Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Colour Of Candyfloss

Doctor Who
The Crimson Horror
Series Seven, Episode Eleven

Well, if it isn't Mark Gatiss.  Again.  Is there a particular reason some of the least impressive Doctor Who writers are getting to Write One Get One Free this year?

Let's face it, Cold War wasn't very inspiring.  Yet another base-under-siege story, it followed the familiar Mark Gatiss pattern of "You liked it the last time you saw it, therefore you'll like it again".  Well, maybe, but couldn’t we just watch any of the umpteen other stories it’s ripping off instead?

With The Crimson Horror, the Mark Gatiss Lever (TM) is thrown the other way: it’s Victorian, morbid, often very funny.  Oh, good, so quite a bit like The Unquiet Dead, then?  Not exactly.  It's not as scary, it's completely silly, and it's about as substantial as candyfloss.  Writing an entire review about it has been as easy and enjoyable as pulling my teeth out.  Okay, it's a fun episode, but what more do you say about it?

More like The Hilarious Dead!
Well, for one thing it's got an unusual structure (which, coming from Mr Nostalgia, is a huge plus).  The Doctor's not in it for more than ten minutes in his place, the Paternoster Gang.  They are Madam Vastra, carnivorous crime-fighting Silurian; Jenny, maid and hand-to-hand combat expert, also Vastra’s wife; and Strax, Sontaran butler comically obsessed with military strategy.  In all honesty, they’re about as interesting as action figures, with the exception of Strax, whose mighty one joke renders him as interesting as an action figure with a pull-string.  (And makes Vastra seem rigidly humourless by comparison.)  Still, despite going through the same routine in every single situation, Dan Starkey is hilarious in every scene.  I can take or leave the other two (which makes cries of "Backdoor pilot!" quite mystifying to me), but as long as Strax is on board they're a watchable enough bunch.  They get the episode off to a sprightly start.

Once the Doctor returns, the Paternoster Gang more or less fade into the background.  (Did you notice?)  Hey ho: the Doctor's sepia-tinted recap is a fun way to reduce a much larger episode into the necessary 45 minutes, without going to the trouble of a two-parter.  But it does raise an annoying point.  How much actual episode is there?  Almost half of it is spent rescuing the Doctor, then Clara, then recapping what's happened up to now.  In terms of yer actual progressive action, the episode amounts to the Doctor dropping by to see the bad guy and then immediately foiling her plan.  It's like a regular episode put on Fast Forward.

Oh well: the mystery, i.e. the bit filling up the first ten minutes, is a good one.  Bright red corpses are piling up, and one of them has an image of the Doctor seared onto his eyeball.  This is surely the work of Mrs Gillyflower, a sinister moral crusader in charge of Sweetville, a safe haven for the Victorian repressed, from which nobody returns.  And if she's already conquered the Doctor, who knows what else she's capable of?

It's clear fairly soon that this is going for silly rather than scary.  The latest victim's brother is grief-stricken in one scene, fainting cross-eyed at the sight of Vastra in the next.  The red corpses are also, deliberately or otherwise, sort of hilarious.  As for the eventual reveal of Gillyflower's partner, Mr Sweet a bizarrely hideous-yet-cute red leech it leaves one wondering what reaction they were hoping for.

It's virtually impossible to take any of it seriously.  When the Doctor is revealed to be in a state of waking red death, it's a brilliant shock  but he's all better a few minutes later (thanks to an inexplicable magic shower cubicle), and then he's bouncing around as silly as ever.  The music is whimsical, and the jokes range from daftly hilarious (Strax threatening a horse for being insubordinate) to embarrassingly spoofy (a child prophetically called Thomas Thomas giving SatNav-style directions).  Even the dialogue sounds deliberately corny and Ye Olde, and certain characters are walking Victorian clichés.  (I'm looking at you, Creepy Mortician.)  It's reminiscent of Victory Of The Daleks, which offered such biting historical realism as Winston Churchill chewing a cigar in every shot.

The plot doesn't bear much scrutiny, either.  Gillyflower is petrifying people and putting them in bell jars.  Okay, it's creepy and it looks cool... but why?  Because she's nuts.  They're all going to wake up at some point, to a "new Eden"... meaning what, exactly?  Search me.  She has an army of loyal henchmen.  Where did they come from?  No idea.  Using petrifying prehistoric leech venom (just go with it), she aims to launch a rocket (she has a rocket?) and explode it over Yorkshire.  Then what?  One rocket per city?

Hang on - if the Silence have been around forever,
and were trying to influence the space race, wouldn't they be
concerned about there being rocket scientists in the 1800s?
Guys?  Remember the Silence?  Guys?
And now the good news: Diana Rigg is so brilliant as Mrs Gillyflower that you can gloss over a lot of this.  A truly nasty, irredeemibly bonkers bad guy is quite a hammy prospect, but Rigg makes it a rewarding one.  She's got some great dialogue ("Do you know what these are?  The wrong hands!"), and she oozes madness and chilling indifference towards her daughter, not to mention the Doctor.  Rigg's real-life daughter Rachael Stirling is the blind, subserviant Ada, and she makes mountains out of the (arguably clichéd) material.  Ada's revenge, viciously setting about her mother with a cane, is startlingly violent, but ultimately quite satisfying.  Her refusal to forgive and forget, bearing in mind Gatiss's past habit for sentimental resolutions, is even more so.

What else is good?  Well, Matt Smith.  It might sound like damning with faint praise, but he does a brilliant agonised zombie-walk.  And he gets some very witty lines, such as the instantly T-shirt-ready "I'm the Doctor, you're nuts and I'm going to stop you."  On the other hand, sitting idly by while Ada pummels her mother and shrugging when she mashes Mr Sweet to death is rather callous, particularly in such an otherwise whimsical episode.  (I wasn't particularly fond of the pointy-uppy sonic screwdriver erection joke, either.)  There's not much else worthy of comment, other than some teasing about the Great Clara Mystery, but nothing resembling progress the Doctor just repeats that "it's complicated" several times, which actually sums it up rather well.

That's about all I can muster.  The Crimson Horror isn't great, isn't especially bad... it isn't much of anything, really.  When it was over I wondered why, besides Pavlovian loyalty to Doctor Who, I still bother watching stuff like this.  Perhaps it's just the accumulated averageness of Series Seven (the content of which seems to be Any Old Thing We Can Throw Together), but it's starting to feel like this show needs either a swift boot in the arse, or a long rest.  The Crimson Horror is somehow still among the better episodes this year, which says more about them, to be honest.

NB: It wouldn't be proper not to mention the tacked-on piece of setup at the end.  Clara is ambushed by her young charges, who've spotted pictures of her throughout history and determine, without any help, that she's a time traveller and the Doctor's an alien.  Uh-huh.  They demand a trip in the TARDIS, or they'll tell their dad.  (Yeah, good luck with that.)  It's an absolutely horrible piece of writing, and adds a final bad taste to what was ultimately quite a nice lump of sugary froth.  Let us assume, charitably, that Mark Gatiss wasn't responsible for it.

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