Doctor Who: “The Crimson Horror”

After last week’s frustratingly dreadful “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” Doctor Who is back with a much better, much more enjoyable episode: “The Crimson Horror.” Even the title is better!

No spoilers here, but they tend to turn up in comments, so consider yourself forewarned!

“The Crimson Horror” is a very entertaining episode, and it’s probably no coincidence that the Doctor doesn’t even show up until 15 minutes in. I had no idea how much I needed a break from Matt Smith! Well, yes, I did know, at least theoretically, but in practice it works very well. Instead of the usual ham-handed opener of the Doctor and Clara getting lost on the way to somewhere or other (though, rest assured, that scene is shown to us anyway in flashback because WHY), we open with a mystery in Victorian Yorkshire that draws Vastra, Jenny, and Strax to the scene. This threesome, first introduced sans origin story in “A Good Man Goes to War” and reappearing in the most recent Christmas special, “The Snowmen,” provide excellent comic relief (especially Strax, who keeps wanting to blow things up and often mistakenly refers to Jenny as “boy”) and nice stay-at-home companions for the Doctor. I’ve heard there is some fan demand for a spin-off series, but I suspect they work best in small doses as special guest stars. Thirteen episodes of Strax offering to blow something up would get tiresome, I think.

The real meat of the episode, however, comes from Diana Rigg as Winifred Gillyflower and Rigg’s real-life daughter Rachael Stirling as Winifred’s blind daughter Ada. (I’m convinced the scene where Jenny beats up the baddies while wearing a black leather catsuit is a direct homage to Rigg’s Emma Peel days.) With two such amazing actors in the cast, even a terrible script can shine. The script for “The Crimson Horror” isn’t terrible (despite being written by Mark Gatiss, who, after this and “Cold War,” seems to have taken a class on how to write better) but like so many other Doctor Who stories, especially during Steven Moffat’s tenure, it falls apart if you examine the details too closely. I promised no spoilers, but as usual it’s an overcomplicated plot on the part of the baddies that really doesn’t come to much of anything, and also as usual, sadly, Matt Smith goes for comedic mugging in spots where he should be acting with outrage or concern (such as when Ada takes her revenge on Mr. Sweet). Though his Frankenstein’s monster-like performance in his first few minutes onscreen is actually pretty funny. So is the running gag of the fainting client. (The “Thomas Thomas” joke is less so. I mean, is the TomTom GPS so culturally relevant as to warrant a nod?)

There’s a giant missed opportunity here when Jenny and Vastra ask the Doctor how Clara can still be alive. Instead of answering in a way that would let the audience share the Doctor’s sense of irresistible mystery, he pretty much blows off the question. I found that lazy and disappointing. There’s also a coda with Artie and Angie, the children Clara takes care of, that felt forced and didn’t quite work for me. The kids accept the possibility of time travel much too readily.

Ultimately, “The Crimson Horror” isn’t a great episode, nor a bad one. It is funny, thrilling, and entertaining, though, and for Doctor Who in the overcomplicated, overwrought Steven Moffat era, that’s enough for me.

And now, some brief Doctor Who neepery: When the Doctor and Clara leave the TARDIS upon arriving in Yorkshire when he meant to go to London, he mentions he “once spent a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport.” This is a reference to Tegan Jovanka, an Australian stewardess who wandered into the TARDIS in the final Fourth Doctor serial “Logopolis” after the Master killed her aunt, helped the Doctor through his regeneration, and then accompanied the Fifth Doctor for the majority of his adventures. Tegan once described herself as “a mouth on legs,” and indeed she spent most of her time arguing with or yelling at the Doctor. (There’s a story about a young fan asking Peter Davison if the Doctor and Tegan are married because they argue so much.) Tegan was never all that well suited for adventuring — really, she just wanted to get back to Heathrow and resume her work — and whenever danger arose the Doctor would tell her, “Brave heart, Tegan.” That line is echoed in “The Crimson Horror” right after the Heathrow line with “Brave heart, Clara.”

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