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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Doctor Who blogging: “The Crimson Horror”

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Diana Rigg Jenna-Louise Coleman Matt Smith

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”)

(get my downloadable discussion guide to “The Crimson Horror” for teachers, librarians, and everyone else who needs to keep kids amused, engaged, and educated at DoctorWhoTeachersGuides.co.uk)

This episode completely freaked and creeped me out. In the good way.

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith

To see the Doctor this vulnerable and this scared is kinda horrifying. He’s supposed to be the guy in charge, the one who, if he doesn’t actually know what’s going on, is in the process of figuring it out without ever letting anyone get in his way for long.

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith Catrin Stewart

When the Doctor is afraid, you know things are really bad.

And here, he doesn’t even know how long he’s been chained up. Days? Weeks? And totally at the mercy of someone like Ada, who actually seems to be enjoying her “dear monster” like he’s a pet:

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith Rachael Stirling

She really is her mother’s daughter, getting off on her power over someone else. And yet she is a victim, too. It’s never quite clear, though, why her mother had to experiment on Ada, when surely any old bum off the street would have done. I mean, people don’t even seem to notice when fine upstanding respectable citizens go missing, and obviously Mrs. Gillyflower isn’t even upset to lose some of her “best and brightest” when her preservation process fails, so why Ada as guinea pig? Eh: here’s a case where a plothole is forgivable for all the other interesting stuff it gives us, like the moral complexity of Ada’s position — she could have blown the whistle on her mother but never did — and the Doctor’s somewhat surprising gentleness toward her:

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith Rachael Stirling

I’m not entirely convinced that Ada isn’t going to get up to something just as weird and creepy as her mother. For society’s own good, of course.

Ah, and Mrs. Gillyflower! Surely one of the most marvelous Doctor Who villains ever.

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Diana Rigg Matt Smith

She’s so gleefully evil! And she’s certainly a genius. She invented that rocket and her poison and perservation process all by herself, didn’t she? I mean, she makes one or two references to help from “Mr. Sweet” — he’s “such a clever old thing” — but then she also says that all she got in return from “him” for her rescue of him is his venom. Mr. Sweet doesn’t seem like an intelligent or sentient creature to me… or if he is, is he technological? Was he whispering advanced sci-tech to Mrs. Gillyflower… or was it merely her delusion (or a plain ol’ outright lie) that she was getting anything more from him?

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror


Even the Doctor is grossed out by this:

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith Jenna-Louise Coleman

And when a guy who calls monsters “beautiful” is squicked, you know it’s extra gross on a galactic scale.

But this

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror

might be a little sad, too. Especially if Mr. Sweet really is just a creature, not a sentient bad guy.

This is the sort of thing I want from Doctor Who: I want to sometimes not be sure how to feel about what I’m seeing. I suspect that’s the sort of emotional situation you would encounter a lot traveling with the Doctor.

This, on the other hand,

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Jenna-Louise Coleman

is unreservedly disturbing. It’s like Mrs. Gillyflower was making her own life-size Victorian dollhouses. Which is creepy in a way that is also kind of cool and uncomfortably funny. As are the episode’s other twists on Victoriana: penny dreadfuls and optigrams, ideal communities, the gleefully gruesome undertaker, the completely insane play on the “madwoman in the attic” trope.

I’m not sure the running motif about how people keep not seeing things that they don’t want to acknowledge or that make them uncomfortable quite gels, however. Apparently no one noticed that Sweetville’s factory isn’t actually producing anything. And no one noticed that the blind lady was banging around bringing trays of food to the attic. And, c’mon, no one (except for the one moustache guy who keeps fainting) notices that these two are not human:

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror

Certainly it is true that people are very good at ignoring things that they don’t want to deal with, but all of these things that people are ignoring go way beyond the sorts of things we’re usually able to ignore. If only this had been actually woven into the story…

Ah, well. Mostly, this is good Doctor Who. It has lingered with me in ways that other recent episodes haven’t.

Random thoughts on “The Crimson Horror”:

• I love Vastra and Jenny. But Strax… not so much. He’s a one-joke character, and that one joke was barely funny the first time. You think he would have accepted by now that Jenny is a girl, and that frontal assaults will never be a thing for Vastra.

• Also: Thomas Thomas is too cutesy and serves no purpose except for an anachronistic joke. Coulda done without that.

