Since both Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures left the air, there have been slots open for new Doctor Who spinoffs. “The Crimson Horror” gives us a taste of the most obvious – and potentially greatest – choice. With plenty of innuendo to go around and witty one-liners flying everywhere, as well as a certain Sontaran‘s endearing obsession with violence, the return of the Jenny–Vastra–Strax triumvirate in 19th century Yorkshire is a witty glimpse into a world that deserves its own series.
The beginning of the episode is curiously Doctor and Clara-free, which – although frightening at first – is a refreshing change. We are introduced to the conundrum of the week: the Crimson Horror and its ensuing trail of bright red bodies in the river. An undertaker presents to the team the belief that the last image a soon-to-be-corpse sees is forever burned across their retinas in an image known as an “optogram.” Vastra discounts this immediately as superstition. However, with the help of unexplained (but very Victorian-looking) technology, the eyes of the latest stiff are found to reflect a very familiar face – that of the Doctor himself.
The ensuing escapades of the gang are by turns snarky, amusing, and filled with impressive prosthetics and goopy makeup galore. As an added neek-tastic bonus, Diana Rigg (you may know her as Lady Olenna Tyrell from Game of Thrones) plays the charmingly crafty Mrs. Gillyflower, whose motives are as unclear as the nature of her mysterious unseen partner, Mr. Sweet. The revelation that this taunting character reeking of Great Intelligence-y badness is in fact a rather pathetic little red leech from the dawn of time symbiotically conjoined with Mrs. Gillyflower is only slightly disappointing, as it is immediately upstaged when she unveils her Bond villain-esque steampunk rocket silo (disguised as an LED-adorned chimney, no less) primed to rain poison down on the unsuspecting citizens of the world.
One of the added advantages of an episode more focused on its supporting characters is that we get to see each of them react individually to the coming apocalypse. Vastra is the stoic reptilian queen that she always is; Strax suggests various tactics for direct frontal assaults every other minute; and Jenny gets to display her fightin’ skills as she takes on the orderly ranks of Mrs. Gillyflower’s presumably brainless henchmen in her (previously unseen) badass leather catsuit-clad mode. (And no, I didn’t miss the sonic innuendo.)
Also, I’m assuming I’m not the only one who would definitely watch an episode titled “Attack of the Supermodels.”
I appreciated that Clara’s destruction of Mrs. Gillyflower’s rocket launch control system is chair-based as opposed to sonic screwdriver’d. (The fact that the Doctor is able to mysteriously cure both himself and Clara after being dunked in leech poison using the sonic is inexplicable enough.)
Mark Gatiss tailored the role of Ada, the daughter whom Mrs. Gillyflower blinded when testing her formula of poison, so that Rigg’s actual daughter, Rachael Stirling, could play it. The pair’s relationship and portrayal of a clashing family is a poignant reminder that there is more at stake than the antics of the Doctor and his friends would suggest.
Jenny, Vastra and Strax are somewhat puzzled that Clara – whom they saw die during the events of “The Snowmen” – now seems to be alive and, for the most part, well (of course, after being sonically de-corpsified). However, once the Doctor expresses disinclination to discuss the matter, they – bizarrely – drop it. The real movement in Clara’s arc occurs at the very end of the episode, when she returns to modern-day London (it makes me a bit sad that Clara isn’t a constant companion the way that Rose, Martha, and Donna were) and the kids she babysits confront her with photographs located on the Internet of her in various places and times in the past, threatening to tell their father that she is a time traveller unless she takes them on a trip. (I’m not really sure how this is a legitimate risk, but so be it.) There is one photo that she does not recognize – herself in Victorian London. I sincerely hope that the next episode (“Nightmare in Silver“), penned by the extraordinary entity known as Neil Gaiman, will showcase more Clara backstory (seeing as she forgot everything she learned in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” GAH).
“The Crimson Horror” is a fun romp through Victorian Yorkshire with a delightful cast of humans, non-humans, and one complete nutter. The situation never feels too dire, the dialogue is enjoyably witty, and the ending isn’t a crammed three minutes of the Doctor hurriedly explaining to us why everything that has happened in the past 45 minutes does make sense, honest. A lovely episode of filler plot and wonderful style.
If you’re interested in more of my writing about Doctor Who, check out my other episode reviews: “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” “Hide,” “Cold War, “The Rings of Akhaten,” and “The Bells of Saint John.”