Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Doctor Who - The Crimson Horror


It’s crazy how quickly time seems to pass sometimes. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that Doctor Who had been off the air for over a decade (apart from one attempt to revive it in 1996). It doesn’t seem all that long ago that many of us never really thought it would ever come back. And now here we are, seven new series and 100 new episodes later. That’s right. This week’s episode, “The Crimson Horror”, is the 100th episode since Doctor Who’s return in 2005. To mark the occasion, we get a light-hearted, but slightly macabre romp through Victorian Yorkshire. This is the second script this year from Mark Gatiss, and like his previous one, “Cold War”, it’s one of his better scripts. It’s funny and adventurous, with some great characters and an over-the-top villain played by the absolutely wonderful Diana Rigg. To be honest, the strength of “The Crimson Horror” comes from the performances, which are generally superb, rather than the script, which does have a number of problems with it. However, the overall sense of fun that the production presents makes most of those flaws nearly invisible or, at least, forgiveable. Alas, there are a couple of flaws that nonetheless stand out and mar an otherwise enjoyable episode.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

There’s no doubt that the performances are what make “The Crimson Horror”. Diana Rigg is simply brilliant as the mad Mrs Gillyflower. Although best known for her portrayal of Emma Peel in The Avengers, here she gets to take on a role very much in the style of the villains from her era of The Avengers or some of the wackier James Bond villains. Rigg is often over the top (in a good way) in the role, but also brings a certain subtlety to her performance that makes Mrs Gillyflower one of the most compelling and entertaining villains the show has had in quite some time. She also gets quite a few great lines, including the best one in the entire episode: “In the wrong hands that venom could wipe out all life on Earth,” the Doctor says, to which Mrs Gillyflower holds up her hands and says, “Do you know what these are? The wrong hands!”

However, as great as Diana Rigg is, I think the real stand-out performance in this episode is from Rachael Stirling (Rigg’s real-life daughter) as Mrs Gillyflower’s daughter, Ada. Where Mrs Gillyflower is very much a bigger-than-life character, Ada is much more subdued and subtle. Stirling does a brilliant job bringing across this tortured and mentally scarred character (her physical scars also work as a reflection of the mental abuse her mother has put her through). As a result, Ada becomes one of the most complex and sympathetic characters Doctor Who has presented in some time.

These two characters also work particularly well because the story takes the time to develop them (particularly Ada), more so than most guest characters these days. We come to understand their motivations, something I’ve criticized a lot of recent Doctor Who for not accomplishing, so it’s particularly nice to see it here. Although the other guest characters don’t get the same script development, they do get some brilliant performances. I particularly like the coroner who, despite only a few short scenes, comes alive with an almost morbid reality.

Of course, the other key guest characters in “The Crimson Horror” are the returning trio of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. As always, these three are played primarily as jokes. It’s a shame because I think they have so much more potential beyond this. Nonetheless, it is good to see them actually doing things this episode. We’ve been told before that Vastra is a great detective, but we’ve never really seen her doing much investigating; the investigating is usually already done when we get to her. In this episode, the bulk of the investigating is done by Jenny (although Vastra does her own share too), which is nice to see as Jenny has been the most underused of the trio previously. Alas, while she gets to do lots of sneaking around and picking locks (as well as one brief moment of showing off her martial arts skills), she’s still something of a cipher. We know very little about her and Vastra, and we learn nothing new about them in this episode. We know the two are married, but we never see any moments of affection between the two. It’s always all business. Jenny even refers to Vastra as “Madam” when around people like the Doctor, never deviating from her maid role. She has no personality other than brave and eternally cheerful, no likes or dislikes, no desires, no goals.

Vastra is almost as much a cipher as Jenny. There’s a Sherlock Holmes-like quality to her personality (and we know that she is Conan-Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes), but as we never get a glimpse of her “off hours”, we can never be sure if this is an act or not. We never learn anything about how being the only member of her kind living in Victorian London affects her or much about her likes and desires. Although she clearly takes a delight in lifting her veil and revealing her reptilian appearance to everyone she meets, despite the problems that such an action would realistically cause in Victorian times.