• Ah, so Jenny is the Doctor’s type!

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith Catrin Stewart

That kiss could be seen as a simple physical expression of happy-to-be-alive (though it’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a guy who’s been acting the way he’s been acting around Clara), but this is not:

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith Catrin Stewart

Lesbian Victorian chambermaid in a leather catsuit gives the Doctor sonic boner:

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith

Doctor Who The Crimson Horror Matt Smith

Kids’ show my ass…

• I don’t know about next week. Don’t Tell Dad the Babysitter’s a Time Traveler? Oh dear…

• Great quotes:

“She needs only ignore all Keep Out signs, go through every locked door, and run towards any form of danger that presents itself.” –Vastra, on how Jenny will find the Doctor

“Oh, great. Attack of the supermodels.” –the Doctor

“What’s going on?” –Clara
“Haven’t you heard, luv? There’s trouble at t’mill.” –the Doctor, in his best Yorkshire accent

“I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts, and I’m gonna stop you.” –the Doctor to Mrs. Gillyflower

“Do you know what these are? The wrong hands.” –Mrs. Gillyflower

“Forgive me, my child. Forgive me.” –Mrs. Gillyflower
“Never.” –Ada
“That’s my girl.” –Mrs. Gillyflower

(next: “Nightmare in Silver”)

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  • Isobel_A

    Isn’t next week Neil Gaiman’s episode? If so, hopefully it’ll be a lot more than Don’t Tell Dad the Babysitter’s a Time Traveler?.

  • Kat

    Yes, it is.

  • RogerBW

    It does seem a touch odd – that nothing Different can be allowed, but that Vastra is strolling around casually telling people she’s a lizard from the deep past…
    And of course this is an occasion on which a frontal assault would have solved the problem. But Strax has been declared a comic figure, so he must Always Be Wrong.
    Diana Rigg continues to be a Good Thing. I still think that she should have owned the world of film in the 1970s. Wasn’t as impressed by her part here, but hey.

  • PJK

    Interesting fact: Mrs Gillyflower and her daughter are played by Dame Diana Rigg (Best known for playing Emma Peel in the 60’s Avengers series) and her real life daughter.

    Diana Rigg is also doing an awesome job as Lady Olenna Tyrell in Season 3 of Game of Thrones!

  • Martin

    As a resident of Yorkshire for over 25 years, I must say it’s the most realistic depiction of the county I’ve ever seen.


    Seriously, this felt very much like a Mark Gatiss episode and there’s stuff in there that really felt authentically Yorkshire. The whole name ‘Sweetville’ is a very clever in-joke/easter egg since it’s a combination of Bourneville – the town that Mr Cadbury built for his workers to make his chocolate, and a play on Saltaire, another worker town built by a Mr Salt. Yorkshire did have a lot of these worker towns that had their own odd little rules, it’s still illegal to serve alcohol in the town of Saltaire, a law that caused a local restaurant to have to move it’s bar since it was on the border of the town.

    I have a real soft spot for Strax, one day his methods will be appreciated, but that sat nav joke was terrible. My big problem with Vastra and Strax (no matter how awesome they are) is how they are keeping Torchwood off their backs, if I recall, Victorian Torchwood wasn’t that happy with aliens running around London. Just a passing mention to handwave it would do.

    But definitely an episode that felt more like pre-Moffat, RTD era Who and was all the more refreshing for it.

  • RogerBW

    Yeah, this is pretty much meant to be the golden age of Torchwood, isn’t it?
    (It’s probably something to do with the destruction of Atlantis.)

  • singlestick

    I’m curious why this was such a Clara light episode (elsewhere on the web it is also claimed that this is a Doctor light episode as well). Even though she helps resolve the mystery behind the chemical missile launch, I had really looked forward to seeing more of her in a Victorian setting again. And although it was great to see Madame Vastra and Jenny again, the absence of one of my favorite companions ever took me out o f the story.

    And even though I liked the story, the odd narrative and directorial choices almost ruined it for me. There was this odd emphasis on halted or truncated action, with the Doctor in chains, locked in a room, hidden in a locker; with Ada being displayed in a diorama, and her communicating most effectively only with someone who was directly speaking to her, or touching her; with Clara being imprisoned in a Bell Jar and also doing semi-regeneration time in a locker. And then there was all the fainting, the woman who pretends to faint to provide a distraction, and the guy who faints whenever he is confronted with another evidence of the otherworldly nature of things. Again, it took me out of the action, and almost ruined what was a good and creepy story. It was also a bit odd to see all the good guys lined up like sitting ducks in the stairwell in one of the final scenes, not a good use of physical space.

