This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode.
Doctor Who - The Crimson Horror
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 27 April 2013
In 1974, my great-grandmother died in the hospital where Mark Gatiss’s parents worked. This is not an accusation or a desperately morbid claim to association, but a partial explanation of why The Crimson Horror appealed greatly to my imagination. Mark has memorialised themes from the industrial history of northern England by fashioning them into a Doctor Who episode, and in a way which seeks to entertain wider audiences as well as exiles from the northern counties used to suspicious southrons stricken with alarm at their origins and wondering how an apparently civilised person can come from a place thought impossible to survive in without scissor grenades, limbo vapours triple-blast brain-splitters.
Twenty-first century Doctor Who has been so fixated with London that it’s taken it a long time to visit northern England. While Gatiss is from County Durham, like my family, the north which Vastra, Jenny and Strax set out to explore is an industrial landscape identified by caption as Yorkshire. The setting plays with stereotypes; this ‘northern’ town draws inspiration from originals outside northern England as well as from experiences specific to its apparent setting in the south Pennines. The name ‘Sweetville’ suggests – it turns out misleadingly – Bournville, the model village built by the Cadbury family roughly contemporaneously with this story, to house the workers in the chocolate factory at the heart of the development. The architecture of Sweetville belongs to an earlier period, being recorded in the 1830s model village of Bute Town in Caerphilly. Its nearest point of comparison in Yorkshire is probably Saltaire, begun in the 1850s by the cloth manufacturer Titus Salt. There, Salt sought to manage the lives of his employees more closely than would have been possible had they been living among workers for other employers and trades in Bradford where the Salt firm had been based. Their housing was supplied with gas for cooking and fresh running water and was more spacious and more hygienic than in the overcrowded Bradford where life expectancy was a little over twenty years. Salt prescribed sport and fruit and vegetable growing for his workforce and encouraged religiosity, both his own Congregationalism and Wesleyan Methodism being represented with churches in Saltaire. For Salt and his admirers, Saltaire was a patch of heaven on earth, but to critics such as the commentator on society and art John Ruskin, Saltaire reduced Salt’s workers to slavery. It’s presumably this of which Gatiss was thinking when he remarked to Doctor Who Magazine of "those sort of Victorian philanthropists, who made all these beautiful workers’ cottages and then ran them like dictators."
Poisoning was an occupational hazard of the nineteenth-century industrial worker. Sweetville, Mrs Gillyflower tells us offhandedly, is a match factory, even if it’s generally referred to in dialogue as a ‘mill’, a term usually reserved for flour grinding or cloth working establishments. Death from the Crimson Horror was at least a quicker fate than the slow death from skeletal deterioration and organ failure real match workers suffered from in the period; this was ‘phossy jaw’, the result of white phosphorus inhaled during the manufacturing process building up in the skeleton. The affected bone, when exposed, glowed green, just as alarming as a waxy, red-skinned corpse or the shuffling, stiffened, inarticulate Doctor would be if they were encountered in everyday life. The debt the realisation of the process owes to the petrification technique of Carry On Screaming accentuates the macabre quality of the allusion because the dismissive attitude of Mrs Gillyflower to her rejects is barely removed from the lack of responsibility several nineteenth-century employers felt towards those employees injured or killed in the course of their work.
Mark Gatiss has called Mrs Gillyflower “a proto-fascist”, but this simplifies the historical influences which have shaped her character. The industrial towns and colliery villages of the north of England were full of the churches, chapels and meeting-houses of religious denominations and sects. Religion did not just comfort the oppressed worker but offered the possibility of a transformed state on this earth in a way which struck fear into the establishment. It was not for nothing that some County Durham clergymen of the state Church of England had battlements on their vicarages and made sure their servants were armed. Waves of mass religious conversion and pledges to find a New Jerusalem on Earth occurred throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but it was unusual (though not unheard of) for them to be led by women. Those women religious leaders there were tended also to come from impoverished backgrounds, like the workers they led, and new societies were more likely to be founded through emigration to North America than by mass murder. Mrs Gillyflower’s emphasis on physical perfection, however, recalls nineteenth-century anxieties about the physical enfeeblement of the industrial population, which paternalist entrepeneurs like Titus Salt sought to cure through sport and diet, but which by the end of the century Francis Galton argued could only be corrected through selective breeding of fitter human specimens. Mrs Gillyflower is an avowed eugenicist, seeking to preserve those subjects whose bodies can produce an antitoxin; her rocketry anticipates the Second World War associated in the western historical memory with eugenics’ short-term ascendancy over Europe.
