The Boob Tube Review: Doctor Who & The Crimson Herrings by Adam Bunch

[Spoiler alert!] I thought maybe this week, given the Victorian setting and the reference to the colour red right there in the title — both things associated with Clara this season — "The Crimson Horror" might finally begin to unravel the mystery of the new Doctor's companion. Instead, we got another fun stand-alone adventure — the latest story to do a surprisingly good job of not being overshadowed by this half-season's enigma.

Even that weird, tacked-on ending didn't give us much new information — except that those kids are strangely clever when it comes to time travel. And waaaay less freaked about it than I'd be.

But there were a few moments that did seem as if they might tie into the bigger story. For one, there were a few more faint whiffs of the Doctor's dark side. He got pretty excited about the nickname "the Crimson Horror" — "Ooooh, good name!" — which is the kind of joy-in-the-face-of-death we're used to seeing from him, but was also enough to earn him a bit of a worried look from the man who would die just a few scenes later. And while he usually goes out of his way to save the villain if he possibly can, this week the Doctor didn't seem the least bit distraught by the death of Mrs. Gillyflower — "Ouch!" is all he said — or the death of her prehistoric crimson newt, even when it was being gruesomely bashed into pulp. Then there was the nickname he got from Ada Gillyflower: "Monster." Suitable enough for a man lurching around like Dr. Frankenstein's creation, but it also echoed that line from "Hide" a couple of weeks ago, which so obviously had a double-meaning directed the Doctor's way: "Every lonely monster needs a companion."

But maybe even more interesting: a few things in this episode seemed pretty out of place for Victorian England. For one, there was the giant space-age rocket that had apparently been built by Mrs. Gillyflower and/or her newt. It's literally rocket science and it's completely unexplained. Strange. Neither of the characters seemed to be sooo super-crazy-intelligent that they would be nearly a century ahead of their time. (As opposed to, say, Mercy Hartigan, the Victorian villain from the Tenth Doctor's final encounter with the Cybermen; he explicitly pointed out that she was drop-dead genius.) Plus, Mrs. Gillyflower had a computer (Clara destroyed it with a chair), which is plenty steam-punk, but doesn't really seem to make sense in the context of the show.

And then there was the young boy, Thomas Thomas, who amusingly gave GPS-type directions to Strax after his horse "failed in his mission" not to get lost. Thomas Thomas was a joke — a reference to TomTom, Europe's most popular GPS system — but when you combine it with the rocket and the computer, it seems as if there might have been something more going on there. (Even more so given that the Doctor and the Sontarans have already had a GPS adventure in "The Sontaran Strategem".) Could the future have been bleeding through? Could there be a hole in our universe? Or a flaw in whatever alternate reality the Doctor currently finds himself in?

One online commenter also pointed out that the hymn Mrs. Gillyflower sang at her "The Apocalypse Is Coming! Let Us Save You In A Bell Jar!" recruitment drive wasn't written until years later. Did writer Mark Gatiss (who also penned the recent "Cold War" episode) make a wee mistake? Or was he dropping an obscure hint?

The final moments of Mr. Sweet
Plus, there was Mr. Sweet himself. "Yucky red parasite from the time of the dinosaurs pitches up in Victorian Yorkshire — didn't see that one coming," as the Doctor put it. How did it get there?

"Never ignore a coincidence," the Doctor said a couple of seasons ago. And that's three or four of them right there.

Then again, as the Eighth Doctor said, "I love humans, always seeing patterns in things that aren't there." And who can really tell? Steven Moffat has given us so little to go on that it really is impossible to guess. Some things we've seen this season are certain to be revealed as enormously important plot plots in the season finale. And some will prove to be nothing more than a crimson herring.

Other thoughts:

- Holy shit I can't wait for the next episode. Neil Gaiman does the Cybermen in a way that looks like it might actually be scary? Helllll yes. (Even with those kids.)

- Every single person on the Internet seems to think that Vastra, Jenny and Strax deserve their own spin-off show, but I'm not so sure. I think they work better in small doses. Strax's always-mention-weapons thing is already getting just a liiiiiitle bit old. I mean, I still like them and everything, I just wouldn't necessarily need a full hour of them every week.

- Speaking of which: the guy who fainted every time he saw something alien? Same deal. Got pretty lame by the third time.

- "Okay, so, not London 1893," the Doctor says as they arrive in the TARDIS, "Yorkshire 1893."  That's one year after the Victorian version of Clara died. Why, I wonder, was the Doctor trying to get her there in the first place?

- Where is the Doctor heading off to in the TARDIS at the end of the episode, while Clara stays at home? Victorian London maybe? Could he perhaps even be heading off to the beginning of the Christmas special, where he supposedly meets her for the first time? At that point, she says something about getting acquainted and he says, all whistful-like, "Those were the days." That's been bugging me ever since, making me think he was from the future at that point.

- "Trouble at the mill," the Doctor says in his northern accent. It's a reference to a Monty Python sketch from the "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" episode.

- "I once spent a hell of a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport," he says. That's a reference to one of the Doctor's companions in the episodes from the 1980s: Tegan. His catchphrase with her was "Brave heart, Tegan," which the Doctor also repeated with Clara this week.

- Jenny's spandex-ish ass-kicking seems to be a tribute to Emma Peel, Diana Rigg's character from The Avengers. Dame Rigg, of course, was playing Mrs. Gillyflower (with her real-life daughter, Rachael Sterling, playing her fictional daughter Ada). And there's another connection, too: the Torontonian who first came up with the idea for Doctor Who, Sydney Newman, was also the creator of The Avengers.

- Clara repeats what the Doctor called her — "The Boss" — a few times. It doesn't really seem super-important, but... why bother having her repeat it like that? Plus, it fits the Time Lord naming convention. (coughTheMastercough.)

- The Doctor and Clara called themselves Mr. & Mrs. Smith while they were undercover. It calls to mind that TARDIS key from last week, with "Smiths" written on it, and the whole "Could Clara Be River Song?" thang.

- Matt Smith has a badger puppet, which seems to have made a small cameo this week. (Photo via The Police Box Is Mine.)

Favourite pet theories of the moment:

- Clara is the Doctor, or River Song is the Doctor

- somehow it's the Great Intelligence reflecting the Doctor, mirroring him so it can learn how to evolve into something better

- he's lost or "saved" CAL-style inside the exploding TARDIS


Next Doctor Who recap: Doctor Who & The Other Doctors.

Previous Doctor Who recap: Doctor Who & The Big Friendly Button. 

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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