“We must get to the bottom of this dark and queer business!”
In the late Victorian era, there was a peculiarly lurid, cheap and sensationalistic form of literature known as the ‘penny dreadful’. Capitalising on the recent upswing in literacy, these cheap, sordid tales (costing a mere penny, hence the name) were salacious, excessive, romanticised pulp fictions – so named because they were printed on the cheapest of pulp paper. The newly literate working class devoured this stuff with a passion.
The writer of this week’s Doctor Who, Mark Gatiss, has effectively built his entire career on lampooning the excesses of the penny dreadful, inflating their grotesqueries to the level of self-parody without losing their essential thrilling nature. The League of Gentlemen, his Lucifer Box novels, and even his first stab at writing TV Who itself, The Unquiet Dead, are all, in their own ways, tributes to the glorious melodrama of pulp horror. It should come as no surprise then that this week’s ep, The Crimson Horror, was in essence a penny dreadful writ large. It was even lampshaded in the dialogue, as the pompous Mr Thursday dismissed the gleefully ghoulish coroner’s tales as the “stuff of penny dreadfuls”.
As a consequence, this seemed, to me, the most successful of the variable Mr Gatiss’ work on TV Who, since it played to all the strengths that made him successful in the first place. The scenario was built on exaggerated cliche about the ‘dark, satanic mills’ of the late 19th century North, its unyieldingly grim Christianity, and the steampunk style of similarly lurid parodies like Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Yes, the cliche that ‘Jerusalem’ is the best-loved hymn of the North wasn’t quite right for the time (Blake’s poetry wasn’t set to music by Hubert Parry until 1916), but I can forgive it, given that it’s perfect for this script’s approach.
The extent to which you enjoyed this probably depends on your tolerance for this style of firmly tongue-in-cheek excess. Not a story to be taken entirely seriously, it probably belongs firmly in the Who pantheon with deliberately comic tales like The Horns of Nimon. Every character was an exaggerated grotesque caricature, and fittingly the dialogue was deliberately, colourfully corny. Those complaining about this (and I’ve seen a few on the forums already) are missing the point. Yes, it’s not realistic dialogue when your villain dramatically declaims, “Into the canal with the rejects, Ada!”; but it’s perfectly right for the style in which this was written.
Said villain, the gloriously named Mrs Gillyflower, was one of the casting coups of a show that’s done very well in this regard of late – she was incarnated by the incomparable Dame Diana Rigg. Oozing charisma in a way that seems to have magnified the older she’s got, Rigg plainly knew exactly what style the script was aiming for, and played it accordingly. Seizing the deliberately OTT dialogue with both hands, she proceeded to voraciously chew the scenery throughout the episode, her performance intentionally larger than life and hammy. I couldn’t help being reminded of Horns of Nimon again, and Graham Crowden’s insanely excessive performance as Soldeed – this didn’t quite match the sky-high levels of ham on display there, but clearly Dame Diana knew precisely that this wasn’t any realistically-drawn character she was playing.
What she was playing, in fact, was a Victorian Bond villain – appropriate for an actress who played one of the most memorable Bond girls of the series in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, her potty scheme to wipe out humanity with poison spewed from the skies, then to repopulate the Earth with her chosen, preserved elite actually is a Bond villain plot – specifically, that of Hugo Drax in the generally abysmal Moonraker. It seemed typical of Gatiss that if he was going to filch a Bond plot, it should be from the movie that’s generally regarded as the worst.
Mrs Gillyflower was only the most prominent in a cast stuffed full of bizarre grotesques, and it was surely a gift for Mark Gatiss that even his heroes were, in essence, pulp caricatures. Not that that’s a bad thing when it’s the terrifically funny and cool Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax. Given the new structure of the show’s production, I don’t know whether it still has the traditional ‘Doctor-lite’ episode; but this certainly felt like one, with our hero not appearing until nearly halfway in, and Clara taking even longer to pop up.
In the mean time, Vastra, Jenny and Strax proved themselves more than capable of filling the void, showing once again that a spinoff based around their adventures might be a lot of fun. Channelling Sherlock Holmes once again, Gatiss’ script had the uncanny trio lured to ‘the North’ by the comical Mr Thursday’s pleas for investigation of his brother’s disappearance. The running gag that kept having Thursday fainting when confronted with anything out of the ordinary should have been clue enough that this story wasn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously.
The hook that led the gang to Yorkshire was that old chestnut, the optogram – popular in late Victorian times, this was the nonsensical Romany superstition that the eye retains the image of the last thing seen before death. This being Doctor Who, it was dismissed as the nonsense it is. Except that here, it was true; due to the “corruption of the body chemistry”. This old wives’ tale is also a central plot point in the massively scientifically inaccurate horror movie Horror Express – a fact of which I’m sure Mark Gatiss is more than aware.
The optogram in question having revealed that the last sight of Thursday’s brother was in fact the Doctor, it was off to Yorkshire for the intrepid trio, where Jenny proceeded to infiltrate the mysterious Sweetville community run by Mrs Gillyflower. This was actually an exaggerated version (of course) of a real phenomenon in Victorian England – progressive, well-meaning plutocrats setting up idyllic cooperatives whereby all their workers’ needs were provided for by their employer, in a truly symbiotic relationship. An amusing juxtaposition, perhaps of the perversion of this with the actual symbiotic relationship between Mrs Gillyflower and the enigmatic Mr Sweet?
