The Crimson Horror
Tony’s gone all red.
Doctor Who, generally, does not do good insectoid things.
From the Zarbi and the Menoptera, through the giant flies that became of the (wriggletastically exceptional) giant maggots in The Green Death (a story to which The Crimson Horror comes as something of a love letter), to the Time Beetle that was the ‘Something’ on Donna Noble’s back, it’s just not a show where insectoid or parasitic creatures do well as real props.
Ignore that fact and The Crimson Horror’s a belter.
A weird belter, to be sure, where truly appalling gothic horror mixes freely with truly appalling slapstick comedy, but a belter nevertheless.
In some respects, it has the vibe of a Big Finish audio story, its characters ranging from the vivid to the grotesque, and its twists being at first watch somewhat baffling. And in many respects it’s less a Doctor Who story than the pilot episode of the still-as-yet-a-figment-of-fan-imagination Paternoster Gang spin-off series – apart from his involvement with Ada, and the fact that it’s seeing his image that gets the Gang involved in the first place, you could pretty much airlift the Doctor and Clara out of the story, and it would be no worse a story.
But it would be rather less fun.
Mark Gatiss has a chequered career of writing on-screen Who, but in The Crimson Horror, he manages a weird balancing act, with Winnifred Gillyflower, the Big Bad of the story, channelling a long history of human nutters in Doctor Who through the Yorkshire of the Victorian era, all dark, Satanic mills and firebrand evangelism. What’s less believable, and never given any real time to develop in the story, is how she comes to be involved with icky leeches from the dawn of time – a blink and you miss it reference to her being an award-winning chemist is the flung-from-a-great-distance explanation, and bang! You either have to accept it and move the hell on, or trip over it and let The Crimson Horror defeat you on points of logic. Yes, it’s something of a shame that the explanation is so weak, because a) if you’re going to have a talent like Diana Rigg play a Doctor Who villain, you want her to be something rich and complex, and while Rigg brings the class for which she is rightly renowned to the role of Mrs Gillyflower, giving her character more background and more of an actual reason to be determined to end the world than she ever gets would be such a worthwhile investment that if you think about it for only a moment, you really miss it, and b) what you do get in this episode is a protracted satnav joke with Strax and an urchin named Thomas Thomas. It was probably funny on the page, and Dan Starkey, King of Sontar, makes it funny on the screen because when he’s going for it, Starkey as Strax always delivers the funny, but perhaps one fewer joke, one scrap more backstory would have made The Crimson Horror a rather more balanced thing.
Matt Smith as a bowler-hatted, Yorkshire-accented Eleventh Doctor is clearly having enormous fun throughout The Crimson Horror, giving a performance that bowls and whirls and sets the screen alight, while still having enough control to pause in quiet scenes with Rachael Stirling’s Ada and deliver the tender emotional beats of a Doctor who sometimes struggled to find the point of humanity, but when he did, reacted to it with the emotional honesty of an eight year-old. And both Clara and each of the Paternoster Gang get their moments to shine – particularly Strax and Jenny this time out, furthering the calls at the time of its broadcast for the Gang to get their spin-off series (bear in mind, we eventually got Class. I’m not saying…I’m just saying…). But among all the slapstick of Jenny’s sudden strip-down to a leather bodice for some serious ass-kicking, and the Doctor’s Yorkshire accent, and Strax stomping off to go and play with his grenades, the actual storyline and the accompanying visuals of The Crimson Horror are really gothically disturbing – an older woman so chronically annoyed with the world she would sell it to destruction, while preserving only ‘perfection,’ only the pretty people, the young and the beautiful. There’s something almost Hitlerian in the contrast there – he was a short, dark-haired unfit Austrian who pushed the lie of the blonde, blue-eyed Aryan master race, she’s an older woman with a heart so corrupted as to test a prehistoric poison on her own daughter, keeping the perfect pretty people in bell jars, and preserving them against an apocalypse she herself is preparing. The sight of row after row of humans suspended from dipping racks, being submerged into thick red poisonous goo has a period-appropriate industrial grimness to it, and her delight in her own villainy again gives us plenty to watch at the expense of any understanding of why she wants to do it. As Series 10 progresses with its parade of mash-ups and back-references, Gillyflower is reincarnated in Sutcliffe, the man whose family have chained the snake beneath the Thames. Both of them have no identifiable reason for being the grim human beings they are, and it’s to the detriment of both stories.
The Crimson Horror of course also suffers from Plot What-The-Hellness, as it emerges that the same poison that Gillyflower’s using to paralyse and preserve her pretty people is going to be used, when packed into a fabulously steampunk missile, to bring about the rain of death that will bring the apocalypse with it. There’s no time to explain why it would both preserve and destroy, or how the preservation would work when the apocalypse arrives. It just would, that’s all, shut up, alright!
And then of course, there’s Mr Sweet. Mr Sweet, the red leech prop that, like many other insectoid or parasitical creatures over the decades, simply looks ridiculous when he’s finally revealed, ruining the sense of evil at play by being a bit Classically naff.
But forget all that, and just rewatch The Crimson Horror today. It might make precisely no sense when subjected to logical analysis – in fact, trust us, it doesn’t, we’ve done it – but it is enormous dark, gothic fun with the Eleventh Doctor at the height of his powerhouse performances and the Paternoster Gang proving why and how they deserve a bigger place in our TV schedules than they’ve ever had. The moment for a Paternoster spin-off might now be passed – but The Crimson Horror will make you wish all over again that it hadn’t.