Welcome to Yorkshire, 1893, where the Industrial Revolution gets once again taken to task not for its despicable child labor and treacherous workplace conditions, but for acting as a front for creepy alien activity. A serious young man tells his wife he has to go and investigate this “dark and queer business”; moments later, women surround her saying, too bad about that husband of yours! Oh, hey, but her husband’s absolutely fine, thanks — CUE HORRIFIC SCREAMING!
“Oh, hellfire, that’s put me right off my mash,” says a morbid mortician as he shows off a burnt-red corpse, just another in an apparently accumulating pile. It’s “the crimson horror,” he tells his guest, and then demands shillings, because you should pay good money to gawk at a red stiff, even if it is your brother, and coming up at good eerie names for phenomena has to be worth something.
Red Stiff’s brother pays a visit to our old pal Madam Vastra, relaying his suspicions that his newspaperman brother uncovered something terrible before his death. Vastra dismisses the prospect of Opti-gram evidence (“the belief that the eye can retain an image of the last thing it sees”), but takes the photo he hands her. Then he faints away at her lizard-y appearance, even though her veil did a crap job of hiding it in the first place. The Doctor’s image was in Red Stiff’s dead eye? Northward, ho!
Vastra explains Sweetville’s proprietor, Mrs. Gillyflower, recruits only the fittest and the most beautiful, so she plans to send her maid and wife Jenny Flint undercover. “This weak and fleshy boy?” Strax the Potato Man sputters when he realizes he’s not the candidate for their scheme. He instead advocates “scissor grenades, limbo vapor, and trible-blast brain splitters” JUST BECAUSE. I do love me some Strax, extraneous to the plot though he so often is.
“Mrs. Winfred Gillyflower on the Present Moral Decay and the Coming Apocalypse” promises a sign. What a fun-time way to spend a Saturday! Gillyflower lectures a crowd on the “moral turpitude” of the time. Example: her daughter Ada, blinded in a drunken rage by her late husband.
But if they all move to Sweetville, her utopian factory and village, she can show them a way out. Well, she can if they are ridiculously good-looking, because that’s who all gets to hang out in Sweetville. And then no one will get blinded, which is great, because everyone will be smokin’ hot.
“Oh yes dear, you’ll do very nicely,” Gillyflower tells Jenny, a regulation hottie. Vastra explains to Strax that to find the Doctor at Sweetville, Jenny “only needs ignore all keep-out signs, go through every locked door, and run toward any form of danger that presents itself.” Business as usual, they agree. Jenny = pretty badass.
Back at Sweetville, Ada brings sustenance to her very own monster, locked and manacled in a secure room. Let’s see, could that be THE DOCTOR? Outside Vastra’s, the fainting brother passes out when he sees Strax (let’s just call him The Swooning Gentleman). “It asked permission to enter and then it fell over,” Strax huffs, indignant. He pouts when Vastra dismisses his suggestion of a massive frontal assault on the factory (“casualties as little as 80%!) for subtler strategies.
“I hope me teeth don’t let me down!” grins Abigail, Jenny’s new pal who looks like she had Oreo crumbs permanently grafted onto her decaying chompers. Yeah, she’s not going to get picked for the Sweetville Supermodel Shebang. Jenny gives her a guinea to have “a fit of the vapours” as a distraction so she can get to her badassery and pick locks, kick ass, and take names.
Oh, HILARIOUS — Jenny finds the clanging sounds of factory machinery are recordings broadcast by Victrolas. Wait, what are those sexy compliant men doing with that huge batch of red liquid? Meanwhile, Vastra visits the Morbid Mortician so he can show her the pickled bits of people he’s fished out of the canal. I bet he doesn’t get a lot of second dates. She’s seen these symptoms “about 650 million years ago.”
“Will Mister Sweet ever join us for dinner, mama?” Ada asks.
Mrs. Gillyflower tut-tuts and makes an elaborate ruse of knocking over the salt cellar so she can sprinkle some down her shirt. I mean. That seems excessive. Ada is blind. I doubt she’d put up a huge stink if her mom just grabbed salt and started silently pouring it down her blouse.
Jenny sneaks around Sweetville, soon locating Ada’s “monster”. “All right, mate, you just stay calm now,” she advises, promising to let him out juuuust after he’s tried to grab her with his manacled red hand. Jenny ain’t afraid of no monsters, okay? Opening the door with her lockpicking kit, she reveals — THE DOCTOR! Yes, this was not exactly a shock, but it actually played out quite nicely.
