Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Crimson Horror written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Saul Metzstein

This story in a nutshell: Who is the mysterious Mr Sweet and what is the nature of his crimson horror

Nutty Professor: Whilst the moment of his return is classic, his sudden presence marks the point where this episode goes from being a classic to merely a decent episode because we’ve seen all his hand waving, manic babble before. Plus there was something very unusual about the way Matt Smith chose to play the petrified Doctor, walking through the corridors of the factory as though he has recently shat himself. Before the Doctor turns up to point out every reference, to bask in the influences and to make mockery of the scheme that is unfolding it felt like a genuine mystery was evolving. Rarely has his presence in his own series felt so…glib. I would have much preferred to have seen this play out with Vestra, Jenny and Strax as the leads but as soon as he bursts on the scene they are promptly sidelined. We go from ambiguity and horror to childish slapstick in a matter of minutes. Plus what exactly does he do in that locker with the sonic screwdriver? There is nothing instinctively wrong with Matt Smith’s performance (although it is so familiar now it is starting to tire) but I don’t feel he has been best served with material this year that consistently points out his eccentric quirks and pulls back from his many strengths.

Closed Book: Another disappointing outing for Clara who might go down on record as the least sketched out companion of all time. And that is facing some stiff competition from Dodo and Mel. Given that she is a character deliberately shrouded in mystery, that any possible development was recently nixed by a horrendous reset button (I still cannot face watching Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS again to review it given my allergic reaction to it’s climax) and that she barely features in this episode perhaps the game changing development that Moffat is promising in The Name of the Doctor will be…that Clara has a personality after all! Yeah, so I’m taking the piss but it does worry me that we are this far into series 7b and I still have absolutely no clue who this woman is and why I should care about her adventures. When the trailer promoted the appearance of Vestra and associates last week Simon suggested that because they were present in The Snowmen when one of Clara’s doubles/doppelgangers/fragments/whatever the twist about her multiples deaths might be that this might lead to some examination and discussion of the notion and even (gasp) some development. Instead Gatiss simply doesn’t have the time to do anything with the idea (and it appears that Moffat is stalling any development of the Clara mystery so he can do the honours in the finale) and so simply re-iterates that her continued survival is a mystery. Gee thanks for that. It is the most bizarre arc that the show has ever devised, one which refuses to evolve or progress but week after week simply repeats the same conundrum and hopes that we will become more invested in it the more we hear about it. By now we should have been fed further titbits, seen the enigma mature and be nearing its completion with several tantalising possibilities hanging in the air. It would seem that Doctor Who has forgotten how to tell a long running mystery of this nature and Clara’s character is the sacrifice as a result.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I once spent hell of a long time trying to get a gobby Australian back to Heathrow airport’ ‘What for?’ ‘Search me…’
‘Have you been eating those jelly sherbet fancies again?’

