“The Crimson Horror” is Mark Gatiss’s second contribution to Series 7 of Doctor Who, after handling the return of the Ice Warriors in “Cold War“. Unlike his last episode, which was a pretty grim and darkly lit base-under-siege story, “The Crimson Horror” is a comedy-focused romp episode that shows off the sillier side of the series – and it feels perfectly timed, after how dark “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” got. “The Crimson Horror” is set in Victorian era England and serves as a follow-up to “The Snowmen“, bringing the Doctor’s friends up to speed on everything they missed (related to Clara) since the last time they saw him.
It was originally meant to be written by the showrunner Steven Moffat, since Vastra, Jenny and Strax are his creations, but he was unable to do so at the time because his hands were tied with other matters (dealing with the incredibly difficult production process of Series 7), so he called upon his friend Mark Gatiss and asked him to pen it instead. “The Crimson Horror” is the annual Doctor-lite episode of the season (a tradition the show has adhered to since “Love And Monsters” in Series 2), where Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman are given a helpful break in their filming schedule because this episode’s plot deliberately gives them a reduced role. The Doctor doesn’t even appear in this episode until around the fifteen minute mark: “The Crimson Horror” tosses the viewers right in the middle of a mystery in progress and challenges them to try to make sense of it, before giving them a rapid-fire explanation from the Doctor’s point-of-view later. This episode’s B-plot was also tailor-made for the late Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling, the latter of whom Mark Gatiss had worked with before and decided he wanted to include them both in one of his Doctor Who episodes.
In “The Crimson Horror”, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara are captured while they’re investigating a 19th century cult, and subjected to a horrific experiment where a madwoman tries to petrify them like they’re her dolls. The Doctor survives the process, courtesy of his Gallifreyan biology, and the cult leader’s daughter decides to keep him in secret as her pet – because she’s very lonely and she feels an affinity towards him, since they’re both lost souls by her mother’s standards – which is both creepy and sad. Eleven spends the first act of this episode as a prisoner in a hell of a lot of pain apparently, but his compassionate side is put on display during the latter half of this story, and his subplot with Ada becomes rather touching in the end. The Doctor is disgusted by Mrs. Gillyflower’s treatment of Ada, so he does his best to undo some of the harm her indoctrination has done to her and convince her she deserves better. He convinces her to stop living for her horrible mother, start living for herself and rejoin society. So the Doctor managed to do some good here, beyond stopping the villain of the week.
After the events of the last episode, the Doctor continues to warm up to Clara, and protecting her from harm is still his top priority. Vastra, Jenny and Strax are the only characters in Series 7B besides the Doctor who have encountered any of Clara’s echoes, so naturally they have some questions about how he can be traveling with the doppelganger of someone they all saw die: questions the Doctor still can’t answer. But, in a small sign of growth, he’s started to make peace with the mystery of the Impossible Girl. He’s no closer to solving it than he was several episodes ago, but he seems to have accepted that he’ll figure it out eventually, so for now he’ll just go wherever the road takes him and enjoy the ride.
Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) isn’t given a lot to do in “The Crimson Horror”, since she’s sidelined for the first half of this episode just like the Doctor, but she’s still having fun, touring time and space in her free time. She’s still shown to be an observant, level-headed and resourceful person: catching onto clues that the Doctor might have overlooked and weaponizing chairs in a tight spot. Clara meets some of the Doctor’s friends in this episode and she takes their existence rather well (having grown accustomed to aliens by this point), giving her her first look at the Doctor’s life before her that will steadily be expanded upon in “The Name Of The Doctor“, “The Day Of The Doctor“, “The Time Of The Doctor” and “Deep Breath”. Clara really seems to like the idea of being in charge of everything when the Doctor has a little slip of the tongue, which means her role in the next episode will be right up her alley, and the ship-tease moments between her and the Doctor are growing more and more blatant, as they have some very flirty exchanges in this story.
The Impossible Girl arc is not a major focus in this episode, but it continues to inch forward with a tiny amount of progress. Even though she had her mind wiped of everything the Doctor told her in the last episode, Clara is finally starting to catch on that something’s off here, when she sees a photo of herself in Victorian England that she never took. The Maitland kids, who we haven’t seen since “The Bells Of Saint John“, discover some historical photos of Clara and the Doctor having fun sight-seeing from “Cold War” and “Hide“, which is a nice bit of continuity that ties together the separate threads of this season as we start to approach the finale. The kids decide to blackmail her into letting them tag along with her on another adventure, which sets the stage for the next episode, “Nightmare In Silver“.
