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.

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