It’s a long time before we actually see the Doctor in “The Crimson Horror,” but when he does arrive in this alternately silly/creepy/fun installment it’s one of the best moments of this “Doctor Who” season so far.
The extended wait for that burst of brilliance and the terrific sepia-tinged montage that follows represents exactly the kind of episode “Crimson” is: not a standout, not a disappointment, but full of great little scenes you’ll be happy to rewatch later.
Aside from the Doctor’s grand entrance — when Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) releases him from his Sweetville prison — most of that great stuff involves the inspired guest casting of British TV legend Diana Rigg as conniving old hag Mrs. Gillyflower and Rigg’s real-life daughter Rachael Stirling as Gillyflower’s put-upon blind daughter Ada.
Rigg and Stirling are simply sensational, both together and individually, throughout the episode and arguably top the superb work from Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine as the ghost hunters in “Hide” to claim a place as the best “Who” guests this season. And what a treat to see Rigg — also chewing the scenery with relish this season on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — go toe-to-toe with Matt Smith, a British TV legend in the making.
“You know what these are?” she teases him during the discussion of her evil plan. “The wrong hands!” Between delicious dialogue like that and the icky revelation of plump pink prehistoric slug Mr. Sweet, “Crimson” delivered its share of clever turns and certainly did Rigg proud. Stirling more than held her own, finding nuance and tragedy in what could have been a throwaway role.
Writer Mark Gatiss also wrote this season’s well-received “Cold War” episode (with the Ice Warriors on the submarine), and has rebounded nicely from his previous lackluster installments “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Victory of the Daleks.” There’s been some talk Gatiss could even assume the role of showrunner if (or when) Steven Moffat steps down, so it’s encouraging he’s finding his groove. (He also co-created the current, deservedly beloved “Sherlock” series with Moffat — so he does have TV bona fides.)
At the same time, we only have two episodes left in Season 7 and the show continues to take itty bitty baby steps toward revealing the mystery of Clara. Despite Jenna-Louise Coleman’s sterling performance in the role, the lack of forward momentum has kept the character at a bit of a remove from the audience, making her more difficult to warm up to than previous 21st Century companions Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy (and Rory).
And although I’ve found every episode since the underwhelming midseason premiere to be nothing less than enjoyable, we haven’t had a truly standout “Who” episode since the current Clara boarded the TARDIS. (And nothing to equal Coleman’s debut as Oswin in Season 7 premiere “Asylum of the Daleks.”)
Since the two episodes left are the much-anticipated return of “The Doctor’s Wife” writer Neil Gaiman (reimagining the Cybermen!) and the big season finale written by Moffat, I’m hoping we’ve got two knockouts to come.
– “I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts, and I’m going to stop you.”
– While we were waiting for the Doctor to arrive, much of the screen time was occupied with the crime-fighting trio of Jenny, Lady Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and Strax (Dan Starkey). Their banter and shenanigans were cute enough and feel well-suited to a kid-friendly spinoff, perhaps one the BBC should commission to fill the void left by “The Sarah Jane Adventures”? (Assuming U.K. viewers are progressive enough to not fret over the happy and loving relationship between Jenny and Vastra on a children’s show.)
– There’s a lot of North/South talk and themes throughout this installment, which likely means significantly more to those living in the U.K. (or intimately familiar with the country and culture) than it does to those of us watching in the U.S.
– The movement on Clara this week: She was back in the Victorian era — just like the Clara who perished in the 2012 Christmas special, “The Snowmen” (also featuring Jenny, Vastra and Strax). Except that Clara lived in London, and our current Clara was visiting Yorkshire (more North/South business there). When Clara returns home to present day London, the kids she cares for have found pictures of her online from various points in time (evidence of her travels with the Doctor), but she’s stunned to discover a picture of herself in 1890s… London.