Madam Vastra, the veiled detective, Jenny Flint, her lover and right-hand woman, and Commander Strax, their footman / medic / weapons’ expert are given their own spotlight episode showing off each one of their respective strengths in “The Crimson Horror”, where we get to see one of their cases unfold. The trio are recruited to investigate a bunch of mysterious disappearances happening in a gated community in 19th century Yorkshire, and to their surprise, they discover the Doctor has been looking into it as well.
In comparison to her last couple of appearances, “The Crimson Horror” emphasizes Madam Vastra’s sharp mind and her excellent deductive reasoning skills much more often than her fighting abilities. She’s been around since ancient times, so she’s the first one to realize Mrs. Gillyflower is meddling with primordial forces for her own twisted purposes. It’s also apparent in this episode that Vastra is the matriarch of their clan, and the glue who holds their little gang together. Her wife, Jenny, is the only human in the group, so she flies solo for a while when she goes undercover in Sweetville to investigate: allowing us to see everything she’s capable of for the first time. She’s a very clever and intuitive woman who can pick any lock she comes across, and she’s apparently been learning martial arts, since she can beat up guys several times her size. And Strax, as always, is an excellent source of dark humor (this dude wants to get his murder on so badly). In a surprise twist, it’s Strax who steps in to save everyone from Mrs. Gillyflower in the climax, and delivers the killing blow when the crazy bitch tries to start a gunfight she can’t win. We also get to see Strax’s softer side, when he gets along rather well with a local boy he recruits for navigational help (and I find it funny how this kid just accepts everything without questioning it).
The villainess of this episode, Mrs. Winnifred Gillyflower is a religious zealot. The sort of Christian fundamentalist who only cares about themselves and their own self-righteousness, who relishes the idea that they’re part of a special, chosen few who will be spared from an apocalypse by their lord while everyone else gets to burn and die. She’s a haughty and judgmental woman who’s decided to create her own cult, where she and a bunch of other people like her will close themselves off from the rest of the world and remain pure, while the rest of society decays. Except, she’s decided to bring about judgement day herself, with the help of her silent partner, Mr. Sweet – a parasitic leech from the Jurassic era. With Mr. Sweet’s venom, she can perfectly preserve people for years, so they can wait out the apocalypse. And with a different use of the venom, she can also use it to wipe out all the sinners and degenerates of the world, who weren’t worthy of her own personal Eden. Needless to say, she’s completely insane.
Mrs. Gillyflower makes for a fun, campy villainess who is gleefully wicked through the latter half of this episode, and Diana Rigg clearly has a lot of fun chewing some scenery in the role, so you love to hate her. The climax is one of the few times you’ll see a villain’s death scene be played for laughs in this show, and it is legitimately hilarious. Mrs. Gillyflower winds up toppling over the side of a staircase when her attempts to shoot everyone backfire on her, and she drops several stories. As she’s dying, she implores her daughter to forgive her, which Ada quite frankly tells her is never going to happen – and Winnifred approves. Right after she’s gone, Ada does not waste any time whacking Mr. Sweet into oblivion with her cane – and the Doctor, who’s been watching this whole time, is left speechless for once.
The secondary antagonist of this episode would be Ada Gillyflower, who unlike her mother is cast in a more sympathetic role. Ada is a pretty demure and submissive person – the way a ‘proper’ high-class woman in the Victorian era would be raised to be – especially since she’s blind. She’s shown to be very lonely, with no one around to keep her company except for her ‘monster’, and her mother is very abusive towards her. Winnifred constantly talks down to her and treats her more like a servant than a daughter. She’s perfectly willing to use her to gain sympathy for her cause, and use her as a human shield later, but she considers her to be unworthy of ‘paradise’ because of her imperfections. Mrs. Gillyflower has indoctrinated her daughter well with her twisted ideology, so Ada has plenty of self-loathing about falling short in the eyes of her mother and her lord – and after everything she did to help her as her accomplice, Mrs. Gillyflower tosses her aside like she’s nothing, breaking her heart.
Because of the Doctor’s intervention, Ada discovers something very juicy: her mother was the one who robbed her of her sight and then lied to her about it, when she used her as a guinea pig for her experiments. The fallout of that revelation is immensely satisfying: not only is Ada allowed to be absolutely furious when she learns this, but she does not decide to forgive her mother before she dies. Doctor Who has implied a few times before that you should want to keep your attachments to people who have been nothing but awful to you for years, just because they’re family, and it’s refreshing to see that idea get subverted hard in this episode. Now that her toxic mother is no longer a part of her life, Ada has decided to take the Doctor’s advice – she’ll focus on healing herself and living her own life as well as a blind woman can – which gives her character arc a hopeful open-ending.