    But I liked all the historical Victorian touches, and the acting, especially that of Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling was ferociously good. And Mark Gatiss went to town with all the literary and pop references (the Doctor as Frankenstein’s Monster, nods to Murders in the Rue Morgue and Victorian penny dreadfuls). And although it was odd to see Jenny
    pretending to be a maid again, as opposed to being openly Vastra’s wife, it was cool to see her in butt-kicking mode, and her black leather jump suit was a nod to both Cathy Gale and Emma Peel in “The Avengers.” It was a nice touch to see Strax help save the day.

    And the joke about the kid Thomas Thomas being a kind of Victorian GPS? Groan. This was all almost too clever by half, but ultimately a lot of fun. Oh, yeah, you should check Rachael Stirling out in PBS mini-series “The Bletchley Circle.”

  • Isobel_A

    Groan – I just realised – TomTom. Duh!

  • heatherbelles

    As some one who lives about 5-10 mins down the road from Saltaire, I loved it. It wasn’t just the name that was inspired – the factory Mrs Gillyflower has as the centre of her model village? Virtually identical to Salts Mill, and Saltaire.

    (Athough, what with this, and the episode of Torchwood dealing with the faries’, I’m starting to reconsidering where I chose to live….)

    I did like the ‘Bradford, Babylon of the Moderns’ reference, and the fact that they highlighted thats where the money and fun was coming from. Despite now Leeds being seen as the monied of the two, during the Victorian period, it was Bradford with the money to spend. ‘Worstedopolis’ indeed!

    Always nice to see Jenny & Vastra.

    I assumed that Torchwood weren’t that bothered with with was happening ‘Ooop North’,

  • Froborr

    I haven’t seen the latter two seasons of Torchwood, so maybe they are things there that changed, but I always got the impression that Torchwood mostly existed for after-the-fact cleanup, collecting alien technology and archiving it (certainly by the time of Gamestation One they’re known mostly as an archive). It’s only during the period that Jack’s running the show (pretty much after New Who Series 2 and running through the end of Torchwood proper) that they’re active alien-fighters.

  • PrincessSlaya

    I really wish Moffet hadn’t decided against multipart episodes. These stories all feel so rushed. Spreading this over 2 or more episodes would have created some suspense, and given more time for exposition. This episode, like “Hide,” would have benefited from more development. It’s hard to enjoy them when they whoosh by like the Doctor in a mania.

  • Froborr

    I adored this episode! I was also confused about whether Mrs. Gillyflower or Mr. Sweets created all the technology, but commenters on TARDIS Eruditorum pointed out several factors that point to Mrs. Gillyflower: First, she’s mentioned as being a brilliant chemist and engineer, which seems to set her up as the one making the technology. Second, she’s clearly quite mad, and the only evidence that Mr. Sweets can talk is her word for it. Finally, a mad scheme to rule/destroy the world that involves elements just *slightly* ahead of contemporary technology is exactly the sort of thing an Avengers villain would do, so it makes sense to give it to the ex-Avengers actress.
    The one sour note for me in this episode is that none of the Paternoster Gang ever thought to ask *Clara* why she’s still alive, which would have finally pulled the trigger on this stupid game of the Doctor concealing it from her.

  • VanessaDK

    I am impressed by Gatiss’ mastery of real historical details in the development of this episode. Gave it so much more depth and richness.

    On the other hand–I am a bit concerned that the “TomTom” joke, on top of the big friendly reset button from last week, herald a rising lack of discipline on the part of the executive producer….

  • singlestick

    Some of the UK reviews of this episode note that Diana Rigg uses her native Doncaster accent for the first time, more Yorkshire authenticity perhaps.

    I think that saying nothing about Torchwood works better here. It might have added too much clutter to the episode, and leaves room for a future show runner to develop this angle (or not), should he or she be so inclined.

  • Martin

    Oh, it definitely would have bogged this episode down but the next time we see Vastra and Strax in Victorian London, it needs to address this. Hell, make that an episode.

