Wednesday, May 24, 2006

REVIEW: Doctor Who - Tooth And Claw

[Review written for Gallifrey One: Spring 2006]

Tooth and Claw’ is an exceptional piece of drama. The direction is virtually perfect, the atmosphere is oozing and the acting is top notch. You can’t fault the flawless production and the story has a confident depth which shows Russell T Davies doing what some fans suspected he couldn’t; good old fashioned suspense and terror.

Overall, this Scotland based Victorian tale has close associations with Series 1’s ‘The Unquiet Dead’; it’s style, historical context and pacing are slightly similar. ‘Tooth and Claw’ is a little more dynamic than Gatiss’ tale. This doesn’t mean the dynamic is to the detriment of the stories historical depth. In fact, this story has even more confidence in it’s depiction of the Realm of Queen Victoria than perhaps the Dickensian scene of ‘The Unquiet Dead’.

The opening however, certain betrays the the episodes general ambience; a very slick brawl akin to ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’. Some may find this a little jarring with the rest of the story, I personally had no problem with such. Doctor Who is, in it’s essence, a very eclectic show which borrows, twists and parodies from a variety of styles. The fight scene makes for a confident and aggressive opening which certainly peaks the adrenaline and curiousity. The following scene’s monster tease makes for a good introduction cliff-hanger as the show moves into the theme sequence.

The monster is - as the title suggests - a Wolf, or more specifically, a Werewolf. Doctor Who has stepped into the classic monster genre on several occasions. This is nothing new in that respect, however the focus of the plot remains closer to the monster’s myth than any science fiction twist. The science fiction is there, just not too prominent.

The Werewolf is well realised, both as a wolf and as the human host. In fact, the scenes leading up to it’s transformation are as spellbinding as the revelation of the beast itself. The use of sound is also very powerful. Indeed the most atmospheric moment is the sound of the beast hunting for a way into the room in which the Doctor’s trapped in. I can almost guarantee a room of silent, spellbound viewers as that particular scene plays out.

The other ‘monster’ or ‘heroine’ (take your pick) is Queen Victoria. She’s played by Pauline Collins, a lady who the elderly fan may remember from the Troughton adventure ‘The Faceless Ones’. Collins is a versatile actress and barely recognizable in the role. As well as being well acted, the character is indeed well written. I’m not particularly versed in the character of Queen Victoria, so I can’t attest to the writer’s skill at capturing her historically, but she comes across as a deep and unpredictable character within the story.

I’m afraid some of the episodes weakest elements come from the two leads. I’m sorry to say after a previously strong episode for Miss Piper and Rose, ‘Tooth and Claw’ proves to be her most annoying outing ever. This is by no means an attack on Billie’s acting; she’s as solid as ever, nor is it an attack on the writing of Rose who remains equally believable. But that’s the problem; she is too real, and real people are often annoying. Few would argue that as a person, Rose is perfect. She is both cocky, rude and occasionally manipulative. In this story, some of these negative characteristics are used for story humour that results in Rose becoming distractingly annoying.

If there is a blame finger to point, it invariably has to be at writer Russell T Davies. Davies seems to overuse her in the initial set up to this story. Her constant attempts to get Queen Victoria to declare “We are not amused” (for a bet with the Doctor) is not only tiring, but intrusive. Comedy is indeed subjective so I’m sure some viewers found it funny, but I just found the gag did not warm me to Rose at all. Queen Victoria is a great historical character and to have the companion constantly mock her seems to belittle the Queen’s dignity irrelevantly. We don’t see too many versions of Victoria played on the small screen, so I was curious to see how she was portrayed. Victoria’s introduction and continuing scenes felt as if they were being constantly interrupted by what I can only call ‘companion heckle’. It wouldn’t be so annoying if it was once, but it’s almost continual for the entire first act. So while I can picture the character of Rose behaving just like this, within the narrative it feels way too intrusive. Humour is subjective, and in ‘Tooth and Clar’ it’s laid on a little too thick as it sours the story for those who were not so easily amused by Rose’s hilarious antics.

Furthermore, as viewers are still keen to quantify this new Doctor, this continual gag keeps pushing Rose into the spotlight and the Doctor into the background. At this early stage of the tenth Doctor’s career, I think viewers are more keen to watch him than Rose, who dominated much of the last series - and rightly so as that was her introduction season. We now have a new Doctor and for the second episode in a row, Rose is very much at the forefront.

Thankfully, this balance alters as the pace kicks up a notch. The Doctor moves to center stage and we get to see Tennant in action. Well, sort of. As with “New Earth”, Tennant’s Doctor seems surprisingly inactive, in a way similar to Davison. There is no doubt you feel his presence, but you don’t feel the control that Eccleston had. In the context of this story, this works to ‘it’s advantage’; you don’t want the Doctor in too much control as you risk diminishing the hack and slash power of the werewolf. I am, however, looking forward to an episode in which the Doctor is a little more in the spotlight and a little more proactive, as he was in ‘The Christmas Invasion’.

Nevertheless, Tennant’s acting and dialogue are spot on. It’s this reviewer’s hope he gets a little more proactive screen time in future episodes. He does a great deal of running away in ‘Tooth and Claw’, which again, is good for the suspense, but one feels an urge to see the Doctor get a story in which he has a more central dynamic. That’s not to underplay some great moments in this story, from his first encounter with the Werewolf to the scene in which he runs for the books, Tennant IS the Doctor.

The ending is particularly worth a mention. We have a strong scene for Queen Victoria that almost makes up for all the hassle she and the audience suffered from Rose earlier. It is also an audience reminder that in victory, not all necessarily ends well. The Doctor and Rose’s banishment from the realm was a surprise and a superb character turn for Victoria. Furthermore, the walk back to the TARDIS has a great nostalgic feel to it, very reminiscent of the end of one of my other favourite (Scottish) Who tales, Terror Of The Zygons.

So overall, aside from some slightly in-your-face Rose Tyler moments and a rather inactive Doctor, this is another solid and enjoyable romp for Series 2. A good script, some well implemented genre bites (watch out for the tiny but fun homage to Alien 3) and a story brimming with tension, ‘Tooth and Claw’ is the perfect journey into Who horror.

One question:

Just where did those monks pop off to?

No comments: