Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting TOOTH AND CLAW - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting TOOTH AND CLAW

There are moments in the pre-credits sequence of Tooth and Claw when you whimsically consider that there may have been some hallucinogenics involved in its creation. Scotland, 1879 – fine. The setting and scene are suitably grimy and believable. Enter some black-clad monks, led by the strikingly batty and ascetic Father Angelo (Ian Hanmore), who wants to take over a Scottish stately home.


What follows is a sequence that probably looked great in Russell T Davies’ mind – the monks shrugging off their robes and getting all Crouching Tiger, Hidden Werewolf on the staff in a fight scene so choppy that it’s difficult to follow in any detail, leaving just a kind of comic-book impression of the house staff having their Scottish butts handed to them.

The monks in bright orange fight suits don’t survive more than a handful of moments of actual thought – why so brightly orange, given that their purpose is secret infiltration? Why have they learned such an Eastern form of acrobatic martial arts while living and plotting in Scotland? And why, come to that, do they throw away the fighting poles that give them extra reach and impact, to focus on hand-to-hand combat?

We’re not really supposed to focus on any of this, we’re supposed to focus on the spectacle of warrior monks capturing the house – and as pure spectacle, it works just fine. It’s just doolally if you do happen to think about it.

Then, there’s a giant MacGuffin introduced – a big cage or box covered in a cloth. The house staff – and the mistress of the house, to boot – are chained up in the same room as the box, and its contents are revealed to them, if not yet to us. A scream – and we’re off into the adventure.

The new Doctor is using the Tardis to essentially impress his date, offering Rose the choice of several memorable dates in history, and, responding to his Time Lord flirting, Rose chooses the option he obviously most wants to see – Ian Dury in concert, Sheffield, 1979.

There’s a joyous throwaway line where the Doctor makes a face at the thought of sharing a year with Margaret Thatcher (and quite right, too) before they stride confidently out – into Scotland in 1879, rather than Sheffield in 1979.

On a road across some moors, they encounter Queen Victoria herself, who has been discommoded from taking the train by a tree on the line – probably, it’s thought, an assassination attempt.

While the psychic paper allows them to blag an invitation from the Queen to accompany her to the nearby estate of Sir Robert MacLeish, it’s fair to acknowledge that when people, both in 2006 and subsequently, whinge about the ultra-smug relationship between the Tenth Doctor and Rose, they’re talking about these scenes just as much as the “Who ya gonna call?” sequence in Army of Ghosts.

It’s positively cringeworthy on a rewatch to see the pair gibber in Scottish accents (Tennant’s real one, and Tyler’s “Hoots, mon!”) – we even get a “timorous beastie,” along with name-checks for kids’ TV show Balamory and, rather more pleasingly, James McCrimmon before the equally grim forced humour of their bet to try and make Vitoria say she is not amused.

Pleasingly though, Tooth and Claw starts coming together really rather well once they all arrive at Sir Robert’s estate. There’s talk of a local werewolf legend and crucially, there’s a telescope built by Sir Robert’s father. Which, according to the newly rude Doctor, is a bit rubbish. Pretty, but rubbish

When talk of telescopes and lycanthropy comes too close to the bone, Father Angelo breaks up the party, telling people it’s time to dress for dinner, as the moon is nearly up.

The full moon.

When she finds a shivering servant girl hiding in her wardrobe and gets the story of the house’s invasion by mad monks, Rose heads out to find the Doctor, only to get herself and Flora the servant captured and added to the jolly gang chained up with the box of scream-inducing terror.

It’s worth noting that there are some strong scenes for Rose here – both on a human level, convincing the terrified servant girl to trust her, and to trust in her friend the Doctor, and when, all chained up with no place to go, she engages the creepy young black-eyed lad in the cage – because that’s what people have been screaming at – in advanced conversation, earning his appraisal that she’s intelligent, and learning the underpinnings of the plan. The plan being to turn into a werewolf, bite the Queen and usher in what it called “The Empire of the Wolf.” Which is the kind of thing you learn in a couple of minutes of expositionary dialogue when you’re Rose Tyler.

(We’ve mentioned this on this re-run before, but those who criticise the Chibnall era for its reams of exposition would do well to come along with us and re-examine the RTD1 era, because it’s all in there too).

That chat with the wolf-boy starts to make sense of a lot. The tree on the line wasn’t a plan to kill Victoria, but to lead her to this house on this night. The monks, it turns out, worship – and yet, control – the wolf, and for some reason (gods alone know why), are helping the alien werewolf in Scotland with its plans to conquer the world. It doesn’t in any way make sense of the martial art monks, but it carries enough of the plot to keep us dialled in until the next piece of storytelling comes along.

