The second half of Season 7 of Doctor Who has been, frankly, a disappointment. Only "Hide" has offered a really solid outing, and only single brilliant scenes in the first two episodes saved them from being mediocre. Sandwiched between two highly anticipated episodes I hadn't really been paying much attention to this week's "Crimson Horror," and after writer Mark Gatiss' swing and a miss in "Cold War" I was even less engaged.
That was a mistake because "The Crimson Horror" was phenomenal.
First, let me say one thing about Season 7 that is praise for even the bad episodes. Doctor Who has never, ever looked this good. Cinematically the visual presentation is sharp, crisp, and just slightly otherworldly. It makes me want to get off my ass and finally set up HDTV just to see it in even more life. As a treat for the eye, every single adventure looks better than anything that has come before it.
Except the Eighth Doctor's Tardis console, of course. Nothing's topping that anytime soon.
"Crimson Horror" is both Doctor-lite and a little companion-lite as well, with no sign of the Time Lord or Clara till almost halfway through the episode and only a single scene with the Tardis at all. The majority of the action involves Madam Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax as they investigate a mysterious, doom-crying match manufacturer named Gillyflower (Diana Rigg) and the weird religious utopia she is trying to build in Yorkshire.
If a BioShock game ever featured The Doctor then this is exactly how it would play out. Gillyflower's factory and town feature strange biological experiments, ruthless ideologies, and over-the-top moguls with dark secrets all combined with an image of conventional history turned upside down. Jenny's discovery of an empty factory set up with giant phonographs playing the sound of enterprise is exactly the sort of thing you'd catch in BioShock, and it lends a claustrophobic strangeness to the world.
Catrin Stewart as Jenny really shines in the episode. So much so that a horrid part of me hopes that Steven Moffat kills off Vastra in order to turn Jenny into a full-time companion. She's fearless, fun, and physically a marvel when some leather-clad kung fu is needed. It's her rescue of The Doctor and her subsequent aid of him behind Gillyflower's walls that make for some of the best moments of "The Crimson Horror."
Not the absolute best, though. For maybe the first time since "The Snowmen" Clara Oswald holds her own once again. Proof positive that when the show stops shoving her mysterious existence down our throats and just turns her and The Doctor loose together it works so hard. I officially love her again.Flashback 5 TV Characters That Would Make Better Doctor Who Companions Than Clara
It turns out that Gillyflower is actually hosting/breastfeeding a prehistoric and horrible leech from Vastra's people's time, and is planning on using its venom to obliterate all life on Earth save the ones she's chosen to be pure and righteous. Rigg is a gift of a villain that eats up every inch of scene with the kind of hammy wit that made both Roger Delgado and John Simm so fun to watch as The Master. She's wonderfully horrid.
Matt Smith pulls out the best of his bag of tricks as The Doctor. He's at his best being half a combination of the past incarnations mixed with his own awkward charm. It's wonderful to watch him subtly channel Patrick Troughton, and in this episode bits of Peter Davison, then top it all off by randomly kissing people and getting slapped. This is also the kindest he's been in many a while, and you'll never hear me lament the loss of his Mr. Shouty moments.
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"The Crimson Horror" is proof that the endgame of this Season is where the good stuff is at. With Neil Gaiman returning next week to reintroduce the Cybermen and the Fields of Trenzalore beyond that, I have a feeling Season 7 will finish as strong as it started. The middle bit was a bit weak, but all they have to do is not dip below the bar they've set this week and they'll be fine.
Wibbly Wobbly Writing: Actually, the show gets a pass on continuity and ridiculousness this week. I do want to acknowledge the nod to The Fifth Doctor's companion Teagan when he complains about spending a month trying to get a gobby Australian back to Heathrow airport.
A Tardis cameo was one of the 10 Things That Would Have Made BioShock Infinite Perfect. Or maybe you'd like to know the 3 Things from Doctor Who That Exist in Real Life.