Monday, 6 May 2013

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror

Vastra: 'I was right then, you and Clara have unfinished business.'

When the Paternoster Gang are in town it's always fun and games, but Mark Gatiss excelled himself tonight. This has to have been the high point of the season so far, and what made it so perfect is that it was completely unexpected. Most of us were sat around, biding our time until next week's Neil Gaiman penned episode, yet tonight's offering had everything we could have hoped for: horror, pathos, adventure, humour... sonic screwdriver erection gags.

I know everyone's saying it, but the Paternoster gang really do need a spin-off show. I so want to be in their gang, it's killing me. In an episode decidedly light on Doctor/companion participation, Madame Vastra and Co. stole the show. Jenny and Vastra's relationship is so sweet that I lose a tooth every time I see them, and Strax's warmongering cracks me up every time. Him threatening to execute his horse for getting lost, and his suggestion that they tool-up for their trip up-north (we are rather savage), had me cackling like an old crone—as did the appearance of Thomas Thomas (TomTom), the Victorian Sat Nav. Great humour, great comic timing, appalling accents.

Obviously, the Doctor and Clara's accents were as stereotyped as pale skin, immaculate hair and withering humour on an evil vampire, but the fact that they were supposed to be winging it, made me not want to scoop out my ears with a spork. Despite initially looking visibly surprised by the Doctor introducing her as Mrs Smith, Clara recovered her composure quickly, and was soon joining in the fun. (Not that a Yorkshire accent is much of a stretch for a Lancashire lass.) I said last week that Clara was starting to bed in nicely as a companion, and tonight she and the Doctor played off each other like old pros. I loved Clara's face as she stood waiting for the penny to drop about the smokeless chimney. I'm also loving the closeness of the two characters and the big smiles they seem to almost constantly exchange.

Mark Gatiss' episodes have a chequered history. His earlier story this season, 'Cold War', was solid without being spectacular, but I don't think it unfair to say his efforts prior to that (save the excellent 'The Unquiet Dead'), have been something of a let down. But this was way beyond anything I was expecting from him. It bore all the hallmarks of classic Gatiss: from the Victorian charm, to the League of Gentlemen-esque town, to the Steampunk Sweetville, to the black humour. The only thing which slightly underwhelmed was Mr Sweet, although he actually was kind of sweet, so I really can't complain. He was just so un-monstrous.

If anything, the real monster was Winifred Gillyflower, played to perfection by Lady Olenna Tyrell. What a piece of work she was. Rigg chewed up and spat out her lines like Maggie Smith on steroids She even managed to speak in her native Doncaster accent—not something you hear from her that often. I love the way Gatiss took the apocalyptic fervour of the late 19th century (fuelled by the likes of Charles Taze Russell, William Miller, Nelson H. Barbour, etc.), wrapped it in a science fiction shroud, and turned it into a social commentary on Winifred Gillyflower's archaic (to our modern ears) views on salvation, self worth, and the effects of sin. Goodness knows what she would have made of Jenastra. (I just totally made that up! I think.)

The other real pleasure of the episode was seeing Diana Rigg acting alongside her real life daughter, Racheal Sterling. It's always nice to have a nugget of the serious nestling alongside the humour, and Sterling played Ada to perfection. It was virtually impossible not to be moved by her sense of worthlessness and loneliness. She cringed at even the most fleeting act of human kindness. That she found companionship in what her mother deemed as monstrous, and her jealously of Clara's relationship with the Doctor, perfectly highlighted her isolation.

Was the death of her mother enough to account for her stepping 'into the light', or is that too simplistic a catalyst for a full 360 degree turnaround? She after all offered no forgiveness to her dying mother, nor did she show mercy to the parasite which had replaced her in her mother's affections. The implication was that the Doctor's compassion, combined with being set free from the shackles of Winifred's false religious ideals, were enough to redeem her from a life of self loathing and bitterness. Try telling that to the Mr Sweet. She absolutely wrecked him with her stick. I loved Doctor's reaction to her mullering him—ditto his face when Winifred fell down the stairwell. The humour was a perfect antidote to the tragedy.

And despite being a tad under used, the Doctor was at the top of his game tonight. His enthusiasm at being rescued by Jenny (the inappropriate kiss followed by the slapped face), his joy at being reunited with Clara (lots of head holding and searching eyes), all felt like a Doctor content with those around him. And why wouldn't he be? Vastra's Victorian Scooby Gang, with its sword wielding captain, tight suited sidekick, Jenny, and the laser gun toting Strax, are the perfect armed response team. I don't know how I went from hating Strax to loving him, but it happened. Maybe next week Neil Gaiman can make me love the Cybermen again.

Other Thoughts:

—I always smile when they take archaic concepts/superstitions and give them a pseudo-scientific explanation. (The Octogram, evolution of the parasitic leech, etc.)

—Parry's Jerusalem wasn't written until 1916. Bit of a continuity error there.

—Loved Mr. Thursday repeatedly fainting at the sight of anything out of the ordinary.

—Great idea to give us the back story in faux-cine style. A device perfectly in keeping with the tone of the episode.

—If perfection was a pre-requisite for entering the New Eden, how on earth did Winifred qualify? Wicked old hag.

—Nice reference to Tegan the gobby Australian.

—I wouldn't like to be in the Doctor's shoes once Vastra finds out about that kiss.


Strax: 'Casualties can be kept to perhaps as little as eighty percent.'

Doctor: 'I once spent hell of a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport.'

Strax: 'I think you will do well, Thomas Thomas.'

Doctor: 'Oh, great. Great. Attack of the supermodels.'

Vastra: 'Strax. You're over-excited. Have you been eating Miss Jenny's sherbet fancies again?'

Winifred: 'Forgive me.'
Ada: 'Never.'
Winifred: 'That's my girl.'

Doctor: 'You're the boss.'
Clara: 'Am I?'

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