“Would it be impolite to ask why you and Mr. Sweet are petrifying your workforce with diluted prehistoric leech venom?” the Doctor asks Mrs. Gillyflower. I’m not sure this question is ever fully answered in “The Crimson Horror,” but, to be perfectly honest, I don’t really care. “The Crimson Horror” is basically a fun romp. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously, and, as entertainment, I think it succeeds. It is a sort of “Doctor-lite” episode, meaning that Madam Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are the main characters for most of this episode, which takes the viewers to 1893 Yorkshire to face an outbreak of the crimson horror.
A man comes to Madam Vastra after his brother dies of the crimson horror, which renders its victims rather statue-like and red. When enlisting her help, the man shows her a photo he took of his dead brother’s eye, showing the image of the last thing he saw before he died. The image is recognizable both to Madam Vastra and the audience:it’s the Doctor! Madam Vastra, Jenny, and Strax all head off to Sweetville, which seems to be the source of the crimson horror. Sweetville is a community created by Mrs. Gillyflower (a chemist and engineer, who has become obsessed with the coming apocalypse). It only accepts the most ideal candidates (and, obviously, a Silurian or a Sontaran aren’t going to be accepted) so, Jenny is sent undercover to find the Doctor and discover the secrets of Sweetville. Once there, she finds the Doctor, in chains and apparently suffering from the crimson horror himself.
It turns out that the Doctor was saved by Ada, Mrs. Gillyflower’s blind daughter, who thought of him as “her monster.” The victims of the crimson horror are people who don’t survive Mrs. Gillyflower’s attempts to preserve them by dipping them into prehistoric leech venom. The process didn’t work on the Doctor and rather than dumping him in the river with the other “rejects” (who usually wind up dead), Ada realized he was still alive and decided to keep him as her secret. This leech venom comes from Mr. Sweet, Mrs. Gillyflower’s “silent partner,” who is not human after all, but a poisonous leech that has survived from prehistoric times. Mrs. Gillyflower plans on using a rocket (yes, a rocket, and don’t bother trying to figure this part of the plan out) to unleash his venom on all of humanity and only the perfect individuals she has chosen will be protected from his deadly venom. These individuals will then be able to start anew after the rest of humanity is dead. Thanks to the help of Jenny, the Doctor is revived in time to help uncover and stop Mrs. Gillyflower’s plan, with a little help from his friends, of course.
As over the top as it could be at times, I enjoyed this episode. It was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture the feel of a penny dreadful on-screen. There are the sensational deaths from the “crimson horror,” the creepy coroner who coins the name, a rather melodramatic relationship between Mrs. Gillyflower and her daughter, the mysterious community which people enter, but never leave…It’s an episode meant to entertain, but not to be taken too seriously. Of course, being set in Victorian times, it also featured the welcome return of Madam Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. The trio have been entertaining in their previous appearances, and this story was no exception. This story allowed Catrin Stewart to be center stage a bit more, as she is the one who is sent into Sweetville undercover (and she reveals some Mrs. Peel-like moves and a black leather catsuit in a nod to Diana Rigg who plays Mrs. Gillyflower).
Speaking of Diana Rigg, a large part of the success of this episode is due to the performances by her and her real life daughter, Rachel Stirling (the first time they’ve ever acted together). Diana Rigg, in playing the villain, Mrs. Gillyflower, is able to make her somewhat believable despite the fact that she is clearly insane, with an evil plot to rival any James Bond villain. However, “Mr. Sweet” is more than just a part of her plan. Diana Rigg pulls off the difficult feat of convincing the audience that she could love and admire a leech. She is so attached to him (no pun intended) that she lets him feed off of her, bringing him with her wherever she goes. She even blinded and scarred her own daughter in her attempts to make herself immune to his poison. The nature of the story is to be over the top, and she plays these scenes with relish, but she still manages to ground the character just enough to keep her from being completely ridiculous. Diana Rigg is also able to give Mrs. Gillyflower a rather wicked sense of humor; in my opinion, she got the best lines of the episode. Rachel Stirling, however, plays Mrs. Gillyflower’s abused and blinded daughter, a character no less melodramatic in nature, but much more sympathetic. I wished that there had been more of Ada in the story, because Rachel Stirling gives a fantastic performance. She is able, with relatively little screen time, to make the audience care about her character; you can actually feel her loneliness and despair. Since this story is largely comedic, she provides the emotional heart of the story.
