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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, The Crimson Horror





Series 7, Episode 12
Grade: C+
Verdict: An episode that begins with a good deal of promise devolves into penny-dreadful silliness and unfortunately forgets it has a nice ensemble cast in lieu of allowing Diana Rigg to chomp a little too much scenery. A good initial premise is wasted with a bit too much stretching of disbelief to remain effective, but the episode has just enough passion leading to that point that it has enjoyable moments, just not enough to work fully.

This week's Doctor Who opened with what at first seemed like a very promising development, the idea of a "Doctor-lite" episode. We've gotten a small number of those throughout the series, some spectacular (Blink, Turn Left) some awful (Love & Monsters), but during the Moffat-era, these episodes that focus strictly on a guest-star or companion have been non-existent. Granted, much of this has to do with necessity (David Tennant was often in need of fewer filming days for medical reasons) and the fact that Matt Smith is currently a bigger star as Doctor Who, and the more recognizable face of the franchise, than Tennant ever was. This week seemingly brought a return to this grand tradition though as "The Crimson Horror" opens with a focus on Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, last seen in the Christmas episode "The Snowmen". I'm quite fond of these characters, not only because I think the female pseudo-Sherlock Holmes & Watson pairing are a perfect call-back to one of my favorite periods of Classic Who history (Strax is also fairly endearing), but I appreciate the continual return to the more likeable characters that the Doctor collects in his little "companion army". All too often do we see characters of promise cast aside and never returned to again, but the Moffat era has at least given what would at first seem like one-off guest stars opportunities to return (Craig, the Space Pirates, and the aforementioned trio). 


The first 15 minutes of the episode almost felt like a spin-off of Doctor Who moreso than an episode of the series proper. In a very Sherlock fashion, Jenny, Vastra and Strax are pulled into an investigation of bodies found stricken with what is being called "the Crimson Horror". When they find the Doctor's face burned into the retina of a recent victim, they spring into action with Jenny infiltrating the all-too perfect mill community of Mrs. Gillyflower and the mysterious Mr. Sweet. From here, one can imagine that you'd have the perfect recipe for an engaging episode of Doctor Who, and the initial 20 minutes really does tickle the funny-bone of what I typically like best about the series. When Jenny finally discovers The Doctor in his crimson state, imprisoned in the Mill, we get a great Frankenstein's monster-like performance from Matt Smith and its unique to see The Doctor completely overtaken by an enemy in this way. After the Doctor finally is cured, we get a thrilling sepia-toned flash-back that leads us up to the current point and The Doctor trying to convince Jenny that they most go save Clara, though to Jenny, Clara has been dead since "The Snowmen". It's a nice nod to on-going continuity as are The Doctor's mentions of Heathrow airport a wink at his time as his Fifth incarnation.

The problem being, after we get Fifth Doctor, Sherlock Holmes, and Frankensteinian references, the episode begins to putter out a bit, devolving into chase scene after chase scene. I enjoyed the central idea, which recalled the steam-punk eugenics of something like Bioshock, but I feel like Mrs. Gillyflower's character was never truly fleshed out, nor were her reasons for attempting to create Sweetville beyond possible possession by Mr. Sweet. Again, the end idea isn't outlandish, when Mrs. Gillyflower first introduces a group that Jenny is in to the concept of Sweetville, she decries the moral decay of modern society. This particular thread would have been a fascinating one to continue to touch upon, but it's more or less dropped for just general villainy. Perhaps Doctor Who isn't the place for that kind of debate, but it would have been fascinating for Mark Gatiss to take on such heady-material and really could have elevated the episode. What we got instead was Dame Diana Rigg overracting the hell out of her part. Additionally, there was a thread relating to her blind daughter (played by Rigg's real life daughter Rachel Stirling) that while assisting with the Frankenstein overtures when she cares for "her monster" aka The Red Doctor, never really comes together as a compelling plot-thread itself. When Clara finally arrives, Vastra, Jenny and Strax literally disappear for much of the rest of the episode, with the exception of Strax meeting a young man who gives him directions named Thomas Thomas, which is by far the worst gag this show has ever produced. When all of the players finally come back together to defeat Mrs. Gillyflower and the rather disappointing Mr. Sweet (an idea that would have been creepier if he wasn't so darn cute), both enemies get a pretty disappointing final end with Mrs. Gillyflower simply taking a tumble off a stairwell. How did she get a rocket anyway? Did I miss something there?

Mark Gatiss is definitely in his element here, and it felt like he had a great concept to build around the return of Vastra, Jenny and Strax but couldn't come up with a great conclusion for the tale, as such we get an episode that's about 2/3rds really interesting, and 1/3rd a downright pantomimed bore. When Clara, who got little to nothing to do the entire episode, returns home, she's confronted by the children she nannies for about her time travel exploits as they have found pictures of her from different eras. From the looks of the preview for next week's episode, these children will be traveling with The Doctor and Clara, I have mixed feelings about that as it gives another potential set of victims for The Doctor to be concerned about but in Neil Gaiman's hands it has the potential to be smarter than that. The bigger issue I have with the scene, beyond the fact that it was the only movement on the arc that we received, is how tacked on it felt, this is the second straight series where a latter-half Gatiss written episode has been the pure definition of filler and then in post-some sort of wink and nudge to the arc has been added on. I would have preferred this had aired right after the premiere, and said scene had been placed after a more pertinent episode, say last week's with its much more eye-opening plot developments. 

Unfortunately, with this series, airing order and production order often don't synch up due to necessitated changes and as such we get another Gatiss episode that falls under the realm of "inessential" which is a shame, because there's quite a bit of good here. It just isn't quite good enough in the grand scheme of the season to hold up beyond being forgettable, much like "Night Terrors" was one season ago. It's okay though Mr. Gattis, you gave us "Cold War" already, so that's a plus in my book.
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