The Crimson Horror
New Who, Series 7
Carry On Up the Tardis!
Don't look at the naked man behind the curtain! Or,
Fans fooling fans fooling fans
|Sontaran smart, horse smarter. Screen-shot from 'The Crimson Horror', copyright © 2013, BBC.|
I'm not one to rain on anyone's para— Oh. Right. I guess I am ... Let's start this over.
Look, I know a lot of you liked "The Crimson Horror."
An exciting adventure in Victorian England, some cried. A light-hearted romp!, others enthused. And a loud chorus swooned, We love Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint!.
But the hard truth is that, those of you among that chorus, you didn't like the story you saw on your screen; you liked the idea of that story. You liked the elevator pitch, not the script.
The brutal truth is, the best part of "The Crimson Horror" was the for the next episode, yesterday's "Nightmare in Silver", written by none other than Neil Gaiman himself, the fingers behind one of the two best episodes of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who.
Clearly meant to be high camp, "The Crimson Horror" was a tedious mish-mash of one-dimensional villain, retreaded alien, and bland protagonists; a Frankenstein's monster of a plot cobbled together from the hoariest of cliches festooned with Vaudevillian humour that creaked with age when it didn't offend.
Lazy writing, to put it concisely.
Mad scientist, plan to destroy civilization and most of humanity? Check, check and check.
Holmes and Watson style detective team with an inter-species and lesbian twist? Check. Except the characters are beyond bland. (But, I hear you cry, we love Jenny and Madame Vastra! No. No, you don't. You can't. The fact of being a lesbian is a character trait, not a character. Like being short, or black, or a reptile out of time. But more on that anon.)
Stock secondary characters? Got 'em! Creepy coroner? Sex-reversed ponce with a propensity to faint dead away? Impossibly stupid, but heavily-armed comic side-kick? Check, check and check-e-roonie!
(Sub)standard Doctor Who explainium to justify the plot? Oh my, yes! Unexplained locked doors through which dying men burst for no reason (and with no explanation) simply to justify a plot element? You bet'cha!
The cruel mad scientist? Check, but give Moffat credit for casting, at least. As written, Mrs. Gilliflower is only another stock character, given lines to make most hams cringe, but Diana Rigg Shatners them without a wink or a nod. Dame Rigg may chew the scenery, but she masticates it as Mrs. Gilliflower, not some actor playing a crap part for a pay-cheque.
And finally, a gratuitous and out-of-character sexual assault — played for laughs? Sigh ... Check. (And no, Mr. Moffat, and Mr. Gattis, having Jenny slap the Doctor for his unwelcome kiss doesn't make it all better, no matter how much rubbery enthusiasm Matt Smith puts into the blow's reception.
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with throwing a hackneyed plot into service; a good writer can take just about any concept and turn it into a story. We'd be damned fools to expect something sui generis from every episode of a corporate television property.
What's not unreasonable is to expect fresh variations on old tropes. What's not unreasonable is to demand actual character from major characters and for humour to arise organically from situation and personality.
Enough. If "The Crimson Horror" is really as bad as all that, why did so many people like it — or at least, enjoy it?
Hot lizard/mammal lesbian love, that's what!
For reasons I don't fully understand, the 65 million year-old Silurian, Madame Vastra, and her Victorian-era human wife, Jenny Flint, were an instant hit with a substantial portion of Who fandom when they first appeared in the appalling, "A Good Man Goes to War" (which I discussed here).
Whatever the reasons, the Dyke Detectives proved so popular that Moffat trotted them out again and again. And maybe the concept is a good one, but whatever qualities they have as characters lies entirely with the viewers who love them, because what showed up on screen has been only a pair of cyphers in period dress, little more than I imagine they began as around Moffat's writers' table.
"Here's one. Who 'bout we make the Silurian a lesbian?"
"What? A reptile lesbian? Does that even—"
"Doesn't matter. Think about it! She's green, she's hot, she's a Lesbian! It's been almost 50 years and Trekkies still have the hots for that Orion slave girl."
A slow-dawning chortle makes its way 'round the
boys' clubwriters' table as the idea lights up even the dimmest of bulbs: Lesbian Lizard Woman! Hot Ssssstuffff!
"Okay. Lesbian Silurian. What about her?"
"I don't know. How 'bout she's woken up in the 19th century and falls in love with a Victorian chick?"
"I guess that could be cool, why not? We'll throw 'em into the mix at Demon's Run, eh wot? Right there with the fat gay marine and the thin gay marine!"
More chortles circle the table, like a joint passed 'round a teenagers basement bedroom ...
Sorry. See, we all have fantasies ...
Even after substantial screen time in "The Crimson Horror", Madame Vastra remains, simply, boring. She makes statements and dramatically whips aside her veil at inopportune moments for cheap laughs. Jenny Flint is equally dull, even when stripping down to a saucy cat-suit for a little kung fu fighting.
