Doctor Who 3.11: The Crimson Horror review

Review

The Crimson Horror

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The Doctor: [Yorkshire accent] Haven’t you heard, love? There’s trouble at t’mill.

Production Code: 3.11.
Doctor Who Season: S33 (Ep11).
Story Number: 237.

Mark Gatiss has written really rather quite a lot Doctor Who stories now…

In the past, they’ve very much been Doctor Who in the tradition of Doctor Who – think of the third “new” Doctor Who story of this century: Gatiss, having written various official Doctor Who novels during the wilderness years that could be said to be “trad”, was briefed by RTD to create a story in the “classic” mould, with the Victorian era chosen, this being the setting for some well-loved Doctor Who television stories of the past.

The television stories he’s scripted since could all be said to be extremely traditional, with Cold War of this series exemplifying this, a “base under siege” with a classic monster returning.
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This story is – also – set in the Victorian era, and so has that “Classic Doctor Who” familiarity to it, (though 21st Century Doctor Who has actually broadcast about double the number of Victorian-era-set stories than Classic Doctor Who ever did, with two stories this series now), though with this episode Gatiss has really upped his game – it’s both “Very Gatiss” and not very traditional at all, what with all its innovations.

The rest of the crew (and cast) should be praised for rising to the challenge that Gatiss has set, which is to essentially make a very British horror movie of 45 minutes. This story was originally pencilled in by Moffat as one he would write himself – though it was passed to Gatiss to shape and he really has put his authorial stamp on it.

His beloved James Whales’s Frankenstein, Carry on Screaming, and the unnerving red of Italian Gialo – Gatiss’s filmic preoccupations are there on the screen.m03-11-13

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Gatiss had asked guest star Rachel Stirling if she’d be interested in Doctor Who during a 2012 play they were both appearing in (if he wrote for a part for her), with an affirmative reply which then became an opportunity for Gatiss to write a role for her mother Diana Rigg too – once he had realised the two of them had never actually appeared in anything together.

As told to the Radio Times, he had begun writing the story “about one of those idealised Victorian mill communities and tailored it to suit Diana and Rachael”.m03-11-06

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As Gatiss wanted to write a “properly northern” (England) Doctor Who, the model for the Victorian mill community was Saltaire created by Titus Salt (as opposed to Mr Sweet’s “Sweetville”). In addition to the “Sweet not Salt” point of comparison, the Doctor Who version has a tall square Italianate chimney-tower at its centre too, (though Titus Salt probably didn’t include a rocket ship). The Sweetville community has rows of accommodation for its people, and though Gillyflower’s plan was a warped idea of a better world, actual planned communities like Saltaire or Bourneville were very progressive for their times, with much improved living conditions.
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The story then has some “nutritional” component regarding actual social history, but it’s to the fictions of the time that are an influence – one character says he has “no interest in the deplorable excesses of the penny dreadful”, but the story does, (the penny dreadful being a new and cheap-to-buy Victorian form of publication, concerned with luridly sensational literature). The disturbing drama of the cruelty of Mrs Gillyflower to her daughter could be from such pages.

The two guest stars then are then really the heart of this story, though this episode also includes of return for the Victorian-era “series regulars” Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. Jenny gets to be part of an onscreen tribute to Diana Rigg, fighting henchmen in her Emma Peel-style catsuit.

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With both the Doctor and Clara captured by Mrs Gillyflower it’s up to the Paternoster Gang to take the lead for a for the first half – there’s some interesting use of the medium of Victorian-style “film” footage to get the audience up to speed with what’s been happening for the Doctor and Clara as we join the mystery from the perspective of Vastra and company.

So actually – despite the “very Doctor Who” Victorian era in which it’s set – it’s not a very traditional story at all, as the Doctor and companion are not the characters that the audience plunge into the mystery with.

Rating 5/5

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(The Crimson Horror on bbc.co.uk/programmes/)

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