It says a lot of things, none of them good, when, after a good twenty minutes of episode without the Doctor, I get vaguely disappointed that he’s finally shown up and now the episode is going to revolve around him. Well, I suppose it does say very good things about the trifecta of two lesbian detectives (one of them a lizard) and a Sontaran warrior with some memory problems. “The Crimson Horror” is a good solid episode of Doctor Who with a classically mad villain with a plot to destroy the world, an intimate betrayal, and the third act reveal of a squicky monster. Let’s begin.
The year is 1893 and the place is Yorkshire, which, for the benefit of fans with a grasp of British geography so small as to be inconsequential, is in the north of England, a few hours drive from London and probably a bit longer by stagecoach, because it’s 1893, after all. In Yorkshire, a couple of time-appropriate people are in distress over a door with a lot of red light behind it. The man, however, swallows his fear and enters, after which our episode’s villain, Mrs. Gillyflower, appears with some of her minions and expresses her condolences over his death. This presumably means doom for both of them, and indeed we next see the man’s brother identifying his body in a Yorkshire morgue. It’s bright red. He decides to consult with London’s foremost detective, and yet somehow this episode is called “The Crimson Horror” and not “A Study in Scarlet.” Perhaps they didn’t want to piss off the Sherlock fandom?
Anyway, he’s taken a picture of his dead brother’s dead eyeball, upon which is preserved the image of the Doctor’s face, something we are told is physically impossible, but it puts Madame and Jenny on the case. The dead man was an undercover reporter, looking into an apparently religiously motivated utopia-seeking gated community that preaches a sort of Kelloggiean abstinence and offers salvation only to the the fittest and most beautiful. John Harvey Kell – I mean, Mrs. Gillyflower, is the leader and co-creator of Sweetville, who uses her daughter Ada, a young woman blinded by her own late father in a drunken rage, as a prop in her preaching demonstrations, as an example of the harms of excess. Ada has her own secret, her “dear monster” who she keeps chained in a secret attic room.
Since Madame and Strax are both aliens, it’s up to Jenny to infiltrate this anti-hedonist group in search of the Doctor. She shows up to be considered for Sweetville but upon passing a door that says “No Entry” pays a girl a guinea to pretend to swoon so she can pick the lock in the confusion. Jenny finds a room with no machinery that’s full of gramophones playing machinery sounds, and hides from men carrying containers. In her own investigations, Madame Vastra uncovers some red liquid from the bodies of the victims of the Crimson Horror. She thinks she’s seen it before, 65 million years ago when Silurians ruled the Earth.
As Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada eat dinner, Ada inquires after Mr. Sweet, her mother’s mysterious “silent partner,” for whom a place at the table has been set, but her mother says he will again not be joining them, and then chucks a pinch of salt down her bodice when no one is looking. Jenny finds the red room from the beginning of the episode, as well as the cell with Ada’s “dear monster.” She picks his lock and finds the show’s favorite lonely monster, the Doctor. He’s all red and too stiff even to talk, but he’s still alive. Jenny helps him out of there just as Ada arrives for a visit, and she doesn’t notice them even though they’re making plenty of noise, and instead walks up to his empty cell, where she gets very sad that he has escaped.
But the Doctor has already led Jenny into the red room, and oh. My. God, it’s…
The Doctor climbs into some kind of chamber with his original clothes and sonics it until it fixes him, because I guess Mrs. Gillyflower has some machines that can be manipulated to extract the red venom even though her entire plan hinges on dipping people in it in the giant vat and then tossing the ones that turn red? The Doctor takes this moment of recovery to grab Jenny, bend her over backwards and lock lips. He gets a great big slap from a very unhappy Jenny but appears in no way remorseful and it’s the grossest point in the episode. In an episode where the Doctor kisses no less than three women during fits of emotion, Jenny is the only one who he pins in a submissive position and then kisses on the lips. It would already be creepy enough if she weren’t A) married and B) uninterested in not only the Doctor but his entire gender. But the episode just moves on from its little “haha isn’t it funny/cute/just an example of his happy exuberance when the Doctor does a nonconsensual sexual thing to somebody” joke and moves on to the Doctor quick-firing dialogue about they’ve got to find Clara and stop Mrs. Gillyflower.
Then we get a real oddity in Doctor Who. A flashback. Clara and The Doctor blipped into Yorkshire, and hear all about the Crimson Horror from our inaugural newspaper man. The Doctor discovers that the eyeballs of the victims, who keep washing up in the canal, preserve their last sight before they died, which should be impossible, but their “chemical composition… has been massively corrupted” by the red venom. So Clara and the Doctor enroll in Sweetville, where Mrs. Gillyflower reveals that the town was named in tribute to her “silent partner” and reveals what appears to be a married couple frozen in a giant glass bell jar. The Doctor and Clara are abducted, and get dipped. Those who turn bright red from the “preservation process” are the “rejects,” and it’s Ada’s responsibility to dump them in the canal. But upon discovering that the Doctor has survived, albeit in a limited state (because he’s an alien, he believes), she decides to hide him so as to have one consoling secret from her cold, emotionally abusive mother. Our flashback ends with the newspaper man in his death throes, stumbling into the Doctor’s cell (through a locked door, no less), looking at him, and dying. Presumably getting rid of that body was also Ada’s responsibility, though how she got it out of there without anyone else finding out about her “dear monster” is unexplained.
At this point Jenny, who remembers the twice-dead Clara from “The Snowmen,” and not our modern Clara, asks the Doctor what’s up with Clara. This continues to happen for the rest of the episode and the Doctor avoids answering, so I won’t mention it again until the very end. And who cares anyway because we’re getting to my favorite thing in the whole episode: Strax yelling at a horse.
