REVIEW: Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (2013)

I know they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I LOVE the Paternoster Gang. You may be wondering why I feel the need to qualify that statement; well, it seems that being a fan of them can be a misstep in the serious high-octane world that is Doctor Who fandom. Every once in a while I mistakenly try to venture into Doctor Who-related message boards, but am utterly underwhelmed by the negativity and cynicism within. I won’t name any forums that I used to frequent, but you can probably figure out which fun vacuum I am speaking of. One of my biggest pet peeves on these sites, are the folks that seem to think (and want to change everyone else’s opinions to agree with the notion) that Steven Moffat has ruined both the Sontarans and the Silurians by having Strax and Lady Vastra be good guys and have a sense of humor; for me, he has helped make the two somewhat stale races more enjoyable.

The humor from Strax alone (big props to Dan Starkey) can easily make an episode for me, but that’s no surprise because I’m a sucker for stories involving a guy from an extreme military background being forced to deal with normal human life. Characters such as Worf from Star Trek the Next Generation easily fit this bill as does Sousuke from Full Metal Panic, but my favorite of all is easily Strax.  Case and point, would be his ordeals with the Doctor’s memory worm in The Snowmen, a scene that nearly made me visit the bathroom upon watching. Because of this love of all things Paternoster, I was really excited for this episode, and I wasn’t let down.


Mark Gatiss was quite at home here with his exaggerated pastiche of Victorian London. I have longed to see him write a script that came close to the warped world that was The League of Gentlemen, but got left with a few “hit or miss” episodes instead. The Crimson Horror may not be the same sort of black comedy as League, but it’s every bit as off-kilter and has as many laughs as scares. At this point and time, I think Gatiss has produced the two strongest scripts this season, with Cold War being his other one. This vast improvement shows that he could be a clear contender to take the mantle of Doctor Who show-runner should Steven Moffat decide to step down in the near future – an opinion I did not have during his episode last year.

The story of The Crimson Horror takes a very unorthodox approach by not actually showing The Doctor and Clara until a long time into the episode. In fact, Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are the focal point this time around. This isn’t the same idea as when we used to have “Doctor-lite” episodes such as Love and Monsters, but a cool way to tell a story from the middle rather than the beginning. The Parternoster Gang has received an inquiry to investigate a strange illness called the “Crimson Horror”, a terrible ailment that leaves its victims rigid and with bright red skin. The trail leads them to an apocalyptic community in Yorkshire called Sweetville. This town is led by a woman named Mrs. Gillyflower and her “silent” and unseen partner Mr. Sweet. Mrs. Gillyflower preaches that the end times are near and that our moral decay is destroying the world, a fact made more evident by appearance of her daughter Ada, a younger woman disfigured by a beating from her late father.


I mentioned that viewers are left in the dark as to the whereabouts of The Doctor and Clara for quite a while. This is because The Doctor is locked in a dungeon for the beginning of the episode; we hear him mumble and groan unseen while Ada calls him “her monster”. It is not revealed until Jenny discovers him rigid and with sanguine skin that he’s this “monster”. The main reason the Paternoster Gang is trying to figure out the “Crimson Horror” is because of an old urban legend that supposedly reveals a way to see the last thing a dead person sees. We learn that when someone dies, the final image they see is imprinted on their eye, and in the case of one of the victims, the last thing he saw was The Doctor! In hilarious antiquated sepia-toned flashbacks we find out the real story –

The Doctor isn’t the killer, but a victim himself. Clara and The Doctor found out about the problems in Sweetville long before the Paternoster Gang, and infiltrated the same way Jenny has, posing as interested parties. It seems that Mrs. Gillyflower has a preservation process that she is using to “save” folks from the upcoming apocalypse. It seems that she is using the venom from an ancient parasite – this, my friends, is Mr. Sweet, an ugly worm creature. The Doctor isn’t human, so he did not react well to the “treatment” and suffered the same fate as other “rejects”. In fact, had he not been saves by Ada he would have been dumped in the river like other discarded victims.


This episode is both VERY dark, almost grotesque at times, and hilarious. There are tons of little one-liners and quips that make the dialog for me. One of the funniest is when The Doctor brings up his issues with Tegan, a past companion: “Ooh, I once spent helluva long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport!” Like I said above, my favorite scenes were with Strax. One of the best is his interaction with His new flesh and blood GPS sidekick Thomas Thomas (get it! LOL). The way “Tom Tom” saves Strax’s poor horse from execution because of its inability to navigate the streets of Yorkshire was hilarious. We also see Strax getting to FINALLY shoot his gun, an act that he obviously gets a bit too excited for leading to a scolding by Madame Vastra: “Strax, you’re over excited.  Have you been eating those jelly sherbet fancies again?” I’m not in it for only the jokes, but if there are jokes in Doctor Who, stuff like this is great.

Ada and Mrs. Gillyflower are played by real life mother and daughter Dame Diana Rigg (of Avengers fame) and Rachael Stirling. Rigg is awesome in her role, and one can see that she simply had fun “chewing the scenery”. Their relationship in the episode is pretty dark and goes against the grain of the ongoing trope of “love saves the day” that we have seen constantly through the last few seasons. Once Ada realizes that her mother lied about her blindness and basically lets it slip that she used her as a test subject for the antidote for the preservation process, Ada is a bit less than happy. Let’s just say that Mrs. Gillyflower and Mr. Sweet are a bit worse for wear at the end.


So there we have it, one of my favorite episodes this year, and my favorite Gatiss script altogether! He seems to have the Paternoster Gang down, and hope that he uses them more often. The episode has a few small plot holes, and a bad guy plot just as silly as The Invasion of the Dinosaurs, but that doesn’t matter – it was pure fun! Next week we have Clara and the Kids she babysits facing the Cybermen, in a script by Neil Gaiman! Saturday can’t come soon enough!

