Who’s afraid of the big bad parasite? ‘The Crimson Horror’ and Victorian Social Angst in BBC’s Dr Who.

Emilie Taylor-Brown (University of Warwick)

Crimson Horror poster

A couple of week’s ago Dr. Who saw a very Victorian antagonist (first aired in the UK on Saturday 4th May 2013). One might think that an alien parasite is a rather unlikely denizen of 1890s Yorkshire, but in fact, Mark Gatniss (the episode writer) has hit on a very nineteenth-century anxiety. Past JVC posts, such as Doctor Who-ing the Victorians and Scrooge in Space; Updating A Christmas Carol for the Twenty-First Century and Beyond, have addressed the show’s recent penchant for using the nineteenth century as an episode setting – updating, subverting or highlighting Victorian culture and its relationship to a modern audience. ‘The Crimson Horror’ is no exception.

The episode features two key plotlines, one: the attraction of ‘Sweetville’, a new gated complex ‘for the best and brightest’ set up by moral decay lecturer Mrs Gillywater, and the other: the mysterious appearance of red corpses, christened sensationally by the penny-dreadfuls as ‘the crimson horror’. Before long it becomes apparent that these two plotlines are, of course, intimately linked. The dénouement reveals that Mrs Gillywater is in fact host to an ancient parasite, Mr. Sweet. She uses the toxic poison secreted by the parasite to ‘preserve’ the Sweetville population so that they might be kept pure for a new societal order after the ‘coming apocalypse’ (the red corpses are rejects who ‘failed’ the preservation process). All this talk of social purity and moral decay is a well-known Victorian trope, but the place of the parasite in this discourse is an often over-looked centrality.

Social versus Organic: What’s in a name?

The term parasite from the greek parasitos (meaning literally ‘beside the grain’) was originally not a biological, but a social term. It is thought that the parasite gains its etymological heritage from temple assistants who separated the grain for religious ceremonies, and later came to be applied to dinner guests who would flatter and entertain their hosts at the prospect of a free meal. Exaggerated in Greco-Roman comedy, the parasite became a social figure renowned for its associations with gastronomic exploitation, and synonymous with ‘flatterer’ and ‘sycophant’. It wasn’t until much later that natural history appropriated the term and endowed it with a biological meaning, the first such allusion being in Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646. The nineteenth century saw the popularisation of this second meaning and thus the social and the organic aspects of parasitism are irrevocably linked in the nineteenth century imagination. With the publication of Darwin’s evolutionary theories in 1859 and 1871, the parasite became a curious hybrid figure, central to debates about morality and degeneration. Thus Gatniss’ use of the parasite in a faux-religious morality debate is spot-on.

Internal parasites were often thought to be degenerated organs of immoral people, or the result of divine disfavour, a popular fallacy that helminthologist T. Spencer Cobbold notes as prevailing as late as the 1880s. This association speaks to Mrs Gillyflower’s immoral behaviour; the chicken-egg type debate of which came first – her immorality or her parasite – is up for dispute, but her final line “that’s my girl”, in response to her daughter’s cruel rejection, suggests the former is foundational. The suggestion that parasites only infest immoral people or ‘willing’ hosts is certainly ventured upon in this representation; Gillyflower even laments the parasite’s departure, crying “No, Mr sweet. Where are you going? You can’t leave me now Mr Sweet!” The doctor’s response “It knows she’s dying. She’s no longer of any use to it” further compounds the exploitation motif known to both the social and biological parasitism.

Mr Sweet

But what of the parasite itself? Aesthetically a cross between a leech and a crustacean, Mr. Sweet is the epitome of degeneration, and thus in Wellsian style, the ultimate threat. Childhood reader of H. G. Wells, Gatniss would undoubtedly have been influenced by Wells’ conceptions of ‘tentacular’ aliens in The War of the Worlds, speaking to a wider belief that sea creatures were degenerated organisms at the bottom of the natural hierarchy. The association between sea creatures, or crustaeceans, and degeneration – and furthermore between degeneration and parasites – makes Mr Sweet’s appearance all the more authentic. The poison he secretes is in line with the parasite’s nineteenth-century characterisation as noxious; parasitic diseases like malaria were often called ‘miasmal poisons’ even after the miasmatic theory of disease went into disrepute. Indeed Mrs Gillywater’s contention that she found him at the bottom of the river highlights the longstanding association between parasitic disease on the one hand, and water-logged soil, unclean water and swamps on the other.