“HORSE. YOU HAVE FAILED IN YOUR MISSION.” Horse jokes. They work on me. Strax is lost, can’t find Sweetville, and considers executing his horse for its disobedience. “Fourth one this week. And I’m not even hungry.” Then, in the dumbest joke I’ve seen on Doctor Who in a long time, he finds a street urchin who talks like a GPS and is named Thomas Thomas. Seriously? Seriously. The kid doesn’t even do anything else. Strax getting lost is not plot important. Strax finding this kid is not plot important. His uncanny directional abilities are not important. It’s like there was a scene deleted from the episode at the last minute that made all of this tie into the episode’s coherent whole, and then the continuity editor forgot that now this entire scene and character seem superfluous. Good thing it had that horse joke or I’d be even more disappointed by it. Unrelated: I love Strax in part because he is small and so am I.
Anyway, while all this is happening, Mrs. Gillyflower finds Ada in the Doctor’s cell empty cell and disowns her both from family and from heaven for forming a “sentimental attachment.” Also I hope you all checked the box on your “Quintessential Villain Lines” bingo card for “My plans must be accelerated.” The Doctor and Jenny search Sweetville’s bungalows until they find Clara inside a bell jar, smash it, and drag Clara to the magical fix the red stuff chamber.
Unfortunately, a number of Mrs. Gillyflower’s pilgrims show up and so the chamber needs defending. Jenny changes into her sexy fighting outfit™ and completely seems capable of fighting all of the bad guys off, even the ones with bats, but Madame Vastra and Strax show up to “save” her and the Doctor, I guess. And ding! Clara’s done, a bit out of it, but recovers quickly. Lady Vastra explains that all the red stuff being used around here is the venom of the Red Leech, a parasite that plagued the Silurian species million of years ago. Clara points out that the chimney of this match factory doesn’t blow smoke, and that puts it all together for the doctor. Mrs. Gillyflower has a rocket full of red poison and she’s going to launch it to spread it all over England. Now there‘s a good mad villain plan.
Speaking of, Mrs. Gillyflower sits down at an organ console and I genuinely got exited at the prospect of some evil organ playing and was disappointed at the reveal of a revolving panel with a rocket control center on it. I think there might be something wrong with me, here, not the episode. The Doctor’s plan is to find Ada, or possibly he just runs into her, and actually gives some good advice to an abuse survivor, telling her, probably for the first time in her life, that what she’s suffered was neither her fault nor due to any defect in her. They journey on to confront Mrs. Gillyflower in her organ room, whereupon she reveals that Mr. Sweet is a gross little red wormy leech thing that she keeps on her chest. YES. GROSS BUG BREAST FEEDING MAD VILLAIN. This is something I can get behind, also, her response when the Doctor tells her that the venom she’s collected from Mr. Sweet could be used for terrible things in the wrong hands. “Do you know what these are?” she giggles. “The wrong hands.” Then she pulls an important lever.
To stall her, the Doctor confronts her about how he knows she experimented on Ada, left her scarred in order to develop the anti-toxin that would allow her to survive being fed on by Mr. Sweets and therefore to be able to collect his venom. Which apparently, more than using her as a prop in moralistic demonstrations, more than browbeating her, shaming her, and disowning her, gets Ada very mad. In the midst of Ada caning her mother, Clara smashes a chair into the control panel, destroying it, but Mrs. Gillyflower puts a gun to Ada’s head and hostages her way out of there and all the way up the stairs the secondary firing mechanism of the rocket. She throws the switch, the rocket launches, but fortunately Jenny and Madame Vastra have removed the venom so it will explode harmlessly in the upper atmosphere. Strax shoots out the railing nearby and Mrs. Gillyflower falls to her imminent death, dying slowly as she begs (the quite agile for a leech) Mr. Sweet not to abandon her, begs her daughter to forgive her. “Never,” says Ada. “That’s my girl,” says Gillyflower, and expires. Then Ada smashes Mr. Sweet to bloody bits with her cane and can we all stop using “it’s a kid’s show” as an excuse for Doctor Who‘s lapses in continuity or characterization? We just watched an old woman die slowly in considerable distress while her uncaring daughter looked on. I don’t mean to imply that I felt this episode was inappropriate, but rather that if kids can handle this, they can hand good, complex storytelling full of complex emotions as well.
The Doctor scoots Clara off into the TARDIS and while he says good bye to all the Victorian characters Jenny finally gets a moment to press the Doctor on the subject of Clara and of course he has no answers. He takes Clara back to her own time of London and leaves her there for a bit, where she finds that the kids she takes care of have found a bunch of pictures of her on the historical adventures she’s been having all season, and speaking as a person who’s done a good bit of reverse image searching in my day, lord knows how. Maybe they used the readily available near-instantaneous face matching software Clara used in “The Bells of Saint John?” If so, remind me again to never go to England. Her kids even found a picture of Clara from “The Snowmen,” which confuses Clara enough that she lets slip about the time travel. Naturally, they want to know all about it, which sets us up for next week’s NEIL GAIMAN EPISODE WOOOO.
I don’t have a lot of thoughts to sum up for this episode. Unless I missed it, however, the episode never refers to the girl from the episode’s first scene, which doesn’t necessarily bother me except that it’s established that Madame, Jenny, and the deceased’s brother are all aware the she exists but not that they know her to be dead. If the brother doesn’t care whether she escaped Sweetville, it doesn’t seem out of the bit of character he’s been given, but I would expect better from Madame and Jenny. If this had to be the episode standing between me and Neil Gaiman’s return to the series, we could have done worse than an adventure in Victorian England far less Dickensian and shmaltzy than “The Next Doctor,” with some fan favorite secondary characters, a gross monster, and a nice solid villain.