TV As we discussed the other week, everything pointy points in the direction of Mark Gatiss becoming Doctor Who’s next show runner. As I’ve just discovered in the post game virtual locker room that is my Twitter timeline on a Saturday night, some people aren’t necessarily enamoured with the idea, which is probably fair enough because I’m trying desperately to let other people have their own opinions. I’m oscillating on the idea on a daily or even weekly basis largely because although his television episodes have been admittedly variable, I still have soft spot for his spin-off material, especially Invaders from Mars and Last of the Gaderene.
The problem with his television work, and he almost admits this in the preview for tonight’s episode in this month’s party newsletter, is that he’s very rarely allowed to write exactly what he likes, there’s always things which are “prescribed”. He didn’t particularly want to do a Dalek story but was stuck with trying to patch together Victory of the Daleks. Night Terrors isn’t his natural territory either. But when he’s asked to work within his own auteuristic interests, as Russell T Davies did with all of the writers of the first revival series he produces The Unquiet Dead and in this series Cold War and now The Crimson Horror.
In other words, let Gatiss be Gatiss and he’ll produce great work. The Idiot’s Lantern is the only potential blip in that for some, though on the night of broadcast the younger version of me called it “the best episode since The Girl In The Fireplace” so I’ll include that in my theory. So yes, let Gatiss be Gatiss. But I think that’s been true of most of the decent writers on the show, like, forever and indeed it’s also true that those writers with a singular voice and been allowed to utilise it which have produced the best episodes. We’ve seen that as recently as with Neil Cross who even though I didn’t think it was that bad, was certainly ill at ease with alien choirs.
Here we are then, Victorian Yorkshire, carriages, corsets, jokes about modern devices within a historical framework (the Thomas Thomas joke being an ideal example of know if you’re with an episode or not – if you didn’t laugh like a drain or at least groan you’re not going to be convinced much by anything else), a batty old patriarch under supernatural influence, some grand extrapolation of historical context in this case the Port Sunlight alike model towns philanthropically created during the industrial revolution to give the workers a better life, some naughty innuendo and a general sense that thing, you know, that thing.
Because as we also discussed with Cold War, it’s not exactly possible to put your finger on what makes Gatiss, Gatiss, except a sort of intangible recognition that we’re watching something created by someone who’s steeped in film history, Doctor Who history and being allowed to let rip. Of course, some elements of The Crimson Horror are prescribed. It’s not his Doctor or companion. It’s the first adventure for Vastra, Strax and Jenny not written by Moffat. But arguably those latter elements aren’t very Moffat either, as though we’re already watching a show which is as much of psychological co-production as Sherlock.
Except for the first quarter it has all the hallmarks of The Great Detective spin-off we’re all clamouring for, all the trappings of a backdoor pilot. Indeed, and after listening to the Devil in the Smoke audiobook and watching this back to back I’ve been using indeed at the top of a sentence a lot, the opening half acts like we’re watching an episode of that notional spin-off, uninterested in introducing any of these characters again, the investigative structure already in place (partly because Gatiss is aping Sherlock Holmes anyway so we’re practically watching the Jeremy Brett adaptation with aliens replacing those lead characters).
Like the Devil in the Smoke, it’s everything you hoped it would be, with Strax proposing over the top plans until Vastra undercuts him with the subtler approach and Jenny infiltrating Sweetville like a Victorian Sydney Bristow. Few eras of Doctor Who have produced such compelling characters and with this chemistry, but it’s also impossible to imagine another era of Doctor Who, even in the spin-off material that could, because of the chemistry of the actors, because these are the nuWho versions of the classic races and because up until now with a few exceptions, writers have been scared shitless of the Star Trek dichotomy of aliens and audience recognition.
This first fifteen minutes is so good, so confident, that’s actually quite jarring when the Cherry Tangoed Doctor is revealed and because of the needs of the show, regains the narrative’s agency and the other three disappear into the background once again. It’s to be expected, of course, and all of them have a heroic “moment” in the latter stages, but it is a vague disappointment that we don’t get to see a version of this story in which they complete the task, have the arguments with Mrs Gillyflower, throw the chair around (though it’d be more likely that the control panel would have found the wrong end of a sword).
Then we’re into a rerun of the same exposition and exploration, though subtly not; Gatiss’s script obscures enough information in the first fifteen so that this flashback actually adds to our understanding. There’s again something wildly confident about giving the digital footage a pre-Restoration Team 16mm style and mixing it with those clever sepia freeze frames, though notice it doesn’t go the whole Feast of Steven and making it a silent picture. For the modern child, even Spearhead from Space is ancient, so anything which doesn’t look pristine is enough to evoke “the past”. Gosh, this is all analysisy isn’t it? Always happens when I’ve enjoyed an episode.