And then there’s Strax. I like Strax. I really do. Or rather I did. Alas, he’s gone from a comical but complex character in “A Good Man Goes to War” to a comic-relief caricature in “The Snowmen” to an unfunny comic-relief moron in “The Crimson Horror”. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to accept that he is incapable of learning anything about the society he’s currently living in, and his one-note nature (always suggesting ridiculous amounts of military hardware that would be excessive even if the plans were to go in guns blazing) just isn’t funny anymore. Strax is stuck with the absolute worst and least-funny jokes in this episode. He seemed quite adept at driving a carriage in “The Snowmen”, but here we get him about to kill his horse for going the wrong way and commenting that it’s the fourth one this week. He then gets to team up with the personified joke Thomas Thomas, who shows him how to get where he’s going (Tom-Tom is a European maker of GPS for cars). That entire scene has no purpose other than as one long joke and really has no place in the episode. It’s almost like someone felt Strax didn’t have enough scenes so this one was added just to give him something to do.

Unfortunately, the facetious way that this story treats Vastra, Jenny, and Strax undermines one of its main points. There’s very strong commentary on Victorian values in “The Crimson Horror”. Mrs Gillyflower’s motivations all stem from the need for perfection and her belief that the world is morally corrupt. She won’t even allow her daughter to be a part of her new world because Ada’s blindness makes her imperfect. Throughout the episode, we get numerous examples through Mrs Gillyflower and others of how unaccepting Victorians were of those who were different. Yet Vastra and Strax wander around with barely any notice. As I commented above, Vastra seems to revel in revealing herself, but there are never any consequences to this. We get the one (overly repeated) joke of the man who hired them fainting at every unusual thing he sees, but they never have to deal with any real prejudice. So we get a story that is about the evils of prejudice that then tells us the prejudice really isn’t anything more than an occasional person fainting. Instead of representing the extremes of Victorian values (which is the clear intent), Mrs Gillyflower just ends up being a crazy old woman. The episode’s message would be so much more effective if Vastra, Jenny, and Strax actually had to work for acceptance.

All that said, there is a certain charm to this trio, and the actors manage to add conviction to the roles even when there’s not a lot there for them to work with. If they were given an opportunity to develop as characters beyond the one-note jokes so far, I can’t help but feel they could be brilliant characters. As it is, they do nonetheless work fairly well in this episode (apart from the aforementioned horse/Tom-Tom scene) and they help add to the episode rather than detract from it.

Moving away from the characters, there are quite a few aspects of the story that I really liked and enjoyed. Having the Doctor not show up until a good fifteen minutes or so into the episode is a nice subversion of the usual style, and revealing him to be Ada’s “Monster” was an even better twist (although not totally unforeseeable). I absolutely love that the flashbacks to the Doctor and Clara’s arrival are presented with a grainy picture quality. This is a brilliant editorial decision as it helps add to the light-hearted pace of the story.

There are also lots of wonderful moments throughout the episode, particularly some great lines. I also like that Mrs Gillyflower isn’t redeemed at the end. She doesn’t have a change of heart and doesn’t succumb to the power of love. Instead, she remains thoroughly evil right to the very end. Her final exchange with Ada is wonderful.
Forgive me.”
Never.”
That’s my girl.”
There’s also a reference to the fifth Doctor’s companion Tegan (the “gobby Australian”), along with a paraphrasing of the fifth Doctor’s common line, “Brave heart, Tegan,” as “Brave heart, Clara.” People have noticed that, throughout the last few episodes, there have been references to previous Doctors in ascending order each episode. I was sceptical that this was anything other than coincidence at first (especially as it’s debatable just where the reference in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is), but it does seem to be deliberate now. In “The Rings of Akhaten”, the Doctor refers to his granddaughter (Susan, a first Doctor reference). In “Cold War”, the Hostile Action Displacement System of the TARDIS is used, something not seen since the second Doctor. Then in “Hide”, there is a reference to Metebelis III, a planet mentioned frequently during the third Doctor’s time. It’s not really clear what the fourth Doctor reference in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is, but there’s no denying that there’s now a fifth Doctor reference in this episode. It seems extremely likely that there will be a reference to the sixth Doctor in next week’s “Nightmare in Silver”.

