Trouble T’Mill – The Crimson Horror in Perspective
Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull takes another look at Mark Gatiss’ second Series 7 episode.
The Unquiet Dead showcased Mark Gatiss’ ability to effectually ape a certain era of human history, in that case: the 1860s/Victoriana period. When I heard that Gatiss was returning to his bent, I naturally assumed exceptional things for The Crimson Horror. The story itself was dexterously crafted, the characters: exemplary of that century were concrete, and the direction was full of kooky nuances. Though initially I had some fears about The Crimson Horror – Gatiss’ preceding jaunt, Cold War was third-rate, and the return of the schismatic Paternoster Gang (whose escapades I have since grown to love) – but they were quashed moments after the credits rolled.
“Bradford! That Babylon of the moderns with its crystal light and its glitter. All aswarm with the wretched ruins of humanity. Men and women crushed by the Devil’s juggernaut. Moral turpitude can destroy the most delicate of lives. Believe me, I know. I know! My own daughter. Blinded in a drunken rage by my late husband. Her once beautiful eyes pale and white as mistletoe berries.”
To narrow down The Crimson Horror’s success, I point to the screenplay, which oozes sophistication and archaic charm; Gatiss clearly researched the era extremely well. His use of obsolete diction and attention to the credulous culture of the Victorian era paints a remarkably convincing picture for the audience. Mrs. Gillyflower is a fine, if highly exaggerated representation of the patrician class, all pretentiousness, rodomontade and in this case, proto-Nazism, whilst her offspring, Ada, counteracts Gillyflower’s character as she is a warmhearted and empathetic being. The Gillyflowers are like chalk and cheese, starkly contrasting women whose emotions and feelings are polar opposites of one another. The domineering matriarch is one of the wickedest and unscrupulous villains I’ve ever seen, not just on Doctor Who, in books, films, on television. Mrs. Gillyflower is an aboriginal Fascist, a woman that feels that humanity is so tainted with disabled/ill people that she has taken it upon herself to press the restart button and repopulate the Earth with her robust Pilgrims. Admittedly she lacks any motivation within the narrative and at times she is perceived as a cackling crone who is wiping out humanity for the sake of it but that doesn’t devalue a highly watchable and memorable villain.
“Hm, yes. I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts, and I’m going to stop you.”
The Crimson Horror is noteworthy for not giving the Doctor and Clara the leading roles; instead they are replaced by the Great Detective and her comrades. Upon my first viewing of this story, I didn’t notice that the Doctor was absent for the majority of the episode and just enjoyed the antics of the Paternoster Gang. When the Time Lord finally made an appearance, as a dyed vermillion zombie, I was shocked. In hindsight it seems obvious, that Ada’s “monster” (a sweet moniker given to the Doctor) was the Doctor, but when I watched the episode live I was astonished. Matt Smith gives a delightfully over-the-top performance, forcing in more gratuitous excited jumps and twirls than ever and he works well with the material. His few minutes as the poisoned and mummified Doctor were fun to watch and Smith clearly enjoyed it. The Doctor may act a bit halfwittedly at times (trying to go to Ada while Mrs. Gillyflower is shooting at him; sitting still when the latter activates the rocket) but Matt Smith performs gaily.
“And then there’s Clara. Poor Clara. Where’s Clara?”
“I say this only because Clara, meanwhile, could have been dropped from the plot with no consequence, as with Cold War. Again, in a Gatiss plot, she’s practically ornamental, serving little to no purpose (she’s even ‘dollied up’ (“like pretty maids in a row”), and later enclosed within one of Gillyflower’s bell-jars, as if (flagrantly) dramatizing her only purpose is to show up, then be rescued by the Doctor).”
Those were the words of Adam James Cuthbert in his review of The Crimson Horror, and against my better nature (I am a Clara enthusiast), I agree. Clara barely impacts on the plot and although the Doctor is preserved as well he still contributes to the narrative, even though it’s largely the Paternoster Gang who succeed in stopping Gillyflower(‘s scheme). The only bit that Clara actually did something was in the immaterial epilogue in the Maitlands’ home, stitched onto the episode’s denouement, so other than that irksome scene she was an irrelevant part of the episode.
