Doctor Who reviews: The Crimson Horror

Things have been really busy, and I didn’t have an opportunity to watch last week’s Doctor Who episode, “The Crimson Horror,” until this afternoon.  Thank you, DVR!  So here, at last are my thoughts on it.

The year is 1893.  Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are in Yorkshire, investigating a rash of mysterious deaths that have left people colored blood red, the eponymous Crimson Horror.  The last victims of this strange ailment were investigating Sweetville, a model community that has been organized by Mrs. Gillyflower and her blind daughter Ada as a supposed refuge against the coming apocalypse.

Jenny, posing as a convert to Gillyflower’s movement, infiltrates Sweetville.  There, hidden in a locked room, she finds none other than the Doctor, himself a victim of the Crimson Horror.  He is still alive due to his alien physiology, but mostly paralyzed and in terrible pain.  Jenny manages to get him into a revival unit in the factory and, restored to his usual eccentric self, the two go in search of Clara.  She, along with most of the other recruits to Sweetville, has been frozen in suspended animation.  Gillyflower intends to unleash a prehistoric plague to wipe out humanity, and then revive the assembled population of Sweetville to form a “perfect” community on the now-desolate Earth.

The highlight of “The Crimson Horror” was the casting of Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling as Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada.  Writer Mark Gatiss had been working in a play with Stirling and, learning that she had never acted opposite her mother, drafted this episode exactly with that in mind.  I quite liked Stirling’s previous Doctor Who performance in the Big Finish audio play “Trail of the White Worm.”  So it was nice to see her make the leap to an actual television episode.  And, of course, Diana Rigg was amazing.  Even at age 74, she’s still a real firecracker, and can probably out-act most people in the profession who are a third her age.  Gatiss really came up with an interesting, complex, troubled mother-daughter dynamic for Rigg and Sterling to act out in this story, and both play their roles extremely well.

It was an interesting choice to have the Doctor and Clara absent from the first fifteen minutes or so of the episode, having the story told from the point of view of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax.  I did enjoy seeing Jenny, portrayed by Catrin Stewart, getting to work solo for some of the episode, and then do a bit of ass-kicking, coincidentally or not coming across much like a later day Emma Peel.  She’s certainly a credit to Dame Diana’s proud legacy of tough, independent women.

No, really, all you need is an umbrella to go with that bowler hat, and you'll look just like Patrick MacNee.
“No, really, all you need is an umbrella to go with that bowler hat, and you’ll look just like Patrick Macnee.”

I enjoyed the whimsical, retro flashback sequence as Jenny is brought up to speed by the Doctor on how he and Clara got involved in the Sweetville investigation.  There is this faux-grainy film stock intermingled with still photos.  Very effective, and it suits the mood of the story perfectly.

As I mentioned in my review of “The Snowmen,” the character of Strax the Sontaran was rather annoying, and his constant use as comic relief fell flat.  I found him much more acceptable in “The Crimson Horror,” probably because he actually got to do stuff, rather than just stand around acting silly.  And when Strax was humorously oblivious or belligerent, it just seemed to work better.

The thing is, once the Doctor gets revived, bam, Matt Smith pretty much steals the show.  It felt like the Paternoster Gang was pushed off to the side in the second half of the episode.  So, I spent the early part of “The Crimson Horror” wondering where the Doctor and Clara were, and the later part hoping that Jenny, Vastra, and Strax would pop up again.  It was maddening.  We certainly didn’t see nearly enough of Madame Vastra, as played by the wonderful Neve McIntosh.

That was the episode’s major weakness: there were just too many characters fighting for screen time.  I really wish that this one could have been longer.  “The Crimson Horror” had a hell of a lot of potential, with solid writing and acting.  There were definitely a lot of great scenes.  But at the end it just felt like too much had been left out due to time constraints.

This is why I would so much like to see the Paternoster Gang receive a special or miniseries.  It would be great to see them step out from the Doctor’s shadow.  I definitely think that there is a hell of a lot of potential to Vastra, Jenny and Strax.

Anyway, yeah, while “The Crimson Horror” did have certain problems, on the whole it was quite good.  Not a perfect episode, by any means, but certainly not a bad one, either.  I guess I’d say it was above average.  That said, I wouldn’t mind watching it again, which is always a good sign.

Doctor Who reviews: The Snowmen

It’s about time I did a write-up of the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special “The Snowmen.”  Well, it snowed here in NYC last night, so that’s as good a reason as any.

Written by Steven Moffat, “The Snowmen” follows on from the events of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” which witnessed Amy & Rory being lost in time, with the Doctor fated to never see them again.  At the end of that story, River Song urged the Doctor not to travel alone, to find new friends to share his adventures with.  Well, in “The Snowmen” we find that the Doctor has ignored his wife’s advice, much to his detriment.  Alone, bitter over the loss of Amy, the Doctor has retired to London in the year 1892.  Consumed by melancholy, angry at the universe for continually taking away everything that matters from him, the Doctor refuses to become involved in events once again.

Clara, a barmaid who moonlights as a governess, discovers that something mysterious is going on, that the snow in London is beginning to behave in strange ways.  Encountering the Doctor, she is immediately intrigued by him.  She attempts to convince him to investigate the snow, but he will have nothing to do with it.  As Clara later tries to contact the Doctor again, she attracts the attention of the Silurian samurai detective Madame Vastra and her human companion Jenny Flint.  The pair has also been futilely working to shake the Doctor out of his brooding, and they come to realize that the intelligent, fiery Clara is just the person to finally drive some sense into the Time Lord.

