There are a lot of little details in “Tooth and Claw” that ought to have been cut somewhere. Too much of the author’s personal politics and too much pop culture knowledge projected onto the Doctor really grate, as no doubt they’re intended to. In other words, I think Mr. Davies and some of the other writers enjoy taking jabs at the fans. The Doctor seems less like a mysterious alien and more like a teenager be-bopping around Earth’s history, listening to pop music and indulging in movies. These little asides never really come across as authentic character moments for the Doctor that we’ve been watching for 40 years now.
However, regardless of that, the episode itself is quite good overall. Despite the fact that I’m tired of RTD’s writing style, and despite the fact that this is his sixth episode in a row, for the most part he’s done a good job this time around and deserves credit for it.
“Tooth and Claw” is in many ways a very traditional monster tale with many familiar elements. There’s the old mansion out on the lonely moors, with the local legend of a monster that turns out to actually exist. True to form the monster is nearly indestructible, unaffected by bullets but allergic to a certain herb. The monster is of course is given the typical Doctor Who treatment in that it is not supernatural, but is an alien life form that crashed on Earth hundreds of years before the story takes place. The book that the Doctor finds in the library details the arrival, and the host in the cage tells Rose that he’s “so far from home”.
The idea of an alien werewolf isn’t actually new. The Eighth Doctor novel “Kursaal” introduced the Jax, a virus that migrates from host to host, and appears early on as a werewolf. The werewolf in “Tooth and Claw” could just as easily be one of the same creatures, though it’s been awhile since I read Kursaal so some of the fine details escape me. Regardless of the recycled idea, the CGI werewolf is excellently realized. It’s far more convincing than a man in a suit would have been, and is made very effective by being largely kept in the shadows of a dark house and by only being seen for brief moments. And it’s not just a mindless killer, but an intelligent alien with a plan to take over the British Empire by migrating into Queen Victoria. Presumably the monks are all for the wolf taking over, or else they’d just have killed Victoria on sight rather than set a trap. Perhaps they think that they will be able to exercise the same amount of control over the wolf once it possesses Victoria as they do over the current human host, and thereby rule the British empire.
The monks are effective villains, but the martial arts are silly. Since when do Scottish monks in the 18th century know kung-fu? Their disappearance at the end of the episode ought to have been at least addressed, although it’s easy enough to surmise that with Father Angelo and the wolf dead, the jig was up and they figured that they had better leg it out of Dodge. I expect Victoria had them hunted down later and punished for their crimes. Father Angelo is only around for half the episode, but he’s a creepy villain with his quick reflexes and glaring eyes.
Queen Victoria is treated quite well by the script, and well acted by Pauline Collins. It’s not unusual for someone to play multiple roles over time in Doctor Who, but isn’t it enjoyable to have someone return after almost forty years? How many programs are still around after that length of time? It speaks well of the Doctor Who formula that it allows such longevity. Victoria is a well-rounded character, displaying good humor, wit, grief and a good measure of determination and spirit. I was cheering her on when she shot Father Angelo dead. Her grief over Albert’s death is touching, and seemed to resonate with the Doctor as well, given his silence and facial expressions during that conversation. Victoria is also used well in the story, being not only the ‘guest historical celebrity’ of the week, but also essential to the plot. The actions of the monks are motivated by their desire to assassinate Victoria and take the throne. Victoria is the voice of incredulity as well, questioning the Doctor and his lifestyle, and outright condemning it in the end. She rewards the Doctor and Rose for their actions and bravery, and then banishes them for their cavalier attitude to life and danger. Brilliant. She also is open minded enough not to rationalize away the werewolf attack, but to found Torchwood as an institute to investigate and defend Great Britain from paranormal dangers. It’s an altogether satisfying use of the character, thoroughly justifying her inclusion in the story.
The humor works sometimes. The bumpy landing in the highlands one hundred years off target is amusing, as is the Doctor’s sudden switch to a Scottish accent (Tennant’s real accent) and adoption of “James McCrimmon” as his alias. Rose’s attempts to get Victoria to say “we are not amused” grow old rather quickly though. The unavoidable gay joke is highly offensive, as well as quite honestly being a pitiful excuse for not noticing problems with the household staff. “Your wife’s away, your servants are bald and athletic. I just thought you were happy.” The wife’s away, forget marital fidelity, gay orgies everyone. It’s smut, and it’s not funny, it’s disgusting. I’m not British, but the mockery of the Royal Family at the end also disgusted me, as did the smug dismissal of Margaret Thatcher. No respect for anyone, eh Russell?
The Doctor and Rose are gelling as a team, though I think Rose worked better with the 9th Doctor than the 10th. Piper and Tennant seem like a couple of kids on a lark, laughing and irreverently mocking anything they feel like (rather like RTD), and it gets old fast. Rose in particular is becoming an annoyance. I don’t know what’s happened to her since last year, when she was such a great character. Much has been said about her attempts to get Victoria to say ‘we are not amused’ and so I won’t belabor the point, but if I were traveling in time and met a famous historical figure, I’d be trying to get to know them, not poking fun at them. It does make Rose look quite foolish, which may be the point. However she does display quite a bit more character and moral fiber when she is talking to the host and learning about the werewolf. She also shows some initiative and leadership when she leads the chained prisoners to pull free of the wall and escape the cellar as the wolf transforms.
I’m hesitant to compare David Tennant to either Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton, because I don’t think he’s anywhere near the level of those two actors, but his character seems to draw attributes from both. He’s energetic, enthusiastic and suitably eccentric. Whereas the anti-establishment attitude of the Doctor goes back all the way to Hartnell, it’s far too overt coming from the word processor of RTD and the mouth of David Tennant. Subtlety is the key. The Doctor’s rapid intellect is demonstrated in the library when he works out the trap inside a trap that Albert set up years earlier. His energy is apparent when he’s running down hallways and trying to spring the trap for the wolf. He’s sombre when listening to Victoria speak of her grief over her dead husband. He displays wonderful wide-eyed wonder at the werewolf when he gets his first view of it. It’s an excellent performance.
In short, “Tooth and Claw” is a rather traditional monster story adapted to the Doctor Who framework. It is very enjoyable, and I wish all of Russell Davies’ efforts were at this level. A good solid episode.