“Can’t you speak?” she inquires. “Ahhhh!” he moans, with Matt Smith doing some very nice Frankenstein’s Monster stylings complete with inarticulate verbalizing and stiff lurching. Ada unfortunately overhears this excellent bit of physicality, running to find that her monster, all she has, has slipped his manacles.
The Doctor leads Jenny to the door with the red porthole; both watch people lowered into a vat of red liquid. Sonic Screwdriver-ing-time! With a few sloshy sounds behind a door, the Doctor’s as good as new. “Just when you think your favorite lock-picking Victorian chambermaid will never turn up,” he effuses, grabbing Jenny and dipping her for a kiss. She slaps him hard, because hey, MARRIED and also not Doctor-sexual.
“Long story,” he says grimly of how he came to be there. “I’ll keep it short.” Cue quick cuts of the Doctor and Clara turning up in Yorkshire stumbling onto the mystery, complete with vintage filters to make the photos and footage seem authentically olde time-y.
Ah, they were the ones working with newsman Edmund, who wondered why Gillyflower, a “prizewinning chemist and mechanical engineer” (no small feat, that, for a Victorian woman!) would open a match factory in her old hometown. No one who goes in ever comes out, making it even more obvious that the secrets of Sweetville won’t be Oompa Loompas and chocolicious waterfalls.
“The Crimson Horror!” the Morbid Mortician gets to say several more times as he describes the bodies turning up in the canal, glowing like “something manky in a coal cellar.” The Doctor mentions the “Old Romani superstition”, the lingering image in a dead person’s eye, made possible with massive corruption of the chemical composition of the body. TIME FOR SCIENCE!
The Doctor busts out a chemistry set and experiments on the red goo, showing it to be venom, and spilling dry ice fog everywhere.
“The Doctor and Mrs. Smith!” Gillyflower exults over the Doctor and Clara, posing as a married couple. They’ll do very nicely, what with being super hot and all. Why name her industrial paradise Sweetville, they ask. Ah, it’s the name of “my silent partner” who keeps to himself. Wanna bet the silent partner is some kind of brain slug? Victorian prejudice: they don’t allow brain slugs at the dinner table.
When the Doctor and Clara open a door to find people under a giant bell jar, like staged wax figures in a preserving display, some very attractive goons rush to grab them. Soon they’re dipped into the vat of red goo. “Like pretty maids all in a row,” Gillyflower coos, admiring her recruits such as Clara who made it Still Pretty through the process. “Into the canal with the rejects, Ada,” she commands, but Ada finds her “monster”, the Doctor, in the reject pile and secrets him to a locked room.
Ada fawns over her monster while the Doctor screams, apparently in massive amounts of pain. D: Oh, look, another man who’s been burned red stumbles into the room and screams at the Doctor — that’s how the whole Opti-gram thing happened. But there remains the mystery of how blind!Ada was supposed to heft all those stiff reject corpses down to the canal in the first place, hmm.
The Doctor declares they’ve got to find Clara. Uh, Clara’s dead, right? No, no, Jenny, you’re thinking of Victorian Clara! This Clara’s totally alive. “It’s complicated,” the Doctor says grudgingly.
Nearby, Strax threatens to eat the horse who has “failed in your mission!” to take him to Sweetville, but geez, it would be the fourth this week, “and I’m not even hungry.” Poor horses! D: A child named Thomas Thomas gives strangely specific directions (he makes an adorable little TomTom GPS). Meanwhile, “Clara died! The Ice Lady? Doctor!” Jenny reminds Eleven, trying to make him see sense. At last they burst into another residence to find Clara preserved under a glass jar.
Finding Ada crying over her lost monster, her mother yells about rejects on the loose interfering with “the great work.” Ada crawls, sobbing for reassurance there’s a place for her in the New Eden. “You know I cannot bear to look at sick people,” Gillyflower scoffs, proclaiming that “only perfection is good enough” and with the bright day done, “you are for the dark.” Cripes. Someone doesn’t deserve a wildflower bouquet on Mothering Sunday!
The Doctor tries to revive Clara in the cupboard. “Oh, great, attack of the supermodels,” he grumbles when attractive minions show up with vengeance on their blank minds.
