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So then Episode 7.11 brings us the second offering from Mark Gatiss in this half of the series. Now given the Victorian setting and knowing Mr Gatiss's love of all things horrific, I'm sure that more than a few of you were expecting something along the lines of his first Who episode The Unquiet Dead. However after a run of monster-heavy episodes and knowing that in next week's story Neil Gaiman is promising to make the Cybermen scary again, I guessed that The Crimson Horror would be more of a romp than a chiller.
Oh alright, the presence of the Paternoster Gang - that's Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax to you chief - did rather give it away! I mean, honestly how could any story featuring a Silurian lady, a Cockney minx and a comedy Sontaran investigating a sweet factory not be a romp?
now I could quite easily write several paragraphs at this juncture pointing out that actually a lizard lady and a proto-Mr Potato Head living in London in the 1800s would not actually be as implausible as some of you may think; pointing out that Victorian society wasn't a said and stolid affair but an exciting go-ahead culture where everything was changing rapidly, sensation was the key word in culture and royalty was dropping by to take tea with the Elephant Man. But as the show itself takes a light-hearted tack with this trio of adventurers, so nor should we. So then realistically, going lighter is the correct way to go when your supporting cast is the Pasternoster Gang.
And personally, I don't mind the show sometimes going lighter and funnier - admittedly it doesn't always work, but in fairness that's true of all the different modes the show operates in. However that undoubtedly is the main problem of The Crimson Horror - the Elephant Man in the room as it were - for some just don't like it when Doctor Who breaks out the comedy. And if you're one of that merry band, I'd strongly advise skipping this episode, as you'll hate it.
However for me the injection of comedy in this episode worked a treat. The Crimson Horror was a glorious fusion of Victorian adventure, horror and humour. Yes, it was rather silly in places, but the comedy never detracted from the plot, which itself was a glorious confection of pop culture. We had steampunkery, Dickensian melodrama, and touches of Hammer horror and Carry On comedy in equal measure. The actual story itself managed to nod at both Moonraker and Frank Henlotter's Brain Damage - quite something itself - but also featured the kind of psychedelic mad science scheming from a thoroughly British eccentric that would not be out of place in a vintage Avengers episode.
No, not the Marvel comics superhero menagerie, but the British Avengers - the long running 1960's pop art espionage TV series featuring the adventures of John Steed (Patrick McNee) and a succession of beautiful ladies, most famously Mrs. Peel, who often wore a leather catsuit like the one Jenny sported in this episode. Of course Mrs Peel was played by Diana Rigg who played the villainous harridan Mrs Gillyflower in this story. And there were further meta shenanigans ahoy too - for Ada, Mrs Gillyflower's long suffering daughter was played by Rachael Stirling, who is Rigg's real life daughter. Apparently the ladies had never acted together before and Mr Gatiss obliging wrote this episode with them in mind, hence we have Dame Diana using her native Doncaster accent and both mother and daughter clearly having a ball in their roles.
The Paternoster Gang too were well served in this episode. Dan Starkey's Strax was a delight as always and while Neve McIntosh's Madame Vastra took more of a backseat role, it was nice to see Caitrin Stewart's Jenny take more of the limelight. Now I know that many - well among those that love them at any rate - have been calling for a spin-off series along the lines of Madame Vastra Investigates but I must confess while it sounds like an excellent idea, I wasn't entirely convinced it could work in the long term. However on the strength of this episode, if it was more a Victorian/steampunk Avengers than a period-bound Who, it could work...
Now obviously if you don't like the humour or get the homages The Crimson Horror will go down like a lead balloon, however for me it was great fun on many levels, and my only real misgivings were with the epilogue. I must hold my hand and say that the prospect of the Doctor being saddled with two ankle-biters next episode doesn't exactly fill me with joy. And having two child sidekicks in tow doesn't seem to meld comfortably with Nightmare in Silver being mooted as a return of the Cybermen to their classic roots. But then again, Neil Gaiman is writing that one, and I didn't think The Doctor's Wife sounded like a good idea beforehand either...
JIM MOON, 6th May 2013