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Doctor Who complete reviews: The Crimson Horror

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

TARDIS overshoot, as we catch up with the Doc's latter adventures...

Doctor Who - 'The Crimson Horror'

Mork And Mindy. The Fenn Street Gang. Robin's Nest. Just a sample of the many spin-off shows from successful parent television classics. If a particular character or characters prove popular enough, then they get the chance to take centre stage in a specially created show. Even Doctor Who has had its fair share of spin-offs in recent years. Captain Jack got to helm his own team in Torchwood. K9 got to trundle around some more in super-futuristic style. And of course, the great Elisabeth Sladen brought Sarah Jane Smith for a slew of adventures in the late Noughties.

It's been suggested that the latest Doctor Who caper could have functioned as the pilot for a new spin-off show. It concerns the detective machinations of what's known as The Paternoster Row gang, namely the recently introduced lesbian Silurian Madame Vastra, her feisty lover Jenny Flint and their comedy sidekick Sontaran Strax. Whether or not these wacky escapades could be taken further is all up in the air at the moment. Don't forget that big old corporations like the Beeb are having to make more cuts than Sweeney Todd. Even the future of Doctor Who itself is a bit all up in the air at the mo, with no news beyond a 50th anniversary special and the by-now typical Christmas episode. Please no, not 1985 all over again.

As a one-off though, the Paternoster Pilot served its purpose, and for me personally, this NuWho trio works in small doses. I guess that I'm still trying to rid myself of the memory of their début adventure A Good Man Goes To War , which is still giving me brain freeze. The three characters work well though, the most successful of which is Dan Starkey's Strax, an overgrown toddler Sontaran who's been let loose in a Sontar-Harem of toy weapons. Strax runs around like a little boy in the playground, playing a real life Cowboys and Indians. When he doesn't get his own way, Strax also sulks like a little toddler: “I'm going to play with my grenades,” he huffs. Although Strax is very much the comic relief, his warrior credentials are still in place, aiming to keep casualties of the Gillyflower mystery to a mere 80% and threatening a poor old horse that has failed in his mission. Overall, Strax is good fun, and the three characters have been welcomed by open arms by the fans, who will no doubt be delighted that they are to return in the series finale.

"The Crimson Horror is the sort of thing that Doctor Who does best: A good old-fashioned horror tale with an evil baddie and a yucky monster"

Doctor Who - 'The Crimson Horror'Taken on its own merits as a Doctor Who story, The Crimson Horror finally gets this half-series of Doctor Who back on track again. The latest six episodes have been mixed to say the least, with the fingers of blame pointing at crummy endings, schmaltzy gibberish and the sort of scares that you'd encounter on a grannies' picnic in the country. For me, only Cold War has stood out as a good Doctor Who story – until The Crimson Horror came and sat down by its side.

The common denominator of these is writer Mark Gatiss, who seems to be able to bypass the production team's insistence on zero scares, minimal character progression and flimsy plots. The Crimson Horror is the sort of thing that Doctor Who does best: A good old-fashioned horror tale with an evil baddie and a yucky monster. And above all, it's fun. I've come to realise that the latest round of Doctor Who tales haven't really been fun in the true sense of the word. Whatever fun there has been, such as breakneck chases up high-rise buildings or ghosts in the woods, seems to have been carefully marketed “fun”. Oh lordy, I'm using air quotes, but you know the sort of thing I mean – it's the sort of “fun” that's created by buzzword-popping marketing sorts who have surveyed precisely 100 people out of millions in order to break down what “fun” is into a carefully packaged and airbrushed form. In The Crimson Horror, at least the fun seems more genuine this time around, as an evil villainess wreaks havoc in an olde Victorian town, complete with ghoulish red corpses and an icky leech thing.

