rather than just acceptably decent.
Given his undoubted talents – just check out his writing for Sherlock for example – and his unimpeachable love of the series, a resounding Doctor Who success for Gatiss has been long over due. Arguably last month’s “Cold War” was the best of Gatiss follow-ups, and it was certainly pretty good and well-received even if I personally thought it narrowly failed to fully deliver. So you can understand then when I say I’d rather given up hope of ever finding a Gatiss-penned Doctor Who that I could unreservedly, unhesitatingly gush over and declare as being his best contribution to the series of all time; and I certainly wasn’t expecting “The Crimson Horror” to be the episode to prove me wrong.
Well paint me red, dress me in long johns and call me dear monster, because I’ve never been happier having to eat my words: “The Crimson Horror” was the most tongue-in-cheek fun that Doctor Who has had in a very long time. Possibly ever, actually. It is delightfully wicked and clever from first to last and shows just how good Gatiss can truly be when he slips his leash and goes on the rampage unfettered by cerebral concerns of what a ‘good’ Doctor Who episode needs to or should look like.
Instead, all the various influences that Gatiss loves and adores are merrily thrown into the melting pot: there’s the Victorian steampunk/penny dreadfuls setting of his Lucifer Box series of novels, the northern comedy grotesques who would have fitted in seamlessly into The League of Gentlemen, and lovely homages to any number of horror films from the original 1931 Boris Karloff Gothic Frankenstein through to the 1953 Vincent Price Grand Guignol House of Wax with even a knowing nod to the peerless Carry On Screaming along the way. And while “The Crimson Horror” is funny, it’s also refreshingly dark at its satirical core – for once the villain of the piece isn’t some poor misunderstood creature just wanting a hug (as has been a cliché of recent New Who stories) but is instead an evil, malevolent cackling mad-person straight out of an old James Bond movie – and it’s joyous to behold.
It’s an incredibly heady mix, as rich as having a double portion of Death by Chocolate served up with extra-rich chocolate sauce on top and chocolate chip ice cream on the side. Your head may never stop spinning again, but if you’ve got an ounce of humour in your heart and any love at all of Who running through your veins then it’ll send you to heaven in the process.
It’s the kind of thing that could so easily have gone horribly, self-indulgently wrong if not played very smartly. There’s a lot more hard work and discipline gone into this episode than the riotous free-wheeling end product would have you believe. There are moments when it teeters on the brink of collapsing in on itself, of becoming too much of a lampoon and pastiche of both classic and modern Doctor Who to be acceptable, but every time you think you’re at the tipping point it jerks back again and saves the day. The continually-swooning (male) client who faints ramrod-straight at the first sign of anything alien is sitcom stuff and yet is irresistibly funny all the same – especially with repetition. The most audacious moment of all is when a character gets directions from a young street urchin, and you can’t believe the out-and-out groan-inducing joke that Gatiss inserts into the show. A quick analysis makes you realise how expertly it’s handled, so that while it’s a gag worthy of a Carry On film it’s actually done in such a way that the humour comes from our knowing reading of it rather than by making the show itself look stupid.
But there are other people who deserve a big share of the credit here. Director Saul Metzstein’s work is exemplary throughout and the scene in the empty factory with the three gramophones blasting out at full volume is particularly effective. But it’s the sequence in which he presents the Doctor’s catch-up reminiscences using an old-style grainy sepia effect that was such a thing of beauty I wanted to stop the episode there and then, stand up and applaud – it’s one of the most sublime and perfectly executed things I’ve seen on television in an age. Matt Smith’s raucous attempt at a full-throated Yorkshire accent is just the icing on the cake at that moment.
Then there’s the guest cast, with Dame Diana Rigg on absolutely top form as the cheerfully deranged Mrs Gillyflower, looking like she’s having a whale of a time. Plaudits as well to Rachael Stirling – Rigg’s real-life daughter – for a quite wonderful turn as the blind and disfigured Ada Gillyflower who is the emotional heart of the story. Overall this felt like an episode with a full and rich supporting cast, with a good number of brief, small parts all pleasingly written and played. That’s such a welcome change after several weeks of really quite noticeable cast claustrophobia: “Hide” and “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” barely scraped together three supporting characters apiece besides the two regulars, while “Cold War” featured the world’s most under-manned nuclear submarine in history.
