Dame Diana Rigg channels her inner Bond villain to unleash The Crimson Horror upon the world in Mark Gatiss’ hybrid of Victorian penny dreadfuls, steampunk and Catherine Cookson.
The Crimson Horror deserves kudos for daring to experiment with the established Doctor Who format as the Doctor and Clara are introduced late on in proceedings with their involvement established in sepia-tinged flashback sequences akin to those used in the movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. For the first third of Mark Gatiss’ enjoyable romp, which combined late-1970s Bond über-villainy, the North England-based Catherine Cookson sagas and the lurid air of Victorian penny dreadfuls, centre stage belonged to the popular Paternoster Gang. Following on from their appearance in The Snowmen, the trio of Madame Vastra (the Silurian from the dawn of the human race), Jenny Flint (Vastra’s wife and maid) and Strax (the trigger-happy Sontaran who’s always looking for an excuse to eradicate human scum – preferably with grenades) once again demonstrated their suitability to head up the next Doctor Who spin-off. And whilst the wait for The Paternoster Gang continues Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey will return in the Series 7b finale The Name of the Doctor.
Chief guest stars for The Crimson Horror were the legendary Dame Diana Rigg (most famous for her portrayal of the iconic Emma Peel in The Avengers and currently gracing Game of Thrones) and her real-life daughter Rachael Stirling (Tipping the Velvet). Gatiss penned the mother and daughter characters of Winifred and Ada Gillyflower specifically for Rigg and Stirling after appearing with them in theatrical productions All about My Mother and The Recruiting Officer respectively. Mother and daughter seized their roles with gusto and delivered performances that rank amongst the best in this Series 7b of Doctor Who. When the plaudits for best guest actors are dished out in the Doctor Who Magazine poll at series end it’ll be a crime if the family Rigg don’t feature prominently. Diana Rigg merely had to stand there to outact Jenna-Louise Coleman, who doesn’t seem to act too differently between being in a trance and being normal – all wide-eyed and silly grin. The Crimson Horror wasn’t Stirling’s first encounter with the Time Lord as she starred opposite Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor in the 2012 Big Finish audio adventure Trail of the White Worm.
Along with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, Diana Rigg is one of the grand matriarchs of British acting and in the 1960s she was a massive sex symbol. No warm blooded person who saw her appearance as the “Queen of Sin” in the A Touch of Brimstone episode of The Avengers was ever quite the same afterwards. Rigg also holds a unique place in the James Bond film canon as in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service she became the only person to have married 007 – even though she was killed within hours of the wedding. Utilising her native Doncaster accent Rigg went to town as the maniac moral crusader Winifred Gillyflower who was intent on culling the world’s population with the aid of the “crimson ‘orror” and repopulating it with her own Salvation Army-style herrenvolk. Winifred and her repopulation plan are a combination of Mary Whitehouse (the self-moralising scourge of Doctor Who in the 1970s and 1980s) and Sir Hugo Drax from the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker.
At the other end of the acting scale from her mother, Stirling was heartbreaking and heartwarming as the blind Ada, the subject of her mother’s demented experimentations with the Crimson Horror. The scenes where she bonded with the venom-infected, mute and incarcerated Doctor called to mind the relationship between the Creature and the Blind Man in Frankenstein. She interacted beautifully with Matt Smith as the compassionate nature of the Doctor was drawn out by Ada’s pathos and the audience reminded why the Eleventh Doctor is generally considered one of the premiere incarnations of the Time Lord. No other Doctor has been able to do contemplative and vulnerable as well as Smith – though the actor needs to start rebelling against the unwanted sexualisation of 21st century Doctor Who.
The Doctor dipping and snogging of Jenny as a supposed reward for releasing him from captivity was totally unnecessary, and together with the “erection” of the sonic screwdriver, justifiably caused ire in supporters of equality, and indeed common sense, with its crassness. Why Steven Moffat continually allows such unwelcome moments to creep into the narrative is mystifying. The series doesn’t need them and is subsequently bombarded with overtly negative reactions from critics and social media users each and every time they occur. Tom Baker would have refused to film such a scene if it had been presented to him and insisted that he thank his rescuer with a jelly baby and not hanky-panky. He’d have probably also labelled it as whippet shit typed by a blind Albanian and pushed for the inclusion of a badger or cabbage. Often deigned as a pain to work with in the later years of his tenure, Baker was finely attuned to the sensibilities of the Doctor Who audience and the current production team could learn from his examples and act more sensibly.
In a limiting 45 minute format with five well-written guest stars and the necessity to keep the Doctor at the heart of proceedings something had to give. The result was Clara having virtually nothing to do other than pointing out that the chimney at the Sweetville complex was a missile silo housing a Victorian steampunk V2 missile as designed by a 65 million year old red leech. Clara’s minimal involvement was something of a blessing in disguise as whether frozen or unfrozen, unconscious or conscious, inanimate or animate, Jenna-Louise Coleman’s expression remains pretty much fixed. Even with such minimal involvement Karen Gillan would have made her presence known in every scene she inhabited but Coleman simply doesn’t have the physical aura of her predecessor. Having finished the filming of the 50th anniversary special and signed up for the 2013 Christmas Special and Series 8 it can only be hoped that somehow everything magically improves for Clara and Coleman once the not-so-mysterious-mystery of Clara is resolved in The Name of the Doctor.
Also, in order to fully enjoy The Crimson Horror it’s best to stop watching before the unnecessary, ridiculous and frankly dire episode coda in which the children to whom Clara is nanny suddenly reveal to her that they know she is a time traveller and blackmail her into having a journey aboard the TARDIS. Perhaps this “revelation” would have had an impact if there had been a buildup but the layering of intrigue that existed in previous series with the mystery of Mister Saxon, the cracks in the universe and the identity of River Song are notably by their lamentable absence in Series 7b. Angie and Artie have the potential to be the most annoying younglings to grace Doctor Who since Romulus and Remus in The Twin Dilemma. It can only be hoped that in Nightmare in Silver Neil Gaiman takes the opportunity to freak out a nation by turning them into Cyberchildren.
After weaving references to Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor into Cold War Gatiss takes a moment out in The Crimson Horror to pay homage to another bygone era of the programme. It was Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor (the favourite of David Tennant and Steven Moffat) who spent ages attempting to get the “gobby Australian” Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) to Heathrow Airport. “Brave heart Tegan” was a line that Davison ad libbed during Earthshock to evoke reassurance and which entered the lexicon of the series back in 1982 in the same way that “timey-wimey” has now. A fan of classic horror films and known for tinging his scripts with macabre humour Gatiss also threw in one of the most groan-inducing atrocious puns ever as Strax took directions from Thomas Thomas…
Overall The Crimson Horror is a hugely enjoyable slice of hokum-filled Danse Macabre from the pen of the inestimable Mr Mark Gatiss and with an enjoyably bonkers plot and bravura turns by the guest actors once again demonstrated how well Doctor Who excels at steampunk-orientated Victorian-era adventures.