A Special Look at: Tooth and Claw

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Several produced stories are considered pseudo-historical stories which are are wholly or predominantly set in the past, and have a significant science fiction or science fantasy element aside from the presence of the Doctor and his TARDIS. Tooth and Claw is considered one of these types of stories, while others include Robot of Sherwood, The Fires of Pompeii, The Crimson Horror, Human Nature and The Family of Blood, A Town Called Mercy, and The Snowmen.

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According to the A.V. Club review:

“Rose would care.” That’s how the Doctor knew for certain Rose wasn’t in her right state of mind back in “New Earth.” It wasn’t her sudden insistence on jamming faux-Cockney rhyming slang into every sentence, it wasn’t her implausible jump in technical knowledge, and it wasn’t even the bit where she kissed him. All of those things probably made the Doctor suspicious, but they didn’t represent clinching evidence that something was very wrong. As far as the Doctor is concerned, what defines Rose is her empathy, her compassion. So what do we make of an episode like “Tooth And Claw,” in which neither Rose nor the Doctor really seems to care about the carnage unfolding around them? Too often, the traveling companions treat the madness at the Torchwood Estate like a big joke. Mere moments after Captain Reynolds sacrifices himself to buy the Queen and her retinue a few precious seconds, Rose makes yet another unartful attempt to get Queen Victoria to say her iconic, probably apocryphal quote, “We are not amused.” Then she and the Doctor share a big hug and geek out about how amazing it is that they are fighting a werewolf. The Doctor judged the Cassandra-controlled Rose harshly for her lack of compassion. But is callousness in the pursuit of naked self-interest really that much worse than callousness in the pursuit of one’s own giddy amusement?

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In fairness, “Tooth And Claw” is aware of this problem, sort of. Queen Victoria shows no tolerance for the pair’s antics, and her decision to banish the Doctor from her empire should stand as a brutal condemnation of the TARDIS team’s occasional excesses. It should do all of that, except the Doctor and Rose don’t care. They’re too busy musing about lycanthropy in the royal family and making rather unnecessary cracks about Princess Anne. This episode isn’t “Boom Town,” which for all its wonky storytelling did at least confront the Doctor with coherent critiques that he could not immediately dismiss; that episode worked as a self-contained meditation on why the Time Lord isn’t necessarily all that he’s cracked up to be. “Tooth And Claw,” on the other hand, reveals itself to be setup for some future confrontation between the Doctor and Torchwood, which was first mentioned in “Bad Wolf” and was instrumental in blowing up the Sycorax ship back in “The Christmas Invasion.” As a beginning chapter in a longer serialized narrative, this story could function end up working quite well. But in isolation, the Doctor and Rose’s conduct here can be awfully hard to take, especially when the supposed resolution feels like a tease for a future story.

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I’m oversimplifying, to be sure. Let’s go back to the Captain’s sacrifice and Rose’s subsequent silliness. As problematic as those moments might be, I’m eliding Rose’s initial reaction, in which she looks on in horror as the Captain is ripped to pieces. And Rose does acquit herself well elsewhere. The obvious comparison for “Tooth And Claw” is last year’s Victorian-era celebrity historical, The Unquiet Dead,” and there are shades of Rose’s relationship with Gwyneth in the gentleness she shows toward the petrified Flora. There’s no time in this more action-packed episode for the sort of long, character-building conversations that allowed Rose and Gwyneth to become friends in the brief time they knew each other, but Rose genuinely cares about making Flora feel better after her ordeal. Rose is the only human willing to address the creature, and she figures out a plan to save Lady Isobel and her staff once the wolf begins its deadly transformation. There’s an argument that the Doctor and Rose need a certain detachment to endure all the horrors and the deaths that must come with all the good that they inarguably do; “Tooth And Claw” doesn’t really make that argument, but the broad outlines of it are there, if you squint. And for his part, the Doctor shows some very human compassion for Victoria as he asks her about her late husband, Prince Albert. When Rose is otherwise occupied, the Doctor treats Victoria less like an amusement park version of the Queen and more like an actual, breathing person.

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All of which leads me to the uneasy suggestion that Rose and this new Doctor actively bring out the worst in each other in “Tooth And Claw.” The 9th Doctor could be goofy and he could be detached, but Rose tended to challenge him when he did not display proper concern for the puny mortals around him. Think back to “The End Of The World,” in which Rose took the Doctor to task for his “Deep South” joke in the midst of their discussion about the TARDIS’ translation circuits. That Rose still looked at the world from a proudly human perspective, and she didn’t take the Doctor’s rightness as an article of faith: Just look at “Dalek” for definitive proof of that. Back then, the Doctor showed Rose the universe, and she looked out at the cosmos with her own eyes; these days, it’s as though the Doctor and Rose only have eyes for each other. This didn’t begin with the 10th Doctor—Mickey did criticize the Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack’s insularity back in “Boom Town”—but their self-absorbed behavior here far exceeds anything we have seen previously. Even if these are all intentional creative decisions (and I’m fairly certain that they are), the execution makes the main characters more unpalatable than they need to be.

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Even so, “Tooth And Claw” is far from a disaster. The BBC once again shows off its proficiency at recreating historical settings, and the Welsh locations ably double for Scotland, conveying the cold but undeniable beauty of the highlands. The period details in the Torchwood Estate and the costumes of its denizens all create the feeling of a real, lived-in world; that verisimilitude makes it easier to swallow the werewolf special effect than it might otherwise be in a less grounded setting. Euros Lyn’s direction of the chases sequences is strong, as he employs off-kilter angles, tight close-ups, and occasional werewolf perspective shots to make the house feel as claustrophobic as possible.

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The story’s version of Victoria is based more in her modern-day conception than the actual, historical queen; she doesn’t possess the depth of character that Mark Gatiss and Simon Callow were able to bring to Charles Dickens in “The Unquiet Dead.” But Pauline Collins compensates for this with a multilayered performance that mixes steely determination, wry wit, and regal imperiousness, all of which makes it possible to understand why she would effectively declare war on the man who saved her life. Derek Riddell and Jamie Sives are similarly good as Sir Robert and Captain Reynolds, as their manner, speech, and philosophies mark them as quintessential products of the Victorian age. “Tooth And Claw” feels like a sumptuous supernatural costume drama, one that just happens to have a pair of jackasses wandering through it. Honestly, it’s easy to see why the Doctor Who production team was so proud of this episode—so much so that they considered kicking off the season with this story instead of “New Earth”—even if I can’t second their high opinion of the story. Plenty of Doctor Who adventures have been mixed bags or partial successes, but this is the rare story that works as well as it does only in spite of the Doctor’s presence, rather than because of it.

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7 thoughts on “A Special Look at: Tooth and Claw

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