“This one’s on me,” Jenny offers, revealing her ninja superhero outfit. I love Jenny and her ass-kicking ways, but there’s hardly any actual ass-kicking before they have to run from the good-looking crazies and their bats.
Strax runs inside in his spacesuit to help, promptly gets accused of “eating Miss Jenny’s Sherbet Fancies again” and slumps out. “Long story,” the Doctor grumps at Vastra as Clara emerges, revived, and boops him on the nose. “What’s going on?” Jenny whispers, taking in Vastra fairly calmly. It’s actually a bit weird to hear Clara speak at this point, as she’s had almost no dialogue in this episode. “Haven’t you heard, love?” he asks. “There’s trouble at t’mill. She’s a lizard,” he adds about Vastra.
Man, Clara barely bats an eye at Vastra. I know The Swooning Gentleman’s supposed to be silly, but Vastra is supposed to disarm people who haven’t seen Silurians before. We could say Clara’s just that awesome! But I’d love to see some kind of eye-batting, if only because I’ve always adored how past companions like Rose and Donna and Martha in the NuWho have their own specific reactions to meeting aliens or finding themselves in strange environments, reactions that have grown beautifully out of their individual circumstances and backgrounds. I guess what I’m saying is that I like Clara pretty well (and I think Jenna-Lousie Coleman’s lovely), but we need more CLARA in our Clara, more fleshed out reactions with reasons behind them rather than a few coy looks, rapid-fire dialogue, and being cool with absolutely everything ever.
Vastra reminds us her people once ruled this world, and they faced the most virulent enemy, the plague of “the repulsive red leech”. Nope, on balance Eleven still prefers “The Crimson Horror” (and I totally kept expecting the Morbid Mortician to turn up so he could intone “The Crimson HORROR!” again).
In Vastra’s day it was a tiny parasite infecting the drinking water, secreting poison. “Maybe it’s evolved,” the Doctor muses. “Maybe it’s had help.” Probably the help of a prizewinning lady chemist. I’M JUST SAYING!
“Doctor, I’ve been thinking,” Clara interrupts before the Doctor listens to her clue about the chimney that doesn’t blow smoke. “Clever clogs,” he praises her. “Miss me?” “Yeah, lots,” he answers, kissing her on the forehead. They’re cute together, but I’m not squeeing with delight like I want to be. Maybe it’s the mystery/not-mystery of Clara dragging on (and wanting to know more about her than montages of the Doctor creeping on her younger self) that’s blocking me.
Say, how’s Gillyflower planning to poison the air? “With that, I should think,” Clara says, pointing out the missile. Oh, that’s where the red liquid was going (and why Gillyflower randomly needed a mechanical engineering background). Gillyflower shows up at the keyboards of a massive organ, only to make it spin round and reveal a cyber-punk-y control panel to shoot that poison rocket high into the sky!
The Doctor finds Ada sobbing away, and consoles her that she saved him, saying her physical hindrances haven’t anything to do with her being sinful as she fears. But “even now I cannot betray mama,” to tell them about Mister Sweet. “Well, come with us, then. There’s something you need to know.” You’ll be betraying your mom soon enough, girl!
Jenny and Vastra scope out the supermodel minions preparing the silo of the missile. At Mission Control, the Doctor bursts in on Gillyflower with an “I’m the Doctor, you’re nuts, and I’m going to stop you.” Ah, but she has Mister Sweet, and “Mister Sweet is always with us.” They’ve got a close relationship. Symbiotic, you might say! Ewww, he’s a nasty leech on her chest. That’s much worse than a brain slug.
I’ll just step out and say Dame Diana Rigg and her real-life daughter Rachael Stirling were absolutely the best part of this episode as Winifred and Ada Gillyflower. Their relationship here is fabulously horrible and toxic; you can see how Mark Gatiss’s has borrowed from a long line of cinematic poisonous mother-daughter relationships (particularly of the Hollywood setting variety) to fantastic effect. Though I’m always glad to see Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, the marvelous imperious railing and then scene-stealing madness Rigg got to show off blew everything else away in a venomous delight of a performance.
