Well, it’s finally happened. A proper Doctor-Lite episode.
Starting in the second season of the relaunch, the Doctor-Lite episode has been a tradition every season by having an episode that is less reliant on the appearance of the Doctor or his companion (which also serves as a real-world production issue by giving a slight break for the actor playing the Doctor). Previously the Doctor-Lite episodes have been used to show random lives affected by the Doctor (Season 3’s “Blink”), diving into the people in the Doctor’s life (Season 4’s “Turn Left”) or both (Season 2’s “Love and Monsters”). Since the change of show runners from Russell T. Davies to Stephen Moffat, we haven’t had a proper Doctor-Lite episode for at least two seasons. Thankfully, this was a strong enough episode that the Doctor’s absence wasn’t a hinderance.
For “The Crimson Horror,” we have a welcome return of the Paternoster Gang: the Silurian Madame Vastra, her human lesbian companion Jenny, and their Sontaran valet Strax. What I love about these three (aside from the wonderful incongruity of a lizard woman, her lesbian lover, and a murderous Mr. Potato Head running around Victorian England solving crimes) is the fact that the chemistry between these three is so amusing to watch, especially in light of the investigation of this “penny dreadful”.
Another thing that worked was the actual filming of the episode. By far, “The Crimson Horror” was one of the best filmed episodes of Doctor Who this season, using a lot of great camera composition and nifty camera tricks to keep the story moving (even in spite of withholding the reveal of the Doctor for over half the episode) and helping to establish the time and place. One great example was the way the Doctor’s flashback of his and Clara’s investigation of the Sweetville Mill city compound was shot in the way of a Victorian flip book.
In addition, the acting was strong across the board. Script writer Mark Gatiss, who also wrote this season’s episode “Cold War,” tailored the roles of the wicked Mrs. Gillyflower and her tragic daughter Ada for the real life mother and daughter team of the legendary Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling, and both of them make this episode sing. Rigg makes great hay of the villainously virtuous Mrs. Gillyflower; speaking of the apocalypse raining down on people and actively working to make it happen while being cruel enough to do the deplorable things she does in this episode without batting an eye. As the blind spinster Ada, Stirling brings a lot of heart and serves as a counter-balance to her mother’s villainy and helps ground the episode for the better.
One thing that was odd was the epilogue, where Clara returns back to the present day to the home of the Maitland family where she is serving as a nanny. It was surprising to see the return of Angie and Artie Maitland and even more surprised to see that (a) they hacked Clara’s computer, and (b) were able to put together that she’s been traveling through time with the Doctor (though they did manage to make one mistake and found a photo of Clara in Victorian London – which this Clara said was wrong since she was in Victorian Yorkshire, but we the audience know better). While there has always been the notion of the Doctor’s companions having real lives away from his adventures (in fact, that’s been one of the founding tenants of Nu-Who), it was disconcerting to see them bring the Maitland children back into the story. Granted, this also ties in to one of the complaints about the second half of this season so far; namely how there have been no real clues into the mystery of “the girl who died twice.” Say what you will about former Who show-runner Russell T. Davies, but one of his strengths was that he was able to pepper clues about the over-riding mystery of a season that gave the viewer a fighting chance to solve it (such as the secrets of Torchwood, the truth about Mr. Saxton, or even the tragic fate of Donna). So far there have not only been no real clues to the mystery that is Clara, but more damningly no real context for the audience to refer to the clues that we do have. It remains to be seen where this is all going, but at this point it almost feels as if they should have dropped the whole notion of a mystery surrounding the Doctor’s companion.
NEXT TIME: Speaking of companions, Clara gets two of her own in Angie and Artie, and the four of them go on a little sight-seeing with everything from amusements to Cyberman. Or, another way to put it, former Wisconsin writer returns to the show he won a Hugo Award for.