Sunday 5 May 2013

Doctor Who - The Crimson Horror

Value Added Strax

Doctor Who - The Crimson Horror
Airdate: 4th May 2013. UK. BBC1

Warning: Crimson spoilers waiting 
to slowly seep through you below...

Well that was all rather a lot of fun for the hundredth episode since the new era of stories started, counting from when Russel T. Davies ressurected of the show.

The Crimson Horror is the third, so far, Doctor Who story to feature one of my favourite triumvirates of regular characters... the Silurian Madame Vastra, her human lover Jenny and their Sontaran assistant Strax. The story is, like their previous outing in The Snowmen, set firmly in Victorian times but shifted away from their regular “beat” in London, instead moving to the Yorkshire town of Bournv... err... Sweetville. It’s possibly not as great an episode as either The Snowmen or A Good Man Goes To War, but it’ certainly not far from the standard set in those and Mark Gattis, a man I trust for writing homages to the pulps of this particular period, shows he’s more than up for the job.

The story starts off with the old chestnut of the last thing a person seeing before death being retained by the eyes and the opening hook, after a man has been struck down by the delightfully lurid pulp terror known as The Crimson Horror, is that his last image was of The Doctor. Then, post credits, we follow an investigation by our three Victorian heroes which eventually, after some time, leads us to The Doctor, who has turned crimson himself and is held prisoner and paralysed almost... until he can reverse the process in a convenient cabinet which I guess one has to write in for these kinds of stories.

Then, rescued by Jenny, he relates to her and the audience the story which has led up to his near terminal crimson complexion and this is done in a beautifully treated flashback which looks like old grainly filmstock and photographs. Now, I could be picky (and I might as well be, for when am I not?) and mention that the style of moving image used in this sequence or the sounds used to trigger to a modern audience the capturing of still images, are not actually as old as the period on which they are being used... of course, I’m no expert on that so please comment below if I am wrong, but the fact that they made an effort to give these flashback moments a sense of the past which could artistically be linked to that kind of period was both admirable, with a slight dash of genius... so I’m quite happy to forgive them any amount of what I would call deliberate, controlled anachronism within the delivery of the story.

What’s more compelling is that this means that the story has actually started mid-way through, Now I’m guessing it was probably scripted like this but it could also have been an editing decision, since a lengthier selection of footage from the flashback starting off the story would have done the same thing in a more linear fashion and placed The Doctor and Clara front and centre, right from the outset. However, a smart decision harkening back to the days of early Marvel comics and before, in terms of a useful narrative structure to lead you to the hook of the story in a more timely and dramatic fashion, has been made and since this method is not all that often used in Doctor Who (although taken to the Nth degree, as you can get away with in science fiction, then show runner Steven Moffat’s original Weeping Angels story Blink could also be considered an extreme version of the same technique, if you chose to decode it that way), I was very happy to see the episode structured in this manner and it certainly made sense to do this in a story that was so aptly grounded in late nineteenth century pulp fiction.

The action and detective work never really flagged and it had some very nice moments in it which I am very grateful to Gattis for. The fan-pleasing reference to Fourth and Fifth Doctor companion Tegan Jovanka was very much “on the money” for instance, and a scene which was built around a terrible joke, with Strax making use of Thomas Thomas, who is the living Victorian embodiment of the modern Tom Tom satellite navigation systems in cars is one of the reasons I’ll continue to watch the show even though it does seem to be going a bit pear shaped as of late. The relationship between the characters played by Diana Rigg and her real life daughter as villainess and blind daughter was all very nice and there were some truly cool musical moments to support scenes such as the brilliant bit where Jenny strips down to black leather fighting gear to knock a few heads. All good stuff and I think the show needs more of these characters and more scenes like these, please!

My only real disappointment with this episode was the baggage I brought with me. I assumed that since Vastra, Jenny and Strax do not know about the living version of companion Clara, that we were going to get some kind of big revelation this week when they think that their version has returned from the dead. All we got, alas, in return for those kinds of questions throughout the episode was, unfortunately, answers along the lines of “It’s complicated.” They’re playing their cards very close to their chest again on this one but I’m assuming we’ll find out whether Clara is either friend (a regenerated time lord such as Romana, or The Doctor’s Daughter or even The Doctor himself) or foe (The Rani, The Master, a construct of the Great Intelligence or the Daleks) or something I haven’t quite worked out yet in two weeks time... when River Song returns to our screens.

But, ultimately, my own expectations of the story did not stop the episode from being, mostly, a brilliant addition to the show and, if not a rival to the likes of shows like the Victorian set story The Talons Of Weng Chiang, certainly a good stab at being a worthy successor. Not sure if I’m looking forward to Neil Gaiman’s take on the Cybermen next week but we shall see what we shall see, I guess.

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