  • And it will be.

  • Olia-Cym

    Moonraker in Yorkshire! Enjoyed this episode in a quiet sort of way, although I loved the “wrong hands” line. However, I still find Clara to be criminally underwritten. No fault of the actress, just that her part is almost devoid of characterisation. I actually think she has the charisma to be a superb companion, but man! Give her something to do!! An emotion or two! Did enjoy the Galvatron cameo.

  • Olia-Cym

    Addendum – the mention of the name “Mr Sweet” along with the pink goo made think the Happiness Patrol were due for a comeback, did anyone else think the same?

  • tinwatchman

    Really glad to see you enjoyed this episode. Seems like it’s been a while for you.

  • tinwatchman

    … is that Moffat’s decision, or just the way the BBC does things these days?

  • tinwatchman

    Also, I agree with you about Ada. One of the other reviewers was complaining that the Doctor didn’t take her on as a companion. Err… no. I’m all for role models with disabilities, but there’s something (perhaps justifiably) unhinged about that woman.

  • JimandCathleen

    Agreed. I would like to see a little more of the serial type of atmosphere where the end of the episode pulls you to the next even if it is a new story.

  • Chris

    I find it interesting that so many people enjoyed this one, because I HATED it. It felt very, very cookie-cutter to me, and then add in a bunch of anachronistic childish jokes (not to mention non-anachronistic childish jokes, like the endlessly fainting man). It just felt unrelentingly goofy, when the subject here could have made for a great dark, creepy episode. Ah well, to each their own.

    Oh yeah, what’s with the kids at the end? “LOL UR A TIME TRAVELER SMUG SMUG”

  • Jem

    Lots of fun. Mark Gattis’ Christmas present from Steven Moffat. Mr Gatiss made much more of the cast and setting than Mr Moffat managed to do and gave us a properly paced story as well. With a few tweaks to add some Christmas-y touches, this would have made a wonderfully gruesome Christmas special. And what a great pantomime villaness to really scare the children on Christmas night.

    Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling were tremendous right down to the last scene. Love didn’t save the day and no humany-wumany magic tears or giant reset buttons.

    I loved the sepia flashback scenes and Mr Gattis taking a fun tour through his Victoriana horror back catalogue.

    The only quibble was that once again Clara’s character wasn’t further explored. Maybe it’s that incredibly winsome dimple that the Doctor finds so compelling as I can’t see what else he finds so fascinating. Not the fault of the actress, just that Clara is written as sass + feisty + bouncy + quippy + cute girly dresses.

    Oh and the weird tacked on coda. It felt like a cross-over to the Sarah Jane Adventures (not a criticism of SJA which I enjoy) but just oddly acted and out of kilter with the satisying ending to the adventure. I imagine Mr Gattis was asked to sqeeze that in to set up the next episode. I think this is the big Neil Gaiman one which had been so heavily hyped that even as a casual Who viewer over the last year or so I am aware of its importance.

    It will have to be a good’un to top The Crimson Horror.


  • Bob

    It went right past me as well, so you’re not alone!

  • Elwood72

    I though Rigg was impressive enough here that I wish she’d been cast as a recurring baddie. The sheer joy of “the wrong hands!” just made my day.

  • Elwood72

    Diana Rigg was doing a Doncaster accent, but it’s not her native accent. She was born there, but moved to India as an infant. As the daughter of a railroad executive her native accent is more upper-crust London picked up from the other English elite in pre-independence India. She speaks fluent Hindi as well.

  • Elwood72

    I think the coda was tacked on simply because this episode had a little extra time, while Neil Gaiman’s epic next week was running a bit long – likely the kids discovering Clara’s time travel was the beginning of an earlier draft of next week’s script. I was glad to see a little more Clara – Her first three outings were very strong, but since then it feels like the character has been sidelined in order to maintain the mystery for the finale. A mistake, in my opinion, the Clara mystery should have been solved sometime around episode four so her character could be better developed.

  • Bassy Galore

    I think if RTD were still show runner, Torchwood would’ve definitely been mentioned (since that’s his baby). Though we may not have had this episode to begin with so, who knows if it will or won’t be addressed.

  • singlestick

    I blame Mark Gatiss:

    Writer, Mark Gatiss, said: “I’d already started work on a story about one of those idealised Victorian mill communities and tailored it to suit Diana and Rachael.

