After 50 years, it's not easy to wrap a neat descriptive sentence around the answer to that question. There are people who still tag this show as a "children's program". Others label it as "science fiction". Neither label provides an accurate or completely satisfying description of what the show is. And nothing challenges either of these labels as much as when Doctor Who delves into horror.
OK, I got lazy and went to Wikipedia for this but "horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling one gets after coming to an awful realization or experiencing a deeply unpleasant occurrence."
Horror has been a part of Doctor Who's DNA back to the classic era. From Tom Baker's era alone, some of the best episodes were the ones that tapped into horror: the aptly named "Horror of Fang Rock", "The Brain of Morbius", "The Talons of Weng Chiang", "State of Decay", "The Hand of Fear" and even "Ark in Space" were rooted as much in the conventions of horror as science fiction.
The third episode of the revived series, "The Unquiet Dead", was as much or even more a horror story than a sci-fi tale.
In every sense, Saturday's new episode of Doctor Who, "The Crimson Horror", is an excellent example of Whovian horror at its best, with genuine thrills mixed with humor and wit.
Before we move on....you know, I really don't do a lot of details in these write ups but just in case I slip up and say something stupidly specific....
Like "The Unquiet Dead", Mark Gatiss pens "The Crimson Horror" which is also set in Victorian England. Our resident oddball detectives of the era, Madame Vestra (our Silurian in London), her wife Jenny and Strax the Sontaran, are on the trail of a most parculiar series of murders ending with red corpses. The mystery leads them to a cult or a commune (or a really, really long sales pitch for time shares). Don't worry, though; Strax has a plan. But since this plan involves a massive offensive employing many, many weapons of death, destruction and more death, Vestra decides instead to send Jenny undercover to infiltrate the cult-thingy.
Now I've seen a few internet comments that describe this as a Doctor-lite episode. And yes, the Doctor and Clara don't show up for a long time. However, 1) I was too entertained by Vestra, Jenny & Strax to really care too much and 2) when the Doctor and Clara do show up, they are pretty much in the episode after that.
And when the Doctor does show up...ooh boy. When you get to this bit, you'll know why the word "horror" is in the title.
Mark Gatiss is on a bit of roll. After the very disappointing "Night Terrors" from Series 6, he has scored with two excellent scripts in this series, "Cold War" and "The Crimson Horror".
Among the lots and lots of good bits:
- Our Victorian trio is as entertaining as ever. Dan Starkey's Strax as always has some really funny lines but he does get to remind you that is still an effective and deadly warrior. Neve McIntosh is a smooth and regal as ever in the role of Madame Vestra. And Catrin Stewart as Jenny get some significant screen time with her undercover work and she also lays down some major wup-ass like she's Kate Beckinsdale.
- Other strong guest stars include the incomparable Diana Rigg as the unabashedly evil Mrs. Gillyflower and Diana's daughter Rachael Stirling as Gillyflower's daughter, Ada, a scarred, blind woman who is loyal to her mother and her plans but has her own secrets.
- The flashback to the Doctor and Clara's arrival and initial investigation into the mystery of the Crimson Horror was unique (sepia tone colors), amusing and effective.
- Yes, there is horror but there is also lot of fun too. Even Mrs. Gillyflower gets a couple of wickedly funny lines.
- Classic series reference! Specifically to the 5th Doctor and Teegan! Yay!
Next week: Neil Gaiman strikes again (along with the Cybermen) with "Nightmare in Silver", next when Doctor Who is NEW!