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: Trail of the White Worm / The Oseidon Adventure

Since 1999, Big Finish has been producing Doctor Who audio plays featuring numerous actors from the original television series.  For many years, however, they were unable to convince Tom Baker to reprise his portrayal of the Fourth Doctor.  This impasse was finally overcome just recently, and Baker began recording a series of audio adventures, first for the BBC itself, and now for Big Finish.  The first Big Finish “season” sees Baker re-teamed with actress Louise Jameson, returning to her role as Leela, the primitive descendent of a human space expedition that had been stranded on an alien planet generations before the Doctor met her.  The stories in this Big Finish season were set between the on-air adventures “The Talons of Weng Chiang” and “The Horror of Fang Rock.”

The final two releases of this first block of audio adventures are the linked stories “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The attraction these particular stories had for me is that they have Geoffrey Beevers once again portraying the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master in his final, death-like incarnation.  He first played that role so very effectively on television in “The Keeper of Traken,” and returned to it many years later at Big Finish in a pair of audio plays starring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor.  In addition, “The Oseidon Adventure” features the alien Kraals & their robotic servants from “The Android Invasion.”  Given the ties “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” had to two of my favorite Tom Baker television serials, I could not resist picking them up.

(I do not think I am really giving away any major spoilers by revealing the involvement of the Master or the Kraals, as their images feature prominently on the covers of the CDs!)

Doctor Who: Trail of the White Worm

“Trail of the White Worm,” in certain ways, does a good job capturing the feel of the television stories around which it is set, evincing much of the atmosphere of gothic horror of the Philip Hinchcliffe & Robert Holmes years.  Set in the English countryside of the late 1970s, “Trail of the White Worm” has the Doctor and Leela arriving in the TARDIS to discover that a mysterious creature is menacing a small, isolated village.  The Doctor meets the posh Demesne Furze, played by Rachael Stirling, who relates to him the local legends of the White Worm, which date back two millennia to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.  Meanwhile, on a nearby estate, Leela comes across the retired Colonel Spindleton, portrayed by Michael Cochrane.  A reactionary with a grudge against progress, the Colonel has a fondness for shooting at trespassers with his remote controlled tank, although he quickly learns that Leela is more than a match for his security arrangements.  She, in turn, discovers that the Colonel has thrown in his lot with the Master, who dangles before him the promise of restoring to Britain its lost greatness.

The ending of “Trail of the White Worm” leads right into “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The Master opens a space/time portal to the Kraal home world, and his alien allies march forward with an armored column and an infantry of android soldiers.  At first, “The Oseidon Adventure” appears to be a straightforward alien invasion story, much in the vein of the early appearances of the Master when the character, as portrayed by Roger Delgado, would summon a succession of extraterrestrial menaces to attack Earth, only to be opposed by the Doctor and UNIT.  However, writer Alan Barnes does a magnificent job of confounding expectations.  Just when you think you know where “The Oseidon Adventure” is heading, he throws in a series of unexpected plot twists, with double and triple crosses coming left and right.  I really should have foreseen something like this, given how the original serial “The Android Invasion” so successfully played with the idea of infiltration & identity theft.  But since Barnes did such an excellent job of making it seem one thing was going on, when in fact something else entirely different was occurring behind the scenes, I was constantly getting caught off guard.  The end result is a suspenseful story that really leaves you guessing what is going to happen next.

Doctor Who: The Oseidon Adventure

Tom Baker return to the role of the Doctor is superb.  It’s almost as if there hasn’t been a three decade lapse in time since he last played the role, and he’s picking up right where he left off.  I do think that his performance in these two stories was somewhat more akin to the rather more silly, buffoonish tone he increasingly adopted during Graham Williams’ tenure as producer than the relatively more serious, somber take of his first three seasons with Hinchcliffe.  That said, it is great to have him back.  If he had perhaps a bit too much fun recording these stories, well, that’s Tom Baker for you.

Louise Jameson also does good work slipping back into the role of Leela.  I know that she has played an older, somewhat more sophisticated version of the character in other Big Finish releases.  So I’m not sure how difficult it was for her to now take a step back and return to the intelligent but uneducated savage she portrayed on television.  I think Jameson does admirable work at recapturing this younger version of Leela.  Together with Barnes’ scripting, this does sound like the character we saw in those classic Doctor Who serials of the late 1970s.

And then there is Geoffrey Beevers.  The man is excellent at imbuing the Master with malicious, sly, sneering malevolence.  Listening to “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure,” I was reminded once again why his performance in “The Keeper of Traken” left such a lasting impression on my childhood memories.  Beevers really brings to life the Master, and makes you believe this is a figure that could actually defeat the Doctor.  The ending of “The Oseidon Adventure” leaves open the possibility of at least one more encounter between the Master and the Doctor before the events of “The Keeper of Traken,” so hopefully Beevers will be back in the recording studio with Baker at some point in the near future.

All in all, the actors, writer Alan Barnes, and director Ken Bentley have all excelled at capturing the feel of the original Tom Baker stories.  These two audio plays utilize elements from the television series, while nevertheless crafting stories that develop in new, unexpected directions.  They also take full advantage of the unlimited scope of the audio format.  I seriously doubt that either the immense figure of the White Worm or the massive Kraal army would have been achievable on the limited budget & resources the television show had access to in the late 1970s.

“Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” are both entertaining, well-produced tales.  If you are a Doctor Who fan, but you have not listened to any of the Big Finish releases, they make an excellent jumping on point.