The Crimson Horror
|Production Code||Series 7, Episode 11|
|Dates||May 4, 2013|
With Matt Smith,
Written by Mark Gatiss Directed by Saul Metzstein
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.
|Synopsis: The Paternoster Gang investigate a mysterious cause of death in which victims are found crimson. But not all victims are dead.|
AKA The Paternoster Gang Pilot by Matthew Kresal 17/6/18
For some time now, there's been some chatter among Doctor Who fans for a spin-off based on the Paternoster Gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax. Nearly five years after their last on-screen appearance in Deep Breath, such a thing has yet to appear. If such a series were to appear chances are The Crimson Horror, aired as part of the second half of Series Seven in 2013, would be the template for such a series.
Written by Mark Gatiss, it's an episode that plays with many of the writer's favorite tropes. After all, it's a combination of Sherlock Holmes, The Avengers (that would be the one with Steed and Mrs. Peel) and of course Doctor Who itself. The first of those shouldn't come as a surprise since Gatiss is the co-creator of Sherlock after all. It's fun to watch here, especially in the opening minutes as Vastra's services are engaged in the same style as many a classic Holmes story. Elsewhere, The Avengers influence comes in Jenny's effort to infiltrate Sweetville (which, as a mysterious factory, also has echoes of Nigel Kneale's seminal Quatermass II from 1955) and the leather catsuit she wears during the episode's latter half. The science-fiction nature of the plot owes much to Doctor Who itself, of course, but the combination of all these elements made for a solid script from Gatiss. Is that because he got to play with so many tropes along the way?
It also shows how strong the casting of the three Paternoster Gang members was. For the opening fifteen minutes or so, and for a good chunk of the running time even after that, they are the lead characters. Along the way, all three actors get the chance to shine. Neve McIntosh shows off the intelligent but cheeky side to her Silurian detective; Catrin Stewart gets to play Jenny as the on the ground operative picking locks and beating up baddies; and Dan Starkey provides comic relief mixed with lasers as Strax. Separately and together, they very much carry the episode even with the presence of Matt Smith's Doctor, which is the all more to their credit.
They aren't the only highlights of the episode. The Avengers influence on The Crimson Horror is the all the better for the presence of its longtime leading lady Diana Rigg as Mrs. Gillyflower, a role she seems to relish as it falls in the tradition of so many of the baddies she faced as Emma Peel in that iconic series. Her daughter Rachael Stirling appears in the episode as well as playing, appropriately enough, Mrs. Gillyfower's daughter, Ada. The real-life mother/daughter play off each other splendidly as the relationship between their two characters is a less than happy one, which might be to their credit as performers and Gatiss as the writer. They and the Paternoster Gang also have some nice interactions with Smith's Doctor and Jenna Coleman's Clara who, though sidelined to an extent, still make their presence felt when they do appear.
Additionally, the episode's production values are strong. Production designer Michael Pickwoad and costume designer Howard Burden are up to the challenge of creating the larger-than-life, steampunk Avengers world that Gatiss hands them on the page. From Jenny's leather catsuit to a steampunk rocket hidden in a mill smokestack, they bring the episode to life superbly. Murray Gold's score brings in plenty of action and suspense themes which complement the production as a whole. Brought together under the direction of Saul Metzstein, the results are solid throughout.
The combination of all these elements made for one of the most memorable and enjoyable offerings of Series Seven. It's a fun mix of genres from a writer clearly enjoying what he's writing. That it's brought superbly to life is even better, especially given how it shows off its guest cast.
The only question is, after five years, when are we getting that Paternoster Gang spin-off?
The bright day's done, child. And you are for the dark. by Evan Weston 7/10/20
There are a few episodes of Doctor Who - Blink, Midnight, Closing Time - that feel like little miracles, episodes that shouldn't exist in today's television and yet shine through as pieces of brilliance. The Crimson Horror is certainly a little miracle, but of a different sort. This is a story that exceeds expectations in every way imaginable, taking an uninspiring premise, supporting characters that haven't broken out and a wildly underwhelming writer and turning it into one of the best episodes of the season. It's a truly remarkable thing; not perfect, but still far and away Mark Gatiss' best episode of Doctor Who, and a fun romp through Victorian Yorkshire that feels like all of his episodes maxed out to their full potential.
Gatiss generally writes historicals - all but Night Terrors were set in the past - and The Crimson Horror is one of two Gatiss stories set in the 19th Century. The other, The Unquiet Dead, was his best work up to this point, though that story was lifted by terrific performances from Christopher Eccleston and Simon Callow. The Crimson Horror is significantly better, taking advantage of the production values Series 7 offers to give Gatiss a super-realistic backdrop for perhaps the first time in his career. It also sports tremendous guest characters in the forms of Mrs. Gillyflower and her daughter, Ada, who are written seamlessly into the story and reach satisfying emotional levels. Yes, the way Vastra just recognizes the parasite is really random, and a beat or two is skipped, as is the norm for Gatiss. But it's a coherent, well-written and well-produced piece of television.