The strength of The Crimson Horror isn’t found in how it flaunts its research, but how it deploys the elements it selects. It presents the viewer with a ‘Yorkshire 1893’ which is re-engineered to present what might be termed a ‘hyper-historical’ setting, where the manipulation of detail and the observation of period forms is more important than the strict accuracy of that detail and form in representing of how things actually were. One example is the scene in the interview queue where Jenny tries to persuade Abigail to distract the others while she disappears behind a locked door. Abigail eventually succumbs to bribery. Jenny offers her a guinea, represented by a dull coin. The guinea was a gold coin and had not been in circulation since 1816; though still used colloquially, the sum of money the term represented – twenty-one shillings – would most likely have been handed over in a purse. This would probably have seemed to the audience a disjuncture of word and image, so ‘guinea’ becomes a historically-coded term for a large sum of money. Perhaps the coin we see is a downpayment. The line also demonstrates that although Mrs Gillyflower’s revivalist rhetoric appeals to her recruits’ spiritual welfare, their concerns are inevitably material.
The use of place and date captions to establish the setting of a Doctor Who story might be a regrettably pedestrian convention, though here the caption helps fix the blend of source material from different time periods at the end of the nineteenth century, contemporaneous with The Snowmen. Successfully, the design of this caption draws on the place of the late nineteenth century in the popular memory, a time which has just slipped out of reach in terms of living recollection, but which haunts the present in faded advertisements painted on gable ends. This association helps disguise what looks like a modern garage. The choice of font – Copperplate Gothic Bold, or something close to it – is reminiscent of a typeface used on railway tickets of the period, as if the act of watching television is analogous to a train journey in the heyday of steam. Another striking piece of design is the jar under which the favoured preserved are kept in their houses; with bellows pumping away in the background the debt to Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump is evident.
Within the narrative, it appears that the Paternoster gang travel from London to Sweetville by coach, presumably for reasons of privacy. The only failure of any substance is the running gag concerning Mr Thursday and his fainting at the sight successively of Vastra’s face, Strax’s appearance and the dematerialisation of the TARDIS. Given that Vastra’s veil doesn’t hide her Silurian features, the reaction is unconvincing. Strax, too, has previously been rationalised as ‘Turkish’ (neatly echoing Bloodaxe’s mishearing of ‘Sontaran’ as ‘Saracen’ in The Time Warrior) by Vastra’s Scotland Yard contact in a prelude to The Snowmen. The presence of Vastra and Strax in Victorian England requires not so much suspension of disbelief, as audience complicity with the conceit; Thursday’s repeated collapses are meant to show that this ploddingly unimaginative character can’t comprehend the situation, but instead make this heightened reality, which has already made clear that it is aware of its own absurdity, seem a little too self-satisfied.
Like the way it assembles a setting from a largely pre-Victorian model village location and allusions to historical events and people from over a century of the steam-powered industrial age, much of the imagery of The Crimson Horror is determinedly Neo-Victorian, putting nineteenth- or early-twentieth century technology or its trappings to anachronistic use. Jenny’s encounter with the giant gramophone horns, relaying the sounds of horrors elsewhere like electronic speakers, is one example. Another is Mrs Gillyflower’s rocket, its design somewhat in advance of late-nineteenth century technology, and hidden in plain sight within a chimney which in an age of smoking stacks, doesn’t emit any smoke. Vastra’s dismissal of optograms as scientifically impossible is the importation of a modern certainty; optography was the subject of serious research in the late nineteenth century and the possibility that one part of the spectrum at least could be retained on the retina, if only for a short period, fascinated several scientists and science fiction writers including Jules Verne, as this article shows. Less successful, perhaps, is the appearance of Thomas Thomas, whose formulaic directions may indeed send him far. The circular scars left on rejects of the process, together with the ambition of creating a superior caste, are perhaps nods to the process of Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters.
Mark Gatiss’s Doctor Who episodes have sometimes strained at the 45-minute format. The Idiot’s Lantern cut off a number of plot and character threads perfunctorily in order to hurry to a resolution. Victory of the Daleks felt as if it was apologising for not being able to build up the mystery of the Ironside Daleks more thoroughly, or to develop the threat of the new paradigm. With The Crimson Horror the problem is acknowledged and incorporated into the structure. The discovery of the crimson-dyed Doctor and his recovery allows the episode to present the highlights of ‘part one’ nested within the ‘part two’ which forms the bulk of the broadcast episode. The use of sepia tones and artificial film scratches in the memory sequence are another historical allusion, as in the 1890s Yorkshire was the base of several pioneers of filmmaking in Britain, but this flashback also hints at a CGIed world derived from old photographs of which Doctor Who, even with modern technology and budgets, can still only afford little.