There are several problems in the story, but most of them are ultimately ignorable, overshadowed by great performances and the fun of the episode. How is it that Ada doesn’t know that her mother abused her and caused her blindness? How was she fooled into thinking it was her father? Did it happen so long ago that she just doesn’t remember? If so, why has it taken so long for Mrs Gillyflower to put her plans in motion? This is the one aspect of Ada’s character that is jarring and just doesn’t work very well. But like I said, it’s mostly ignorable as everything else about her is so good.

I am also a little disappointed that there is no development of the Clara mystery in this episode. Jenny asks repeatedly how Clara can still be alive, but the Doctor only responds with, “It’s complicated.” A meeting between Clara and people who knew one of the other Claras should have provided a great chance for some development—not necessarily new clues about the resolution, but development in Clara’s character herself. Having her actually learn about her mystery would be a great step forward. Alas, we’re only teased with the possibility. In “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, she learns of it and then forgets when time is reset. Here, the opportunity for her to learn of it is completely passed up. Nonetheless, I can still enjoy the episode despite this small disappointment.

There are a number of other little things, too, but there are two things in the episode that really stand out and mar what is otherwise a decent story. They’re not things that are easily ignorable. The first is the Doctor’s forced kiss on Jenny. Really? The Doctor? The eleventh Doctor is certainly a very touchy, kissy Doctor. He likes to hold hands and put his arms around people. He hugs his companions and kisses their foreheads. The show has really drawn attention to this recently with Clara objecting to it. “All right, I get it! We don’t do hugging!” he says to her in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”. The eleventh Doctor is also very exuberant. He’s wacky and manic. He spins around, makes wide gestures, and says crazy things. Indeed, he’s becoming more and more manic all the time. But one thing he doesn’t do—or rather shouldn’t do, that no incarnation of the Doctor should ever do—is force an unwanted kiss on someone else, and then not even apologize for it, no matter how happy and exuberant he happens to be.

I fully understand that the Doctor doesn’t mean anything harmful by it and that there’s nothing sexual intended in his actions (not in-show at least; there certainly is at a meta level). I also realize that the eleventh Doctor is supposed to be alien-like in his behaviour and unsure of how to behave around humans. But that’s where things start to break down. The Doctor is over a thousand years old. He has spent centuries among humans, and yet he doesn’t know that this is just not acceptable behaviour? It simply doesn’t hold. He knows and respects the customs of the aliens in “The Rings of Akhaten”, even though he hasn’t been there since his first incarnation, yet he apparently doesn’t understand human behaviour. I just don’t buy it. There’s a difference between the Doctor being uncomfortable with human behaviour and just not understanding it. The eleventh Doctor has shown before that he understands human behaviour (just look at how he deals with Ada in this very same story) even when he’s uncomfortable with it.

I could probably live with this scene if the seriousness of the Doctor’s actions were actually acknowledged. Yes, Jenny does slap him in response, but even the slap is played for laughs. “You don’t know how good that feels.” The Doctor doesn’t even apologize. And then the kiss is forgotten about. It might as well have never happened. The scene actually distracted me from the story for a moment because it’s simply so un-Doctor-like. This is not the Doctor I’ve known and loved since childhood.

