* Spoilers Ahead *
Weirdly, for someone as steeped in the history of Doctor Who as Mark Gatiss is (and he is after all the author of An Adventure in Space and Time, the forthcoming dramatisation of the show’s early years), the writer always seems out of his element when writing for the series. The Unquiet Dead might have been one of the quiet peaks of Series One, but ever since then it’s been pretty much downhill. The Idiot’s Lantern was trumped in its capacity to frustrate by Victory of the Daleks, and while Night Terrors might have clawed a little of Gatiss’ respectability back, Cold War was a mileage-variant of extreme degrees. Mark Gatiss clearly loves Doctor Who, he’s one of the masterminds behind Sherlock, his fondness for genre is all too evident in any number of other projects he’s taken on for the BBC, and as an interviewee he gains enough respect and even downright affection from some fans, that you end up almost willing him to do well. He’s like a perennially eager puppy yapping at the gates of Doctor Who greatness, never reluctant to try his best, but always falling short of the achievements of the big boys.
If only, instead of commissioning him to devise Doctor Who stories, somebody would have had the bright idea of asking him to write an episode of The League of Gentlemen, replacing Edward and Tubbs and all the others with the Doctor and Clara, with Vastra and Strax, instead.
The Crimson Horror plays to Gatiss’ strengths and avoids the traps he usually falls into when he’s trying too hard. There’s little or no attempt at plausibility, especially in the drawing of the characters, and instead Gatiss paints everything in the familiar larger-than-life hues of his most lasting original (co-)achievement. Although it abounds with references to the classic series (and indeed includes the customary homage-plus-mention we’re becoming familiar with this year; it’s the Fifth Doctor’s turn in the limelight this week, with a reference to Tegan and some plot-borrowing from The Visitation), this is a story that doesn’t attempt to reproduce the Doctor Who of years gone by, so much as it forges its own identity and maps Gatiss’ love of the series on top. It’s a Hammer pastiche, by way of Carry On Screaming and a multitude of horror films of yore, and the Doctor Who allusions are merely the icing. A far more attractive proposition.
It’s also a potential pilot for a new spin-off series, although whether Moffat and Gatiss actually had this in mind is uncertain. But Gatiss has written the Doctor’s “Victorian time team” with every bit as much humour as Moffat would have, so if there is to be an Adventures of the Lizard, the Lesbian and the Potato-Head (okay, probably with a snappier title), then hand it to Gatiss and let his Doctor Who ambitions be realised there (I’ll take Whithouse or Chibnall – or both – for future showrunner, thank you). He even manages to forefront Jenny without turning her into an assembly of tics and idiosyncrasies, and while it might seem odd to watch Gatiss writing human beings and making them feel authentic, it is extremely pleasing and is to some extent because the flaws that usually dog his characters actually feel entirely natural in this rarefied setting. The trick may also be to get him to write for other people’s characters – and that’s where the genius, if that isn’t too strong a word for it, of The Crimson Horror lies.
It never strives for originality, you see. Next week, we’ll be presented with a Doctor Who unlike any Doctor Who we’ve seen before, and last week we had an example of the same. But Gatiss isn’t an innovator, so The Crimson Horror treads a middle-ground somewhere between standard Doctor Who and standard something else entirely. By incorporating tropes and characterisation he’s familiar with from other genres into his story (and genres that Doctor Who itself isn’t exactly unfamiliar with either), and by filling it with characters that never try too hard to feel genuine but instead achieve an authenticity by virtue of their familiarity, Gatiss has written an episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t feel remotely like any other we’ve ever seen, and yet that fits right into the series almost as if the series ought always to be like this. There’s a feeling that somehow Gatiss has managed to blend Davies and Hinchcliffe in a way that Davies himself could never do. It’s quite a trick.
Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling are the undoubted stars of the show, even in spite of the presence of Jenny, Strax and Vastra. They bring life and humanity to characters that must have felt ripe and ridiculous on the page. Stirling’s Ada in particular has to cope with some pretty spurious behaviour, her ultimate arc both clichéd and implausible, and yet the Avengers star’s less-famous daughter imbues the part with enough humanity and sympathy to draw you in and make you believe in her. Rigg’s Mrs Gillyflower is barely any less specious, but at least she has a Total Recall moment to account for her being so far-fetched. They’re a delightfully lunatic double-act, and eat up the screen as noisily and as colourfully as they consume their consommé. It’s a tremendous balancing act, with the Doctor’s Victorian menagerie (hmmn, perhaps that spin-off could be called Menagerie A Trois?) on one side and Team Rigg on the other.
The Crimson Horror (I almost want to write ‘Orror) is also very funny (in places, very very funny), but Gatiss doesn’t allow the humour to unbalance the story. In fact, he keeps the comedy mostly to the characters and the story itself is allowed to unwind with only the gently parodical nature of the pastiche to keep the smile on your face. There is even one moment that’s a proper shocker, when Jenny discovers the true nature of the machinery hidden inside Sweetville, there’s a deliciously icky primordial leech whose appearance should tickle the kids, and the use of bell-jars is suitably creepy, if not entirely original. But then, originality isn’t what this episode is all about.
The Crimson Horror will probably divide fans right down the middle. Matt Smith’s wooden performance will annoy, the nature of the flashback sequence (wonderfully jarring; I adored its incongruity) will antagonise, and the tongue-in-cheek performances (especially the at-times ultra-arch Diana Rigg) will aggravate. But only the most deeply traditional of fans will mind all this; for everybody else, this is simply enormous fun. It’s not a deal-breaker of an episode, but had you shown me this back at the turn of the millennium, in those dark days when Doctor Who was a presence only on the wrong-facing horizon, I would have cried with joy at the knowledge that such things were to come. Watching it now, it’s nothing more than an above-average episode, a diversion between the TARDIS ode and the second helping of Cyber-Gaiman.
Redemption is a fine and wonderful thing, and I’m happy to admit that Mark Gatiss has finally given us the Doctor Who story we always hoped he had in him. Just make sure that the next time he happens along, he stays with the territory he knows best. Is The Crimson Horror his best episode to date? Quite possibly. If nothing else, it approaches The Unquiet Dead and none of his others have managed that.
If Series 7B hasn’t quite ignited in the way that its former half (better half?) did, then with three quite fine (and four mostly enjoyable) episodes in a row, things are looking up. And with Neil Gaiman and a Steven Moffat-penned finale still to come, what could possibly go wrong now?