It turns out the snow is being animated by a mysterious disembodied alien mentality.  This force first made contact with a lonely, emotionally isolated child half a century before.  The now adult Dr. Simeon is in collusion with the alien entity to wipe out humanity and replace it with a species of beings that are a hybrid of ice creatures and human DNA.  Finally roused from his lethargy by Clara, the Doctor sets out to thwart Simeon and his unearthly ally.

“The Snowmen” was, on the whole, a good episode.  It was certainly an improvement over the previous two Christmas stories, both of which were too saccharine.  The ending of “The Snowmen” did veer into this territory, with a rather sappy resolution hinging on the power of human emotion.  Admittedly Moffat did set this up early on when the Doctor explained to Clara that human mental energies are able to affect the properties of the snow.  But it did still feel rather like a deus ex machina.

I felt that the strongest aspect of “The Snowmen” was the return of Vastra and Jenny, previously seen in “A Good Man Goes To War.”  The pair must have become instant fan favorites with that episode.  I was certainly happy to see them back.  The previously implied romantic relationship between the two is now elaborated upon as their having married.  I appreciate that Moffat did a fair job showing them as a loving couple, rather than tossing in perhaps the more obvious gay jokes (such as those which seem to follow around Captain Jack Harkness when he pops up).  After all, when you have the union of a human being and a prehistoric reptile woman, the fact that both are of the same gender is probably the least unusual aspect of their relationship.

The happy couple: Madame Vastra and Jenny
The happy couple: Madame Vastra and Jenny

Returning with Vastra and Jenny is the exiled Sontaran warrior Strax, now working as the couple’s manservant.  When we last saw Strax, he was dead.  But sci-fi is no barrier to overcoming the afterlife, and in a throw-away line of dialogue the Doctor explains Strax has been resurrected.  Unfortunately for our Sontaran, he lost a number of brain cells in the process, and is now quite dim.  Moffat uses the character for comic relief here.  I think he was a joke that rather soon wore out his welcome, at least for me.

That said, it bears repeating that Vastra and Jenny are awesome, and I really look forward to seeing Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart reprise their roles again.  Others have already suggested giving them their own spin-off.  I do not know if they are ready to get an ongoing series, but definitely give them a miniseries or one-off special, at the very least.

(We are told by Simeon that many in Victorian London suspect Vastra and Jenny have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  I would like to see an encounter between the author and the Sapphic detectives.  If anything, it would officially bring Conan Doyle into the Doctor Who television universe, as the novel Evolution by John Peel showed him meeting the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith.)

I was also impressed with Matt Smith’s performance in “The Snowmen.”  We have become so familiar with the character of the Doctor over the decades that it can be easy to forget that he is an alien being with certain negative qualities, and has the capacity to be quite unlikable.  The aloof, disinterested figure we see in “The Snowmen” really brings to mind William Hartnell’s initial characterization of the Doctor when we first met him back in the first season of Doctor Who.  Smith ably channels this darker aspect of the Doctor’s side.  It really ties in well with some of the other things done with the Eleventh Doctor, such as in “A Town Called Mercy,” where Amy pointed out how detrimental it is for him to travel alone for too long.

Jenna-Louise Coleman makes her debut as the Doctor’s new traveling companion Clara… sort of.  Viewers, but not the Doctor, saw that Clara is seemingly the same person as Oswin Oswald, the woman whose voice he heard throughout “Asylum of the Daleks,” and who sacrificed herself in the far future to defeat the Doctor’s arch-enemies.  Spoiler alert: Clara dies again, this time in 1892.  The Doctor, seeing her full name on her tombstone, realizes the two were one and the same.  It seems Clara somehow exists in multiple points throughout time & space, and the Doctor resolves to find her again.  Once again, as with “Asylum,” there is obviously so much more to Clara than she appears to be, and it looks like this is going to be a thread running through the remainder of the season in 2013.

Along with the rather convenient resolution that I mentioned above, I felt the weakest aspect of “The Snowmen” was Dr. Simeon.  The casting Richard E. Grant, a really fantastic actor, was a missed opportunity.  He does little more than stand around looking morose and ominous as Simeon.  There were the occasional hints that there was more to the character than just that, but Grant was unfortunately never given the opportunity to develop any of them.

Oh, yes, one last thing.  Throughout “The Snowmen” we see that Simeon is in charge of some sort of institute with the initials G.I.  It’s never explained what that stands for until the very end, when the Doctor looks at one of Simeon’s business cards.  G.I. = Great Intelligence.  I think I must have blurted out a “Holy shit” when that came on the screen.  The Great Intelligence was the villain from a pair of Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials aired in the late 1960s, “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear.”  Suddenly it all made sense: the alien consciousness controlling events, the obsession with snowman-related servants, the wildly impractical plan to invade Earth.  Yes, all the earmarks of the Second Doctor’s old foe from those two stories.  I really should have seen it coming!

Anyway, while it was not an unqualified success by any means (I think Moffat was attempting to juggle too many balls at once) “The Snowman” was still quite good.  It effectively sets up some intriguing subplots for the next several episodes, gives us a look at a different side of the Doctor, and reintroduces Madame Vastra & Jenny.  On that last note, the pair is apparently going to be back in at least one more episode in 2013, if not more.  Looking forward to it.