Lessons in parasitism: A two-way exchange.
Beneath her dress, Mr Sweet feeds on her as an ecto-parasite, and something about his hidden nature is viscerally disgusting. However, Gillywater herself takes on aspects of the biological parasite in her lack of table etiquette, her exploitation of Ada and her desire to create petrified progeny. This engages with the social/biological blurring that surrounded the term for Victorian readers, and presents human beings as a threat to their own species. This is compounded by the Doctor and Gillywater’s oddly jocular exchange:

The Doctor: In the wrong hands that venom could wipe out all life on this planet.
Mrs Gillywater: D’you know what these are? [laughs] …the wrong hands!

The episode is also peppered with allusions to nineteenth-century literature which explore preoccupations similar to those of the episode.

Dr Who as monster

Aspects of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are alluded to in the Doctor’s post-preservation stiffness and Ada’s affectionate appellation ‘monster’, and other literary homages might be seen in the use of experimentation – the smoking chemical vials are reminiscent of Jekyll’s townhouse laboratory. Mrs Gillywater is even noted as a prize-winning chemist. There might be some similarity seen between Ada’s ruined beauty and that of Esther Summerson in Bleak House, and we also saw the return of Vastra and Jenny, already established in The Snowmen to be the crime-solving double act that inspired the Sherlock Holmes stories. These literary allusions frame the episode within a narrative of crime, scandal and monstrosity, and strongly link literary representation to, albeit fictionalised, reality.

Nightmarish Natural Selection.

The only ‘missing’ trope is evolutionary competition, but even this is touched upon when Madame Vastra recounts her species’ struggle with the ‘repulsive red leech’, to which the Doctor speculates, “it’s been hanging around, lurking in the shadows. Maybe it’s evolved”. This evolutionary finesse forms the foundation of Victorian anxiety. While the laypress insisted that parasites were degenerated organisms, and furthermore that ‘social’ parasites might degenerate as their biological counterparts had, science fiction was exploring the possibilities of their adaptive strength. Wells describes the Martian invaders in The War of the Worlds in similar terms to Gatniss’ Mr Sweet, and before that exposed the dangerous line between social and biological parasitism in his 1895 novella The Time Machine. The parallels with time travel here are unavoidable, no less the descriptions of the parasites, which are termed variously as ‘white ape-like creatures’ like the time traveller, and as ‘pallid bodies […] the half-bleached colour of the worms…one sees preserved in spirit in a zoological museum.’[1] In his philosophical writings Wells voices a prevailing evolutionary fear that: ‘dominant species [will] invariably fall to some humble creature that nature is quietly preparing in the abyss’.[2] Mark Gatniss plays with this idea, suggesting that humanity might find its biggest threat in ‘humble’ Mr Sweet, aided by the misguided intentions of a power-hungry matriarch. In this way ‘The Crimson Horror’ is, for me, a quintessentially Victorian narrative.

Emilie Taylor-Brown is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. Her thesis investigates the impact of parasitology on cultural understandings of British Imperialism 1885-1935; she is particularly interested in the representation of pathological geographies and the conflation of social and somatic anxieties. More information about her doctoral project can be found on her departmental webpage: www.warwick.ac.uk/emilietaylorbrown. She also blogs about her research at: http://interdisciplinarydialogues.wordpress.com/ and she tweets with the twitter handle @tyger_felice.

[1] H. G. Wells, The Time Machine [1895] e-book #35, Project Gutenberg (release date: 2004)

[2] H. G. Wells, ‘H.G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction’ eds. Robert  M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975) p.9.


  1. A most excellent essay by Ms. Matthew-Jones. Thank you for your eloquent discussion and your economic use of the language! I really need to see this episode. Did it reference “The Masque of the Red Death?” I thought that’s where this essay was going with the description of a “gated community” and “red corpses.”

    Again, thank you for your contribution. Top notch and very entertaining!

  2. Thanks Kelly for your comment. Sadly I can’t take credit for this brilliant post. It was written by Emilie Taylor-Brown. Nevertheless you’ve made a really interesting point about ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and I wonder if was an inspiration of the red corpses. Of course the factory seems a perfect relocation of the abbey, esp. as it enables the story to be transported to the late-Victorian era.

  3. Hi Kelly, Thanks for the comments!

    Yes you’re right – the “Masque of Red Death” is a really interesting connection, though I don’t know if there were any specific references. Perhaps there were! I did note that Gillywater offers the Doctor some Amontillado, a reference to ‘Casque of Amontillado’ I wonder? This episode is so peppered with nineteenth-century literary allusion, something I find fascinating. I’ve heard suggestions that it could be considered a partial rewriting of Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (so many Sherlock references, and of course Gatniss writes for BBC’s ‘Sherlock’) as well as of Dr Who’s own 1973 episode ‘The Green Death’. I think there’s a lot more to this episode than meets the eye, and i’m rather impressed with Gatniss for pulling it all off with such an engaging lightness of touch!

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