|I don’t know that I’d call it a crimson horror, really. Really, it’s|
more a rosy horror. Incarnadine horror at best.
It’s May 4th, 2013. Daft Punk have gotten lucky and made it to number one. Calvin Harris, Nelly, Macklemore, and, in a stunning feat of horror, will.i.am and Justin Bieber also chart. In news, James McCormick is jailed for ten years for selling fake bomb detectors, Labour and UKIP do well in local elections, and three more people are arrested over the Boston Marathon bombings.
On television, meanwhile, The Crimson Horror, which is very possibly the most self-evident pairing of writer and concept in the history of Doctor Who. More than hiring David Whitaker to handle introducing a new Doctor over a backdrop of Daleks, more than giving Paul Cornell the small and personal story in the debut series, more even than giving Malcolm Hulke the giant lizards story, tapping Mark Gatiss to write the Victorian penny dreadful is simply a case of hiring a man to do what he’s good at.
And correspondingly, in many regards The Crimson Horror is exactly what you’d expect. A ranting villain, a classic Doctor Who plot, broad gags. But as with Cold War, the details on this are all spot on. Yes, you’ve got a standard issue raving lunatic Doctor Who villain, but she’s played by Diana Rigg, whose appetite for scenery is gloriously boundless. (Surely there’s not a single person on the planet who does not love the line “the wrong hands.”) Strax irrevocably hits the “one note joke” point here, yes, but he also has his best gag with “horse, you have failed in your mission,” and to be fair, the bit where Vastra sends him outside because he’s gotten overexcited is, in fact, a new trick for the character, even if it’s basically the last one he ever gets. Neve McIntosh relishes getting to be the Doctor for a large swath of the story. The period stuff all looks great. And there are some lovely directorial flourishes, most notably the grainy film look used for the Doctor’s flashback exposition of how he got captured.
And, yes, Gatiss deserves some specific praise here. This is not necessarily a story that’s long on logic, but everything moves along gracefully by dint of the fact that all the elements just go well together. And that speaks to a slyly good sense of judgment on Gatiss’s part. There’s no obvious reason why bright red bodies, the eyes of the dead holding images, Diana Rigg ranting, and Victorian finery should magically click together so as to make a coherent story in the absence of any significant plot logic, but they absolutely do. The Crimson Horror was never a contender for season-best, but it was tremendous fun when it aired – much more fun than you’d expect given that it seems like it should be very standard issue.
Indeed, this is the first story of Season 7B to be almost completely unfazed by the passage of more than a year since it aired. This is much as it was in May of 2013 – a story that’s almost ruthlessly straightforward. Part of this is that it’s the one story in Season 7B that you really can’t call the definitive take on its iconography. With The Snowmen just a few months prior and The Name of the Doctor two weeks after, the Victorian caper with the Paternoster Gang is a relatively standard part of this phase of the program’s tricks, and The Crimson Horror in many regards is less a definitive take than it is a solid execution of a formula – what Fury from the Deep is to bases under siege, and The Pyramids of Mars is to long dead foes threatening to return. The Victorian-era story featuring the Paternoster Gang is, if not quite the default mode of Doctor Who in this period, at least very close to it.
We might fairly ask, however, how it is that a married lesbian inter-species couple and their Sontaran butler became a standard issue component of Doctor Who for a period. Well, no, actually, how is easy enough. Because Vastra, Jenny, and Strax stole every scene of A Good Man Goes to War that they were in, and Moffat has always been abnormally willing to trust the audience’s ability to accept sci-fi concepts. With all three characters having fairly straightforward high concept descriptions and being reasonably funny, it’s not hard to see how they ended up working.
No, the real question is why Doctor Who suddenly decided to have the bulk of its standing support cast be aliens in Victorian London and not the contemporary Earth people that had previously been standard. Certainly some of it is that there was some real desire for change in this regard. Moffat had, after all, been seriously considering making Clara be a Victorian-era companion. Indeed, in many ways the easiest explanation is simply that the Paternoster Gang was always planned to feature heavily in Season 7B, and that after Clara was changed to no longer be a Victorian-era companion nobody went to change it back. (Although it’s worth stressing that The Crimson Horror was added after Clara was de-Victorianed, which means that it’s not just that the Paternoster Gang was kept around, but that their presence was actively increased.)
But the appearance of the Maitland children at the end highlights another aspect of this, which is that Clara’s home life has been almost entirely ignored since The Bells of Saint John (and continues to be basically irrelevant until The Time of the Doctor). This is in many ways necessary for the Impossible Girl arc to function – if Clara had too much of a supporting cast, it would be too easy to focus on her instead of getting distracted by the mystery surrounding her. By moving the supporting cast into another time period (one that is, as we noted back in The Snowmen, still very easy to quickly sketch within the context of British television), Moffat gets all the benefits of a standing support cast without actually having them flesh Clara out prematurely and undermine his season-long shell game.