“Well! Thanks a million, you three. As ever. Have some Pontefract cakes on me. I love Pontefract cakes. See you around, eh? I shouldn’t wonder.”
I, like many Who aficionados were sceptical at the return of the schismatic threesome: the Paternoster Gang. In retrospect I was satisfied with them, bar one member: the heinous Strax. The culture clash gag is getting tenuously thin and he is repeatedly getting on my nerves, if they toned down the only joke Strax has then maybe he would be bearable but currently he’s annoying (his inclusion in The Name of the Doctor rippled the tension as he forcefully interjected unfunny martial statements). I like some of his one-liners but the majority of the jokes crash and burn.
The two remaining individuals are my favourite; Madame Vastra and Jenny are both performed by highly talented actresses (Catrin Stewart steals the limelight in The Crimson Horror, Neve McIntosh does the same in The Name of the Doctor). Vastra is pushed to the side for this outing whilst it is Jenny who flourishes as she goes undercover in Sweetville. Stewart’s third rendition of the gutsy maidservant is by far her best, and she makes the part her own, elaborately displaying her martial arts skills and cunning. Jenny and Vastra are my favourite out of the trio and Strax has some mildly likeable qualities, he just needs to calm the increasingly unamusing utterances.
“Oh! The repulsive red leech. Now on balance I think I prefer the Crimson Horror. What was it exactly?”
One of the things I have noticed with The Crimson Horror is its immensely dark and Gothic nature. Some of the concepts included in it are familiar, evoking the feel of the spooky Hinchcliffe era, one of the most heavily criticized periods in the show’s history (Mary Whitehouse spearheaded this anti-Doctor Who campaign). The epitome of this is Mrs. Gillyflower’s confederate: Mr. Sweet, a foul, unpalatable creature that is latched onto the former’s bosom. I’m really surprised Gatiss got away with Sweet, particularly his symbiotic relationship with Mrs. Gillyflower. Had she spun a chair around in the revelation scene to reveal Mr. Sweet perched on it then I would have laughed but the fact that the leech is positioned on her chest makes the creature even more disgusting. My only criticism of Mr. Sweet would be that it was supposed to be intelligent and that it communicated with Mrs. Gillyflower (“Mr. Sweet is such a clever old thing”) when all it did was snarl and eat cubes of meat. Maybe it was brainless and Gillyflower just used Mr. Sweet as a scapegoat for her evil deeds, or possibly it could impart with her psychically (they were physically connected).
“We want a shot at the time machine.”
Thank goodness Mark Gatiss didn’t write for the Maitland offspring in any other story, his characterization of them in the closing moments of The Crimson Horror was appalling. That whole scene, from Clara muttering about being “the boss” to Angie blackmailing her was absolutely ridiculous. The logic is threadbare, Artie and Angie are even more obnoxious than they are in the following story, Nightmare in Silver and Clara suddenly goes very dim. So Angie threatens to tell their father that their nanny is a time traveler if Clara and the Doctor don’t allow them a trip in the TARDIS? Where is the sense in that? Clara is a mature twentysomething year-old, Mr. Maitland would just brush off Angie’s suggestions like any other self-respecting parent would do. This final scene really annoys me but it doesn’t really detract from the rest of The Crimson Horror (I also feel like it could have been stapled onto the front of Nightmare in Silver and had the Doctor present).
“Chairs… are useful.”
So that was The Crimson Horror, the Doctor Who equivalent of a pantomime, but that’s a good thing. Like most pantomimic shows, it relished in its content (the lustrous Victorian era), characters and jokes. The recurring slapstick stunt of Mr. Thursday fainting got wearisome but it wasn’t as bad as Strax. Mrs. Gillyflower and her daughter are two of Doctor Who’s greatest characters; they were well-written and interesting people. Mark Gatiss really excels in writing supporting characters (more can be found at this delightful article) and when he likes an idea, he will put his heart into it. Victorian Gothic horror appears to be Gatiss’ forte; he clearly enjoyed writing The Crimson Horror. I implore him to return to this era because he’s so damned good at writing it. The Crimson Horror was a delight, and so is Gatiss’ writing when he puts his mind to it.