The Challenge of Smoke Wade, 1951, Robert J. Hogan
Sometimes it takes a lot of character to refrain from pointing out the unintentional homoeroticism of western paperback covers…
The Challenge of Smoke Wade, 1951, Robert J. Hogan
From the moment you see a character walk on screen in pseudo-Victorian garb, wearing a bent top hat, you’re reminded “oh yeah, this is the Neil Gaiman episode.”
Fortunately, that sort of affected character is the only Gaimanism in this episode. Which isn’t to say that, overall, this was a great story. Again, we’ve got an episode that is, at best, only okay. Not bad enough to really complain about, but not good enough to be worthy of praise. A big part of this is how badly over-hyped the episode ended up being. If you paid any attention to the press leading up to it, this was the episode that was supposed to make the Cybermen “scary” again. That’s a fairly subjective way to promote an episode, and does a big disservice to the writer of virtually every Cybermen story since the series returned. But it turned out to be mostly talk, as the only evidence of increased “scariness” on display was a dodgy super-speed effect that was only used once.
The other major problems with the story are two elements that probably seemed clever at the time, but don’t work in the finished episode. The first was having Matt Smith argue with himself for a large chunk of the story. Smith actually does quite a good job playing an evil-minded version of the Doctor, and there’s probably story potential in the concept, but scenes inside the Doctor’s head, and cross-cutting between different angles of Smith, come off as somewhat cheap and silly in the end. Not as risible as Gollum arguing with himself, no, but up there on the scale. The other aspect that never quite came together were the child actors. If the characters were meant to be written as rude, obnoxious brats you wouldn’t mind seeing horribly killed, well, then the writing was actually quite strong. But the characters annoying attitude towards being on another planet in the future was so broad and over-stated that it’s hard to tell what anyone was actually going for with this portrayals. Was this a grumpy old man portrayal of “kids today”, so jaded that not even time travel impresses them?
Plot wise, it’s a return to the old “base under siege” stand-by, with some nice nods to old series Cybermen continuity. (I myself was quite pleased to see not only an acknowledgement that gold is an effective weapon against them, but a reasonable explanation for sad nerds like me as to why it isn’t anymore.) The abandoned amusement park setting was a nice idea, but could have been used better. As it is, it felt mostly like an excuse to save money by reusing a lot of old costumes, props and sets. And it would have been nice to avoid the new series cliche of “and all the monsters are all dead forever, except they’re not.” It was silly when they did it with every Dalek episode, and it’s silly here. Monster can be defeated “for now.” Not every encounter has to be a universe-threatening catastrophe.
Heroes & Monsters of Greek Myth, 1967, Bernard Evslin, Dorothy Evslin and Ned Hoopes
One of the interesting quirks of Doctor Who fandom is the wide disparity in opinion that mediocre episodes engender. Part of this is probably due to larger fandom trends: everything has to be awesomesauce or the worst. episode. ever. More frequently than is probably healthy for anyone, merely mediocre episodes aren’t allowed to be, well, mediocre. And so Mark Gatiss offering us another bit of Victorian camp in “The Crimson Horror” is either the lowest depths to which the show can sink, or the best thing ever. And not just a bit of old school Who cheese.
Most of the awesomesauce audience is reacting to the episode because it marks the return and prominent screen-time to lesbian lizard-lady Madame Vastra, ninja maid Jenny, and potato butler Strax. And while Dan Starkey brings much needed comic relief to the show in his portrayal of Strax, Vastra and Jenny are mostly just…there. They’re one note, and while their initial appearances seemed promising, it’s now clear that they really function best as background reminders of how weird, strange and delightful the Doctor Who universe can be, not as leading characters in their own light. There’s simply not enough to them to justify giving them leading roles.
The complaints that this was the worst thing ever broadcast on tv seem equally odd to me. No, this wasn’t by any measure a good episode. Diana Rigg chews scenery shamelessly, apparently never having gotten the memo that the tone of the series isn’t quite as high camp as it was in the 80s. The “monster” is an equally shameless rubber puppet, and the script never quite goes as full throatedly for the themes of religious fundamentalism leading to apocalyptic extremism that it suggests on the surface. The only visual inventiveness is the use of grainy film-tones for a flash-back sequence, and a slight nod to another bit of Victorian camp from the original series, “Ghost Light.” Only Rachel Stirling puts in a genuinely compelling performance, as the blind and unloved daughter of Rigg’s villainess, and she mostly functions as a plot device.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with mediocre Doctor Who. In fact, I rather prefer mediocre Who to the cringe-worthy stories we’ve been getting most of this season. But when mediocre seems to be the best the show can aspire to, something has gone deeply wrong.
