The - I can barely bring myself to type it - Paternoster Gang (ugh) are called in to investigate a mystery in the North of England, where bright red corpses are turning up in t' canal. This seems to be connected to a local gated community called Sweetville run by a larger-than-life villain straight out of The Avengers, Winifred Gillyflower. She is symbiotically linked to a Jurassic grub who's become outsized due to industrial pollution. Hey, that's just like the giant maggots in that other story, and weren't people going a funny colour in that one too? Probably just a coincidence. Anyway, they find out that the Doctor and Clara have also been investigating Gillyflower, and all of them team up and sort it out. Vastra, Strax and Jenny are confused because they thought Clara was already dead, but seen out of context that story arc is dull and unimportant. Come to think of it, it seemed dull and unimportant when seen in context too.
Rather than wait ages for the family to come around to the idea of viewing it, I watched this one on my own. But I still had a couple of false starts: for some reason, the introductory scene with its sub-Hovis ad depiction of the Victorian north was off-putting, and I ended up pausing it a few times and watching something else instead.
The usual drill in 2013 was to watch the episode time-shifted after its first BBC1 Saturday broadcast. I couldn't recall much about watching this one, but then I remembered I'd experimented with keeping a journal that year. After ferreting around some boxed up stuff in the garage and locating said journal, I discovered I'd written... nothing. On the evening of the broadcast, the Better Half and I were visiting my old friend Phil (mentioned before on this blog) for his 40th birthday party, and the entry for the Sunday dwelt mostly on my hangover, not any TV I'd caught up on. A brief peruse brought to light that none of the eight episodes of series 7 shown in this period merited inclusion in my journal. This is more to do with my reaction to the episodes themselves than any reflection of a busy social life (Joe Orton referenced Doctor Who twice in his diaries, and he was definitely out and about more than I was). I remember enjoying this one a bit more than those episodes surrounding it, at least up to the coda: adding annoying kids never makes any drama better, and when would anyone have had a chance to take those photos the kids found, with which they wanted to blackmail Clara, let alone upload them to the internet?
It's not quite a full-on comedy, but The Crimson Horror comes very close. Not all the gags are belters, some should have never been attempted (I'm looking at you, Thomas Thomas), but there's enough of them to keep the romp romping to the end. Dame Diana Rigg relishes the chance to play it 'large' and is wickedly good at comedy, but she's just one of a great cast, all of whom get the tone of their performance right. Graham Turner nearly steals the show with Amos the morgue attendant. Mark Gatiss mines the setting for laughs too, taking affectionate pot shots in the vague direction of his natal patch just as Steven Moffat has often ripped into Scotland, and Russell T Davies did for Wales.
Aside from the refreshing change of setting, and the knockabout comic tone, the other unique selling point of The Crimson Horror is the structure. The beginning 20 minutes uses a different POV than the Doctor or his companion's to tell the story. Madame Vastra and Co. slowly uncover the prior involvement of the Doctor and Clara. It's a shame that they abandon this rather than see it through to the end, but the changeover is fun: the Doctor, instantly back to normal in comic defiance of all logic, fills in his story so far for Jenny, and for the audience the flashbacks appear as if viewed on a kinetoscope. But then it's back to business as usual with his taking the lead.
The three recurring characters already feel like old friends, even though they've only appeared twice before. In fact, if anything, they're feeling over familiar, with Strax's various requests for deployment of absurd weaponry already a bit samey. But the scene of him acting like a little boy, getting overexcited and then being told off, is hilarious. Jenny gets a bit more to do than before. There are however a couple of moments of sexism, with Matt Smith's Doctor uncharacteristically lusting after her, despite her sporting the least sexy leather gear ever. It's not appropriate, and it's not funny.
There are some wonderfully over the top concepts: Mister Sweet is a glorious concoction, and his backstory neatly ties in to Vastra and the Earth 65 million years ago. There's some great imagery like the giant gramophones blasting out industrial noises in an empty factory, or the racks of people being dipped into the red goo. A fun 45 minutes, then, but it doesn't leave much of an impression once it's finished.
A Victorian setting: The Crimson Horror is set in 1893, ten years after Ghost Light. The main villain in both stories puts people into suspended animation, and both are motivated by a misguided desire for a better world. There's non-speaking monsters in both stories that don't do a whole lot, and a scene where a prisoner has a meal delivered through a slot at the base of their cell door.
Why all this is an talking point specifically for the role of the Doctor is an interesting question: no one is clamouring for a female Bond, or for Tilda Swinton to take over from Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. Why do commentators look to Doctor Who to redress some gender imbalance? It's not as if the show has had an exemplary history of finding good roles for women. The Crimson Horror is an exception in having more females roles than male in its main cast, all of them strong, and a good mix of goodies and baddies, regular and guest roles. But huge swathes of stories in Doctor Who's history contain but one woman in four or more episodes (and that's the actress whom they had to use, as she was contracted to play the companion). I suppose that the part of the Doctor is unusual in that it regularly changes hands (though it doesn't have to be as regular as every three years, grumble, grumble) and the lead actor is expected to bring a lot of themselves, and their own individual take, to the role. This makes it more like, say, casting one of the big Shakespearean parts. Glenda Jackson can and did play King Lear without causing Bard fans to melt down online.
But Glenda Jackson still worked with the original text, so was still playing Lear as a man, a father and a patriarch. I doubt it would please anyone for the Doctor to still be a man but just performed by a woman. The Doctor's sex doesn't often arise, though, despite the joke in The Crimson Horror about his screwdriver a-rising: he's not overtly sexual, he's not overtly macho. If you are making it a story point that the character has converted from male to female, do you make it necessary to comment however obliquely on the mechanics of the situation? That's a careful line to tread: it would be ghastly to have the Doctor acting in surprise upon rediscovering her tits every five minutes (and I wouldn't put such a thing past either Moffat or Chibnall based on some of their past work). But suppress the biology too far the other way, and you're back to Glenda as Lear. Is there much point in that, other than to be able to cast a great female actor? And there's already plenty of opportunities to create work for great female actors in all the other roles being created in every Doctor Who story every week, and those opportunities are arguably not being taken up enough by the writers as it is.
I have checked my cis prejudice, by the way: I am aware that gender is not merely binary, and that there are worlds of reverberating story possibility opened up by having a significant story event take place involving a change of gender. I just don't necessarily think that such a story would be compatible with Doctor Who's format - it would be hard not to cheapen it by grafting on the alien invasion bits. But, I'm willing to be surprised, so will keep an open mind.
Like the Horror itself, this story is bright enough, but only skin deep.