Monday, October 14, 2013

A Study In Crimson

It’s a measure of the success of the Doctor Who episode The Crimson Horror that I can’t see the factories in the Left-Twix Right-Twix ad campaign without thinking of Sweetville and, somewhere behind those gates, Mrs Gillyflower preserving only the best specimens of humanity for her New Jerusalem.

On the one side they cover beautiful people with bell jars and stick them in their own cottage. On the other they coat rejects in deadly red dye and bung them in the canal. But of course they’re all the product of the same process.

It’s never made abundantly clear why the preservative rejects some specimens and not others. Mrs Gillyflower wants only perfect, morally upstanding human beings for her brave new world, but whether the deadly red goo undergoes a chemical reaction when coming into contact with ugliness or moral turpitude is uncertain. In the Doctor’s case it’s down to his alien biology that he’s rejected and survives - and that’s fair enough. Not least because it provides an intriguing kick-off to this highly entertaining tale.

In some respects it’s a shame this isn’t a Doctorless adventure, as the investigative talents of Lady Vastra, Jenny and Strax are more than able to sustain a story, but the image of an imperilled Doctor captured in the eye of a crimson victim is an irresistible lead-in and there is a greater audience investment when it’s the Doctor’s life at stake.

For the portion of the episode they’re in charge they’re a delight and even when it’s back to business as usual, with the Doctor and Clara recovered, they’re generally given enough to do. It’s Jenny who benefits from the lion’s share of the action – including an all-too brief stint as a Black Widow/Emma Peel kick-ass heroine type. Vastra appears in a bit more of a supporting role and Strax principally provides comic relief (of course). (Side note: I wonder if the Sontarans can ever be fielded as a convincing alien threat with Strax in play. There’s potential interest to be mined in having him confront his warmongering brethren but whether it would work is another question.) Strax does get to put some of that gung-ho militarism into practice at last. Lady Vastra especially could have been given more to do, but not a bad balance is struck between allowing the Doctor to take the lead and at least creating an impression of the other characters being sufficiently involved where it counts.

Ultimately, their involvement is a sign to brace yourself for plenty of comedy and Mark Gatiss delivers a script choc-full of wit. As striking a condition as the Crimson Horror is, it’s not something that can be taken too seriously and even the macabre mortuary scenes with the (rather stereotypical) grim-humoured mortician are unlikely to be too traumatic for young viewers. The most horrific element is Mrs Gillyflower.

What a truly horrible creation. Wonderfully horrible.

Gatiss writes a terrific villain here and Dame Diana Rigg renders her utterly fearsome. The fact that Doctor Who can attract stars of her calibre is something to celebrate and whether it’s preaching sermons or launching her rocket to poison the Earth like a true megalomaniac she really sinks her teeth into the role. Her ruthless and even sadistic treatment of her daughter is the most chilling facet of her character and she’s one of those rare villains in modern DW who – thankfully – has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. When she lies dying and begs her daughter’s forgiveness, Ada tells her, “Never!” and she answers with maternal pride, “That’s my girl.” It’s a perfectly judged end for a masterfully portrayed villainess.

The sinister Mr Sweet comes to an equally fitting end, thrashed to a pulp by Ada’s cane. He’s one of the few disappointing aspects in this episode, a rather pitiful little creation that, if voiced with a suitably comic Northern accent, might have found a career opportunity on That Puppet Game Show. Still, a cartoonish mini-monster is in keeping with the general tone of the piece and it’s all the more credit to Diana Rigg that she plays scenes with no less conviction while she has this ridiculous thing clinging to her chest.

A more significant letdown is the epilogue with Clara and the kids she looks after. It feels tacked on and an unnecessary detraction from the adventure that precedes it. As predictable as it might have been, I’d have been happier if they’d closed out on the running gag of the fellow fainting at every strange sight he encounters throughout. Instead we jump to this weak excuse to shoehorn the kids into tagging along for the next episode. (Which felt like a bad decision the first time I watched Nightmare In Silver, in any case.) But it’s an imposition courtesy of the season’s arc rather than a fault with Gatiss’ script and the episode itself is brimming over with wonderful memorable moments that more than outweigh this stingless tail end.

Relatively simple tricks like the flickering projector effect with which the Doctor’s recap is handled add to the sense of invention and novelty, helping transform what is an essentially uncomplicated plot into something special.

Light and nothing too substantial, it may not be a long-lasting snack but it’s a treat you can certainly enjoy between mealtimes which, far from spoiling your appetite, ought to leave you wanting more.

Next Time...

Nightmare In Silver


No comments: