Starring: Diana Rigg, Rachel Stirling
Written by: Mark Gatiss
Directed by: Saul Metzstein
In a town near the mysterious Sweetville, people are falling victim to a deadly plague known as the Crimson Horror. Intrigued, Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and their butler, Strax, travel to Yorkshire to investigate. But where is the Doctor?
After Mark Gatiss’ ‘Cold War’, expectations were high for this Victorian tale, particularly after the disappointing ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’. Quite apart from living up to his superlative earlier episode, he also had to deliver a script worthy of Diana Rigg and her equally talented if less well-known daughter, Rachel Stirling, and do justice to the warmly regarded trio of Vastra, Jenny and Strax.
It is a curious success, but a success nonetheless. For much of the episode, you could be forgiven for seeing it as a backdoor attempt at a spinoff pilot; the Doctor and Clara are absent for much of the episode, with his old friends driving the plot forward at first. As always, and for the first time out of Moffat’s hands, they are a joy to behold, especially the borderline psychotic Sontaran butler, Strax – much as I like Clara, I would love to see Strax as a permanent companion, although I suspect the joke would wear thin after too much exposure. If such a spinoff were to materialise, I for one would be a regular viewer.
Elsewhere, Rigg and Stirling deliver a couple of excellent performances, although Stirling is the only person in the episode doing anything even remotely subtle. Granted, when you’re surrounded by the Doctor, a lizard-woman from the dawn of time (who, lest we forget, ate Jack the Ripper), a gay Victorian ninja maid, and the aforementioned Strax, and your mother, sporting a Yorkshire accent and a pre-historic slug, it’s easy to appear subtle. As this may suggest, Rigg, while excellent, is firmly in the John Simm school of Who villainy here, chewing the scenery for all it’s worth and having an absolute ball.
In fact, quite apart from the pilot-esque elements of the episode, it is the closest the show has come to outright parody since Moffat’s ‘Curse of the Fatal Death’. It’s a fine line to tread, but Gatiss pulls it off. The plot itself is fairly thin, and rather ridiculous, but the nod and wink approach, and a scattering of truly disturbing details really sell it as a slice of high-camp Gothic adventure. Yes, it’s over the top, but that’s perfectly in keeping with the genre.
This is not to say that the episode is perfect. There’s at least one section that has absolutely no business being in a finished draft – Thomas Thomas, step forward – and for all that it’s deliberately OTT, the high-camp approach does steal most of the tension and fear factor. Furthermore, while the more disturbing moments do lend more heft to the episode, it’s undeniable that some of them need more context to be truly effective. Diana Rigg ripping open her dress to display a temporally displaced, poisonous slug? Extremely unsettling. Diana Rigg opening a door to show off the people she’s placed inside bell jars? Creepy, yes, but more likely to have you thinking about the logic and mechanics of it than anything else.
Nonetheless, there is plenty to enjoy here, and it sits comfortably in amongst the ranks of best episodes of the series.