Best of all, showrunner Steven Moffat has loaned Gatiss three of his best recent additions to the ‘Whoniverse’ to play with: yes, it’s the second return of Victorian-era Silurian supersleuth Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her maid/companion/sidekick/lover Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and their Sontaran butler, the ever-adorable psychotic potato dwarf Strax (Dan Starkey). There are as welcome and as wonderful as ever, with every line from Strax in particular once again an instant quotable classic. Even better, this time Gatiss allows Jenny – hitherto the least developed of the trio – to take centre stage in the story as she goes undercover at Mrs Gillyflower’s ‘Sweetville’ factory and social housing project from which no one ever returns unless they’re bright red and quite dead. In putting Jenny at the focus of the early part of the story, Gatiss finally makes the character every bit an equal for the more obvious attractions of Vastra and Strax. There’s even a cheeky scene in which Jenny strips off her demure Victorian garb ready for action and is revealed to be wearing a tight-fitting leather catsuit that inevitably reminds those of us of a certain age of the strikingly sexy costume worn by Mrs Emma Peel in The Avengers episode “A Touch of Brimstone”: I wonder what Dame Diana made of it as she watched on?
It’s touches like this that raise the episode into quite brilliant new heights. The story keeps the mystery of Clara’s mysterious other lives on the boil, and also makes another fan-pleasing grace note to the past by invoking the spirit of a popular 80s companion. Clara is back at her sparkling best after three episodes in which she was rather ‘generic companion’ for too much of the time. That is all the more surprising given that she’s not actually in a lot of this episode: the Doctor and Clara don’t even appear for the first 15 minutes of the episode, allowing Vastra and her team to take centre stage instead. What this ‘mini-sode’ proves beyond doubt is that if Doctor Who ever again needs to do a ‘Doctor-lite’ episode like it used to do in previous seasons, then it can safely hand over the whole 45 minutes to the Victorian threesome knowing we’ll all be as happy as exceptionally happy things on extra-strength happy pills. Or let’s just hope that the BBC bites the completely bleedin’ obvious bullet staring them in the face and commissions a whole new spin-off show. After all, between running Doctor Who and Sherlock, Steven Moffat must be getting a bit bored at being so obviously under-utilised and just crying out for a whole new show to organise, no?
As you can tell, I loved “The Crimson Horror” and that’s despite not having been endeared to Gatiss’ other most recent contributions to the show. I’m also the kind of Doctor Who viewer who takes things very seriously and who never liked Tom Baker as much as other people did because he was just too damn flippant about things too much of the time. So when even I can stop and say that this episode was a total delight on just about every level on which it sought to work, then I think you have a seriously successful 45 minutes of television.
Normally at some point in a review I’ll say, “But it’s a bit odd and I can understand why a certain part of the audience won’t like it.” This time I’ll say that if you didn’t like this episode, then it really is your own problem and that maybe you’re just not cut out to be Doctor Who fan. You should probably pack it in and find something else to watch. While there’s certainly never been any episode quite like “The Crimson Horror” in the series’ 50 years, there’s a strong argument to be made that we’ve rarely witnessed a single story that most perfectly sums up the heady mix of vibrant tastes and exotic colours swirling around in the show’s DNA, or 45 minutes that then displays these back to us in their purest, most nakedly enjoyable form.
If you didn’t enjoy and adore this one on at least two or more levels then you have no Time Lord poetry in your soul – and moreover never will.
The penultimate episode of this series of Doctor Who, Neil Gaiman’s “Nightmare in Silver”, is on Saturday May 11 2013 at 7pm on BBC1, with a repeat on BBC Three the following Friday. The series is also available on the BBC iPlayer. Series 7 part 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 20.