This has been a good year for Mark Gatiss, with "The Crimson Horror" now surpassing his very enjoyable "Cold War" to become his best Doctor Who offering since "The Unquiet Dead" seven years ago. As a lover of Victoriana, Gatiss is on surer ground when dealing with this era; which lends itself so well to retro fantasy, horror, and science fiction.
It's fair to say that Doctor Who has a formula, and one that's become increasingly apparent as the revived series clocks up the years. More and more episodes seem to be loose remakes of previous ones, or borrow ideas from better sources, and "The Crimson Horror" certainly reminded me of a few adventures from nu-Who's recent history—such as "The Next Doctor" Christmas special. But for awhile this adventure set in the Yorkshire of 1893 felt very different; mostly because The Doctor (Matt Smith) didn't even appear until a third of the way through, and when he did we realised we're meeting him halfway into his adventure—with beautifully archaic, scratchy flashbacks filling us in. Until that point, I was utterly charmed by "The Crimson Horror", with its welcome return of recurring London detectives Madame Vastra (Neve McIntish) the Silurian, her human lover Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey) the courteously bellicose Sontaran.
Unfortunately, the episode begin to slide into OTT silliness shortly after The Doctor was discovered with tomato red skin and a skeleton hardened like stone. Mark Gatiss had plenty of great ideas swimming around in this hour, but they ultimately coalesced into something too familiar by the conclusion. Even the return of Vastra, Jenny and Strax didn't amount to much, ultimately—beyond a narrative necessity to have them involved during the period when The Doctor and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) weren't around to guide viewers through the story.
Despite that, there was something undeniably appealing about this episode's plot and some of its smaller moments and inventive visuals. I loved the idea of Sweetville (an industrial town modelled on those of real-life Richard Arkwright; a Victorian entrepreneur who provided accommodation for his poor workforce) and how that was effectively a trap set by Mrs Gillyflower (Diana Rigg), whom we later learned was under the influence of a priapic parasite known as 'Mr Sweet' clinging to her bosom. Oh, Lordy! Amusingly, there was another penis joke earlier in the episode when The Doctor watched Jenny strip down to a leather catsuit and realised he was holding his sonic screwdriver 'erect' in his hand. (I also wondered if Jenny's black catsuit was itself a subtle nod to The Avengers' Emma Peel, famously played by Rigg in her '60s heyday.)
It was such a shame "The Crimson Horror" became more and more predictable, but its fun distractions and jokes kept it from ever becoming boring. I loved the House of Wax-style vat the townspeople of Sweetville were dunked in to ensure their obedience, The Doctor made references to former-companion Tegan a few times (she was the "gobby Australian" he mentioned, and his "brave heart" line was often directed at her), the Horrible Histories-esque gag with Thomas Thomas the 'street urchin sat-nav' made me giggle more than it perhaps should, and the red-skinned Doctor being referred to as a 'Monster' was a nice nod to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein—complete with its own benevolent blind character in Ada Gillyflower (Rachael Stirling, the actual daughter of Diana Rigg).
Overall, "The Crimson Horror" had a terrific first half when things were mysterious and the plot was being approached from a different angle (I haven't felt that since the days of "The Family of Blood"), before settling into an enjoyable but increasingly lightweight romp once mystery was swapped for story. Gatiss's gifts as a comic writer shone through enough times to make this an pleasurable hour's entertainment, but part of me wishes it had maintained the level of intrigue and seriousness it started with.
Also, as much as I enjoy Matt Smith's performances as The Doctor, once he's skidding around and pulling faces all fear and tension dissipates. Unfortunately, that occasional concern isn't likely to change until Doctor Who has another regeneration and the producers opt to move away from the David Tennant/Matt Smith brand of clownish personality. Just imagine how much better this particular episode would have been with Christopher Eccleston keeping it anchored.
written by Mark Gatiss / directed by Saul Metzstein / 4 May 2013 / BBC1