Uncle Pogo So-So Stories, 1953, Walt Kelly
2000 AD–2000 AD
Aphrodite IX #1—Image
Atomic Robo—Red 5 Comics
Avatar: The Last Airbender/Star Wars—Dark Horse
Bongo Comics Free-For-All—Bongo Comics
Buck Rogers—Hermes Press
Chakra the Invincible—Graphic India
DC Nation Super Sampler—DC Comics
Endangered Weapon B—AAM/Markosia
Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.—Marvel Comics
Judge Dredd Classics—IDW
Kaboom Summer Blast—Boom Entertainment
Marble Season—Drawn and Quarterly
Mass Effect/RIPD/Killjoys—Dark Horse Comics
Molly Danger—Action Lab
NFL Rush Zone—Action Lab
Overstreet Comic Book Marketplace—Gemstone Publishing
Pippi/Anna and Froga—Drawn and Quarterly
Ramayan 3392 AD—Graphic India
Rated Free for Everyone—Oni Press
The Red Ten—Comix Tribe
RuRouni Kenshin: Restoration/Dragonball—Viz
Scratch 9—Hermes Press
Sesame Street/Strawberry Shortcake—Ape Entertainment
Sonic and Mega Man: Worlds Collide Prelude—Archie Comics
Spongebob Freestyle Funnies—Bongo Comics
The Steam Engines of Oz—Arcana
The Strangers—Oni Press
The Suff of Legend/Finding Gossamyr—Th3rd World Studios
Superman: Last Son of Krypton—DC Comics
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles New Animated Adventures—IDW
Top Shelf Kids Club—Top Shelf Comics
The Walking Dead—Image
World of Archie Digest—Archie
Worlds of Aspen 2013—Aspen
Quite possibly the stupidest possible resolution to a problem in a time travel themed story that you could think of is to hit a reset button so that the events of the story never actually happened. In terms of insulting your audience and showing disdain for characters, it’s not quite as bad as the “it’s all a dream” ending, but it’s close. The only way to make a giant reset button ending even worse is if you actually have a giant reset button be the mechanism by which everything is reset.
Which is exactly what happens in Steven Thompson’s story. It’s utterly baffling how anyone involved in the production of the series thought this was a good idea. But then, this is the same Steven Thompson who wrote the bafflingly racist “The Blind Banker” episode of Sherlock under Moffat’s watch, so incredibly bad ideas making their way through to the television screen is not completely unexpected.
Nothing is accomplished in this episode, and what little progress is made on the “mystery” of the season is undone by the stupid and insulting ending. Even the few good moments are rendered awful by the ending. We almost had a possible explanation for the abandoned “the TARDIS explodes” plotline, but no. Even a resolution to the forced “who is the Doctor” story is offered, in a way that actually thematically works, but no, it’s undone.
This is an awful excuse for Doctor Who.
Mini-Mysteries, 1973, Julia Remine Piggin
Neil Cross’ second episode of the season works, but it works for several reasons, some of which are slightly complicated. For one, this is the first episode in a long time that feels like a throwback to an earlier era. Specifically, this feels like a story that could have fit in quite well during the period when Robert Holmes was the show’s script editor, or for that matter Andrew Cartmel’s tenure in the same role. Superficially, it’s because the gothic pseduo-supernatural setting paired with the science-fiction hand waving explanations, matches the tenor of those periods and the kinds of stories the writers were interested in telling. The choice of period works along with these, as with some set dressing and costuming, the episode has the same look and feel of 70s British television horror, the period that gave us The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones and Sapphire and Steel.
The story works for reasons beyond the expert recreation of the mood of the stories of the past. The limited sets and relatively small stakes of the story mean that it’s much more focused, with room for characterization and exploration. Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine are each given nice moments to build character and properly emote, and Matt Smith and Jenna Louise Coleman also get some good bonding moments. Clara gets some particularly good dialogue and depth, which is nice, because we’re again given an episode where she doesn’t have much to do. Even the obligatory moments devoted to the mystery of Clara are integrated as seamlessly as possible and fit with the tone and flow of the story.
While it was nice to have a story where the “monster” turns out to be nothing of the sort, a nice tie-in to the relative morality of the Ice Warrior last week, and a change of pace for the show in general, the story is somewhat let down by the actual presence of the monster. In that this is a story that didn’t really need one. A ghost that turns out to be an out-of-phase time traveler is story enough. While the presence of a monster fits the Gothic tone of the story, it doesn’t serve much purpose other than to be misunderstood. The resolution of that aspect of the story is tacked-on, almost an afterthought, and very much occurring after the real climax. Again, it feels a little bit more like a need to have a toy for each episode than an actual story requirement.