I felt like I wrote this one in a bit of a hot fog. My favourite story of the year, and I had lots to say, but I tend to find that after I’ve been turning reviews out every week, I reach a point where I feel a bit confused. Part of that is I’m becoming overly concerned by reacting to what I’ve written so far; trying to vary things, kick away writing crutches and the like.
So this, from DWM #461 was done in a weird, feverish frame of mind.
The fruity dialogue in The Crimson Horror writes the story’s own arch review. It’s a “dark and queer business”, you see. One that reflects “the deplorable excesses of the penny dreadfuls”. My take is more simply put. It’s bloody brilliant.
The plot engages immediately, with stoic-but-doomed Edmund advising his wife, “If I’ve not returned in an hour, you must fetch the police”. Moments later, he’s dead and everything that’s required to rattle in a rattling good story is going like the clappers. This is a remarkably well-told tall tale, in which each element – including its name – radiates a real luminosity. It feels as though writer Mark Gatiss, director Saul Metzstein and the entire cast are having the time of their lives. Matt Smith in particular, is afforded a rare treat. Having been daubed in red dye and set his jaw to slack, he gets to play the greatest gift for any actor, a Doctor Who monster.
Enamelled in some sort of nefarious preserving fluid, our hero’s got himself into a right old pickle, and it’s given as reason enough to take the bold move of keeping him off-screen for the story’s opening third. On numerous occasions Doctor Who poet laureate Terrance Dicks has talked about how scenes that don’t feature the title character are scored by our baseline yearning for him to appear. When’s the Doctor coming on? Gatiss makes sport with that, having the story point towards the Time Lord, with his face imprinted on Edmund’s retina and Vastra advising Jenny on how to find him – “Ignore all the keep-out signs, go through every locked door and run towards any form of danger that presents itself”. And yet our gratification is delayed for 17 whole minutes. Not withstanding those ‘Doctor-lite’ episodes we used to get a few series back (now we have Doctor Who-lite years), it’s a gambit only Steven Moffat’s dared try before. In his case, he had our hero out of the picture for the first 19 minutes of A Good Man Goes To War. But while Moffat pulled that off by building the early parts of his adventure around reactions to and preconceptions of the traveller – thereby ensuring it, like the season 11 title sequence, remained Doctor-shaped – Gatiss has put a lot of his faith in the trio now known as the Paternoster Gang.
That this works so spectacularly is all the more marvellous when we realise the story went into production before The Snowmen. Gatiss hadn’t even seen the Irregulars in their full flush. Thankfully, Vastra, Jenny and Strax prove once again they have the wherewithal and the panache to hold their own against the mightily magnetic pull of When’s the Doctor coming on? A throwaway line at the adventure’s end speaks volumes about the fast gathering notion this threesome are indeed keeping busy with their own show somewhere else: “Another one for the vault,” says Strax, laying his hands on that vast vial of poison.
It’s pretty clear how they now work. Vastra is the prime mover, but remains reserved and veiled, while Jenny is her strong-arm. The maid being dispatched to infiltrate the pretty things of Sweetville and then later revealing a combat-ready cat suit are both welcome nods – considering the circumstances – to The Avengers‘ Emma Peel. And more power to her! Strax, meanwhile, is the comedy sidekick and for me, his continual championing of things like triple-blast brain-splitters is starting to grate. This doesn’t necessarily feel like Gatiss’ fault. It’s reasonable to assume he was briefed that this is the kind of thing the Sontaran now does, but it smacks of the perils of returning characters. When passed as notes from writer to writer there is a risk that some of them might become thumbnail versions of themselves. Strax is still good for a few laughs, but here’s hoping the little guy’s been through some growth when next we meet.
The Crimson Horror is a thoroughly wicked yarn full of sly jokes. My very favourite has to be Mrs Gillyflower asking her congregation, “Will you be preserved against the coming apocalypse?” I also enjoyed Gatiss honouring his pal, the historian/Big Finish scripter/Doctor of 19th century sensation fiction/DWM reader (that’s the most important one) Matthew Sweet by naming the adventure’s parasitic nasty in his honour. Incidentally, was I only the one who fleetingly toyed with the notion the mysterious Mr S might actually be the Kandyman on the comeback trail? Dipping folks in vats of goo seemed like a reasonable development of his working methods. And then there’s the gloriously inevitable “trouble at t’mill” gag, the old school fun of Mr Thursday having a fit of the vapours whenever confronted by something alien (I love daft jokes like that), and the lip-smacking pathologist Amos, who, upon seeing Edmund’s rouge-tinted corpse, gloriously groans, “Oh hellfire, that’s put me right off me mash!”
