Can Diana Rigg make all the television? Now, please? The former Emma Peel is getting a brand new lease on life in genre TV — first Game of Thrones, and now Doctor Who. Tonight's "Crimson Horror" wasn't particularly a standout episode in general, but god, was Diana Rigg amazing. Especially this bit. Spoilers...
It's kind of hilarious that Diana Rigg is the only woman to have married James Bond, and now she basically gets to be a Bond villain, only in Victorian England and with a batty storyline about utopian manufacturing communities and apocalyptic Christianity and prehistoric parasites bolted on top. Mostly, I just love the way she delivers the line, "You know what these are? The wrong hands!"
Here, I made a GIF of it, which I almost put up top but it's a bit spoilery because you can see her parasite:
Diana Rigg gets every last bit of juice out of her role as Mrs. Gillyflower, the leader of Sweetville, a community that's both match factory and a utopian commune of sorts. She's agreeably batty, whether she's preaching sermons against the evils of modern life and the coming apocalypse, or plotting to rain prehistoric venom from her vaguely steampunk rocket and slaughter the entire world, apart from her chosen, preserved few.
This is our second Victorian adventure of late, following on from "The Snowmen," which means that we get another dose of Vastra, Jenny and Strax, who have become semi-regular supporting characters on the show now. These characters are collectively a single joke, told over and over again — and yet it hasn't stopped being funny, at all. Strax calling Jenny a boy, berating the horse, getting overexcited and wanting to plan a massive frontal assault every few minutes is still as cute as it was last time. And meanwhile, Vastra is still freaking out the locals with her reptilian face and proud same-sex marriage, among other things. Jenny is just sort of a generic badass — but this time around she gets to wear a leather catsuit and beat people up. It's all good.
Although of course, Strax is right in that a frontal assault would actually solve all the problems in this episode. But whatever.
This is also the first time the Victorian trio have met the new Clara, but we don't get much forward movement about that — they ask the Doctor how Clara can be alive, but he doesn't really answer, and they don't press the issue.
By the way, am I the only one who knew the Doctor was the "monster" in the top room the moment we heard Ada the blind girl speaking to him? It seemed pretty obvious, given that he was somewhere around and something had happened to him.
To the extent that there's a story here, rather than just a collection of fun set pieces wrapped around a zany idea — and there's nothing wrong with a collection of fun pieces wrapped around a zany idea, per se — it's about "Victorian Values." Clara says she's tired of them at the end of the episode, and you might remember that the Doctor also denounces Victorian values quite a bit towards the end of "The Snowmen."
What does this show mean when it talks about "Victorian values?" It's hard to say. In "The Snowmen," it had something to do with the father not communicating with his grieving children, which was tied to Dr. Simeon wanting to populate the world with ice people. And the Doctor also describes "Victorian values" as seeing something new and wanting to make a profit on it.
This time around, Mrs. Gillyflower's obsession with perfection and purity is apparently the "Victorian values" we're talking about. She believes the world has gotten corrupted by bad morals, which are reflected in outward signs like her daughter Ada's scarred face, and she wants to use the venom of the prehistoric leech, Mr. Sweet, to preserve the best and most beautiful people, so they alone will populate the world after the apocalypse she causes. Once again, there's a lot of repression, particularly shown in the dinner scene where Ada tries to inquire after Mr. Sweet, only to be shot down. This time it's matriarchal rather than patriarchal, but the apparently absent (but actually present) Mr. Sweet is placed in the role of patriarch.
And I guess, there's a contrast — good Victorian women (like Jenny) have Emma Peel-esque leather catsuits under their fancy dresses and bodices. Bad Victorian women (like Mrs. Gillyflower) have patriarchal leeches hidden under their clothes instead.
It's not particularly deep — and the knife-twist is supposed to come when we learn that Mrs. Gillyflower, not her late husband, was responsible for scarring Ada's face and blinding her as she experimented to find the right dosage of leech venom. Why doesn't Ada remember this? And why did Mrs. Gillyflower, who seems perfectly happy to dunk hundreds of other people into prehistoric leech venom and see if they die or not, experiment on her own daughter first instead of finding some random vagrant?
(Also, why don't the police investigate the factory that's dumping loads of bodies in the canal and being none too subtle about it? And why aren't more people upset about the fact that everybody who goes inside Sweetville disappears? But whatever.)
The fact that Mrs. Gillyflower has scarred her own daughter — and then reveals that she has no place for her in her utopian future — is supposed to be a massive indictment of Victorian values, the values that we still grapple with, to some extent, today. And yet, it feels flimsy, and the takeaway seems to be "some mothers are kind of bonkers." Not that this episode needs to have a message, but it seems to want to.
(What's great, though: Ada refusing to forgive Mrs. Gillyflower one last time, and Mrs. Gillyflower saying, "That's my girl.")
And once again, the presence of Jenny, Madame Vastra and Strax sort of makes it impossible for us to believe in the Victorian setting too fervently — they're hilarious and awesome and mostly lovely, but they're also living proof that the Victorian era was apparently tolerant and open-minded and easy-going and even sort of blase. I mean, maybe we're supposed to think the Victorians are so repressed that they don't even have the wherewithal to comment on the strange creatures in their midst — but people just seem to accept a Sontaran and a Silurian bonking around London and the North, making pretty much no attempt to conceal their features, and acting totally ridiculous. (Random thought: What does Torchwood think of Vastra and Strax being in London? Remember Torchwood? They were at their height of power and fervency in the late 19th century, weren't they?)
Obviously, Victorian Britain was a cute and cuddly place when monsters could be themselves and people fell comfortably into comedy archetypes like the jovial, slightly rough-tongued coroner. And people came out with "penny dreadful" phrases like "The Crimson Horror" with a certain amount of relish. There's absolutely nothing wrong with making the Victorian era campy — but then don't turn around and try to comment on Victorian values, because it probably won't work all that well.
But in any case, this episode wasn't really about any of that — it was about Diana Rigg being completely silly and awesome as a mad supervillain. And honestly, that's more than enough.