Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss once again steps away from 22b Baker Street to bring us this, the 100th episode of Doctor Who, “The Crimson Horror”, where Vastra, Jenny and Strax lead a rescue mission to save the Doctor, as well as the rest of the world, from Winifred Gillyflower and her mysterious Mr. Sweets.
Thrust into the middle of an unknown predicament, in Yorkshire (not London), 1883, Madam Vastra and Jenny, who are surprised to find the Doctor’s face show up as the last recorded image in the eye of a dead man, team-up with Strax to invade the “perfect” community called Sweetville, a place where only the best and brightest are allowed to stay, to rescue the displaced Time Lord.
As the trio split to cover more ground, it is Jenny who stumbles across a crimson “monster” who was once called the Doctor. After the Doctor regains his strength and returns to normal, the team sets out to rescue Clara, and get to the heart of the troubles at Sweetville. But as the team continues their search for the source of the crimson horror, it is Ada Gillyflower, the blind woman who saved the Doctor by making him her “monster” pet, who must help put an end to the tyrannical plans of her mother.
On the surface, Gatiss’ “The Crimson Horror” appears to simply be a twist on a typical episode of Doctor Who; instead of the Doctor leading the case, it’s his trusted fellows, Vastra and Jenny, with a grumpy Strax thrown in for comedic measure. However, while this week’s episode does lead with this element, at least until the Doctor is free from his crimson capture, the true purpose of this episode is to unite, for the first time on-screen, Tony Award winning actress Diana Rigg, who plays Winifred Gillyflower, with her actress daughter, Rachael Stirling, who plays Ada Gillyflower. After having worked with Stirling on a play, and hearing that the two have never shared the same stage, in any form, Gatiss went on to craft this episode especially for them.
The episode itself is a fun and intriguing adventure into the heart of another “ideal” community where, as it (always) turns out, nothing is as it seems, especially perfection. For those who have been watching Doctor Who from the beginning (at least the series return), or have recently been whisked away to Columbia by the video game Bioshock: Infinite, “The Crimson Horror” feels very familiar in its tone of opulence and supremacy – though for some reason, these tales, in whatever form, still make for an enthralling and enjoyable experience, and this week’s episode is no different.
After the initial mystery has been revealed, however, these tales of flawed Edens must then rely on the core threat and its antagonist to fuel audience’s excitement until the end. In many ways, “The Crimson Horror” both succeeds and fails at this important element; though the tale, as well as the characters, that make up this episode are thoroughly imaginative, and the mother/daughter interactions between Gatiss’ muses are impressive and touching, there’s an emptiness to this episode, when actual story needs to take over for the mystery, that it never recovers from.
Like many episodes in the second-half of Doctor Who season 7, there’s something truly enjoyable yet frustrating about this week’s episode. In parts, the masterful handling of those behind the scenes can be seen; but as a whole, many may end this episode with the feeling that they need to, somehow, for some reason, justify their enjoyment of it in spite of its downfalls – a feeling that, sadly, seems to be reoccurring and unrelenting, now one episode away from the finale, where the Doctor’s name is (supposedly) going to be revealed. And this, it seems, is where the series, itself, comes to a cross-roads.
As an inclusive journey, void of any expectations of promised revelations (Clara), the second-half of Doctor Who season 7 has been resoundingly successful; the Doctor, as well as Clara, are having fun and fulfilling adventures across time and space. Inside the depths of the series and its fanbase, as well as publicly stated promises, however, the ease at which familiar (and expected) story structure and character development is simply pushed aside is disconcerting, especially given the news of a new executive producer in season 8.
If showrunner Steven Moffat, who is one of the most prolific writers in the industry, is able to fall to the same unfortunate fate of getting caught up in what the story will be, rather than what it is now, that Russell T. Davies, the series rejuvenator, fell to in his last years on the series, the future success of Doctor Who unfortunately may be in question. If one of the most imaginative writers around is having difficulties delivering a consistent viewing experience for one of the most imaginative television series, can there ever be a simple fix? And, after everything, will the much-anticipated answers reward those who stuck through it all? Only time will tell.
Doctor Who returns next week with a Cyberman-filled episode, “Nightmare in Silver”, by Neil Gaiman @8pm on BBC America.