Or take Strax. (Please take Strax! Bah-da-boom.)
In the Doctor Who canon, the Sontarans are a race of genetically-modified clone warriors, deadly and relentless killers from armies that conquered thousands of worlds.
But this Sontaran is a half-wit. Madame Vastra's butler is, and is only, comic relief, an idiot with an armoury. Too stupid to realize his appearance is shocking to the humans around him; too thick to understand that horses aren't sentient. We are meant to laugh when he points a Great Big Gun at the beast hauling his carriage, but the joke is as nonsensical as it would be for a cop in a police procedural to point his sidearm at his cruiser after taking a wrong turn on a country road.
It might be cheaply funny in a sketch outside of the program proper, but as part of the actual show, as canon, it is only an insult aimed squarely at any viewer who cares about the value of story. Strax is not a character, but a circus clown signalling that the program's creators don't take this junk seriously, so neither should we.
In Steven Moffat's hands, Doctor Who has become an exercise in smug, self-congratulatory irony, a sort of science fiction Carry On series for the 21st century — if with less wit or nudity.
So why is it still popular? If it is even close to being as bad as I claim, why do so many say Moffat's Who is wonderful? Why do fans talk about how much they "love" Rory and Amy or Jenny and Madame Vastra or even enthuse about the bloodless "romance" between the Doctor and River Song?
Because, like a battered spouse, they see every new insult as an anomaly, every fresh bruise as an accident, and every not-quite-terrible episode as a promise that the man we fell in love with — the man who moved us to tears with "The Doctor Dances"; who blew our minds with the wibbly-wobbly complexity of "Blink"; who thrilled us with that female Indianna Jones, River Song, in "Silence in the Library" (and who scared hell out of us in each one of those episodes!) — has conquered his demons at last.
Yes. Yes, I saw how "they" became "we". In many ways, I am one of them. The difference is, that I know I am in a bad relationship. I know that Steven Moffat holds me in contempt.
|The real Crimson Horror, screenshot from 'The Crimson Horror', Doctor Who copyright © BBC 2013.|
At this point there can be only two (adult) variations among Moffat's defenders.
There are the casual fans, for whom Doctor Who is an hour's diversion on a Saturday night. They'll watch it when it's on and if they don't have other plans. In time, if it keeps on being crap television, they'll switch off and find other entertainments.
And there are those for whom it is the ideas of Doctor Who that matter. The blue box; that pulsing, rhythmic theme music; the infinite possibilities in the person of the Doctor — for this second type, the basics are enough. Character, plot, dramatic logic ... all secondary. Nice if present, but not (consciously) missed when absent.
Because the show is only a launching point for their own version(s) of the program. Their own Doctor, their own Companions, their own adventures.
Their own stories.
For this kind of fan — call them shippers where they write their own fanfic or not — it doesn't much matter if Moffat's stories are idiotic globs of half-mixed (never mind half-baked) second-hand ideas or that his characters have no depth or consistency, so long as they have some conceptual power.
The Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint partnership is a perfect case in point. Jenny and Vastra have never been written well enough to become characters, but for the shippers, the elevator pitch is enough.
This kind of fan doesn't even need Doctor Who the television show any more, not really. But since the show still is (sometimes, more or less) around, they do watch it. And since it still has that blue box, and it still has that music, and it still has plenty of shouting and chasing and monsters, they think they are being entertained. But in truth, they are mostly entertaining themselves.
And that, in a first-draft nutshell, is why you (and you and you — but not you) are wrong when you get angry with me for pointing out the flaws in the programs' concepts and writing, when I keep pointing to that pasty, naked man in the corner and tell you Steven Moffat isn't wearing any clothes.
I am not trying to say there is anything wrong with taking a program like Doctor Who and building your own worlds out it, by the way. To be against fanfic is like being against campfire sing-alongs or amateur theatre.
At the same time, I don't think there is anything wrong with my wish that the television program itself maintain at least basic professional standards in its story-telling.
Nor I am wrong to suggest you look critically at that which you say you love. I think if you do, you'll find that you're not getting good stories: you're not getting plots that make sense or characters that breathe or jokes that aren't stale.
I dare you to take a hard look back at the entirety of the modern era (or back in the classic past, if you can) and ask yourself: Which stories stand out? Which plots do I remember in detail, and which characters do I recall as if I had met them in person?
I bet few episodes indeed will come from Moffat's era. "The Doctor's Wife", probably. "Vincent and The Doctor," almost certainly? After that ...?
That's about it for episodes that stick in my mind (in a positive way, at least). Even for the best episode of this brief half-series, "Hide", the details already fade into a blur of mediocrity.
It's fine to enjoy the show for what it is, but why not demand more? Casual fans, critical fans and creative fans alike: we all deserve better Who than we've been getting for the past few years.