Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"The Crimson Horror"

How I was found after watching this Series.
Despite having a title evocative of any number of hypothetical bodily discharges, this second offering from Gatiss is almost certainly the strongest episode, in my opinion, of this half of Series 7 of New Who, and possibly the strongest episode of the series overall. I've often wondered why Gatiss was not more regularly afforded a two-parter spot in writing and having him write two single-parters seems to be the closest we're going to get for the time being, which is a shame because this is an episode which is desperate for more than one part. For the millionth time we're back in Victorian Britain, this time in Yorkshire in 1893, where "dark and queer business" is afoot. Some woman and her husband get snuffed by a group of creepy women in black played by Diana Rigg's "Mrs Gillyflower." It already feels decidedly like an RTD episode, to be honest, with the villain introduced so early, and then the aforementioned husband surfaces in a mortuary with a red face. His brother is investigating his disappearance, and the body wound up in the canal, the unnecessarily weird mortician suggesting that he's lucky to get a glimpse. If the body was in the canal, how is it lucky? And besides, if this Mrs Gillyflower is turning people red, why is she dumping them in the canal for anyone to find? Brother heads to London and behind a street facade which I'm sure is meant to evoke more than anything the Sherlock version of Baker Street we find ourselves once again with the overused Vastra and Jenny. He reveals that, despite its impossibility, his brother's eye bears an optogram, an image of the last thing he saw before he died, and promptly faints upon seeing Vastra, setting up a not very funny running joke. Jenny develops the photographs of the optogram and, because this is Moffat Who where the answer to everything is "the Doctor", lo and behold the last thing this guy saw before death was none other than the Doctor. Roll titles.
"If I say 'guns' five times, does that fulfil all of my dialogue?"
So Vastra and Jenny head for Yorkshire to investigate the unsubtly-named "Sweetville" and oh god, I'd forgotten about Strax. He's along for the ride as well, and gets to make more of the same old jokes where he doesn't know what women are and talks about weapons a lot, also remarking on the dangers of the North. The episode has barely begun and already there's simply far too much comedy, Gatiss forgetting that less is more in New Who as much as anywhere else. The evil Mrs Gillyflower is having some kind of evil recruitment drive for Sweetville, a sort of millennialist-apocalyptic utopia with her blind daughter a demonstration of the horrors of mankind. We're hanging exclusively with Jenny at the moment, who signs up with Gillyflower in order to infiltrate this planned community, which isn't too unusual for the time period. They also sign a hymn just so that we don't forget that Christianity is bad. Meanwhile, Vastra and Strax have a chat where they identify the Doctor's location as most likely being where all the danger is. This show really can't go for a second without being self-referential. Inside Sweetville, we discover that blind daughter Ada is keeping a monster in the attic, while at Vastra's accomodation the brother shows up and faints again before Strax busts out some more tired gags involving silly weapons. I thought it would have been more appropriate for him to complain about the weakness of humans.
Murray Gold's workshop.
In Sweetville, the surprisingly watchable Jenny is reminded that people are disappearing and spontaneously decides to pick a nearby lock, paying off her interlocutor to faint. No one seems to notice or care even beforehand that Jenny is quite obviously picking the lock, which gives way to a room of gramophones projecting factory noise in front of a very fake-looking CGI backdrop of an empty warehouse. What a mystery. Something about the whole scenario is incredibly unconvincing. At the morgue Vastra is investigating the corpses from whom bottles of red stuff are extracted. The affliction is title-dropped as 'The Crimson Horror' by the mortician and Vastra makes a sly remark about how she hasn't seen the effect for sixty-five million years. We know she's a reptile! Why is she constantly showing off her Silurian-ness to people? Inside Sweetville, Gillyflower and Ada have some chow in the absence of Mr Sweet. Gillyflower then knocks over her fork for some reason and pours salt down the front of her dress. Why did she knock over the fork and send the servant out? I have no idea. It's a pointless scene which only serves to heighten the mystery of Mr Sweet, which is only a mystery because Gillyflower won't stop blabbing about him for some reason.
Something wicked this way comes.
With a Big Finish contract.
Jenny's having a bit of an explore elsewhere and without difficulty and completely at the convenience of the plot immediately finds the red room of death where the guy died at the start and the cell where Ada's 'monster' is kept. I actually jumped when the arm lunged out from the food slot, but I don't really understand why Jenny thinks the monster is communicating in the affirmative with her just by banging on things. Regardless she picks this lock as easily as the last one and discovers that the monster, much like the intended inhabitant of the Pandorica, the victim of River Song and the person whose identity is the greatest secret in the universe, is the Doctor. He's doing a Frankenstein's monster moan and has hard red skin. Jenny herds him off with his discarded duds and Murray Gold kicks into gear with the tense music as Jenny hurries him away from Ada, who is blind. What a risk! Along the way they observe that people are being dipped in a vat of red stuff and the Doctor's mobility is highly variable depending on the demands of the plot and how long the Smith can bear to have his mouth hanging open. Ada has a big cry in the absence of the 'monster' and the Doctor pops into a convenient chamber which, with the assistance of the sonic screwdriver, inexplicably cures him somehow. He bursts out fully clothed, running around like a complete bell end, before kissing Jenny, which it's apparently perfectly okay for him to do to a lesbian. It's definitely funny and not really inappropriate.
