“A dark and queer business” is the key line at the top of The Crimson Horror – a perfect summation of what is to follow. And last week Mark Gatiss described his latest episode for RadioTimes.com thus: “A lurid, Victorian penny-dreadful with Vastra, Jenny and Strax and ’orrible murder. It’s very me!”
Perhaps more than any other episode he’s written, this is the most full-on Gatissian. (Have I just coined a new term?) This is a man steeped in Victorian literature, horror movies, black comedy… and here he’s piped it into Doctor Who, adding more than a dash of The Avengers.
I mean, yes, former Avengers icon Diana Rigg is the guest star, obviously. But The Crimson Horror also captures the lurid tone of those mid-60s episodes, where Steed and Mrs Peel (Rigg) would take on a camp and dastardly baddy, played by a well-known actor (Peter Cushing, Ronnie Barker, Peter Wyngarde), who’d often have a peculiar pet and a ludicrous scheme for world domination/destruction.
What strikes me as unusual, for today’s Doctor Who, is how thoroughly vile a villainess Winifred Gillyflower is allowed to be. She has no redeeming qualities, no vestige of human kindness; she’s wicked to the core. She may sound a little like Mary Whitehouse, hectoring the gullible from her pulpit on “the moral decay and the coming apocalypse”, but in planning Sweetville, her “shining city on the hill” which will save only the finest human specimens for her “Golden Dawn”, Gillyflower is a proto-Nazi in charge of a full-scale eugenics programme.
It’s a massive transformation for Diana Rigg. Mention that name and you first picture 1960s icon; but here, in her own words, she’s “a horrendous old bag”. We’re so used to hearing her clipped RP delivery, but in The Crimson Horror, as Gatiss says, “Diana used her native Doncaster accent for the first time.”
It’s a coup to have Rigg on screen with her own daughter, Rachael Stirling; they’ve never acted together before and only took this gig because they’re chums with Gatiss, who’d worked with them both, separately, on the London stage. In the episode itself, Winifred may show little but spite for her daughter Ada, but there’s chemistry between the actresses and, in a rare bonus for TV drama, a familial resemblance.
If Rigg’s days as the haughty but sexy action woman Mrs Peel are now little more than a race memory, in a lovely touch Gatiss revives that image in the person of Jenni, who discards her Victorian clobber, flaunts some leather combat gear and floors the opposition with martial arts moves.
There’s much fun to be had with the peculiar threesome of Jenni, Vastra and Strax. Steven Moffat may have monopolised them in the past, but they’re right up Gatiss’s Victorian back alley.
Jenni (who looks like she’s just stepped out of Tipping the Velvet) gets far more to do than usual, sent on an intrepid solo mission inside the factory; finding, saving and slapping the Doctor. Strax gets the funniest lines (“Just remember, we are going to the North”) and stops Gillyflower dead in her tracks with a laser bolt. Luckily, the trio will play a significant role in the season finale.
The narrative structure is unusual, too. It’s a helluva while before the Doctor appears, and then there’s a sort of flickery, faded-film montage bringing us up to speed on how the Time Lord and Clara came to Sweetville. It’s a clever device and works like the tale within the tale so favoured by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
This is also the section where we get the (by now) weekly nod to the past. Recent episodes have ticked off each 20th-century Doctor and here we have a reference back to the fifth (Peter Davison). The current Doctor tells Clara: “I once spent a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport.” It’s lovely to think so many years later the Time Lord still bristles at the memory of his bolshy 1980s companion Tegan (Janet Fielding), and it spurs him to revive his semi-catchphrase “Brave heart, Tegan” as “Brave heart, Clara”.
The Crimson Horror is hugely entertaining – a decent mystery, a logical plot, a dollop of camp but perhaps most rewarding of all it’s a danse macabre. Mark Gatiss is steeped in horror movies and wrote a splendid biography of director James Whale. The sight of the Doctor chained in a dungeon, struck dumb and then staggering like a brute is very Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, while Mrs Gillyflower’s human specimens in jars immediately made me think of Dr Pretorius’s miniatures in The Bride of Frankenstein.
The coup de grace is the moment when blind Ada lifts her walking stick and skewers and splatters the revolting critter that is Mr Sweet. It’s gratuitous, sickening and oh so satisfying. It says, yes, we are going to do this. There!