When the Doctor himself hasn’t appeared fifteen minutes into the episode, there’s the substantial possibility that this won’t be a stellar hour. There are some shows that can manage not to focus on their titular character and get away with it, but typically those characters are fleshed out and we’ve met them on a number of occasions; enough occasions that I don’t have to look up said character’s name. If there’s going to be an episode that’s primarily focused on someone who isn’t the Doctor, they must be dynamic and engaging enough to convince me that the Doctor’s presence isn’t necessary. Instead, I was keeping track of how many minutes had passed without him or Clara appearing.
In theory, it’s an interesting and dark episode, if not one with the highest risk. It centers on a mad scientist type in Victorian Yorkshire who has discovered a toxin to disperse on all of humanity, using her blind daughter as a pawn.
The Doctor’s friends Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are back and are there to help save the day when the Doctor’s and Clara’s efforts aren’t as satisfactory in completing the job.
A man brings to Madame Vastra’s attention that his brother’s last image before he died was of the Doctor.
This prompts Madame Vastra into believing that something’s gone amiss in the building where the trouble is going down and sends Jenny to infiltrate the community and find out what the trouble is.
Back with the woman in charge, Mrs. Gillyflower played by Dianna Rigg, she’s showing her blind and deformed daughter as a means to encourage others to take in the belief of the ‘crimson horror’ to a group of followers as Jenny listens in.
Jenny while exploring finds a barren room with what looks to be great speakerphones. She also hears a moaning from a separate room and in it finds the Doctor, swollen, red and crisp, unable to move, unable to speak and can only gesture at Jenny as to where to take him.
And like that after popping in and out of a room he’s good as new and ready to confront the day at hand, a civilization’s livelihood at stake being old hat for the Doctor at this point.
This leads into one of the more interesting portions of the episode as the Doctor reports what has happened to him and Clara that lead them to this mess, in an old fashioned flashback ala Wizard of Oz style before the rainbow: there’s the narrative monologue, the sepia tone and the Victorian styled dress. The Doctor tells Jenny that they snuck into the building, just as she had, to try and go undercover to find out what had been happening after the Doctor’s poor navigational skills landed them there.
However, instead of being successful sleuths they’re captured and the Doctor is dunked in the red crimson horror. But instead of dying like expected he survives and that’s how Ada Gillyflower, the blind girl played by Rachel Stirling, finds him, Hellboy’d up and unable to voice his protests to her unrequited and troubling romantic notions.
He’s kept as her “special monster” and it’s an interesting part of a lackluster standalone episode. It’s almost tragic. Here she is trying to force a relationship with her “monster” and keeps him in chains, proving the relationship all the more discouraging. Here is a woman who cannot even see the man she wishes to court, she cannot hear him, she has zero inkling of who and what this person is.
For all she knows he could be an alien.
Yet despite this she forces herself into believing that it can work, it will work, because she for the first time has control of the matter. She has him literally bound up and weakened and because she’s given her first taste of control, a thing that her mother had the most of when in regards to her life, she’s desperate to hold on to it.
It’s not surprising a woman so desperate, so constantly in a state of mourning and despair, convinced herself that she loved him, a monster in her mind.
The flashback is over and the one thing that Jenny holds on to is the idea that Clara is alive, showing a brief concern for the Doctor’s well being that he believes a woman she saw die is still alive.
This is the biggest portion in which the episode really missed out. Sure, it’s a standalone episode and many standalones have done well within the Who realm, I encourage most of them, but ones like “Vincent and the Doctor” that create a real emotional pull and captivation. “The Crimson Horror” merely hints at bigger and broader themes and the one that is the most reprehensibly shallow is the focus on Clara’s character and the fact that this group of people including Jenny has met her before and watched her die. Even Madame Vastra brushes the news off with a note that she knew the two had unfinished business.
They find Clara in a glass and save her, Matt Smith and Jenna Louise-Coleman showcasing their fantastically palpable chemistry once again.
The group finds out that the community was planning on poisoning the air and it’s once again homicide among a community.
Just daily business for the Doctor.
The Doctor manages to prevent the massacre along with his rag tag team and it’s just interesting to me how Mark Gatiss can manage to create such a compelling idea yet not deliver on it.
One thing this episode does once again expertly is touch upon the Doctor’s inability to empathize with ideals that he believes to be archaic or extreme. We saw it in “The Rings of Akhenaten” where he watched the planet celebrate and pray and bring offerings to an idea of a God and almost laughed it off.
We saw it in “The God Complex” as every character was falling victim to their own beliefs as he stayed steady and tried to placate their beliefs, literally killing Amy’s faith in him.
He isn’t a man of faith but one of science and exploration, and this episode explored extremism faintly and the way in which people will follow when given a direct speaker whom they believe is being honest. Sincerity in one’s speaking is enough to sell anyone in their intelligence, it’s how you sell it, not always what you say.
But even those themes aren’t so neatly explored, rather touched upon and then abandoned.
It wouldn’t be a huge deal if an episode was simply there to fill up space. It’ s happened in the past whenever the Doctor visits his friend Craig, yet those episodes are more coherent in what they’re trying to achieve: some fun. “The Crimson Horror” is trying to be a lot of different things, a message about humanity, about faith and the need to follow, about what desperation can make you do and how the Doctor can instantly change into what and who he needs to be at a moment’s notice, but it still tries to sell itself as a one-off episode.
The saving grace of the episode is that it’s shot beautifully and Stirling’s performance as Ada which was harrowing, wonderfully tragic, but uncomfortable as well. She’s a character we all want to lead a happier life, we want the Doctor to not be so brusque when admonishing her advances, yet we wish her to not keep her future prospects chained up. Stirling gave a performance deserving more time than what she got.
It may have been my splitting headache, my post-finals exhaustion, or my high from just having had seen Iron Man 3, but there was something about this episode that simply didn’t click. Much of that could be attributed to Mark Gatiss’s inability to write an episode in which the momentum is swift and clear and exciting, rather than aiming for style over substance. The ailment of the crimson horror is aesthetically interesting, is unsettling and makes for a mysterious episode but rather than managing to create suspense and chills which seems to have been the goal it produces yawns instead.
I’ve mentioned before about how a boring Who is the most disappointing version of the show because of how exciting we know that show can be devoid of a convoluted plot. It was a miss for a show that’s been on such a high from recent episodes, but no matter. Next week is a return to the thrilling it seems with Clara and the Doctor in the forefront.
Maybe I was simply looking at the episode wrong but it seemed simply unmemorable.