"If you think this is hard to understand, just
wait for how the Americans handle Capaldi!"
We then get the Doctor's big re-hash of events so far to confirm to us that this is not the dreaded 'Doctor-lite' episode of days gone by from when Tennant was too knackered from shagging every guest actress that came on set to film a full fourteen episodes a year. Arriving accidentally in Yorkshire rather than London, the Doctor observes his difficulty in the past of trying to return a "gobby Australian" to Heathrow airport. "Brave heart, Clara," he intones, referencing the character who puts me off rewatching virtually all Davison stories. Little does Gatiss know, as well, that here in Australia 'gobby' refers to performing acts of an intimate nature upon someone with your mouth, which makes the connotations of the Doctor and Tegan's relationship even more dodgy. Meeting up with the dead chap from the beginning, they investigate the mystery of Sweetville and how no one ever leaves. The Smith gets to make the Doctor look like a completely insensitive tit, caring nothing about the murder victims and only how 'the Crimson Horror' is a good name for the affliction. At least the optogram is written off as being a case of the body's chemistry being "massively corrupted" and not just due to magic thinking: I was expecting the Doctor to attribute it to the last sight being 'extra scary' or something. The red stuff is identified as being due to an 'organic poison', which is apparently a meaningful description despite many poisons being organic, and it makes its victims as lifeless as Clara, who has virtually no lines and absolutely nothing to do. The Doctor and Clara sign up for Sweetville just so that this montage, otherwise effective, can be a complete rehash of the Jenny and Vastra plot so far, making one or the other feel completely redundant, and Mrs Gillyflower reveals that she and her 'silent partner', the needlessly alluded-to Mr Sweet, are putting people in bell jars for some reason. Bell ends, more like. I quite enjoy the Doctor's deception in this bit, however, even if the Smith's 'funny Yorkshireman' routine is a bit daft. They all get dipped in red. Clara is preserved but the Doctor rejects the process and Gillyflower tells Ada to dump all the rejects in the canal. Why? Isn't it incredibly suspicious? No one would be investigating if they just took the corpses out the back and burned them. The Doctor's still alive, however, so Ada secures him in a cell so that she can have a bit of a perv and encourage him that they'll still have a place in utopia. Seems a bit optimistic. Then to get everything up to speed the dead guy from the beginning somehow bursts into the locked cell and falls dead at the Doctor's feet, hence the optogram.
"Two episodes this series?!?"
Back in the present day the Doctor suggests that the red stuff didn't preserve or kill him because he's not human, which is fair enough, but Jenny argues that Clara is dead. At first I didn't understand this until I remembered the Christmas special and felt a bit of the Crimson Horror coming on myself. Outside, Strax is berating his horse for some reason - I don't even know where he's going or why he's having such a struggle getting there - before a passing urchin gives him directions, his name being "Thomas Thomas." Seriously? What a horrendous joke. So far this episode's biggest failings are the excessive, pointless comedy and the fact that the plot only exists because Mrs Gillyflower is an idiot who dumps red corpses in the canal and keeps blathering about a mysterious benefactor. Diana Rigg also gets to try to sell some awful, cliché-ridden dialogue like "My plans must be accelerated." She sounds like a cartoon villain. Why's she so concerned specifically about Ada letting the Doctor escape? She's been dumping bodies in the canal! She then rejects Ada so that you know she's proper evil and not just evil in her spare time or anything. The Doctor rescues Clara by smashing the bell jar she's trapped inside, presumably showering her in broken glass, and putting her in one of those convenient cabinet things. Gillyflower's servants show up and attack for some reason, and Jenny strips off into her ninja outfit so that the Doctor can have a boner gag with the sonic screwdriver. So he gets to fetishise a lesbian as well as kiss her. Jenny beats up a couple slow-mo Zac Snyder style before Strax runs in guns blazing. Clara emerges and the Doctor announces that there's "trouble at mill." Bet Gatiss couldn't wait to get that one in.
"Don't let Steven hear you or you'll be doing guest spots like this forever!"
