Before getting caught up on my Doctor Who viewing, I had heard several fellow fans rave about this episode as the best so far this series. I want to withhold such a judgment until I’ve had more time to ruminate, but this was definitely a very strong episode. Written by Mark Gatiss, who also brought us the very enjoyable “Cold War,” it successfully brings together all of the elements of a really great Who episode. I’m not happy about the last scene, but let’s save that for a moment.
One of the things the original series did best was the attention it paid to period detail. In a series where a low budget often made the harder sci-fi stories look cheap and silly, the access to BBC’s period wardrobe and sets lent real credibility to the historical episodes. Among those is a favorite of mine, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” to which this episode seems to be paying homage. The Victorian setting, the Sherlock Holmes-type mystery, and the mix of humor with creepy horror all resemble that previous story. But this episode also stands strong on its own, and proves yet again that the program may be moving away from the story-arc dependence of the previous two seasons.
I appreciated right away that it took awhile to bring in the Doctor and companion. I personally can’t get enough of Madame Vastra, Jenny, or Strax. The trio works so well together and provides such a strong comedic presence, I almost think they could manage to hold down a series on their own. So it was a treat to get a glimpse of them working their own investigation independently from the Doctor. That they just happened to stumble upon him was a nice departure from the usual set-up of recent stories.
Contrasting with the humor of that trio is the gory violence of the “Crimson Horror,” the severe villainess Mrs. Gillyflower, and her disfigured daughter Ada. Real life mother and daughter Diane Rigg and Rachael Stirling did a brilliant job playing those respective roles. Rigg manages to be deliciously evil without being over-the-top (a difficult feat in many of these stories), but Stirling is even more impressive as the tragic, abused daughter who seems to hold an amount of love for her mother regardless of her actions.
The Doctor and Clara are in top form as well, and play brilliantly with this larger than normal cast of characters. In another nod to the original series, the Doctor jokes about trying to get an air hostess to Heathrow Airport, and then tells Clara “Brave heart.” As Tegan (the companion being referenced here) is my favorite of the original companions, that was an especially endearing point in the dialogue. Even without catching that homage, however, there is clearly a bond forming with Clara that seems (thankfully) to be heading toward the more enjoyable and less cliche friendship route of–say–a Tegan or a Donna, rather than the overused “I’m in love with the Doctor” BS (every other companion so far in the new series). And that Clara could very well be more of a Turlough (someone slightly evil who may have her own agenda), is shaping up to be very interesting. After all that bitching about not wanting another companion mystery, I may need to backtrack and admit that I’m fascinated now. They don’t seem to be overdoing it with the weirdness of Clara yet, and the TARDIS’s seeming dislike of her is intriguing.
So. A well-crafted story. Quality attention paid to period detail. A great comic trio pitted against a strong villain. Doctor and companion in fine form. Satisfying homage to classic Who. A perfect mix of creepy horror with comic relief. All the ingredients are here to make the perfect Who story. As the story itself was actually wrapped up, I will go ahead and conclude that this one is as close to perfection as the current season has come. However…
Did we really need that final scene with the kids extorting a TARDIS trip out of Clara by finding a few photos of her on the internet? It seems cheesy and lame, with little thought put into the writing. How exactly would the children find a few photos like that, know to look for them in the first place, or know they were even authentic? Why would Clara relent? More to the point, why would the Doctor? It seems from the previews that we have tweens running around as companions in the next episode. Have I mentioned that–at 38–I’m already the type of person to yell “Get off my lawn!” when it comes to kids this age? I know they’re the primary demographic for Doctor Who, but do we need to write them in as companions?
Rant over. I’ll pretend the little epilogue never happened, and hope for the best next week.