Ugh. This is why I don’t want Mark Gatiss to be the next showrunner. I barely tolerated this episode when it first aired, and my impression has barely improved upon this re-watching. I mean, I tried. I tried to put aside how repelled I remember being by the episode when I first saw it, and be open to reassessing my impression, but it’s so difficult to watch this and feel anything other than exasperation. I know Mark Gatiss can write good stories. His effort earlier in the series, Cold War, was a great success. I liked The Unquiet Dead, Night Terrors and Robot of Sherwood. I’ll even make time for The Idiot’s Lantern. I love his work in Sherlock. But this episode is an exemplar of Gatiss’s tendency sometimes to lapse into the formulaic and the unbearably trite. The plot itself is not uninteresting or unimaginative; it’s quite a good idea, actually — it’s just written in a way that’s unengaging and predictable. It’s a standard throwaway “Dr Who fights the bad guys” episode. A cut-and-paste, drag-and-drop, standard-issue Doctor Who script. That said, a standard-issue script in Doctor Who is invariably a lot better than the common run of mainstream television, but, as a Doctor Who episode, it’s a fairly poor effort.
I’ll at least say that it begins well. Like I said, I thought the idea was interesting and had potential. The story hooks the viewer in with the intrigue surrounding the slimy Mrs Gillyflower and her idyllic “city upon a hill” community, Sweetville, as well as the horrific “crimson horror” disease and how it’s all connected. Our noses really prick up when Jenny discovers the Doctor, semi-petrified like one of the crimson horror victims, but still alive. It’s all going well up until the point the Doctor cures himself in the healing chamber. It’s from that point on that the episode gives the impression that Mark Gatiss lost interest, as it all becomes very derivative and uncommitted. The Doctor finds Clara and cures her. He confronts Mrs Gillyflower, who reveals her evil plans. The Doctor frustrates aforementioned evil plans. The end.
In particular, I couldn’t help but facepalm over that resolution. Mrs Gillyflower is about to fire her rocket and destroy the world, but, aha! Vastra and Jenny have disabled it! “Foiled again! And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” the old crone spits (I’m paraphrasing). So she turns her pistol on the Doctor and his gang, but not before Strax inexplicably appears from above and blasts Mrs Gillyflower down. And the world is safe for another day, thanks to the Doctor and his friends. The point I’m trying to make is that the last five minutes gave the impression they were written with undignified haste and minimal application of the great creative capacities I know Mark Gatiss possesses. It was trite par excellence. Mrs Gillyflower was duly camp, as I suppose she was intended to be, but there is such a thing as too camp, for example, when the villain’s motive is, seemingly, an uncomplicated, cheery desire to destroy all human life. Mrs Gillyflower was the leader of a fanatical religious cult, but she was portrayed more as cynically exploiting the religious fanaticism and gullbility of her followers for her own wicked ends; religious fanaticism wasn’t what actuated her, which is a shame, as, if it was, it would have made her character and her actions much more believable. As it stands she’s just a raving misanthropic psychopath. Very convincing that. And don’t even get me started on Mr Sweet; that thing was just ridiculous.
Every Doctor Who story is a mixture of good and bad, though, and this one does have its good points. The setting was realised well, and integrated nicely with the plot. It’s probably one of the main things that made the more tiring parts of the episode watchable. The direction was all fairly robust; the episode looked good, at least. Secondly, despite being poorly written, the character of Mrs Gillyflower was played with distinction by Diana Rigg, who made the cackling, mad old hag compelling and enjoyable to watch, at least. Ada was also played really sympathetically by Rachael Stirling, daughter of Rigg, and the budding relationship between Ada and the Doctor was one of the better aspects of this script. Their eventual meeting, after the Doctor was cured and flexible again, was sweet. I’ve said before that I tend to find the Paternoster Gang tiresome, but in this episode I at least found them more tolerable than usual, especially Strax, who got some amusing lines. Nonetheless, I’m afraid these points don’t come close to redeeming what I found to be a very irksome and tedious story, one I don’t plan to watch again (willingly) for a long time.