Back to more dis-goost-ing Mister Sweet, who “has grown fat on the filth humanity has pumped into the rivers!” The Doctor pleads Gillyflower has no idea what she’s dealing with; in the wrong hands, that venom could wipe out all life on the planet. “Do you know what these are?” she asks gleefully, wagging her hands. “The wrong hands!” Oh my GOD! *chokes with laughter*
Once “Mister Sweet’s beneficence” is bestowed, killing most of humanity, Gillyflower’s “new Adams and Eves will step out into a golden dawn.” Uh, what about Ada, the Doctor asks. Dismissing her daughter as trivial, Gillyflower gloats she experimented on Ada, a necessary sacrifice to devise an antitoxin for herself. “You hag, you perfidious hag, you virago, you harpy!” Ada shrieks on hearing the truth.
While the Villainess is suitably distracted by her daughter whoomping her with her cane, the Doctor and Clara turn their attention to destroying the controls. “I’ve got a Sonic Screwdriver,” he points out. “I’ve got a chair,” she advises him, before throwing it into the works.
“Youv’e always been so useful,” Gillyflower tells Ada before holding her at gunpoint to escape the Doctor. “Chairs are useful,” the Doctor says, inspired by Clara’s throw-down; he breaks a window so they can escape and follow. He pleads with Gillyflower to let Ada go, but aha, there’s that “secondary firing mechanism” Mrs. G.’s headed for: she sings her hymn from the apocalypse meeting and hits the switch.
Oh, thank god Vastra and Jenny were doing something besides providing reaction shots; they hefted the poison out of the rocket and rendered Mister Sweet’s “lethal kiss” harmless as a fireworks show. “You’ll have to die, you freaks,” Mrs. G. snaps, but not before she’s knocked over the stairs by Strax’s return fire.
Mister Sweet, being an opportunist of a repulsive red leech, abandons the dying Gillyflower. “Forgive me,” Mrs. G. cries to Ada. “Never,” Ada whispers. “That’s my girl,” Gillyflower says before kicking it. Wow, so much messed up in one relationship! *slow-clap*
What will the Doctor do with Mister Sweet? Oh, he could take it to the Jurassic era, out of harm’s way, he muses. Nope, because Ada’s going to HULK SMASH that leeching red jerkwad dead with her cane!
Danger averted, the gang gathers outside as the Doctor and Clara prepare to move on. Clara’s had “enough of Victorian values for a bit.” “You’re the boss,” Eleven says happily, to which Clara coyly asks, “Am I?” Ada seems emboldened now that her smothering mother is dead and her horrible letch of a step-father is killed (ho ho). She’s resolved to “step out of the darkness and into the light,” which the Doctor thinks she’ll be splendid at.
The Doctor bids adieu to Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, telling them to have some Pontefract Cakes for him (licorice, ew, almost as gross as Mister Sweet). “That girl, Clara: you haven’t explained,” Jenny points out. “No, I haven’t.” Okay, look. Either there’s no mystery, and Clara’s a perfectly normal girl, or there IS a mystery, and we’re going to need some time devoted to unraveling it instead of mentioning it/revealing something that leaves us at a standstill/hitting rewind with a memory wipe.
The Swooning Gentleman turns up just in time to swoon at the TARDIS dematerializing. Poor guy. I hope someone checks him for concussions.
Clara’s back at the Maitlands! I was hoping we’d see more of them again, maybe to give us more sense of who Clara is besides sass and banter. “I am the boss,” Clara intones with a Transformers action figure in hand. Whoopsie, she’s not the boss anymore; her young charges have found pictures online from different eras basically proving Clara’s been waltzing around through time. And they want in on the time traveling, okay? It’s a bit goofy and contrived, but hey, I like manipulative kid characters, and I’ve been waiting for more of these particular kids, so I’m totally on board.
Saaaayy, though, how did that photo of Clara from Victorian London show up online when Clara’s only been to Victorian Yorkshire? A little seed of sumthin’-sumthin’ gets planted in Clara’s mind (LET’S HOPE): maybe she’ll start to discover there are various Claras in the Doctor’s life before she can lose that seed of doubt again with a too-convenient reset-button hit?
Whooooo-areeeeee-wthoooo-alloo! How’d you like revisiting Victorian England with the Doctor and Clara No. 3? When are we going to get that full-on Vastra and Jenny with Strax spin-off, Mister Moffatt? And will we at last advance in the mystery of Clara’s time-and-space multiplicity next week, or end up back at Normal Girl square one? Please do join me and find out! :D