TV Review: DOCTOR WHO 7.11 “The Crimson Horror”

There's trouble at t'mill in Victorian Yorkshire in this boisterous but flimsy episode. 

As Jules Winfield so patiently explained, personality goes a long way. That's certainly the case with this boisterous but flimsy episode which coasts along on the back of cool characters and dependable actors.

For most of the third act, it's not even a Doctor Who episode but a tantalising glimpse at what a spin-off featuring Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax might be like. This unlikely trio has its own unique energy, and the very notion of a 19th Century crime-solving Silurian, her kick-ass lesbian lover and their dim-witted Sontaran dogsbody remains so deliciously silly that any excuse to spend time in their world is more than welcome.

Madame Vastra has been engaged to investigate strange happenings in the industrial Yorkshire town of Sweetville. Supposedly a model community built around a match factory owned by the secretive Mr Sweet and run by Mrs Gillyflower, who tours the country luring people to work for her with fire and brimstone promises of life free from the sins and squalor of the Victorian age. It's clear that she's up to no good and, sure enough, people who go to Sweetville are never seen again, while corpses wash up in the nearby canal, their skin stained bright red.

Jenny goes undercover inside Sweetville and almost immediately discovers the secret of a locked room, where Gillyflower's blinded daughter has been feeding a mysterious monster. That monster turns out to be the Doctor, infected with the same crimson horror that has been killing people off. His alien DNA has saved him from death, but it has left him with the complexion of Hellboy and the movements of Karloff's Frankenstein. A quick bit of inexplicable business with a metal locker and the sonic screwdriver restores the Doctor to his gregarious self, and then it's off to save Clara and put a stop to Gillyflower's plot.

As with too many recent Who stories, it's here that the wheels start to come off. While the surface is fun and frothy, buoyed along by Vastra and her companions, there's not really much underneath in terms of deeper meaning or even narrative logic.

Most notably, Mrs Gillyflower's plan makes almost no sense. It turns out that the crimson horror is a prehistoric plague caused by ancient leeches, and the mysterious Mr Sweet is one such leech, attached to Gillyflower's chest. Their goal is to launch a rocket from the factory chimney, which will somehow wipe out or enslave humanity. To what end? Well, that's a bit vague. Presumably Gillyflower's strident religious fervour has an apocalyptic streak, but there's a disconcerting lack of purpose behind much of what happens.

Clara and other Sweetville inhabitants are kept in giant jars in their homes, but it's never explained why. Sweetville itself remains a fairly abstract place – we don't get a sense of what the town is like, or what happens to the people there. It's not even all that clear why the whole factory facade is necessary, or what purpose is served by enslaving only certain kinds of people. How is one large flask of plague juice going to cover the whole planet and what exactly does Mr Sweet get out of all this?

These are important questions, but the script barely has time to raise them, let alone answer them. That's been a weakness of Who ever since it was revived in this new 45-minute format. The old show suffered from terrible padding, but at least its stories could stretch over four or six half-hour episodes, with room for cliffhangers and plot twists. Episodes like "The Crimson Horror," by contrast, end up feeling rushed and insubstantial. There's very little shape to this story – everyone simply dashes from place to place, with obstacles and resolutions doled out by the requirements of the plot.

For all its structural issues, there's still plenty to enjoy here. The murky factory milieu is a good one, and writer Mark Gatiss gets to indulge his love of pulp Victoriana and alternate history playfulness. It would have been nice had Sweetville had been explored a bit more – philanthropic British industrialists were fond of creating their own ideal towns for their workers, such as the Cadbury's town of Bournville and the Lever Brothers' Port Sunlight, and that paternalistic enforcement of social norms should have led to more creepy sinister undertones than we got.

Diana Rigg has a whale of a time as Mrs Gillyflower, lathering on a thick Yorkshire accent while spitting her biblical mania, and she gets some great scenes with Ada, played by Rigg's own daughter, Rachael Stirling. Their relationship at least carries some weight, even if most of it comes from the strong performances rather than the script. Graham Turner also has some fun moments as a leering mortician, who seems to have wandered in from a Hammer movie. Also offering a distinct B-movie vibe is Mr Sweet himself, an endearingly crude lobster-esque puppet that looks like it was left over from a 1980s Frank Henenlotter flick. He's corny and rather fun, but having a footlong rubber prawn as your villain does rather limit the stakes.

Despite its foreboding setting, the episode is unusually light-hearted, again thanks to the guest stars. Strax is always good fun, his eagerness to launch into ill-advised violence balanced out by his utter inability to grasp any given situation. Here, his best scene – in which he threatens a horse at gunpoint – rubs right alongside the episode's worst moment – a labored and anachronistic GPS joke that feels horribly misplaced. A recurring slapstick gag about a man who keeps being confronted with aliens and fainting also feels like it came from a broader, sillier show than the one we're watching.

The Doctor also feels a little off in this episode. He's uncharacteristically excitable about the possibility of a virulent plague, to the extent that he gleefully crows about over a dead body, and he's positively glib about the fate of various characters. It's not that the Doctor should be a bleeding heart about everyone he meets, and his best moments often come when he's a little more cold than we expect, but taken in conjunction with the generally knockabout tone of this story, his apparent ambivalence to death and violence here feels jarring.

Taken at face value, "The Crimson Horror" is a rattling yarn and one that has enough clever ideas and visuals to entertain. It just doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, and once the plot has deflated you're left with the realisation that nothing much of importance has happened, and what has happened has been poorly explained. As a watch-and-done filler episode it's not without its loose charms, but it's a long way from the sort of tightly plotted and intricately planned episodes that Moffat's guiding hand once promised.

All of which leaves us looking ahead to next week's episode, which finds Neil Gaiman supplying his second Doctor Who script. His previous effort, "The Doctor's Wife," is a definite high point of the show's revived run so here's hoping he'll bring the narrative coherence and structural integrity that recent episodes have lacked.