The Companions of Doctor Who: K-9 and Company, 1987, Terence Dudley
How the story of a young female journalist and her robot dog fighting Satanists in rural England didn’t get picked up for a full series, I will never know…
There are two things this episode did right that I’m quite happy with. The first is actually provide a resolution to the forced mystery of “who is Clara” that, while not entirely satisfying, pays off and makes a certain degree of narrative sense, while also giving a nice nod to the show’s history. Yeah, it’s a bit forced as far as resolutions go and there’s no convincing arguments that it was properly seeded within the stories themselves, hinging as it does on a rather convenient catch-phrase.
The second thing the episode did well was actually make me like River Song again. Granted, it did this by pretty emphatically drawing a line under her character’s time with the show, but here she was the foil for the Doctor that she was always clearly meant to be. She also gets the single best exit for a companion in the new series since that brief and shining moment when we actually thought Rose was gone for good.
But then there’s the rest of the episode, which to be precise, was an incoherent mess. It’s not just that using the Great Intelligence as the villain is completely unsatisfying. He/it/they have only had one prominent appearance this season, and only appeared twice during the original series, so as a villain willing to hound the Doctor to his tomb to undo time, it just doesn’t fit. The Whispermen are a horrific visual, but that’s all they are; they’re a gimmick in search of a story to hang on, only Moffatt didn’t even bother to do that much. I can forgive the use of Vastra, Jenny and Strax as the hostages to force the Doctor to open his tomb, because given the logistics of television production, these are the actors available. But storywise we just haven’t seen that the Doctor has a strong enough connection to these characters to make their peril seem legitimate. We’re told he does, but it’s never been shown to us.
The big fake-out with the Doctor’s name I can forgive as well; there’s no real reason to suspect the show would actually have been willing to go there. What I have a harder time forgiving is the complete abandonment, again, of dangling plot threads from the past. We were given repeated warnings of how important Trenzalore was, and how dangerous it would be for the Doctor to go there. An entire species organized a religious movement to somehow prevent him from getting there by killing him before he could (we’ll ignore that this would apparently create an even worse paradox, because the Silence were apparently idiots). And when the moment finally comes it’s because…a minor villain was thwarted a couple of times, and the people trying to prevent this are nowhere to be seen. I know Moffatt gets grief, deservedly, for dropping plot points that much is made of (like, say, a TARDIS exploding while an ominous voice drops prophetic hints), but if this was his attempt to tie storylines of the past three years together, it really comes off as a rush job. As if he just threw together a resolution for the sake of having one.
As for the final reveal, I won’t lie: I groaned. It’s too early to say what this previously unknown version of the Doctor actually means for the show. Fake outs shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point. Mostly I’m tired of the “everything you know is wrong” school of revelations for long running stories. It doesn’t make me excited for what you have planned (Moffatt has taught me that anything important won’t be followed up on meaningfully in any case), it frustrates me that a lazy retcon is being presented as something to be excited by.
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.
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.