    “I wanted to do a properly northern Who – it’s underexplored in the show – and Diana used her native Doncaster accent for the first time!”

  • could not agree more. I was sure this episode was going to be endlessly complained about. Shocked to find ppl enjoyed this because it was hard to watch from beginning to end.The jokes were either inappropriate, not part of the Doctor’s character, out of line or not funny at all and the rest was so aesthetically horrific and disgusting (and not in a good way!) that my son ran upstairs and did not come back and I wish I left with him. Horrible, cruel, ugly episode. And its not good to see The Doctor in such a scary, gruesome way.

  • or exec producer decisions or pier pressure to please ppl who once complained about this

  • Jem

    I think the positioning of this episode might jar a little as it a rollicking knowingly camp-fest. I think it would have been better as a Christmas special, or maybe a stand alone New Year’s episode to bookend The Snowmen.

    I am not a fan of Matt Smith’s manic OTT turns in the general run of episodes, but it suited here and I think Diana Rigg’s villaness would have been too broad for another episode.

    This run of episodes is a bit odd, isn’t it. It’s more like a run of specials and I can’t detect any strong thematic links. (The soft mystery of Clara aside). I find that both the way Clara acts and reacts as well as how the Doctor is presented varies too much between episodes. The order could easily be reshuffled for many of these without too much trouble.

    Funnily enough, I have found this episode the most enjoyable of those I’ve seen in series 7 (but didn’t see all of the episodes before The Snowmen) but I can see why not everyone would enjoy it.


  • Paul

    But hang on, Roger, Strax did get his frontal assault. That was one of the main comic moments, the fact that he got over-excited by it.

  • Paul

    He’s being weaselly, isn’t he. He means “the accent of her native Doncaster” rather than “her native accent, which is that of Doncaster”.

    The same is true of me if I adopt a Brummie accent. It is the accent of my native Birmingham, but not really my native accent.

  • Paul

    Not by a long chalk. SInce I live in Japan, I’d never heard of TomTom until, well, reading this thread!

  • Bob

    The only form of directional assistance I have while driving in unfamiliar parts of the country is my invaluable, map-bearing wife. She refers to this as ”Spouse-Nav”, and it seems to work, most of the time!

  • Paul

    Did anyone else get the feeling I did, that Mrs Gillyflower was at least in part a reference to that former nemesis of Doctor Who, Mary Whitehouse?

  • Craig

    I can generally find something to like about every Who episode, but this one nearly stumped me. The creepiness and the Sherlock Three were the only semi-redeemable parts of this episode.

    I really truly disliked the villain this episode, the action seemed out of place in a Doctor Who episode and I’m getting really sick of giant plots being ruined by stupid things rather than intelligence.

    (‘Oh Doctor, I know you’ve just poured all your feelings into this planet but it’s still hungry! Lucky I’ve got a leaf!’

    ‘Oh, a big machine that will end Britain! Lucky I’ve got a chair!’)

    Getting pretty odd. The cyber episode had something similar as well, but I don’t know if you’ve watched it so I don’t want to potentially spoil it.

    Probably my least favourite episode of Smith’s reign – I love him, but the episodes have definitely been on a downward trend. Luckily the cyber episode is pretty solid, except for the terrible children companions who have no redeemable qualities.

    Are you going to review Game of Thrones again? I love watching a non-book readers theories and shock etc at all the twists. You’re a fantastic reviewer and while I don’t always agree with your opinion (this season of doctor who I believe we’ve had different opinions on every episode) I love reading your opinion, because it’s always well thought out and you often bring up points my feeble brain hasn’t even begun to consider.

    So kudos. Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll continue reading :)

  • teenygozer

    I went in not knowing and had a really great, “HOLY CRAP THAT’S DIANA RIGG!” moment when she said something in a way that resonated with my usually-crappy memory. Jenny’s catsuit had to have been a salute to Mrs. Peel, though she has worn it before.

    Someone mentioned in an earlier discussion that they were doing small “salute” references to previous doctors, a different doctor in every show, so I was on the alert for the Davison reference: The doctor spent a “helluva long time” trying to get a “gobby” Australian to Heathrow Airport.

    My husband loves Hammer House of Horror films and felt there was a certain amount of a salute to that genre going on in this episode.

  • Froborr

    And yes, it was a lot more.

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