After a few weeks of deadly serious Doctor Who episodes, "The Crimson Horror" was a nice return to mysterious, immersive, clever storytelling—these are the kinds of episodes that usually end up sticking with me long after they end. It's Doctor-lite! It was no surprise to me that this episode was written by Mark Gatiss; he's not always my favorite Who writer, but he's a genius at Sherlock, and this episode felt more Sherlock-y than most (and that's a huge compliment). It was directed by Saul Metzstein, who did a lovely job with pacing and showing off Victorian England, making it look gently steampunky and gorgeous.
Part of the joy of "The Crimson Horror," for me, was how long it took The Doctor and Clara to show up in it. We knew they were going to come along and fix things, but I liked how unanchored I felt watching the episode, with no Doctor to helpfully guide me through what was happening. These days, that's a rarity in Doctor Who. Luckily I did have Madam Vastra, Jenny, and Strax—my favorite recurring side characters—as guides. (These three deserve their own spinoff!) The trio was investigating the case of several bodies that had turned up in the Yorkshire canal, dyed bright red and petrified. They called the situation the Crimson Horror.
Meanwhile, and certainly not related, there was a hot new guru running around Yorkshire, preaching about moral decay and the coming apocalypse. Her name? Mrs. Winnifred Gillyflower, wonderfully played by Diana Rigg. After terrifying the town with talk of judgment raining down upon them, she offered a solution: Sweetville, a.k.a. salvation, the "shining city on the hill." Sweetville, run by Mrs. Gillyflower and her silent partner Mr. Sweet, only accepted the best and brightest, so Jenny volunteered to audition in order to infiltrate it.
Mrs. Gillyflower's daughter Ada, tragically blinded and disfigured, was busy being used in her mother's lectures as a parlor trick, but in her spare time, she had adopted an unseen monster and was feeding it. Jenny ran into this monster while she explored Sweetville, and when she freed it, that's when we saw The Doctor for the first time. He was bright red, in non-Doctor-y clothing, and stiff as Frankenstein's monster. It was a pretty shocking image, and one that I didn't even slightly see coming.
Jenny unchained The Doctor and got him his sonic screwdriver; with it, he was able to reset himself and get his regular clothes back on. First item on the agenda: Kiss Jenny for rescuing him. Of course, she's a married woman, so she slapped him, which I loved—Jenny and The Doctor have always had a fun, flirty relationship. All he wanted to do from there was stop Gillyflower and find Clara, but Jenny wanted to know how he'd gotten into the predicament in the first place.
The scene that followed, with The Doctor explaining how he ended up dyed red, was shot in an old-timey looking style with lots of negative stains and pops, and it really worked for me. It was a creative way to break up the episode and add some freshness to the format while still conveying information and keeping us in a specific time and place: Victorian England. In the flashback, we saw The Doctor and Clara auditioning for Sweetville themselves. During their tour they found a family propped up in a home, encased in glass, and the next thing you know both The Doctor and Clara were strung up and dipped into a viscous red liquid. It turned out that accepted Sweetville applicants were made catatonic and then "arranged" in homes, and rejected applicants were dyed red, petrified, and killed by the process. Luckily for The Doctor, he's not human, so he didn't die—he was just taken in as Ada's pet. (Although the question of why he was rejected is a good one. Because he's not human?)
After he found Clara and revived her, it was time to stop Gillyflower. The Crimson Horror was actually a 65 million year old parasite that secreted a fatal poison, and Gillyflower diluted it in order to petrify people and preserve them. But who was Mr. Sweet, and what was her master plan? The Doctor shushed Clara as he started one of his patented manic thinks, but he shushed too soon—it was actually Clara who understood the full scope of the plan. The Crimson Horror would be shot up into the sky to infiltrate everyone at once.
They rushed to find Gillyflower and, in a rare misstep for the episode, we were introduced to Mr. Sweet, who was… an ancient parasitic worm that lived on Mrs. Gillyflower's chest. After so much build-up for this silent partner, the last thing I expected was a tiny puppet worm as the main bad guy. I was thinking more along the lines of Great Intelligence being behind the scheme, or even a slightly more sinister monster—perhaps one that had creepily joined itself with Mrs. Gillyflower permanently. The worm was a sad-looking little guy, and I kinda felt sorry for him.
With the help of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, The Doctor managed to stop Gillyflower's plot, and it was Ada, the daughter who was actually disfigured by her own mother's experimentation and then rejected from her "golden dawn" for being disfigured, who wound up taking care of Gillyflower by pushing her to her death. After killing her mom, she destroyed tiny sad Mr. Sweet in a fit of rage. The Doctor, who is normally prone to want to save all unique life, didn't seem that upset.
There was one bit of business left: Vastra, Jenny, and Strax remembered Clara from their last meeting (in "The Snowmen"), and they remembered her dying. Throughout the episode they kept asking The Doctor to explain, but he couldn't explain. He basically just shrugged, which is a long way off from the epic freak-outs he'd previously been having when confronted with Clara's impossibleness. So they were off, and Clara returned home to her nannying job only to find that the kids were onto her. They'd found pictures of her, sprinkled throughout time, on the internet. Uh-oh...
This episode didn't really further any larger storylines, save for my suspicion that The Doctor and Clara are in love, but it was a fully fleshed-out story in a fully formed, imaginative world that didn't feel rushed or too-easily solved in the last five minutes. And that, to me, makes a great standalone Doctor Who episode. Perhaps the follow-up to "The Crimson Horror" will be the Vastra, Jenny, and Strax investigating Clara, since The Doctor seems content with her story as-is; he's no longer obsessed with "figuring her out." Perhaps they'll get to the bottom of it even though The Doctor could not. Only time will tell.
What did you think of "The Crimson Horror"?
– Nice running gag with the brother of one of the victims continually fainting throughout the episode.
– I love Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna "The Queen of Thorns" Tyrell in Game of Thrones, and I love her here.
– Fun fact: Mrs. Gillyflower's blind daughter, Ada, was played by actress Rigg's real-life daughter Rachel Stirling. Mark Gatiss wrote the parts specifically for them, because they'd never acted together before.
– I really liked Abigail, the young woman standing behind Jenny in line for Sweetville, who said, "I hope my teeth don't let me down," and then fainted spectacularly in order to cover for Jenny. In general, this episode had so many wonderful bit parts.
– I don't know how much crossover there is, so this may not resonate, but holy shit did this episode evoke Bioshock: Infinite to anyone else? The recap scene? The perfect city that's not quite what it seems? (I don't think either property copied from the other, I just thought it was kinda cool.)
– Nice Northern accent on The Doctor!
– Clara's expression when The Doctor put his arm around her while they toured Sweetville, her gentle poking of his face after she was revived, and the reference to "your boyfriend" by her nanny charges—are you telling me they are not setting them up for some sort of romance?
– Jenny's fight scene was fantastic, and The Doctor's comment about their assailants—"It's attack of the supermodels"—was also fantastic.
– Best line of the episode is a tie between Mrs. Gillyflower screaming, "Die, you freaks! Die die die!" and Strax, about to shoot his horse for getting him lost, grumbling, "It's the fourth one this week, and I'm not even hungry."
– Next week we have Cybermen? The kids that Clara babysits? WARWICK DAVIS?! Cannot wait!