I don't know why this is, but episodes that focus less on the Doctor always end up being so good, don't they? And I think that is exactly what Saturday night's new episode of Doctor Who — titled "The Crimson Horror" — was: quite good. Some people might fight me on that one, but playful, old timey humor is exactly the sort of thing needed to break the tension. Jenny, Strax (lord I love me some Strax), and Madame Vastra are back, and they've headed to the north ("Lots of places have a North!") to Yorkshire (home to my favorite tea in the universe, Yorkshire Gold) to solve the mystery of Winifred Gillyflower (the incomparable Diana Rigg), her blind daughter Ada (played by Rigg's real-life daughter Rachael Stirling), and the creepy, industrial town of Sweetville. with its terrifying red disease and a population of people who never seem to leave.
Before we do anything though — this episode was a really proper penny-dreadful (think Sweeney Todd, or, you know, Google the term), and it was such a wonderful format for a Who story. I loved the use of the creepy morgue man and his ominous announcement of "The Crimson Horror." Well done, Moffat & Co: a right romp — which is exactly what you need in at this point in the story (some may call the episode a bit of a "filler," which I suppose I agree with), even if it is a bit aggravating as a viewer. Penned by Mark Gatniss, I think that if this story had happened earlier in the season, fans would've appreciated it more. Between "Journey to the Center of the TARDIS" and next week's upcoming Neil Gaiman-penned, Cybermen-returning episode, though? Not so much. Plus, there really is no excuse for Gillyflower's painfully pathetic exit: death by massive fall is no way to off Diana Rigg, my friends.
The adventures of the Doctor and his friends were quite a lark overall. The perma-comical trio of Strax, Vastra, and Jenny worked wonders to bring a lightness to what has been a fairly serious season thus far. And how about that Jenny, eh?! Kicking ass and taking names, she was! There was also that Jenny-Doctor kiss, too. Talk about unexpected. Is it just me or was the Doctor coming across as fairly randy (for him) in this episode? Considering the Doctor's sexuality setting generally hovers somewhere on the scale between "a puppy" and "an inanimate object," it felt off the charts tonight.
Regardless, Sweetville is a curious sort, isn't it? Run by a religious zealot convinced the apocalypse is soon upon us (...interesting idea to introduce so close to the finale, even if it was also accurate to the time), and thoroughly convinced through madness or otherwise that the only way the cream of the crop can rise to the surface is if they move to Sweetville and live the life of moral exaltation. Turpitude is not allowed: only supermodels with the certainty of right and wrong entrenched in their hearts. But apparently being dipped into a diluted form of an ancient venom is allowed.
And because of that venon — a fatal sort that Madame Vastra is quite familiar with; it nearly wiped out her entire species — people are turning red. And there's that color again! Red. Red: the color of Rose and the primary color of pretty much every outfit Clara wears. Rejects from the Sweetville venom-dipping process (said to save them once the world ends) turn the color if something about them does not jive with the process, and they're thrown out into the waterways. The horrific state is called — wild guess, go for it — The Crimson Horror. Red as a rose and dead as a doornail.
A young married man named Edmond has fallen victim to the Crimson Horror after trying to discover what this creepy condition is all about. The case was brought to Madame Vastra and Co., who quickly realized upon seeing an imprint image (octogram) of the Doctor on the eye of the dead man, that there was far more to this story. Jenny heads up to Sweetville to pal around with the local color and dig up more information by sneaking into the factory. What she uncovered? Giant gramophones blasting a loud, clanking tune. (Music! Again a reference to a music-player.) We never see them again: what are they?
Ms. Gillyflower has a penchant for religious zealotry. She even fancies herself a fan of the poem William Blake wrote that later turned into the Victorian church tune, "Jerusalem."
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land
Interesting that they sang the song, though, isn't it? The episode takes place in 1893, but the music to accompany the poem wasn't written until 1916 (by Sir Hubert Parry, I might add). Not sure if that's a continuity error or something more, but worth noting nonetheless!
Anyway, things continued to unfold in a fun and well-paced manner. Turns out Mrs. Gillyflower is actually a host for the prehistoric parasite, Mr. Sweet (who meets his death at the hand of poor little Ada who had been experimented on by her evil mother). Ada, then Jenny, saved the Doctor — and the Doctor saved Clara. All together they discovered the deadly secret of Sweetville and end up removing the virulent venom from the hidden rocket, where the plan was for it to rain down on humanity, but save the perfects to begin a master race of superior beings. Gosh, people sure do love perfect things more than imperfect, huh? What happened to variety being the spice of life, you guys? What happened?!
But in the end, we are still left with more questions of the same: the Doctor calls Clara "the boss" (like BOSS, the old 70s-era Who villain aka a Biomorphic Organisational Systems Supervisor?), and she seems to enjoy the title. Is this who Clara is? Or is this who they are fighting?
For those that are unaware, BOSS was a supercomputer that appeared in an episode titled "The Green Death" back in the early 70s (third Doctor era) which created a chemical that mutated maggots into super-giant-uber-gross maggots (Mr. Sweet is a parasitic leech, but still! Very similar to a maggot). The BOSS had a megalomaniacal personality and intuitive software that made it "inefficient" (like humans), which enabled it to make the same sort of inuitive leaps that we humans do. Interesting lead-up. It almost feels like a lot of the past stories, companions, and people are being tied together for one super-conspiracy blow-out of a 50th anniversary episode. And the BOSS sure does feel like it could have a lot of potential with Clara, next week's Cybermen return, and — of course — the Daleks. Oh! And maybe the Zygons, too, since we all know I had a fun few weeks there where I was convinced Clara was one of those.