This also helps explain both why The Crimson Horror exists, and why it breaks from the “definitive take” ethos of the rest of its season. It arguably is the definitive take on “Doctor Who does the penny dreadful,” but given that it invokes both six stories prior and two stories after, it never really gives the sense of being a stand-alone piece. It’s the one where the movie poster approach seems most off (not least because the movie poster plays up Clara and the Doctor while not mentioning the Paternoster Gang). But that’s because it’s not self-contained. Its job is to help establish recurring characters as a basic part of what the series can do, and to give the Paternoster Gang a story where they can function on their own terms, without having to tie in to a big event. In this regard, it’s disappointing that this isn’t the Doctor lite episode that one might have assumed from the setup. It’s fair to point out that most of its innovative ideas come in its first fifteen minutes, and that once he shows up and does his flashback bit, the story becomes considerably more standard issue – although Diana Rigg keeps things going at a nice clip.
Actually, the bit where the Doctor shows up is worth talking about, simply because if I don’t, someone will bring it up anyway. It is, after all, the sequence during which the Doctor attempts to kiss Jenny, or, if you prefer the description of Moffat’s most adamant critics, the scene where he sexually assaults her. This is the sort of thing that one wants to equivocate on rather a lot. I will admit that I find the description of the scene as “sexual assault” somewhat forced. It’s not, and really I only disclaim this because otherwise some idiot is going to use the lack of disclaimer against me, that aggressively kissing somebody without consent isn’t sexual assault. It is. But here the fact that this is a work of fiction starts to play in and become relevant. There’s much to say about popular culture’s poor depictions of consent, but the spontaneous kiss is such an ingrained part of television and film that it seems more than faintly ridiculous to attempt to get a single moment of a single episode of Doctor Who to bear all or most of the weight of the numerous problems with our narrative shorthands for romance and sexuality.
Beyond that, it’s not like the kiss is presented as acceptable. Jenny slaps the Doctor for it, in a way that makes it quite clear that this is misbehavior on his part. To describe it as “the Doctor sexually assaults Jenny” is blatantly to pick the most inflammatory phrasing possible, and feels like co-opting the reality of sexual assault for the purposes of scoring cheap points when arguing about television on the Internet.
But that doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t troubling. And it’s especially troubling in light of Matt Smith’s later improvisation of a sonic screwdriver/erection sight gag when Jenny tears off her period garb to reveal her leather catsuit. The problem is that, especially taken together, they start to give a strong sense that Jenny is sexualized for a male gaze, which is not a great move when dealing with one of the two most prominent lesbian characters in the series’ history. Jenny and Vastra are played for plenty of laughs, but the joke is usually either about foolish people who don’t understand them or about the charming comfort and confidence they have with each other. Here, though, the joke is “aren’t attractive lesbians great.”
The irony that this should happen in the one Paternoster episode not written by a heterosexual male is, of course, considerable. Although in practice it seems the blame for this mostly goes to Smith (although both Stewart and Metzstein should have, in both cases, resisted Smith’s idea), it’s hard not to note that Gatiss, in six (now seven) Doctor Who stories, has only ever created four major female characters in the supporting cast (Gwyneth, the Wire, Ada, and Mrs. Gillyflower are the only four to get a significant number of lines or scenes), and that Ada is the first one ever to actually survive the episode. So to see the one episode where Gatiss seems particularly interested in writing about half of his species run into problems like this is frustrating, and the fact that people who spend a lot of time being wrong on the Internet have inflated that objection into something far bigger than it deserves to be (and seem intent on mostly blaming Moffat for it) doesn’t actually mean that there isn’t a problem here.
Speaking of things that I pretty much have to mention and make some comment on, there’s also the two lines of Blake’s “Jerusalem” that are sung early in the episode. Very well: given that Parry didn’t set “Jerusalem” to music until 1916, its appearance in an episode set in 1893 is somewhat strange. But then again, that’s probably the sort of thing that happens if you do something like decide to make a poem by William Blake your de facto national anthem.
This also marks the last time we’re going to talk about Mark Gatiss in the course of TARDIS Eruditorum, and that’s probably worth remarking on, simply because he’s a figure that I’ve given, at various times, something of a rough ride to, and someone I think, on the whole, I’ve probably been a bit too rough on. (Ignoring Nightshade, for instance, was just rude of me.) And, I mean, I’m not going to pretend it’s not understandable why that’s happened. Gatiss is, if not responsible, at least the guy with the writing credit on some spectacularly shit episodes. And there are ways in which Gatiss’s style contributes to that. He’s far from the most ambitious of writers, and if you’re the sort of person who has been writing about Doctor Who 2-3 times a week for the past three years and thinking about it literally every day, that really is a major problem. As I’ve said, after three years of writing TARDIS Eruditorum, there’s nothing I want out of Doctor Who quite so much as something I’ve never seen before, and that’s the last thing Gatiss is likely to serve up.
And yet for all of that, having watched every single episode of Doctor Who within the last three years, I find myself with a strange respect for Mark Gatiss. There is nobody who has done more in terms of curating the past of Doctor Who than any other writer on the new series. And for Gatiss, that curation goes far beyond just remembering the good episodes, or throwing in continuity references. Gatiss remembers scenes and images – the texture of episodes, rather than their content. As we close in on the end of the 50th Anniversary year, that seems worth remembering and, more to the point, tipping our hat to. Even if his episodes aren’t the most exciting of the bunch, they are the ones that, I think, most thoroughly and truly honor the history of the series. That’s worth more credit than I’ve given him. It really is.