This story has a great sense of humor. There are many funny moments throughout the story. For example, while I will admit to growing a bit weary of humor deriving from Strax’s obsession with weapons, he does have a rather funny exchange with a horse. The exchange closes with Strax being given directions, using the language of a GPS, by a boy named Thomas Thomas (a rather random joke that I’m still not sure what I thought of). Still, it was a nice change of pace to have an overtly humorous episode after some of the more serious episodes we’ve seen so far this season. There’s also a nice reference to the fifth Doctor’s era when the Doctor mentions trying to get an Australian back to Heathrow airport. This, of course, refers to Tegan and the Doctor’s inability to get her back to the right time and place after she started traveling with him. He also says “brave heart, Clara,” which was something he always said to Tegan (“brave heart, Tegan,” not Clara, but you know what I mean).
Furthermore, I felt that Saul Metzstein did a great job directing this story. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the story and I particularly liked the flashback to the Doctor’s part of the story. The sepia toned, kinetoscope quality was a nice touch to both embrace the period and set the flashback apart from the rest of the story. It added an air of whimsy that really suits Matt Smith’s Doctor.
Of course, the story is not perfect. I wasn’t completely sold on the Frankenstien-ish Matt Smith (while he’s infected with the “crimson horror”), but that fit with the overall campy tone of the story. I’m also willing to overlook the fact that there is a lot that it not quite explained. How long had Mrs. Gillyflower been crazy? Was it before she found Mr. Sweet or did his poison affect her mind? What happened to the preserved people and the people Mrs. Gillyflower had working for her after she died? Were the people working for her under some kind of control or did they know what they were doing? To explain all these things probably would have taken away from the tone, so I’m willing to accept a bit of ambiguity from this kind of story.
Overall, I enjoyed the story, but I did not like the ending. It was a story filled with over the top plot points and characters, but the tone of the story suited them. When Clara returns from her trip with the Doctor, however, the tone shifts back to a more realistic one. At this point, Clara is back in the everyday, modern world and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to accept that a) there was a time for any of those photos to have been taken and b) that the children she takes care of would have been able to find them. I can see from the preview for next week that they will be accompanying her and the Doctor and this was the way to make that possible, but there must have been a better way. When was their time to take a picture on the submarine? At what point did everybody stop worrying about the fact that they were stranded way below the surface with an angry Ice Warrior bent on starting a nuclear holocaust and decide to snap a group picture? Did Skaldak take it? Of course this also allowed Clara to see a picture of the Victorian Clara, which might have some consequences down the line. However, for the time being, I felt like this was a lazy way to end the story.
Although I enjoyed the story, it still did nothing to advance the Clara arc. It was interesting to see Madam Vastra and Jenny’s reaction to Clara, since they knew the Victorian Clara, but they weren’t given much to say on the matter. They are unable to offer any insight into the existence of this Clara because the Doctor never even bothers to try to explain what is happening and where he met this Clara. You’d think he’d be curious to see if the Great Detective could figure anything out, since he was apparently trying to go back to Victorian England in 1893 (and perhaps see if he could learn anything from having two Claras in the same time period?). This is something that I have found a bit frustrating with the story arc for this half season; the mystery about Clara never develops. We are at exactly the same point that we were in “The Bells of St. John,” at least when it comes to understanding the mystery surrounding Clara. With only one episode left before the finale, I wish we had picked up a few more clues about Clara’s identity. At this point all I can say is that I really hope this prolonged mystery has a great payoff.