Mention and reference to past companions keeps popping up, episode to episode. Anyone else catch the Tegan Jovanka (companion of the fourth and fifth Doctor) references there when he said "brave heart, Clara" and again when he said "gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport"? It's not the first time in New Who that he's said the old phrase, but with all of these teeny, tiny insinuations you can't help but wonder more and more about the theory that Clara is somehow a product of Bad Wolf and a culimination of past companions rolled into one seemingly normal girl.
The other curious reference to the past that I found most interesting was the moment the Doctor looks up (at seemingly nothing ...or the sky?) and says "Clever clocks." This, naturally, made me to think about "The Girl in the Fireplace" episode back in the David Tennant era. As did the turning organ that later revealed itself to be some sort of alien technology (the fireplace had a similar turn-round aspect). Is Clara connected to Madame Du Pompadour?! Are those creepy clock people involved? Also is that...BESPOKE engineering I see in the console behind the organ?
OK seriously, something is going ON here, you guys. What if Clara is the sum of all parts — think back to "The Girl in the Fireplace" — they were waiting for her brain (she saw the Doctor's name when she was going through his memories, and it wasn't erased, remember). Each companion since Madame (who was around when Rose was around, and Rose was Bad Wolf) leading up to Clara represents an aspect of what makes a "good" companion for the Doctor. We've seen so many references to so many past companions this season. Rose, I think, essentially created the companions (to an extent), before scattering them all across the universe. Every lonely monster needs a companion. After all, this isn't a ghost story, it's a love story! There I go, spouting all sorts of potential (and random) theories again! When I'm wrong, feel free to I-toldja-so me til the ends of the earth. If I'm right, somebody get me a job on the writing staff of this show.
But back to the Doctor's companions and friends: we mustn't forget that this is the first time Jenny, Vastra, and Strax have seen Clara since her Victorian iteration. Obviously this meant they were just as curious as us to know why she's still alive and who she actually is: meaning tonight more than ever, the question was posed directly to the Doctor: who or what is Clara? You still haven't told us, Doctor! "I know who you think she is, but she isn't ...She Can't Be." He whispered to himself. Who can't she be, Doctor? Who?!
Clara also seemed to be a bit of a robot this episode: having very little emotion and far fewer flirty, banter-y stuff (We all know Clara likes "stuff." Not sure about the kinds of stuff, though.) with the Doctor. Why is that? The shift in her personality in certain episodes can't be by accident, right?
Next week looks to be a real banger of an episode, since Clara's wards now know she time travels with her "boyfriend" the Doctor (and they oh-so-conveniently have pictures as proof. Found at school: what are the odds? No seriously...), and are taken to the theme park where the Cybermen return. Clara seems downright warrior-esque in the previews, and the Doctor's face-machinery feels eerily similar to the face tattoos we saw in "A Town Called Mercy." And what the heck do you MEAN they're calling the Doctor the savior of the Cybermen?! Lord, next week's episode cannot come soon enough.
Other Things We Need to Discuss...
- I loved the sort of filtered effect placed on the footage of Clara and the Doctor's arrival to Sweetville: the production quality on this show just keeps on improving.
- The Northern accents. So good. The Doctor's from the North (of Gallifrey, duh).
- The Doctor seems to have wanted Clara to meet Strax, Jenny, and Vastra (hence why he got upset that they didn't end up in London): do you think their knowing or not-knowing of her will reveal something to him?
- The photo studio! The color red! The color red — does it help us see the truth? The darkroom has now come up twice this season (also in "Hide"). I think it's funny to note, now that many black-and-white papers are only sensitive to blue light (blue representing the Doctor and the TARDIS, obviously), so that's why a red light is often used: it's the only one that can be used (safely) without exposing the paper. Perhaps this is a metaphor for Clara's existence?
- The noise from the gramophones sounded an awful lot like an aggressive whisper: could this have something to do with the new, rumored big baddie from this season, The Whisper Men?
- Two more musical references today: the gramophones and the organ — both instruments used to project music to a larger audience. Hmmm!
- Thomas Thomas: proof that parents have been hating their children since the beginning.
- Pontefract cakes. A seemingly inocuous reference to a popular local candy actually has some interesting connections to the story. It's a licorice sweets (Sweetville!) ...created in (you guessed it!) Yorkshire. The licorice root extract used in them is from ...Australia! Another Tegan reference?
- It drives me crazy when the Doctor lies about his ability to accurately land the TARDIS where he wants it to go — since we all know he can with impressive skill — but it's something that's never really been explicitly discussed. When he lands not where he intends, is that the TARDIS doing that, or is he just lying? Time will tell, I suppose! But what do you think?
- "I'll see you again, I shouldn't wonder." The Doctor says, knowing full well that he will clearly see them again very soon. He knows what's going on! I just hate that we don't, still. I'm too impatient for this s**t, Moffat!
- The signs in the alley way: the circus has come to town (oh and has it ever!), plus the "human wax work" one: interesting coincidence or just the set designers having a bit of fun with the episode's story?
- The word "chuffed" is repeated (I only notice this because that word makes me so happy): in "Cold War" Clara says it after rationalizing that she did well with Skaldak, and here, again, the Doctor says it in response to being admitted to Sweetville.
What did you think of "The Crimson Horror"? Excited for next week's episode? Have any nutty theories yourself? Let us know in the comments!
Follow @AliciaLutes on Twitter