Doctor Who - 'The Crimson Horror' - Diana RiggTake the central baddie, Winifred Gillyflower, “a prize winning chemist and mechanical engineer” - or more precisely a “perfidious hag”. It's been so long since we've had a real boo-hiss villain, and thankfully, Gillyflower starts to redress the balance a bit. Gillyflower is on a recruitment drive to choose only the fittest and most beautiful for apparent preservation from the oncoming apocalypse. In fact, Gillyflower has been preparing a rocket full of venom which will rain down “Mr Sweet's beneficence onto all humanity” - Mr Sweet being the aforementioned leech thing. What cements Gillyflower's boo-hiss status (currently pole position above Dr Simeon, Solomon and way ahead of the rubbish Shakri) is her shocking treatment of her daughter Ada. Apparently blinded and scarred by an over-zealous drunken husband, in fact, Ada's condition is the result of her mother's callous tests and experiments. “Sometimes sacrifices must be made,” she shrugs indifferently. Winifred also claims that there is no place for people such as Ada in the new world – “Kindly do not claw and slobber at my crimoline!” she withers at her daughter - couple that with the unpleasant undercurrent of only taking the “fittest and most beautiful”, and you have a graduate from the Davros College Of Evil. Winifred's also achieved distinction status with her share of Evil Baddie Lines like “Do you know what these are? Ha ha! The wrong hands!” As The Doctor says, she's “nuts”.

Gatiss' script affords both Winifred and her daughter a high degree of character. True, Gillyflower's typical baddie villain, but it is refreshing to have a human baddie that's truly rotten to the core. As a bonus, it helps that in a high coup for Doctor Who, the production team managed to recruit that celebrated actress Diana Rigg to play Gillyflower to perfection. The episode also marks the first time that Rigg got the chance to act alongside her real-life daughter Rachael Stirling. Naturally, both of these gifted actresses give top class performances of the highest order. Interestingly, they're both playing against type. Stirling has tended to be cast in hard nose roles including a serial killer and a furious PR girl for a band of heavy metal scruffs. As Ada, Stirling gives a sensitive, thoughtful performance, making her an almost childlike figure (she constantly refers to a chained Doctor as her pet monster). Rigg, meanwhile, is often remembered for her glamorous roles such as Emma Peel in The Avengers or Mrs Bradley, the high class detective – so to see her as an evil old “harpy” is quite jarring. But The Crimson Horror is very much Rigg's show, taking her lines and amplifying them to a thousand with great gusto (in her native Doncaster accent). Two superb performances and inspired casting.

Doctor Who - 'The Crimson Horror'The scare factor is also another plus point. The red corpses with frozen, screaming mouths are memorably vivid, and even the sight of The Doctor as a Frankenstein's Monster-style zombie works well. The fate of Mr Sweet is a pleasing return to the old days of yuck, as the poor old leech is squished beyond recognition by Ada's angry stick. Saul Metzstein, the director, has evidently had a ball conjuring up a carousel of campy horror. The period setting works a treat (it's a bit reminiscent of those old Hammer Horror movies from the early 1970s), and the production values are inevitably high. The acting is generally strong – in addition to Rigg and Stirling, the Paternoster lot work well (Dan Starkey coming on leaps and bounds in his amusing portrayal of Strax), and The Doctor gets some good moments. In some ways this is a return to The Doctor-lite episode, with the Time Lord only getting to make his mark about 15 minutes into the story. It's a nice return to the test tube twirling scientist of old, and generally Matt Smith is on good form – although the Yorkshire accent leaves a lot to be desired (“Eeh, the missus and I couldn't be more chuffed, could we love?”). And again, he's back to quoting vintage comedians by the end – he's all Norvelled out and is now channelling Larry Grayson (“Ah, look at the muck in 'ere).

Scores on the doors then. Generally, a winner. Gatiss' script is stuffed full of Old School Who tropes such as the ever-successful Victorian setting, a bloodthirsty Sontaran and even a reference to no one's favourite moaning minnie air hostess (“Brave heart Clara”). There are one or two niggles – there's an urchin called Thomas Thomas – but most notably there's the awful coda in which Clara's bratty minions blackmail her into taking a trip on board the TARDIS (gah, irritating brats, who needs 'em?). Doesn't bode well for what's otherwise a hotly anticipated Neil Gaiman episode.

But otherwise, this is top trumps. The script is done justice thanks to some classy direction, great location filming and some superb acting from the Rigg Family. It also feels like a genuine bit of good old fashioned fun for all the family. As a pilot for the Paternoster Row crew, The Crimson Horror is a memorable first bid, and as a well-crafted piece of Doctor Who, it also stands out alongside Cold War as the best in the recent run.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS

John Bensalhia limbered up for his Shadowlocked writing with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here. His Twitter feed is @JohnBensalhia.

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