“The Crimson Horror” is helmed by Saul Metzstein, who previously worked on “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” and “A Town Called Mercy“, and while his direction for this story is not as impressive, it’s still surprisingly creative at times, especially during the climax. When it comes to his directorial choices, one of the more intriguing sequences in this episode is the prolonged flashback where the Doctor explains how he and Clara started to investigate Sweetville. This whole montage has a brown sepia tone overlaying it, along with tons of film grain, to evoke the nostalgic look of antique photographs and the earliest moving pictures in existence – which is quite an appropriate choice for a story set in the Victorian era.
Location shooting for this episode was done in Bute Town, Caerphilly, as well as Tony Refail in Wales, to get the historical look of 19th century Yorkshire right – and as always, the costume and wardrobe department got to go wild, recreating 19th century fashion trends for men and women, like the rather extravagant lacy dresses Mrs. Gillyflower and her daughter wear. Compared to the rest of Series 7, the visual effects work from the Mill is less convincing than usual in this story, with some really wonky close-up shots of people being lowered into a vat of Mr. Sweet’s venom, though they seem to fare better with establishing shots of Mrs. Gillyflower’s rocket in the climax. When it comes to Murray Gold’s score, he writes a few tracks of new material like “The Crimson Horror“, “Sweetville” and “Thomas Thomas“, the last of which is a variation of Strax’s theme from the last Christmas special, “Psychotic Potato Dwarf“. Mainly though, “The Crimson Horror” recycles a lot of music from “The Rebel Flesh“, “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe“, “The Snowmen” and “The Bells Of Saint John”.
“The Crimson Horror” is a very silly and goofy episode, but it makes for a fun piece of fluff in-between two episodes that are much more intense experiences, and it gives the Parternoster Gang their time to shine before Series 7 reaches its conclusion.
* “We have come about your husband, my dear. A tragedy. Your late husband” “There must be some mistake. My husband is quite well” “We’re so very sorry for your loss“.
* “To find him, she needs only ignore all keep-out signs, go through every locked door, and run towards any form of danger that presents itself” “Business as usual, then?” “Business as usual”.
* “If she hasn’t make contact by nightfall, I suggest a massive frontal assault on the factory, madam. Casualties can be kept to perhaps as little as 80%” “I think there may be subtler ways of proceeding, Strax” “Suit yourself”.
* “It hardly seems possible. I think I’ve seen these symptoms before, a long time ago” “How long ago?” “About sixty-five million years”.
* In Series 7, the Doctor has developed a bad habit of springing unwanted kisses upon his married friends (see also, his random liplock with Rory in “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship”), and in this episode, it quite rightly gets him slapped.
* “I once spent a hell of a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport” “What for?” “Search me”.
* “Horse, you have failed in your mission! We are lost, with no sign of Sweetville! Do you have any final words before your summary execution? …The usual story. Fourth one this week, and I’m not even hungry!”
* The Doctor gets a bit distracted with his sonic screwdriver, when he notices Jenny’s leather jumpsuit. Stay classy, Doctor Who.
* “Strax! You’re overexcited. Have you been eating Ms. Jenny’s sherbet fancies again?” “….No”.
* “Yes. I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts and I’m going to stop you”.
* “Mrs. Gillyflower, you have no idea what you are dealing with. In the wrong hands, that venom could wipe out all life on this planet” “Do you know what these are? The wrong hands!”
* “You hag! You perfidious hag! You virago! You harpy! All these years I have helped you, served you, looked after you! Do they count for nothing, nothing at all?!!!” Hell yes, Ada, you go off!
* “Hang on, I’ve got a sonic screwdriver!” “Yeah? I’ve got a chair!”
* “You know, chairs are useful!”
* “Has the venom been loaded?” “Yes, ma’am” “Then heaven awaits ya!” If heaven looks a lot like a jail cell, then yes, they probably do have that waiting for them.
* “Very well, then. If I can’t take the world with me, you will have to do! Die, you freaks! Die! Die!” Bless Diana Rigg, she really got all into this role.
* “Ada, forgive me, my child! Forgive me!” “Never” “That’s my girl!”
* “Yeah. I think I’ve had enough of Victorian values for a bit” “You’re the boss” “Am I?” “No. No. Get in”.
* It is cute to see that the Doctor and Clara apparently took pictures as souvenirs of their travels, especially since they probably spent weeks on Zhukov’s sub before they got back to the TARDIS in “Cold War”.
* “That’s not right” “You were in Victorian London?” “No, I was in Victorian Yorkshire” And just like that, Ms. Oswald knew she had said too much.