Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Crimson Horror [7:11]

This is going to be a very boring essay.

The Crimson Horror scores a massive 95.42% on the Ril/Moff scale. It follows that I am not going to have anything particularly interesting to say about it. 

Critical analysis tends to kick in when you are thinking "Ooo...look at those people acting / singing / doing special effects very well / quite well / badly". And if the acting, singing and special effects are doing their jobs, then you shouldn't be aware that you are watching Actors, Singers or Special Effects. You should only be aware that you are watching Sherlock Holmes, Brunhilde or Archie the Inventor doing the kind of stuff that they do. This is why it is possible to love something terrible, like Flash Gordon, and hate something excellent, like Jackson's Lord of the Rings. It is also (come to think of it) why so many theatre critics seem to hate plays and so many restaurant critics seem to hate eating out. And why the True Fan sees everything from Star Trek to the Clangers as providing documentary information about "real events" which "really happened".

So, an actual honest review of the Crimson Horror would go something like this:

Woot! Woot! Funny Sontaran. 
Woot! Woot! Scary lady. 
Woot! Woot! Quite good joke about Sat Nav. 

If a Doctor Who fan from 1983 who knew nothing of Paul McGann or Big Finish could be whisked forward and told "This is a piece of TV from 30 years in your future" he would instantly recognise The Crimson Horror as Doctor Who: a mixture of silly comedy and fairly dark horror; with a recognizably crackers super-boffin in a silly costume at the centre of it all. (What a relief that for the last three weeks Matt Smith has been mostly willing to bounce around be clever and brave and out of his depth and mostly avoided going on and on about how the universe is big, so big, so lonely, lonely, I can't tell you how, big, lonely, I'm so, very very sorry)

But equally and more importantly, if it could be contrived that someone from 2013 were completely unaware of there ever having been a programme called Doctor Who but nevertheless turned their TV on at 7PM on last Saturday, I think that they would have had a very good time, and wanted to come back this week for more of the same. (The fact that "more of the same" is the one thing Moffat is congenitally unable to provide can be discussed in a different seminar.)

Whacky action; part Avengers, part Holmes; full of mad sci-fi trappings but not trying at any level to be "science fiction"; excited by the characters and situations, definitely not taking itself seriously but not exactly taking the piss either. Joyful allusions to vaguely Victorian imagery — dark satanic mills; terrible revivalist meetings; the strange factory, part prison, part health farm; the blind daughter;, the monster in the attic, sort of; the people in suspended animation, kept under class covers, like taxidermists displays. All held together by a science fiction premise that's so perfunctory it's practically not there. And at the centre, the absolutely spot-on decision to hire one of the world's most famous actresses to play — there is no other way of saying this — a pantomime dame. 

The thing it resembled most was "Talons of Weng Chiang", and it was absolutely nothing like that. The last two seasons of Who have consistently made me say "This is doing the same kind of thing that the the Moffat / Gatiss 21st century Holmes reboot does so very much better". This episode made me feel "Why would anyone now want to go back to Sherlock, which is exactly the same thing but without lesbian Silurians, pacifist Sontarans and jurassic shrimps?"

Fans notoriously like closure and completeness. They like to feel that it would be theoretically possible to read every episode of Captain America that there has ever been, and that if they did, it would all hang together as one huge epic cycle, even though it isn't and they wouldn't. New Who, when it has it's head screwed on, resists that kind of closure. Vastra first appeared in "A Good Man Goes to War"; but had no real introduction scene -- she was presented in such a way as to imply that we ought to already know who she was. She then appears as if she were a long-established character in the 2012 Christmas special. Although there is some duterocanonical material explaining where she comes from, there is no real point of origin to follow her back to. There never is. We are always in media res. (We always have been, of course. This is why telling us the Doctor's name would be a really. stupid. idea.)

I suppose you could say that the whole idea of a Silurian operating as a detective out of Victorian London, and the whole idea of a Sontaran driving a hansom cab are just as much fan-pleasing references to Doctor Who mythology as a long wander round the TARDIS with quotes from old episodes playing in the background. But it doesn't feel like that; I suppose because the idea of a soldier who has ostensibly become a pacifist but who still thinks of every problem in military terms is intrinsically funny, even if you have never seen Time Warrior. You and I know that the Silurians have appeared many times in the past but the red leech has never been mentioned before; but if the red leech were an old foe and the Silurians a new addition to the the mythos, "The Crimson Horror" would have been pretty much the same story. Fans have no advantage over casual viewers; it's a glorious silly muddle whatever your starting point. References to old stories are the icing on the cake. In fact they are the tiny little silver balls that are sprinkled on at the last minute to make it look pretty. In Journey to the Center of the the TARDIS, they were the whole cake. 

"The Crimson Horror" is clearly the kind of thing that Moffat wants to be doing; this is the kind of thing that Moffat ought to be doing. Fun, bonkers, deconstructed, non-linear narratives in which loads of clever ideas are chucked out at a pace you can't quite keep up with. Dear Mr Moffat, please make Doctor Who like this one and like the one with dinosaurs and maybe even like the one with the cowboys and never ever make one even a little bit like the one with the TARDIS ever ever again.

NOTE: The only thing which keeps the story from scoring a maximum 100% is the epilogue in which Clara's terrible kids realise that she is a time traveller because they have found pictures of her in the olden days on the Marvelous Mechanical Internet and have never heard of cosplay. And they are in it as supporting characters next week. Oh, god.