Vastra reveals that by some incredibly unlikely coincidence the red skin of death is a symptom identical to that caused by a lethal "red leech" which afflicted her Silurian buddies in days gone by - presumably the ones like her with mammary glands and human faces. Wondering what this leech business is, then, the Doctor gets to have a ridiculous cartoon moment of temporarily ignoring Clara, who reveals that Sweetville's big chimney never issues any kind of smoke. What does this mean? That it's a rocket silo, of course. Gillyflower presumably got the whole setup cheap from Wallace and Gromit after they came back from the moon, as it's a rather naff looking rocket silo that's basically some scaffolding in the corner of an open warehouse. How did they build a flight-worthy rocket in 1893? It looks suitably rickety but they still seem awfully confident about it. The only thing appealing to me visually at the moment is the Doctor's outfit which, divested of the bowler, has a certain twee charm to it. Continuing the whole cartoon or silly spy-spoof element Gillyflower has a bizarre control system for this rocket hidden in a panel behind a revolving organ. I'd hate to think how much of the budget went down the drain just because of that. The Doctor stumbles upon Ada, who still believes that she was blinded by her father and that maybe it was her fault. The Doctor reassures her that this isn't so, but then goes on to dismiss the problems of the abused as "stupid, backwards nonsense." Very sympathetic! Now with no time left for the plot, the middle-third of the episode having been occupied with reviving our two leads and rehashing their adventures, we have to rush straight to the climactic confrontation with the villain, which is also where we get one of the best lines of the episode: "I'm the Doctor, you're nuts..."
This much money!
Decided at last to reveal the identity of Mr Sweet for no particular reason Diana Rigg rips down the front of her bodice to reveal that she is in symbiosis with a corny-looking red leech puppet clinging to her wrinkly old bosom. Conveniently enough he has apparently "grown fat on the filth" that humanity has dumped into its waterways. Gets around a bit, then, does he? And apparently he eats toxins. I don't understand why the Doctor and Clara are just standing around here letting her waffle. Speaking of plums, Strax is also just doing nothing more than hanging around outside with the orienteering kid from earlier in the episode in a shot which is nothing more than a waste of a couple of seconds this episode is leaking furiously at the expense of plot exposition. Gillyflower reveals that she's going to detonate her rather unimpressive rocket in the atmosphere and shower the world in Mr Sweet's venom so that everyone dies except her immunised Sweetville inhabitants. She discovered an anti-toxin by experimenting on Ada, hence her blindness. At this point the Doctor decides to have a big rant at her. What's the point of moralising to this insane, evil old woman? We finally get a character deciding to act when none other than blind Ada bursts in and starts beating up her own mother with a stick. Clara decides at this juncture to smash Gillyflower's control device with a chair. Somewhere a prop guy is crying.
A more merciful fate than rewatching Series 7.
Gillyflower whips out a revolver and drags Ada off, the Doctor acknowledging that she's mad enough to kill her own daughter. Why didn't she shoot the Doctor and Clara then? What was the point of this whole confrontation? Somehow Gillyflower and Ada get to the silo much more quickly than Clara and the Doctor - I assume a secret passage was involved - and she reveals that there is a "secondary firing mechanism" for the rocket. As it launches, everyone on the stairs surrounding it manages to survive the exhaust simply by leaning in closely to the walls and pulling pained expressions rather than, y'know, having to vacate the building or anything. Gillyflower cackles like a Disney witch and we get to see some mediocre CGI of the rocket blasting off. Trouble at Mill indeed. All is not lost, however, as the Doctor reveals that Vastra and Jenny somehow had the poison all along. Strax then appears at the top of the chimney and shoots at Gillyflower, who falls to her death on the launch pad below. All the Doctor can say is "Ouch." He's a real prick in this episode. In a further cartoon moment, Gillyflower utters "That's my girl," after Ada says she'll never forgive her - more evil for evil's sake. Up above, the rocket explodes harmlessly and not in fact very high - how was the venom going to cover the whole world? There isn't even that much of it. Maybe Mrs Gillyflower was stupid as well as insane. Mr Sweet tries to piss off on his stubby little puppet legs but Ada beats the shit out of him with her cane to the accompaniment of much squelching and squirting green goo.
"Gaiman next week? What could go wrong?"
Back at the TARDIS Clara has a little flirt with the Doctor as an attempt to compensate for her complete redundancy in this episode and we're off. We get a nice bit of dialogue between the Doctor and Ada, but when you think about it wasn't she complicit in her mother's scheme the whole time? I guess she mended her ways. As for the rest it was quite a big episode for Jenny for a while but she had nothing really to do in the climax apart from revealing that she and Vastra were holding a big jar full of tomato soup. Mr Thursday shows up for one final unnecessary faint scene and we're off. Back in the present day the little kids at Clara's house have somehow sussed that she's a time traveller due to seeing photos of her on the sub from "Cold War" and the house from "Hide." How did they turn up? Someone just posted these on the internet? Clara's bemused about seeing herself in Victorian London, but wouldn't she just think it was an event from her future? The kids threaten to tell their dad about it if she doesn't take them on a trip. Why would he believe them? That's the altogether anticlimactic next episode hook conclusion. There's not much to say in hindsight about "The Crimson Horror." It's extremely rushed, forcing the plot to take some serious leaps and bounds, and it feels like a cartoon RTD-era episode with camp villains, world-destroying secret plots and a bizarre attempt to hybridise pastiche of both Victorian detective fiction and twentieth century spy fic into one uneasy mush. As I said at the beginning it's probably the best episode of Series 7 but that's hardly saying much. I think it's the best argument for why we need good two parters, because this is a story that can't afford to have a middle in 42 minutes. There may be plenty of crimson, but this episode isn't as horrific as those which have preceded it, and the worst is yet to come.

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