Episode Review – The Crimson Horror (S7 E11)

The Crimson Horror

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Set in 1893, The Crimson Horror mixes in elements of horror, period detective story, humour and science fiction.

For this episode the Doctor and Clara do not feature too heavily. For large parts, they’re part of the mystery here, rather than the ones actively trying to solve it.

Whatever the reason, after the Doctor’s image appears reflected in the eye of victim immediately before their death, we don’t see him for a good while this week, and not as often as usual after that. That said, there’s still enough Doctor and Clara here to keep you happy and entertained, as by the end we effectively end up with five characters trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on in Sweetville.

The other three? They’re accounted for by the welcome return of Jenny, Strax and Madame Vastra, science fiction’s finest, and most unusual detective agency. Usually, it’s Strax the comedy (potato head) Sontaran and Vastra who take the lead amongst the trio. This time, though, it’s Jenny who takes charge. She’s at the heart of some of the key detective work here, although Vastra keeps herself busy as well. Strax, meanwhile? In an episode not short of light touches and humour, his dialogue is fused with strong giggle power.

The basics of the mystery are that people are being found, coated in red, seemingly victims of the ‘Crimson Horror’. Due it being the 1890s, superstition and fear is rife, rather than people instantly looking for a strange old woman with a poisonous venom. And that paves the way for the appearance of Winifred Gillyflower.

Gillyflower, after we’ve met her pre-credits, is soon preaching the joys of Sweetville, a mill that’s an apparent respite from the incoming apocalypse and ongoing moral decay of, er, late 19th century Yorkshire. Gillyflower is played, as had been widely known beforehand, by geek icon Dame Diana Rigg, and wisely, Gatiss’ script gives her a reasonable amount of screentime. She’s good value for it too, not least the scenes she shares with her real life daughter, Rachael Stirling, who herself is on fine form. We hope they get on better in real life.

Behind the doors of Sweetville is a lot of smoke and mirrors, sound effects over substance, and posh-looking gramophone type things belching out industrial noises. So while at first glance it all appears a bit Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Sweetville has more lethal secrets behind its doors (although Augustus Gloop may disagree). By the time they’re solved, we’ve had Clara proving herself to be a decent detective, the sonic screwdriver usurped by a chair, and the requisite amount of northern gags required to generate at least one letter to Points Of View.

It’s a good, solid story this. Granted, it’s the structure of many a Who adventure to peel back a seemingly idyllic scenario and find something far more sinister behind the covers (you can’t beat a bit of Delta And The Bannermen). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, though. Here, Gatiss gathers together a bunch of entertaining characters, and gives most of them a sufficient amount to do. As a bonus, you get Matt Smith tackling a Yorkshire accent. If the Tetley Tea Folk ever come back to prominence, there’s a voiceover gig waiting for him right there.

Rigg is, as mentioned early, on good form in her villanous guest role. The part of Gillyflower, though, arguably brings a religious subtext back into play here, just as there apparently was in the The Rings Of Akhaten. Or maybe, not for the first time, we’re looking at this a bit too closely. We’d best move on.

One real highlight of The Crimson Horror was the way that the backstory of Gillyflower was relayed. It’s an exquisite sequence, which director Saul Metzstein adopts a grainy, old-style approach to put across. Here, we learn that nobody seems to return from Gillyflower’s mill, as it turns out – unsurprisingly – that she’s behind the Crimson Horror of the episode’s title. Using a lot of red gloopy stuff from the production department (no wonder Matt Smith isn’t in this one much: that stuff looks a sod to wash off), she preserves the best people, drops the rest in the canal, and attempts to do the bidding of Mr Sweet. It’s a lot of exposition in a short space of time, and it’s really well done.

The reveal of Mr Sweet didn’t really feel too impact, with the creature living under Dame Diana’s top coming across oddly cute if anything. It would have been more rewarding in my opinion to have an ugly scary looking creature, certainly more fitting to the horror-esqe theme of this weeks episode.

Now fo rthe ending. Clara’s back at the home where we found her in The Bells Of Saint John. Most notably, the two children who she looks after have discovered her secret: her ‘boyfriend’ is a time traveller. Will this mean the Doctor is going to be gaining another couple of companions, who knows?

The Crimson Horror was the 100th Doctor Who episode since the show returned to our screens in 2005. Here’s to another great 100!