Discovering that Sweetville’s ‘dark, satanic mill’ was a front, its booms and roars the product of a gramophone-based sound system of improbably bass-driven effectiveness, Jenny then stumbled across the room where the ‘monster’ was being kept. Said room, its door equipped with a hatch by which to feed the ‘creature’ was a very obvious lift from another Who tale of Victorian grotesques; Ghost Light, whose influence on Hide two weeks ago was also pretty evident. I’m glad to see this complex story being granted the influential status it deserves, even though both Hide and The Crimson Horror are far straighter, less complex takes on its themes.
That the ‘monster’ turned out to be the Doctor himself was a bit predictable, though his half-paralysed bright red form was both comic and horrible, like a lift from either The Masque of the Red Death or our own The Green Death from 1973. In keeping with the tone of the script, Matt Smith’s performance here leaned towards the broadbrush comic. Revived by the steampunk cabinet in the wall, he fairly leapt out, bounding around and actually kissing the reluctant Jenny (receiving a slap for his trouble).
From then on, the story turned into a fast-paced runaround as the Doctor had to (1) find Clara, (2) find out what Gillyflower was up to, and (3) stop her. In a story striving for depth, this breakneck pace might have lost it points for avoiding an issue or two, but here it was perfectly in keeping with the romp this was meant to be. The inventively quick catchup flashback showed how well this worked, boiling down the Doctor and Clara’s previous investigations into a kinematograph style ‘previously on’, complete with requisite silent-movie style music.
Clara was found conveniently quickly (much to the bafflement of Jenny, who still thought she was the dead Clara encountered in The Snowmen) – I loved the steampunk bell jar and bellows Victorian-style stasis pods the Sweetville workers were ‘preserved’ with. Then off to Mrs Gillyflower’s Evil Lair, where we discovered her plan to poison the world via a cast-iron rocket which could surely never have flown. Then, Bond-villain style, she proceeded to Explain The Whole Plan, only for Clara to throw a chair into the works.
It was her put-upon daughter Ada who eventually came to the rescue, and here I detected another probable influence from Northern classics. Mrs Gillyflower, with her inflexible religious belief in ‘moral turpitude’ and her tyrannical rule of her offspring surely mirrored that of Jess and her fanatically Pentecostal mother in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
As Ada, Rachael Stirling gave probably the nearest the ep offered to a realistic performance. Ada was the only really sympathetic character (apart from the regulars) in the whole thing, though her tear-jerking displays of emotion towards her ‘monster’ were perhaps undercut by her eagerness to go along with her mother’s Evil Plan, obediently dumping the red-tinged corpses of the ‘rejects’ in the canal.
Nevertheless, it was Ada who saved the day, turning on her mother when she learned the truth that she had been the earliest ‘guinea pig’ for the plan, her blindness its result. Channelling Bond villains again, Mrs Gillyflower declared that, “sometimes sacrifices must be made. It was necessary!”, while Ada caught up with the overripe style of dialogue with a stream of Victorian insults – “perfidious hag! Virago! Harpy!”
And it was wholly appropriate, given the tongue-in-cheek homage to pulp fiction, that the denouement should be a standoff between heroes and villains on a vertiginious spiral staircase surrounding the soon-to-be-launched Rocket of Doom. Yes, the launch would have incinerated every one of them; but at this stage in the proceedings, it was hard to object to a lack of scientific realism.
This whole thing was breathless, terrific fun. Sometimes its desire to be funny was a bit too eager, resulting the aforementioned running gag of Mr Thursday fainting, or the adorable Victorian urchin who gave Strax such precise directions – Thomas Thomas, naturally. There was also a surprisingly phallic saucy gag involving the sonic screwdriver pointing straight up as Jenny revealed her skintight fighting suit. And while I adore Dan Starkey as Strax, it’s going to be hard to take the Sontarans seriously if they ever turn up as villains again.
Generally though, the balance between ripe Grand Guignol and humour was about right, and as so often with Gatiss, the obviousness of its sources didn’t work against it. Gatiss’ work for TV Who has been variable at best, which is odd for a man who seems to know precisely what makes a good Who episode. This year, though, he seems to have done rather well, with the Alien-influenced Cold War followed by this, a script which so obviously plays to his strengths it’s a wonder it’s taken him this long to write it. How much you enjoyed it probably depends on how Your Mileage Varies for deliberately over-the-top pulp excess and overt humour; for me though, it was Gatiss’ best script and one of the most enjoyable this year.
Classic series references
Aside from the overt nods to Ghost Light, and the other Grand Guignol Victorian classic Talons of Weng Chiang (missing girls, mysterious cabinets, bodies in rivers), there was the amusing mention of well-remembered classic companion Tegan Jovanka. Commenting on the TARDIS’ improved navigation, the Doctor wistfully recalled, “I once spent ages trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow airport”, following this up, as a scream rent the air, with “brave heart, Clara.”
In a seemingly tacked on epilogue, the Doctor had dropped Clara off in her own time; is this a thing now, that he lets his companions have breaks from him for a while? He’d never have got Ian and Barbara back into the TARDIS…
It seems that the covering of his historical tracks that was such an important point in the resolution of Asylum of the Daleks has got sloppy. The kids Clara serves as governess to have found pics of her all over the internet from recent episodes; perhaps they’ve been on Gallifrey Base. Anyway, they’ve sensibly deduced the obvious explanation that Clara’s boyfriend is an alien (“It’s the chin”) and a time traveller. And they want a go. Let’s see how well that works out, as the superlative Neil Gaiman returns with a tale of nightmare fairs and Cybermen…