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The Crimson Horror

Review by Paul Bowler

[Contains Spoilers]

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The Crimson Horror sees the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) teaming up with their old friends Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starky) to investigate Sweetvill in Yorkshire, 1890. It seems like an idyllic place, this enclosed factory community with its happy workforce, but ghastly secrets are concealed here and no one ever leaves. People have come to Sweetvill to work in the factory, where they are offered absolution from their sins, and protection against the imminent apocalypse foretold at The End of Days.

While the streets may be spotlessly clean and the people beautiful, dead bodies covered in red wax are being washed up in the river, and a terrifying secret is brewing behind the doors of the Sweetville Mill run by Mrs Gillyflower (Dame Diana Rigg), along with her blind daughter Ada (Rachel Starling), and their mysterious business partner Mr Sweet. When the Doctor and Clara go missing at the mill Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are informed of the strange goings on at Sweetvill. They set out to investigate, with Jenny infiltrating the shadowy building, where she finds the Doctor locked in a room.

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After being captured by Mrs Gillyflower, the Doctor was lowered into the steaming vat that houses the Crimson Horror, but because the Doctor is an alien the process fails. Instead of disposing of his body in the river, Ada took pity on him, and locked him away to keep him for herself. When Jenny finds the Doctor his skin is red and he can hardly move. She helps him reverse the process and rescue Clara, just as Vastra and Strax arrive to fend off Mrs Gillyflower’s henchmen.

It transpires that Vastra knows of the Crimson Horror, she informs the Doctor that it is really the venom of a prehistoric parasite which once affected her own race, the Silurians. The parasite is really Mr Sweet, a slug-like creature that has bonded itself symbiotically to Mrs Gillyflower’s body. She has been milking its venom so she can launch it from a rocket inside the mills chimney stack. The Doctor and his friends must stop Mrs Gillyflower from launching the rocket, or the entire world will be poisoned by the Crimson Horror.

Fortunately the Doctor and Clara are able to save Ada from being shot by her mother, while Vastra and Jenny remove the venom from the rocket before Mrs Gillyflower can launch it. A well timed shot from Strax’s gun sends Mrs Gillyflower tumbling to her doom. The parasite detaches itself and tries to crawl away, but Ada finds it, and swiftly kills the creature. The Doctor and Clara say their goodbyes and he takes Clara back home, where he departs for now, but it would seem that the two children Clara is a nanny to have found out about her time travelling adventures…

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This story by Mark Gatiss features the welcome return of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and the Sontaran Strax. These characters became fan favourites after they banded together to help The Doctor and Rory rescue Amy Pond from Madame Kovarian’s base on Demon’s Run  in A Good Man Goes To War (2011), and they returned to help the Doctor and Clara (The Governess) fight the Great Intelligence in the 2012 Christmas Special: The Snowmen. It’s great to see the Silurian Detective Madame Vastra and her loyal companion Jenny solving mysteries again, while Strax is as hilarious as ever and together they make a brilliant team as they explore the Sweetvill Mill.

The Crimson Horror is a comparatively Doctor-Lite episode, with the Time Lord and Clara not really featuring much until the midway point of the story. Instead we discover what is happening in Sweetvill as Vastra, Jenny and Strax carry out their own investigation as they attempt to rescue the Doctor and Clara from the mill. Neve McLntosh gives a sublime performance as the Silurian detective, Catrin Stewart plays a pivotal role in the action as Jenny, and Dan Starkey is absolutely hilarious as Strax. The banter between Vastra, Jenny and Strax is really good, with the Sontaran getting all the best lines. This trio of characters work brilliantly together, at times this episode almost feels like a pilot for their own spin-off series.

Indeed, if the onscreen camaraderie between Vastra and her friends in The Crimson Horror is anything to go by, then as spin-off featuring Vastra, Jenny, and Strax solving mysteries and fighting strange alien menaces in Victorian England would be an absolute delight.

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Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman are really settling into their roles now. The relationship between the Doctor and Clara is really starting to evolve into something very special, they seem to share a unique bond, and this episode really highlights just what a good team they make. With the Doctor wearing a new variation of his costume, sporting a bowler hat, and with Clara dressed in a Victorian outfit reminiscent of the one she wore as the Governess in The Snowmen, their initial role in the story is told mainly through a series of grainy old film-style flashbacks. There is also a nice reference back to one of the Doctor’s pervious companions, Tegan (Janet Fielding), who travelled with the 5th Doctor (Peter Davison), when the 11th Doctor talks about Tegan and says to Clara: “Brave heart Clara.” It’s these nice little touches that have really made the second half of the season so special.

The Crimson Horror also has some fantastic guest stars, with Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachel Stirling appearing on screen together here for the first time ever. Incidentally they play mother and daughter as well in The Crimson Horror, with Diana Rigg as the wickedly evil Mrs Gillyflower, the owner of Sweetvill Mill, and Rachel Stirling as Ada, her poor daughter – who was blinded by her mothers cruel experiments. Mark Gatiss’ wonderful script really plays to their strengths, they have some fantastic scenes together, particularly when the truth about Mr Sweet is revealed, and it’s a joy to see Matt Smith and Diana Rigg working together in this episode.

After his fabulous work on The Snowmen, director Saul Metzstein returns to bring the same distinctive gothic atmosphere to The Crimson Horror as he did with the 2012 Christmas Special, having also directed Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy for first half of the seventh season. The attention to the period detail is as impeccable as we have come to expect, as are the costumes, and the blood red venom being created in the mill is a really sinister concept. I like how the deadly wax-like venom turns people into Mrs Gillyflower’s slaves, it’s quite horrific to see the Doctor infected as well, although the parasite creature is strangely cute for something so disgusting.

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This episode also marks something of a landmark for Doctor Who, as it is the 100th episode to be shown since it returned to our screens in 2005. So far Mark Gatiss has written six stories for Doctor Who, and I think his contributions to Season Seven have been some of his best episodes so far. The Crimson Hand is a good old fashioned mystery, with the Doctor’s images captured uncannily in a dead man’s eye, a laboratory full of bubbling test tubes, some brilliant action for the Paternoster Row gang, and a thoroughly macabre sense of fun with plenty of horror clichés thrown in for good measure. The scene with the young street urchin called Thomas Thomas, who gave Strax some very precise directions to the mill, was a really neat twist on Sat Nav by Mark Gatiss. There are some nice references back to The Snowmen as well, especially as the Doctor tries to explain how Clara is still alive to  Vastra and Jenny, and a funny  closing scene where Clara realises that the children she looks after have found out that her secret “boyfriend” is really a time traveller.

The Crimson Horror is another great episode by Mark Gatiss, it’s full of dark humour and cheeky double entendres, and it’s great to see the Doctor working with Vastra, Jenny and Strax again. The plot involving Mrs Gillyflower and her bonneted assistants as they ensnare their unwitting workforce in their scheme is really chilling, transforming them into her mindless puppets, so she can launch a rocket full of the red venom and infect the entire world with the Crimson Horror. The period setting is a bizarre amalgamation of steam punk and fantasy, with some foreboding gothic undertones, that work together with the terrific ensemble cast to make The Crimson Horror one of the most entertaining – if slightly silly – stories of the seventh season.

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