Want a way to watch this episode, but don’t have cable? Maybe Amazon is a good choice, that’s how I watch them at least!

The Crimson Horror

The Crimson Horror [HD]



  1. I have to say I have more of an issue with Strax than Vastra; there have been a couple of Silurian-related stories since they were introduced which treated the Silurians seriously as a race (although from a continuity point of view… oh, don’t get me started). I can’t imagine them doing a story with Sontarans as a major threat while Strax is on the scene, or even a recent memory. I can accept a monster as a sympathetic character, but not as a comedy goon.


    • They do need *another* reboot I think. I love Strax, but the Sontarans as a whole have been overshadowed by the ice warriors when it comes to being a cool militaristic race. I wonder if they could do something like make a group of them break off like what they did with the Daleks in the 80’s?


      • Splintering means weakening, I think. I recall the Dalek civil war run of stories mainly being confusing to casual viewers: monsters who are mainly interested in fighting other monsters aren’t as effective as monsters who are after ‘normal’ people. I thought the Sontaran reboot in Sontaran Stratagem was inspired – but the very next episode started undermining them again. Maybe after a nice long rest you could use the Sontarans again as a proper bad guy, but it would be a very odd move right now.


  2. I agree with you on this one. I enjoyed the return of the Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. I don’t care what anybody says, I think they’ve been a great addition to every story they’ve been in so far. It was also nice that Jenny was featured a bit more in this one, since she usually takes a backseat to her alien companions. You’re right about Mark Gatiss having two great scripts this season. I thought both this story and Cold War were great stories.


    • thanks for the comment! yeah Jenny is pretty awesome, it was cool to see her finally step out from the shadows a bit, I wish we could have seen her fight a bit more.


  3. Strax was so much fun this episode, despite being fairly unessential to the plot. Ada snapping was the highlight, though, and it’s nice to see a human villain as thoroughly unsympathetic as Mrs. Gillyflower.


  4. 9/10… So almost perfect, TCH, but (once again), a little nag…

    One of the best of the Clara half of the series so far, the Doctor-lite opening was well played and the scripting was nicely done (and VERY Gatiss).

    Like you, I love the Vastra/Jenny/Strax interaction – fish out of water – and cannot help thinking that there will soon be something in the pipeline to replace the void left by The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood (if it is not in the planning stages already). Strax brings a nice bit of humour to the show – the memory worm a great example – although the Doctor’s own reaction to him in The Snowmen (‘potatohead’) a bit dated and something you’d expect from people seeing a Sontaran for the first time, rather than a seasoned traveller.

    Dame Diana Rigg was superb, and it was lovely to see her relish such a great role – it was good to see she wasn’t as wasted as Celia Imrie in The Bells of St John – and a nice change for her to have a Yorkshire accent, rather than her usual plum tones. Rachel Stirling was also good in her role, and it was nice to see mother and daughter acting together for the first time.

    So, what disappointed? The Doctor’s reaction to Mrs Gillyflower being thrown down the stairwell and Mr Sweet being smashed to pieces for one. He would not have condemned the two deaths in the way he did, and it goes against everything we know of the TimeLord (think Eccleston’s considered approach to Margaret Slitheen’s egg in Boom Town).

    Mr Sweet was also a BIG let down for me. Considering we have seen such great CGI in this series, it is a shame that we’re limited by the animatronics instead. I liken him to the beetle in Turn Left – they’re both models that would seem okay in a kids’ programme, but not in a primetime sci-fi drama.

    So, there you go (and I’m aware that my comments are almost blogs in themselves!)… One of the best of the series, but still not forgivable perfect enough for my liking…


  5. I think Madame Vastra is a great character, and she very much fits in with the established history & characterization of the Silurians.

    Ever since their very first appearance, the Silurians have never been out-and-out evil. Yes, there have been individual Silurians who have been much more ruthless & bloodthirsty than others. But on the whole they’ve always been marked by a real moral ambiguity, in that they do have an equal claim to Earth. And often times it was human beings who ended up acting even worse than them. So the Silurans’ creator Malcolm Hulke never wrote them as “monsters.”

    I’m glad that Moffat has developed the Silurians beyond having them pop up every once in a while to fight with humanity over who should rule the planet. If anything, Vastra shows how complex and nuanced they can be, in that she’s generally disdainful of humans, but she has still accepted the Doctor’s advice to attempt to peacefully co-exist, and she’s even taken a human spouse.

    As for Strax, well, yeah, I do agree that the comedy has at times been played too broadly & frequently. That said, in “The Snowmen” it is explained that when he was resurrected Strax lost some of his brain cells, which is why he’s so dim-witted. I’m sure if other Sontarans were to pop up again, they’d be a lot more competent.


  6. “the wrong hands!” … LOVE everything about this episode! Episodes like this one are exactly why I am happy that my children are Whovians; thought-provoking villain, quick-witted humor, and Good Guys win.

    Strax is a joy! The relationships/dynamics of the Gang remind me of the original Trek: Spock and Bones type discussions. Jenny and Vastra allow my kids to see the non-issue of same-sex relationships, illustrating the People-ness (made that up just now) of love/caring. And that squirming lobster blast ended skrewt Mr Sweet was NOT what I’d expected. …in a good way.

    This show, in all it’s manifestations, should be required viewing for the entire planet.


  7. Jenny and Vastra are very good in that regard! While Captain Jack was definitely a strong homosexual character, he was portrayed with his sexuality out in the open so much it nearly made him feel a bit over the top (especially in Torchwood). I love how the relationship between Jenny and Vastra is never their entire character, they hardly draw attention to it unless Strax does something like question them. “don’t you need a man one to be married”


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