There is no two ways about it, “The Crimson Horror” is a pretty bad episode. I wanted to like the episode, because I enjoy the Vastra Investigation team (Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax), and the promise of them meeting this new Clara sounded exciting. Everything just fell flat in this adventure, making it the weakest episode in Series 7 so far.
First off, the Doctor and Clara do not appear for the first third of the episode. There have been several episodes throughout the run of the show that did not feature the Doctor and/or his companion very much, and this has resulted in the quality of these episodes to have varying results. “Blink” and “Turn Left” were both fantastic; however, “Love & Monsters” was not quite as good. Sadly, “The Crimson Horror” belongs in the latter category. What worked with the episodes in the former category is that the audience is either unaware of the absence or is so engrossed in the episode that they do not care about the void. This episode starts with the mystery of the Doctor’s disappearance, which immediately draws attention to his absence as well as creates 15 minutes of clunky and superfluous exposition just to get to our hero.
Let’s talk about that exposition, shall we? A case is brought to Madame Vastra’s attention by a man investigating his brother’s mysterious death. Believing that the last image someone sees before they die is retained on his or her eye, the man photographs his brother’s eye and brings it to Vastra. The image captured in his eye shows the Doctor, which compels her to take the case. If you are unaware, this is an obsolete scientific theory that has been outdated for a long time. Sure, there is a ridiculous explanation for how this happened (The process they use to preserve humans somehow also causes their eye to capture the image.), but it fails as exposition as it draws attention to the fact that it is explaining something so impossible. It felt as if Mark Gatiss (the writer for this episode) really liked this old theory, and his fascination led him to do massive rhetorical gymnastics to jam it in for no pertinent reason.
By the way, did anyone else find it odd that Jenny came to the conclusion that it was the Doctor in the image before the photograph developed? Seriously, watch it again—she says her line about heading north to investigate . . . and then the photograph that is zoomed in enough to see the Doctor develop.
Due to the cumbersome execution of the Doctor and Clara’s absence, a flashback is needed later in the episode to explain the story. For some reason, it was decided to model the aesthetics of said flashback after scratchy, old film. Whomever it was that opted for this made the wrong choice, as it once again drew attention to the fact that it was exposition. To make matters worse, it did not even look like an old film. First off, the colors were muted to simulate black and white; however, it was still color. Second, if you are trying to make it look like it was shot in the 19th century, there should not be so many cuts or modern camera techniques like crane shots . . . or sound for that matter. I realize that this is getting a bit nit-picky; however, there was no real reason for this segment except to explain the convoluted plot to the audience and the odd style choices intended to spice it up just made it more obnoxious.
Speaking of obnoxious, we should move on to the “comedy” in the episode. The attempts at humor were easily the worst aspects of the episode. Take the man investigating his brother’s death for example; any time he witnesses something otherworldly such as seeing Vastra (who is a Silurian), Strax (who is a Sontaran), or the TARDIS dematerialize, he faints. That is the entire joke – he faints at aliens. There was only one decent joke, which was a reference to Tegan that may have been a bit too esoteric, so it probably went unnoticed by most people and by the time you explain the joke it ceases to be funny.
This episode saw not just one, but two guest spots which saw Diana Rigg play the antagonist while her onscreen daughter was played by her real-life daughter, Rachael Stirling. Rigg is best known for her role as Emma Peel in The Avengers. The problem is that their characters are so poorly constructed that the roles were unmemorable despite the caliber of the actresses. Rigg plays Mrs. Gillyflower who is written as such a cartoonishly evil villain that it is almost laughable. Due to a prehistoric parasite that has attached itself to her, she decides to preserve a select few to survive the prophesied apocalypse, which she herself is intending to incite. Even if we can get past the obvious fact that she is a two-bit knock-off of Braniac, there are still problems. She is apparently so evil that she experimented her preservation techniques on her own daughter. Since it is not perfected yet, it leaves her daughter blind (despite the fact that all the other failures leave the victims as red contorted wax statues, which is what the entire episode hinges on). To cover it up she tells everyone that her late husband blinded their daughter when he was in a drunken rage. For some reason, the daughter has no memory of being experimented on, yet she remembers being blinded by her father. Honestly, there was no logic to this episode!
Once the story wraps up, there is an epilogue that is completely irrelevant to the rest of the story. Remember the family who was seen briefly in “The Bells of Saint John” that Clara lives with? They have apparently figured out that she is a time traveler, because they have somehow tracked down photographs of her from different times. It seems as if the reason for this is that they wanted to add a few more companions to the next several episodes and just did not know how to work them in naturally.
At least next week we will finally get another episode written by Neil Gaiman, as well as Warwick Davis making his Doctor Who debut. Hopefully, “Nightmare in Silver” will quickly make us forget “The Crimson Horror.”