STRAX: And how will [Jenny] locate the Doctor?
MADAME VASTRA: To find him, she needs only ignore all "keep out" signs, go through every locked door, and run towards any form of danger that presents itself.
There's a flip side to my criticisms of Mark Gatiss back in Cold War: he's actually a good writer. His plots might not be interesting in themselves, but they set everything up carefully and build to a climax that follows the story's internal logic. That might sound like basic stuff, but it's the kind of basic stuff Moffat's era struggles with in the midst of all its glorious but underdeveloped ideas. Basically, you can count on Gatiss to get everything put together right technically, and when his story is worth telling, it's good entertainment. Here, Gatiss takes a fresh approach to apparently straightforward material. By focusing on Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, and keeping the Doctor out of the story for the first third, his talents in blending humor, drama, and horror in a competant and entertaining brew rise to the surface.
And to give him some credit, Gatiss has been held back from unleashing the full force of horror he imagines at times - The Unquiet Dead, in particular, was supposed to have included a world of zombies and had a bleaker tone. Gatiss delights in the macabre and leavens it with black humor. Moffat seems to have given him free reign on nightmare fuel, so he builds a story around drowning the Doctor in boiling, blood-colored oatmeal. Later, the now red-skinned Doctor becomes the monster pet to a blind, scarred young woman, whose look suggests monstrosity, and who was raised by a metaphorical monster of an evil woman.
The script overflows with that sort of cleverness. There's a particularly clever suspense sequence as Jenny has to bring the red-skinned, mechanically-walking Doctor down a hall, when the blind daughter of the villainess comes out, hearing them. The scene builds the suspense and complexity in a way that would make Hitchcock proud.
Gatiss also revels in the Victorian era, and the episode drips with atmosphere. Some of that, of course, is thanks to director Saul Metzstein, but Gatiss' story lends itself to a much more vivid exploration than Metzstein's (and Moffat's) The Snowmen. And Gatiss is a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and builds the story on a winding, complex mystery yarn. (Murray Gold throws in a fun musical reference to Hans Zimmer's Sherlock Holmes scores, although it really isn't quite as cool on a piano that actually works.)
Centering a story around Vastra, Jenny, and Strax works nicely, too. I'm not sure they need a whole series of their own, but they're a pretty engaging trio to come back to every now and again. Jenny is especially showcased, rescuing the Doctor and beating down a half-dozen bad guys in a hallway while barely raising her heartbeat. Strax is a one-joke character, but it's a very funny joke, so as long as he's kept more or less in the background, he's a gas. Vastra, though, feels utilized; she's still a great character, but, as in The Snowmen, it feels like she doesn't really have anything to do.
After reveling in the tension of "When will the Doctor show up?" for a third of the story, and then ratching the tension further with the reveal that the Doctor has been monsterized, Gatiss flies into a flashback about how the Doctor got there. It's a nice way of jamming an extra half hour of story into about 2 minutes onscreen that don't feel overly rushed. And in a nice touch, Metzstein uses sepia tone and similar tricks to make it look like a silent movie.
At which point we finally arrive at the plot itself, with the great Diana Rigg commiting all manner of evil. The character's pretty one-dimensional, but Rigg is magnificent and finds exactly the right mix of humor and sinister insanity to make Mrs. Gilliflower fun. And her aged voice has taken on airs of the older Katherine Hepburn, which only adds to the effect.
DOCTOR: Mrs. Gilliflower, you have no idea what you are dealing with. In the wrong hands, that venom could wipe out all life on this planet.
MRS. GILLIFLOWER: Do you know what these are? [giggles] The wrong hands!
The other major guest character, Ada, is just a brilliantly played by Rigg's real-life daughter, Rachael Stirling. Stirling nails the tragedy, the creepiness, and the hidden strength of Ada; she's a complex character who refuses to actually fall in either the villain or hero camp, even though she always seems to be in one or the other.
As everything rockets toward the finale, Gatiss wisely climaxes primarily with a dialogue scene of five great actors talking very dramatically at each other in a small room. That's the essence of what makes Who great: fantastic, imaginative stories centered on great actors being dramatic. It's a blast of a sequence.
The last little bit of the climax, in the steampunk rocket chamber, isn't quite as strong. Besides the question of how they survived being inside a chamber with a rocket lifting off, it's not as satisfying as the earlier scene, leaving the Doctor as basically a bystander while the guest stars finish off the plot. But then, in this story, that at least makes sense.
Clara is left as a stray appendage, though. There's supposedly an arc about the Doctor discovering who she is, and Clara discovering that there's a lot more to her than there should be, but said "arc" has basically amounted to a half-season of the Doctor asking, "Who is she?" and whoever he asks going, "Dunno." It's less an arc than a dangling thread that refuses to be tied up until the finale. Journey even had her learn about it, then immediately forget. It's as though rather than actually deal with it throughout the season, Moffat's just saving up for the finale, which would be a lot easier to roll with if she had any identity beyond this mystery. It's particularly frustrating here, where she's less of an actual presence than something the Doctor talks in circles about with Vastra and Jenny. Her mysteriousness is all she is.
But how much of that can actually be laid at Gatiss' feet is questionable. The same goes for the final scene, where Clara's two charges insist on being brough along for an adventure because otherwise they'll tell their parents Clara's a time traveler. That's gotta be the least threatening thing they could have hung over her. I mean, really? Are they expecting their parents to actually buy that?
If there's a flaw I'd actually blame on Gatiss (besides underusing Vastra), though, it's the swipes at religion. Gatiss' anti-religious bits are subtle but have a real nastiness to them. I mean, Stephen King does all kinds of evil religious people, but it doesn't actually seem hateful. Gatiss seems to really been sneering at religion itself. It's an odd, off-putting undertone to an otherwise fun yarn.
But that's the thing: this is a really, really fun story. It's freaky, funny, exciting, and acts convincingly like all the silliness is all manner of dramatic without losing its sense of goofy adventure. For the first time since Unquiet Dead, I feel really happy one of Gatiss' episodes exists.
"The bright day is done, child, and you are for the dark."
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