On top of this, a short while later, Jenny gets a chance to show her own skills and possibly put the Doctor in his place for his previous actions. She very handily takes out three of the “super models” sent to capture them. But while she’s showing her competence, the show simultaneously sexualizes Jenny by stripping her down to a catsuit complete with Victorian bow-shaped bustle! The catsuit is a definite homage to Emma Peel in The Avengers, and I honestly wouldn’t have as much problem with it if Jenny actually got to do much more before the Doctor dragged her away from the scene (she then spends the rest of the episode doing absolutely nothing, making the catsuit kind of pointless). She is further sexualized by the Doctor’s actions in the background. As she strips down to the catsuit, he flips the sonic screwdriver into a vertical position, looks at it in embarrassment, then flips it back down to horizontal. I highly doubt those actions were scripted. More likely the director requested it or Matt Smith added it on his own. But whatever the case, it’s a completely unnecessary phallic joke that undermines any agency Jenny gets from that scene.

Still, once these bits are over, I can get back into the story and enjoy it, and even start to forget the Doctor’s forced kiss. The second un-ignorable problem in the episode comes right at the very end. The epilogue with the children Clara nannies jolts the viewer completely out of the story. I commented in my review of “The Bells of Saint John” that I really hoped we would get to see more of the family that Clara lives with, but this is not the way I hoped that would happen. The scene is presented in a completely different style to the remainder of the episode and feels tacked on as a result. Indeed, I can’t help but feel it really was tacked on and not originally part of the script. The performances are some of the worst I’ve seen on the show. The two kids are completely unbelievable and even Jenna-Louise Coleman is unconvincing. She can’t quite erase a smirk on her face throughout the entire exchange with Artie and Angie, even when she’s trying to look worried. Her expression almost seems to say, “I can’t believe they’re actually making me say these things! It’s not my fault. Honest! I didn’t write this!”

There’s no logic to the scene either. How exactly did Angie and Artie acquire these pictures? Pictures on board Soviet submarines are not things that are just lying around to be found (Artie says he found it at school). And why did the Doctor and Clara pose for the picture in the first place, considering the Doctor is supposedly trying to hide his existence from the Silence? It’s possible that the existence of the photos is meant to be a mystery to be explained later, but the scene doesn’t play up the oddness of their presence. Instead, it tries to play up how clever Artie and Angie are, but fails utterly to do so. They are far too quick to conclude time travel from only three pictures. But even ignoring all that, we’re supposed to accept that Clara will let them blackmail her by threatening to tell their dad. I can just imagine the scene now.
Dad! Clara’s a time traveller! Look at these photos we found!”
That’s nice, kids. Good job with the Photoshop.”
No, it’s true. She’s really a time traveller!”
Sure she is. Now, time for school.”
Even if their father is somehow convinced, how is her being a time traveller a terrible thing? Clara is still doing her job. She still takes care of the two kids. What she does on her free time is her own business. So why should Clara care if Angie and Artie tell their father?

As this is the final scene of the episode, it gets to leave the final impression, making it impossible to forget or ignore. It doesn’t belong in the episode and it does a very good job of ruining the enjoyment of everything that comes before it. It doesn’t erase that enjoyment, obviously, but it does significantly spoil it.

But all that aside, “The Crimson Horror” is otherwise a pretty good episode. It’s fun and enjoyable, made so by the brilliant performances of its guest cast, particularly Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling. It’s let down a bit by a couple of bad moments and a couple of over-done jokes, but overall is one of the better episodes this year and one of Mark Gatiss’s stronger stories. I just recommend switching it off just before the final scene.

2 comments:

  1. I agree completely about the kids Clara looks after and the smug look on her face never waning and the whole "we'll tell Dad!" i was thinking "so what?!" she is older than them and as you said, she can do what she likes on her free time, and where did the pics come from? Who uploaded them? who took them? how easy it was for them to find them...if everyone who glimpsed at the police box searched online for it, then loads would know about the doctor. And instead of assuming perhaps she is an actress or a model or someone just looks like her or it was photoshopped or made up, they automatically assume its time travel. *sigh*...I hate it when DW tries to do realistic home-life moments but fails to do anything realistic with them.

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