The real stars of The Crimson Horror, though, are the Paternoster Gang, finally given a real reason for existing. We still don't know how they came to be, but we can save that for the inevitable spin-off, I suppose. This story plays like a pilot for that future show, with Vastra, Strax and especially Jenny playing key roles in the plot and having their personalities expanded a bit. Jenny (helped by a terrific performance from Catrin Stewart) shines as the incredibly resourceful undercover agent, showing intelligence and subtlety not found in the other two members of the gang. Strax proves clutch and loyal, while Vastra is the Sherlock Holmes of the group, leading the way and deducing the problem and a solution. When they debuted in A Good Man Goes to War, the Paternoster Gang had no purpose, but now I can't imagine Doctor Who without a yearly appearance from these three.
They also keep the Doctor off screen for the first ten minutes of the episode and Clara away for the first fifteen, a risky move that works because of the Gang's effectiveness. Because Jenny in particular is able to carry the episode until she discovers the Doctor, his entrance is dramatic and gives The Crimson Horror an extra bit of oomph as it rides into its second act. We also have the running joke of Victorian Clara being dead and yet 2013 Clara running around with her hairdo, confusing all three members of the gang while the Doctor just mutters, "It's complicated." They remain involved in the story even after the Doctor and Clara arrive, and all five members working together is really something to see.
Around the central five cast members are the aforementioned Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada, brought to life by the wonderful Dame Diana Rigg and her real-life daughter, Rachael Stirling. Rigg, clearly drawing some inspiration from Imelda Staunton's Professor Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, is absolutely terrifying as the mysterious villainess, who becomes so consumed with her apocalyptic plan that she even experiments on her own daughter. Gillyflower is one of the nastiest Doctor Who villains to date, right up there with Lady Cassandra and Richard Lazarus in terms of one-off human baddies. She kills without remorse, works her sadism into a wild ideology, and best of all, allows us to see Dame Diana Rigg with a shrimp-like parasite attached to her chest. It's a weirdly horrifying sight, as you might imagine, and it encapsulates the character perfectly. Stirling, meanwhile, nearly crosses over into melodrama, but is mostly very good as the abused daughter.
The Doctor is generally running around and having a great time in this episode, at least after he fixes himself from being dipped in red venom. Matt Smith gets to flash a hilarious Northern accent at one point - reminding us subtly that lots of planets have a north - and he's mostly just grinning ear to ear while the Paternoster Gang and Ada keep things anchored. Jenna Coleman's Clara, unfortunately, is still a cipher. At this point she's become a bit boring - I wasn't all that torn up about her not being in the episode's first half. The story arc is just begging for a conclusion, but Moffat can't provide it until The Name of the Doctor, and so we are left with a complicated mess. It doesn't bring down the fun, but Clara is a decided weak point by now.
The Crimson Horror's production, on the other hand, is quite stellar. The assured direction of Saul Metzstein continues to be a high point whenever he steps behind the camera, and though this was clearly a lower-budget episode without too much in the way of special effects, he keeps the action moving and the tensions high. Metzstein directs the action-oriented climax in the rocket tower with bravado, never letting up despite his main threat being an old lady. The best piece of production in the story is the titular infection: the shocked looks on the faces of the dark red bodies are pretty damn creepy, and you genuinely fear for the Doctor when his condition is revealed.
What The Crimson Horror lacks, and what brings it just a tick below technically inferior stories like The Rings of Akhaten and The Angels Take Manhattan, is a lack of emotional payoff. You're supposed to get it from Ada and Mrs. Gillyflower, but the focus is never there for it to be more than simply sad, and Gillyflower is more effective as a pure villain than in some sort of emotional parable. The Paternoster Gang is awesome, sure, but none of our central characters change as much as flash their personality traits a bit more. Things remain static, and there's no real way to react to the story other than "that was fun", which isn't the mark of something truly top-tier.
Despite this, I still came away from The Crimson Horror saying "that was really, really fun", and if you're looking for a straightforward good time with a sprinkle of weird from your Doctor Who, this is a good place to start. I'm thrilled that Mark Gatiss finally delivered a really good story. The Crimson Horror looked to be the black sheep of Series 7 when it was announced, and there's no reason this should be anything more than merely filler, but it's one of the most energetic and enjoyable stories of the season. Bravo.