This episode heavily trailed as a vehicle for Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling to work alongside each other, and their performances don’t disappoint. Despite a script which Mark Gatiss has claimed as his campest work, Rigg avoids overplaying an already inflated character, the sort of villain who knows theirs are “the wrong hands”, is entertained by the gap between their own moral certainties and those of the surrounding world, but doesn’t enjoy their own performance to the extent that they cease to be a credible threat. From a period when women were struggling for equality, Winifred Gillyflower at first appears to be an example of female advance, a prizewinning chemist who has stormed male bastions in science, industry and religion and who has also survived the brutality of a violent marriage. Instead, she is in thrall to a phallic leech, a reject from the Star Trek symbiont factory with the face of a Raxacoricofallipatorian, and wants to recreate the world in his image rather than her own.
If Winifred’s name alludes to Victorian nostalgia for the remote past, commemorating a seventh-century saint, Ada’s name is probably most widely associated with Ada, countess of Lovelace, mid-nineteenth century pioneer of computing, whose mother’s County Durham origins may also be relevant to this episode. If one is still looking for emotional cores to Doctor Who episodes, then one is to be found here in Ada’s transition to autonomy and escape from the persona created for her by her mother. Room isn’t made for a description of what the preservation process does to memory and identity, but as the active ‘preserved’ are compliant automatons, one might infer that Ada was left sightless and scarred and with gaps in her self-knowledge which she has relied on her mother to fill. Ada assumes maternal love exists, but Mrs Gillyflower only views her as a failed test subject; fanaticism and addiction to Mr Sweet’s “nectar” can’t absolve this temperance advocate from personal responsibility.
Ada’s violent reaction to learning of her mother’s betrayals is refreshing. Too often a tormented character will be placated with therapeutic words from the Doctor. Ada’s beating of her mother, coldness on knowing her fate, and spearing of the crawling worm making as fast an escape as it can from the scene, is dramatically credible and leaves the Doctor a temporarily ineffectual bystander. His plan to ‘return’ Mr Sweet to the Jurassic is meaningless given that Mr Sweet is a native of 1893. The despatch of Mrs Gillyflower and that of Mr Sweet offer potential difficulties to an early evening time slot, as both are on the borders of fantasy violence and realism. The coding of Strax as a comedic character prevented him from causing Mrs Gillyflower more direct damage than throwing her off balance. Though undoubtedly revenge helps the process of healing Ada’s psychological wounds, the camera is careful to show that no pleasure is taken in the brutality beyond the satisfaction that those who caused harm can no longer do so.
Fan audiences were primed for the mention of a “gobby Australian” whom the Doctor spent ages trying to return to Heathrow. If there is a nod to the themes of the fifth Doctor’s era, it is to family: one can lose one’s birth family, as Ada does and Tegan did, but one can become a self-reliant member of a new family. While the TARDIS family of the fifth Doctor’s era were probably stronger in the imagination of fan writers than they were on the screen (Russell T Davies’s critique of the failure of Time-Flight to build on the end of Earthshock, as expressed in Richard Marson’s JN-T, was certainly shared by others) something of what was hoped for can be seen in the Doctor’s present friendship network.
The Doctor’s awkward expressions of physical affection have become more accentuated in recent weeks and his slap from Jenny was a necessary corrective. The relationship between the Doctor and Clara is tending towards being framed in romantic terms, at least from Clara’s point of view – she doesn’t deny that he is her boyfriend – and Nightmare in Silver promises to put the Doctor and Clara in a quasi-parental role to Angie and Artie Maitland. There is dramatic potential here, but also a danger of going over ground which Doctor Who has already explored.
The Crimson Horror was a richly textured confection, but while full of performances which were at their worst solid, which is more than can be said for some of the current run, some of the icing should have been withheld to better serve the episode’s strengths. At times it was just a little too pleased with its own cleverness and didn’t know how to convey its pleasure with itself on these occasions to the audience. For all they dominate this review, allusions and references to other sources do not by themselves good Doctor Who make. The density of its references – and I’m sure I’ve not spotted or mentioned them all – could have happily filled a Doctor Who Confidential, a programme especially missed on these occasions. While I enjoyed it greatly I do wonder whether, like so many episodes this year, it needed more room to breathe and explain itself and develop the nature of the central threat. Brendan Patricks, doing his best with a double role held in uncertain regard by the script, turned up at the end to faint once more, perhaps not at the dematerialisation of the TARDIS but exhausted by his escape from wherever the resolution of the main plot had needed to park him. Nevertheless, The Crimson Horror was a largely successful satire on Victorian industry and philanthropy, even if the adventure elements of the episode were comparatively undernourished.
Filters: Eleventh Doctor Television Series 7/33