Then we’re right back into the proper Doctor Who portion of the installment, the running, the shouting, the monologuing, the fighting, the reveal of the alien (which as a side note is practically the same as The Snowmen and it’s odd that no-one noticed considering the two were filmed simultaneously with the same director, Saul Metzstein, who again makes it look nothing like a Doctor Who episode and everything like a Dickens adaptation from the 1990s, but then the symbiotic controlling alien thing is a mainstay of the series so it might also just be Gatiss referencing Planet of the Spiders or The Next Doctor) (did that need to be in brackets?).
Some things we might talk about, or will because it’s my paragraph. The Crimson Horror continues this run of the Doctor at his most tactile, kissing Jenny, kissing and hugging Clara (something he does a lot) and kissing the unfortunate Ada on the cheek at least. I’ve seen objections. But I think within the context of the modern series it would be strange for the Doctor to be standoffish. There’s a scene in the latest Puffin short, The Roots of Evil when the Fourth Doctor embraces Leela and it feels wrong as though author Philip Reeve has extrapolated nuWho behaviour backwards, yet younger readers might not necessarily notice the difference.
The guns. Back in the Davies era, I remember an interview in which he talked about how The Doctor’s Daughter was a difficult episode because one of the elements of his era’s house style which was agreed early on was that a human would not pull a gun on another human, it being a family show and they’d had to rewrite around it. That’s not the case now it seems. Not that I have a problem with this, but it is worth noting how understanding the Doctor is of Strax’s utilisation of his weapon (stop it) and violence in general, one of the running gags of the episode being his gaping, bemused Troughtonesque helplessness. Poor horses.
The talent. Who would have thought Doctor Who would be the venue for Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling to finally appear on screen as mother and daughter? As DWM also explained this was also at the behest of Gatiss writing particularly for them knowing full well that Rigg would eat up the screen and Stirling would break our hearts. This isn’t Stirling’s first appearance in the Whoniverse incidentally, having previously voiced a character not too dissimilar to Mrs Gillyflower in Alan Barnes’s Fourth Doctor audio Trail of the White Worm (which I reviewed here) (actually now that I come to think about it…).
Then, everything crawls back to Clara, dressed, despite the Doctor’s reference to the gob on legs, in what looks like Nyssa cosplay. Gatiss cleverly manages to park questions as to this Clara’s identity (“It’s complicated!”), the tone of the piece ill-suited to long soul searching existential conversations, or at least the repeat of long soul searching existential conversations. At this point, I’m buggered if I know what she’s about other than to fall back on my old Scaroth theory. This isn’t a detective story. Like all of the other story arcs, there are no breadcrumb shaped clues. It will all apparently be resolved in two weeks though apparently, thank the profits.
Now, that ending. In reply to a correspondent who said he thought it was a good episode “except John and Gillian deciding their nanny is a time traveller”, Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury said (in a rare example since the Eighties of a DWM editor publicly criticising the series in quite this way), “Yeah, that bit was shit. The rest was great” and it’s not quite possible to disagree. As is sometimes the case in Doctor Who, it’s the coincidence that Clara would just happen to have been dropped off home at just the moment these photographs would be on the computer, so that she could be found out so that presumably, these kids would be given the chance to travel in the TARDIS for Neil Gaiman’s episode and be menaced by the Cybermen.
The premise, that these children have serendipitously stumbled on these historical photos of their nanny only makes sense if it turns out they’ve been planted by the woman in the shop, or River Song as she’ll probably be, in order to push forward the mystery as though she’s metafictionally conscious of the end of the series. Plus you can’t really fight against the logic that on seeing those they wouldn’t assume, just like Clive in Rose when faced with similar evidence, that she was a time traveller. And Jenna-Louise plays the wide-eyed wonder impeccably but it’s just, again, not something I can easily put my finger on.
Did Gatiss write this final scene? Presumably, though it's still difficult to know how the labour is divided now that so little proper behind the scenes material is released now. But what's worth saying, is that if Mark does become showrunner, though the overall tone of the piece will be his, the house style, there will be moments when we won't be able to let himself be himself. On the flipside, Moffat might continue writing for the series and arguably, weirdly, he seems to work best under someone else's regime. His best episodes were arguably in the previous era, so he might well get back on form...