The Good:
  • Whilst she is a character without motivation, Dame Diana Rigg is afforded the chance to chew the scenery like no other guest star has in a long, long time. Despite Moffat’s era proving to be the most operatic (in terms of its ambition at least) in the history of Doctor Who it is surprisingly sparse on memorable roles for the wealth of British acting talent to get their chops around. When impressive actors are deployed it is usually playing one-note, inchoate ciphers (this year alone has seen the talents of Celia Imrie and David Warner wasted). Part of the motivation of this episode was to give Rigg something juicy to play and she gets to sink her teeth into some marvellously macabre material and witty lines. Donning her natural accent and slipping between the roles of determined businesswoman and psychotic host to a parasitic leech, she’s clearly having a whale of a time and it’s easy to switch off your critical faculties when she is on the screen. ‘Die you freaks!’
  • A nasty, tasteless autopsy attendant is the staple of many a Victorian penny dreadful. The eye retaining an image of the last thing it saw. The Green Death/The Crimson Horror. Ghost Light featured a horror tucked away and being fed on a tray under a door that slides upwards. Plus there is something very Happiness Patrol/fondant surprise about the gaudy nature of gunking people in the crimson horror. None of these are new ideas but in a pastiche of this nature it really doesn’t matter one jot, it is all part      of the fun. Plus when influences are pulled off this stylishly what is there to complain about?
  • I’ve heard the idea touted that Madame Vestra, Jenny and Strax have the fortitude to kick start a spin off series and whilst I might have blanched at the idea after A Good Man Goes to War in the wake of The Snowmen and The Crimson Horror the idea now appeals to me wholeheartedly. Both Simon and      I agreed that the lack of the Doctor and the intriguing opening mystery were the most interested we had been at the start of a Doctor Who episode so far this year. Not only was the material presented in an alluring way but the humour and interaction between this trio of characters is much more engaging than the Doctor and Clara have managed to be so far this year. I would definitely sign up to a spin off show but I hope it wouldn’t prevent further appearances on Doctor Who. I genuinely do not believe that Clara investigating Mrs Gillyflower’s factory would have been half as entertaining as it was with Jenny because the latter is such a clearly defined character with nothing to hide and as such it was easy to slip into the mystery of the situation with her.
  • Rachael Stirling proves to be quite a memorable sight, scarred and blinded, and revealed like a grotesque at a freak show by her mother. She gives a phenomenal performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen for some time. I felt for this characters plight and found the twisted relationship she had with her mother enhanced the drama of the piece. She provides a sense of pathos that the show has lacked of late, and a character that it is possible to care for because of the antipathy her mother has for her and the abominable experiments she has put her through. You can tell that real life mother and daughter team Rigg and Sterling are getting a kick out of this sinister spin on the usual dysfunctional domestics. Experimenting on her daughter to immunise herself? That’s cold.
  • The reveal of the giant megaphones pumping out the fake activity of a working factory was a beautifully executed surprise. It might be the first time my eyebrow raised in intrigue rather than disappointment this year. The Doctor emerging as the ‘monster’ in the basement is another pleasing twist in a story that at this stage feels like it is progressing with some narrative skill. Gatiss has given himself a massive task to surmount. All he has to do now is explain away these moments, unveil the Crimson Horror, explain who Mr Sweet is and his relationship with Miss Gillyflower and wrap up all these elements satisfactorily.
  • Cracking and popping and faded film, wind up organ music, dramatic black and white photography of each scene – there has never been anything quite as stylistically bonkers as the flashback sequence. It’s a smart move in narrative terms because it allows the audience to get up to speed in record time the Doctor’s activities prior to his reveal as the monster of the piece. However it is in no way an acceptable substitute for what would be the first episode of a four part serial in the classic series. We’re having to skip over all the usual investigation and excitement of exploring the setting these days because there is simply no time to do so and tell a fulsome story in the process. This is a delight to watch because it is executed so eccentrically but it does expose the flaw in cutting out the two part stories. Ratings be blown, this would be far more satisfying if it had time to breathe. The ghoulish imagery is exquisite, from the couple captured in a jar like flies trapped in amber to the Doctor being subsumed by the Crimson Horror to Clara bewitched with the pretty maids all in a row. The latest victim of a dipping screaming that ghastly wail in the Doctor’s cell is genuinely quite horrific.

