If the first half of the season was a surprise double-hitter from Chris Chibnall, this second half belongs to Mark Gatiss. “Cold War” wasn’t great, but it was surprisingly good, and “The Crimson Horror” is even better. It’s traditional Doctor Who on many levels, but like “Cold War” it contained at least one brilliant twist I didn’t see coming. I don’t find this one quite as special as “The Bells of St. John” or as compelling and moving as “Hide,” but for sheer entertainment value, this is the one to beat for the half-season.
The twist isn’t that the Doctor doesn’t appear (outside of a dubious image) for nearly 15 minutes of the show with his name on it; this sort of thing has certainly happened in seasons past. It’s that when he does show up, he’s a crimson version of Frankenstein’s monster, arms outstretched, moaning in agony, a victim of the titular red venom. Granted, I can be slow when it comes to these things (both The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense completely took me in), but I didn’t for a second imagine that Ada’s monster would turn out to be him. Smith walks a fine line here, I think; apart from regeneration-inducing traumas past, this is probably the most disturbing thing that’s ever happened to a Doctor, and if Smith had imbued his performance with any more agony, it would have been nightmare material all by itself. It’s a bit of a shame, because even when I was a kid of the age Mary Whitehouse worried so much about, I wanted Doctor Who to scare me. That was the point, the best part.
The old-timey scratchy sepia “film” flashback that follows this sequence is just perfect. I’ve heard it described as too “gimmicky,” but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. These two elements alone—the “preserved and rejected” Doctor, and the flashback sequence—made the episode for me. All the rest of it was just icing on the cake.
Of course, sometimes icing can make you feel a little ill. The Doctor has planted unsolicited smooches on companions past (Rory, for instance, and let’s not forget Martha Jones), but there was something especially uncomfortable about the one he gives Jenny, who’s not only married (then again, so was Rory) but for all we know may be wholly uninterested in men (then again, so was Rory). If it had stopped there it wouldn’t have seemed unforgivable, but when shortly thereafter we also get a boner joke with the sonic screwdriver (no, Radio Free Skaro, Steven was not imagining it)…iiiiiiiit’s just weird.
I had to watch this twice to fully grasp the villainous scheme, but for once it actually seemed to hang together, if you allow for the grotesque little leech baby that’s somehow both the greatest threat the Silurians ever battled and also managed to hang around dormant and undetected for 65 million years (then again, so did the Silurians). Not very subtle here is Gatiss’s recurring theme of troubled kids and unhelpful parents (“The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Night Terrors” before this), but here it’s more over-the-top than heavy-handed or cloying, and if it’s obvious at least it’s got a little nuance. There’s at least a little of her mother in Ada, when she refuses to forgive (“that’s my girl,” croaks the dying harridan) and beats the creeping leech to a pea-green pulp, though you can hardly blame her.
There were plenty of complaints about the lack of female characters in “Cold War” (far fewer about the lack of any characters in “Cold War,” but never mind), and Gatiss makes up for it here, but since one of them is a psychopath, another is an emotional cripple, and the title could by a suspicious and uncharitable mind be taken as a possible misogynistic euphemism, there will still be plenty of fodder for any critic looking for a fight. And as terrific as Jenny is here (I love the scene where she pays a guinea for a diversion), Lady Vastra is as dull as she was in “The Snowmen,” her role primarily consisting of throwing back her veil and making grown men swoon.
I’m in the camp that still finds Strax funny, though I do marvel at how many people seem to think Sontarans were always jokes (if so, that too sailed right over my head as a kid). You already know what you think about the TomTom joke, so you don’t need my opinion. For my money, though, the best line is the one where Mrs. Gillyflower crows, “You know what these are? The wrong hands!” For a moment I thought she was going to say “The right hands!” and we would have gotten her point of view in a more serious vein, but the line as we heard it is just as much fun, because it’s clear she knows exactly how batguano she is and she couldn’t be happier about it. To be honest, neither could I.
No surprise, but we learn that Clara doesn’t know any more than we thought she did about her other lives. Also we learn that she’s the nanny for two kids who are absolute terrors when it comes to Google Image Search.
Jenna-Louise Coleman is just as good in this story as she was in “The Bells of St. John.” If she’d been this good all season I would have been joining in the “best companion so far” chorus too, but the jury’s still out for me. This at least is a good sign for what she’ll be like next season.
Classic series watch
This story is “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (mad scientist employs prehistoric creatures in a plot to erase humanity and start over with a hand-picked crew to create a new Golden Age) set in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (Victorian England around the time of Jack the Ripper). It’s not a bad pedigree, all told.
That “gobby Australian” was of course Tegan Jovanka, who wandered onto the Fourth Doctor’s TARDIS and talked the Fifth Doctor’s ear off in all but two stories. At the end of one season she actually did get back to Heathrow, but got fired and rejoined the TARDIS crew in the first story of the next. The Fifth Doctor did not look pleased about being stuck with her again, but was far too nice to tell her to push off. Considering that in the very next story she unleashed the mind-controlling psychic snake-god-demon she’d been harboring in the recesses of her mind, he probably should have grown a pair and ditched her.