The story also works as something of a love letter to real-life mother and daughter acting duo Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling. Mark Gatiss apparently popped the question to Ms Stirling about appearing in Doctor Who when they were supposed to be rhubarbing together at the back of the stage at the Donmar during a performance of The Recruiting Officer. And would her mum be interested too? What joy that they both were. It’s resulted in Mrs Gillyflower and Ada being written especially for them, something that might suggest Gatiss has a remarkably sour view of their relationship. But the likelihood, really, is he just fancied they’d both go for such a profoundly maladjusted pair of characters. Unsurprisingly, Rigg is extraordinary as the stentorian widow, radiating disapproval and repression, but then playing it unexpectedly cute, such as the moment at supper when she conspires to spill the salt. She’s also fantastically entertaining tackling the obligatory end-of-episode descent into madness. “Die you freaks!” she bellows, risking blowing her headscarf into the stratosphere, alongside that rocket.
As Ada, Stirling also impresses playing a crushingly vulnerable woman looking for emotional succour from her “Dear Monster” (a useful synonym for the Doctor). She conveys the blindness with exquisite sensitivity while also – like her old ma – turning on the steel at the story’s end, not only doing what’s now called ‘An Olivia Coleman’ to the slug-like Mr Sweet, but refusing to accept her mother’s death knell apologies. I for one would sling a tenner into a Kickstarter campaign to keep these two conserved in a giant bell jar to be uncorked only for further Doctor Who guest turns. Pop them in The Doctor Who Experience for the other bits of the year.
I was a little chilly with Gatiss’ Cold War last issue, because I felt it adhered far too closely to the rules and regs of Doctor Who. The Crimson Horror has a similar fidelity to the lurid Victorian yarns that inspired it, but plays looser when it comes to the customs of the show. That’s exemplified by the silent movie pastiche, which crashes in to unexpectedly take care of the wherefores behind the Doctor and Clara’s predicament. I do wish they’d gone the whole hog and embraced black and white and captions. Nonetheless, not only is this montage an economical way of taking care of a stack of exposition – I’m tempted to suggest more Doctor Who stories adopt this strategy – but it’s also dashed good fun. We have the Wurlitzer music, the Doctor bitching about Tegan (“Brave heart, Clara”) and the pow-pow-pow punctuation points as sepia stills from the preceding sequence hammer home the learning. Such inventiveness and such silliness. It’s everything that’s good about this adventure, in microcosm.
That’s why the final scene, set in the current day with Artie and Angie (already I hate them) feels like a handbrake turn, as if we’ve careered from a Sunday afternoon serial into a Saturday morning cartoon. I’ll bet none of this stemmed from the same hand. “We’ll have to tell Dad our nanny’s a time traveller,” says Angie, as if coining the title of the CBBC show we’ve ended up in. What nonsense! School children looking up pictures of Clara taken on board a top secret Russian nuclear vessel in 1983? Who took the snap? Skaldak? “Ssssay: Cheesssse!” And did he scan it in at a later date and pop it up on his ‘Submar-memes’ Tumblr account? Ditto the happy moment from Caliburn House. It raises too many questions, all inferring very dim answers. Urgh. That’s put me right off me mash.
So we shan’t remember The Crimson Horror like that. We’ll say the last sequence isn’t canon; dump it in the canal. It’s nothing to do with the rest of the story, which – not that I have any insight into the man – feels like Mark Gatiss on a plate, as they might say on MasterChef. There’s the northeast setting, which he cleverly posits as a foreign land for Doctor Who, the Victoriana, the horror and the flamboyant vernacular. In fact, we shall call this a Gatiss peasouper, if you will, and his best contribution to the show so far. Let’s all raise a glass of the red stuff to that!