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BBC1. 6.30 pm. 04.05.2013.
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Doctor Who has always had a particular fascination with Victoriana. Classic series companion Victoria Waterfield was a prim and proper Victorian young lady who found herself travelling with the Second Doctor and Jamie, and the Fourth Doctor and Leela experienced back to back gaslight adventures in ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’ and ‘Horror of Fang Rock’. The Third Doctor mentioned having attended Queen Victoria’s coronation in ‘The Curse of Peladon’. And new series episodes ‘The Unquiet Dead’, ‘Tooth and Claw’, ‘The Next Doctor’ and ‘The Snowmen’ have all mined a rich seam of Victorian themes and iconography. The characters of Silurian lady detective Madam Vastra and her comedy-Sontaran sidekick Strax, first introduced in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, have already become fan favourites, and a career in spin-off audio adventures and comics no doubt beckons as it did for that previous Victorian double-act Jago and Lightfoot.
It’s easy to understand this affinity for the Victorian period in Doctor Who. The late nineteenth century marked the height of the British Empire, and a narrative of British power has always informed Doctor Who, especially in the new series – remember that the Torchwood Institute was founded by Queen Victoria to protect the empire from alien threats. The Doctor himself represents different aspects of Victorian values, combining on the one hand the scientific rationalism of Charles Darwin (it is surely only a matter of time before the famed naturalist guest stars in Doctor Who) with the bohemian intellectualism of Oscar Wilde on the other. And Doctor Who has drawn extensively on Victorian popular fiction, including the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In particular the late Victorian novels of ‘scientific romance’ by H.G. Wells established some of the key narrative templates and motifs of modern science fiction. Doctor Who has been particularly indebted to The Time Machine (not just the time-travel motif but also the contrast between the monstrous Molochs and the decadent Eloi that was replicated in the Daleks and Thals in ‘The Dead Planet’) and The War of the Worlds (the template for all those alien invasion narratives that proliferated during the 1970s and which also featured prominently during the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who).
‘The Crimson Horror’ is the latest addition to this Victorian theme in Doctor Who. The return to the period was no doubt partly motivated by narrative requirements, namely revisiting the mystery of Clara Oswald, who supposedly died in London at Christmas 1888 in ‘The Snowmen’, and the desire to reintroduce Madam Vastra and Strax. Mark Gatiss – who seems to be taking on the mantle of the new series’ Robert Holmes – provided a full-blooded Grand Guignol melodrama involving mysterious deaths in a Yorkshire manufacturing town, a symbiotic alien parasite and a factory of death. The plot, combining elements of The Mystery of the Wax Museum and the Hammer Frankenstein films, had something to do with an alien feeding off ‘the filth that humanity has pumped into the rivers’. This might, on the face of it, hark back to the environmental themes of 1970s Doctor Who such as ‘The Green Death’ and ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’, though this episode was much less insistent on any kind of message than in providing a full share of rather macabre thrills.
This being a Mark Gatiss script, it was no surprise to find a wealth of references to Victorian popular culture – hence my comparison to Robert Holmes. ‘The Crimson Horror’ exemplifies a device that has become quite common in contemporary television drama: the use of pastiche and intertextuality. Here it can be seen as a postmodern strategy that repeatedly draws attention to the episode’s status as a fictional text. Even before the title sequence Gatiss has written in an acknowledgment of the story’s cultural origins when a character remarks ‘I have no interest in the deplorable excesses of the penny dreadful’. Another device was a flashback sequence in the style of early films, using grainy sepia images and blurred frame edges, to explain the circumstances of the Doctor’s and Clara’s arrival in ‘Sweetville’. Only pedants would point out that the story was set two years before the first successful projection of moving pictures in 1895. This pastiche style is reminiscent of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novels The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and assumes a reasonable degree of cultural knowledge on the part of audiences. It is also a historically and culturally inauthentic view of the past, but the days when Doctor Who was concerned with understanding the past on its own terms, as in ‘The Aztecs’, have long since passed. Even the insistence on the northernness of the setting was played for laughs. ‘We are going to the north!’ warns Strax, listing the arsenal of weaponry he advises for such a hazardous expedition. Of the Doctor’s dodgy ‘ee-by-gum’ Yorkshire accent perhaps the least said the better.
In many respects ‘The Crimson Horror’ played like a period version of The Avengers. We have the mysterious match factory from which no-one returns, the bizarre steampunk machinery, and the outwardly respectable philanthropist who turns out to be a deranged madwoman bent on world domination. In one explicit moment of homage Madam Vastra’s maid Jenny (Catrin Stewart) even gets to strip off her Victorian dress to reveal an Emma Peel-style leather catsuit and display some unexpected martial arts skills. And of course we had the original Emma Peel herself, Dame Diana Rigg, chewing the scenery gloriously as the barking mad Mrs Gillyflower. An additional layer of intertextuality was overlaid onto the story through the casting of Rigg’s real daughter Rachel Stirling as Gillyflower’s daughter Ada, an unwilling accomplice and guinea pig in the macabre experiments, evidently cherishing lines such as calling her mother a ‘pathetic hag’.
I felt that this episode represented Mark Gatiss doing what Mark Gatiss does best. Sometimes, as in ‘Victory of the Daleks’, his Doctor Who scripts have contained almost too many ideas to be workable, but ‘The Crimson Horror’ reminded me of ‘The Unquiet Dead’ and ‘Cold War’ – stories with a strong narrative drive and a horrific element. While it wasn’t quite as good as either of those episodes, it was still an enjoyable romp. The principal weakness, I thought, was that with so many of the Doctor’s friends involved, Jenna-Louise Coleman had little to do, other than look pretty in a frock. An added-on coda – in which Clara returns home to discover that the children she supposedly looks after when not travelling in time and space have discovered her secret (‘We’ll have to tell dad that our nanny’s a time traveller’) – gives the impression of having been bolted on to deal with some on-going story arc business.
One final point. I like Strax, and Dan Starky’s performance is a delight, but at the same time the character’s very existence closes off the possibility of ever treating the Sontarans as plausible villains again. As someone whose clear memory of Doctor Who begins with ‘The Time Warrior’ this is a shame: time was when the simple fact of a Sontaran removing his helmet would have younger viewers diving behind the sofa in terror. But ever since the Haka-style battle-chant of ‘Sontar-ha’ in ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’/’The Poison Sky’, this once fearsome warrior race have been devalued in new Doctor Who. After they had crossed over into The Sarah Jane Adventures, the only way back for them seems to have been as comic relief. I trust this will not happen with the Cybermen, who return in next week’s episode. ■
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, a second edition of which will be published by I. B. Tauris in September 2013.