The Bad:
  • Enough with the badly placed signposts telling us where and when the story is going to be placed, Gatiss. Let the audience enjoy the simple thrill of figuring out where they are through the dialogue and action.
  • Strax is a massively entertaining character but some of the gags surrounding him are a little too obvious and have been played before. Some moments elicited groans rather than cheers. Mind you seeing a Sontaran squeezed into a suit is still hilarious. Tom Tom though? Groan…
  • Jenny and her slow motion kickboxing I could have done without. The last time this sort of thing was done (Tooth and Claw) the result was much more visually impressive. This was such a blink and you’ll miss it sequence lacks panache and I’m not really sure why they bothered.
  • Was I the only person who thought that Mr Sweet might turn out to be Richard E Grant’s Great Intelligence manifestation? Was I also the only person who was a little disappointed that it turned out to be a prehistoric parasite? It’s a story that feels like it is building up confidently to a fantastic revelation but instead I was left scratching my head and thinking…is that it? If this is a primordial horror from the dawn of time and not an alien influence the script suddenly fails to make any sense when the rocket is unveiled. Where precisely did Mrs Gillyflower pick up the skills and technology to design and build such an invention? And why aren’t the Doctor and friends burnt to a crisp when the fuel cell ignites right above them? Gatiss is so busy revelling in the gothic steampunk madness of an organ than turns into an activation device that logic leaps out of the window and commits suicide. The whole premise of a rocket bursting into the skies and raining the crimson horror over the city seems overblown, another season 7b episode that feels the need to push into cinematic blockbuster territory at its climax when something more subtle and creepy would have sufficed. It results in a typically rushed, frantic and noisy conclusion where the massive cast of the Doctor, Clara, Vestra, Jenny and Strax are completely unnecessary as the melodrama between mother, daughter and parasite unfolds. After the delicious opening half to this episode it is a shame that it should devolve into such irrational chaos. Again this is a result of squeezing a story that needs to exhale into 45 constraining minutes.
  • More to the point Mrs Gillyflower’s motivation is strangely absent. Is she simply a nasty piece of work? Is she entirely under the influence of the parasite? Without any reasonable backstory to explain away her actions she remains a mysterious genocidal matriarch with no provocation to behave the way she does.
  • I can’t decide whether Mr Sweet’s reveal is memorably extreme or entirely unpersuasive. The idea is nasty enough but the puppetry on offer is hardly as convincing as it might be, especially when the pathetic little creature starts scuttling about on it’s own accord. Loved Ada caning the creature into a gooey mess, though. 
  • Lots of familiar musical cues this week. Is Murray Gold running out of inspiration?
  • And the climax featuring the two irritating children and their unrealistic detective skills sees the Moffat era attempt to squeeze the entire events of Rose into one minute worth of material. I would have happily have lost a couple of the episodes this year and seen their investigations play out over a much longer period such is the unconvincing nature of this scene. It looks like they are along for the ride in Gaiman’s episode. Let joy be uncontained. ‘We’ll have to tell Dad that our Nanny’s a time traveller!’ Yeah, and then you’ll do a spell in an asylum for letting your imaginations run riot if you think that is a plausible level of blackmail.
The Shallow Bit: Whilst there were some naughty jokes present in this script, the relationship between Jenny and Vestra was toned down a little bit and I’m pleased. Not because I find the idea of a lesbian relationship distasteful (that would be rather hypocritical of me) but because I find the idea of a human and lizard getting it together hard to get my head around. I thought the erection gag with the sonic screwdriver was sublime though, clever enough for the adults to get but subtle enough to pass the kids by.

Result: Stylistically we have never seen anything like this in the revamped series before with some memorably grotesque moments of horror that have leapt straight out of The League of Gentlemen and with some pleasing allusions to The Green Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s like vaudeville meets Royston Vasey meets Sherlock Holmes. All very entertaining and with each mad twist and turn, barmy visual and trendy framing device I was ticking off my reference list with increasing glee. The first fifteen minutes were an absolute joy, bringing Madame Vestra, Jenny and Strax back to the fore and for a long while keeping the Doctor out of the action. I thought this was going to be season seven’s Blink or Turn Left. Narratively this was a bit of a mess though, with Gatiss desperately wanting to squeeze in a classic series comedy/horror four parter into forty-five minutes and having to rush through all the important bits so he can get to the fun stuff, preferring the iconic moments over telling a decent story much like his previous effort this year. Whilst it was gorgeously shot, the flashback reveals everything you need to know about the problem with the one episode format, squeezing an entire first episode from the classic into a few minutes worth of stuttering development. The pacing of The Crimson Horror was relentless and it kept throwing new ideas and pleasing images right up until the conclusion so it is easy to be bewitched by its many charms although it climaxes on a brainless confusion of action and leaves quite a few important questions unanswered that shows that the script wasn’t properly scrutinized in the development processes (How did Mrs Gillyflower figure out how to build a rocket? What was her motive for wanting to destroy the human race?). It’s such a massive step up from the disappointment last week that I cannot complain too much, such has the standard been this year that I would happily take shallow but addictive over teeth clenchingly frustrating viewing. The Crimson Horror wears its influences with pride and proves to be a thrilling ride, even if there are a few rough edges that could have been ironed out: 7/10


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David Pirtle said...

I thought this was the best one since at least A Town Called Mercy, maybe even The God Complex. Maybe I was just bedazzled by my lifelong love for Diana Rigg.