Meanwhile, it’s also worth paying tribute to the serious acting chops of Pauline Collins as Queen Victoria. Those are never bettered in the episode than when talking of the desolation of a lost love, and the cruel hope of some sense of perseverance beyond the earthly life. It’s one of the most moving scenes in the second series of “New Who,” and it’s a perfect combination of the script having a moment to breathe and delivering that human connection, and Collins absolutely melting the screen with the honesty of her portrayal. And for those who’ve already seen the whole of Series 2 of course, it works as well as prophecy for the Doctor and Rose as it does remembrance of Victoria and Albert.

And then of course, there’s the wolf.

Series 1 had more or less wowed with the improved budget and quality of its special effects, but a werewolf was always going to be a particular challenge. The best classic werewolf change is probably the one in An American Werewolf In London, so to be acceptable more than four decades on, the change in Tooth and Claw had to be at least as good as its Eighties predecessor. And the story demanded a wolf that was up and about quite a lot, with little by way of trickery to disguise the budget or the limitations of the effect.

What’s more, Doctor Who itself had history with good stories more or less ruined by ineffective monster-rendering – the snake in Kinda is probably the most egregious example, bur Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Nightmare on Eden, and The Power of Kroll are other standouts in this regard. If you set your stall out to deliver realistic creature feature horror in 2006, you absolutely had to nail it.

Just the week before, for instance, the zombification disease effects in New Earth had been at best OK, and 18 years on, they really show their age.

Happily then, the werewolf, both in its transformation, its ongoing threat, and its eventual destruction, still more than holds the attention in 2023, and doesn’t at any point feel like it lets the story or the beats of discovery down.

If you’re going to do a creature feature in Doctor Who in the 21st century, in lots of ways, Tooth and Claw shows you the way to go (a way subsequently ignored by the likes of Vampires of Venice, but rediscovered by Arachnids in the UK). The werewolf works, and even when it’s not technically in the room, the assembled cast while locked in a library react well enough to deliver the scares as it prowls around unseen outside (a technique that would probably achieve its finest Doctor Who flowering in Midnight).

While there turn out to be several neat tricks deployed in giving us the full-on werewolf experience – including a colour-bleached “Wolf’s-eye view” of some scenes – they all add up to a gripping, tense, gothic mystery story.

Elements like the use of mistletoe – effective not because of any genuine repellent effect, but because the wolf has been trained to think there is – are excellent workings of folklore into what emerges as a science-fiction werewolf story, and the Doctor gets a couple of strong zingers on the way to victory – “You want weapons? We’re in a library – arm yourselves,” being probably the most memorable (Yes, we know we’ve truncated it, don’t @ us).

A sub-plot about the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and about Prince Albert’s fascination with getting it re-cut and re-cut is neatly threaded in, and the famous cursed diamond of the empire is deliciously put to use, turning the rubbish telescope into what it actually is – a brilliant light chamber, for the rapid killing of werewolves. While the plot detail of how that works is moderately bonkers, Davies has the chutzpah to make Rose raise it – “The werewolf needs moonlight, it’s more or less made of moonlight!” – and then crushes all questions with a brilliant bit of Doctor dialogue: “You’re more than 70% water, you can still drown!”

Whereas, for instance, in New Earth, Cassandra’s change of heart and sudden equanimity with her own death felt forced and rushed, in Tooth and Claw, the werewolf boy’s sudden request to be set free from his curse when he’s pinned by a beam of intensified moonlight feels genuine, humble, and affecting.

The most grating aspect of Tooth and Claw is the sense in which this young-seeming new Doctor and his lovestruck companion act as though people – even Queen Victoria – must be slightly stupid because they’re in a time in Rose’s past (with all the “Hoots, mon” and “Bet you’re not amused, Your Majesty” business). But annoying as it is, it turns out to be a necessary part of what is otherwise a solidly written, affectingly played episode.

After enobling them for their services against the werewolf, Victoria banishes the pair of them, seeing through their ruses entirely. Then she decides to go further. With the death of Sir Robert while buying them time to defeat the werewolf, his estate will likely be sold by his widow.

Except Victoria decrees that she will set up an institute named after the house – and potentially housed within it. An institute to fight alien menaces, whether they be questionably benevolent, like the Doctor, or entirely malevolent, like the wolf. She will establish the Torchwood Institute – and when she says it, we’re catapulted back to The Christmas Invasion, to the people who destroyed the Sycorax spaceship with a weapon harvested from another alien spacecraft.

And just like that, after a strong-enough story of space werewolves, mad monks, and stolid Scotsmen, we understand the underlying point of the episode. Series 1 had a series arc – the Bad Wolf arc, ironically enough. Two mentions in three episodes suggests that the mysterious Torchwood Institute is going to be an ongoing arc through Series 2, and Victoria’s establishment of it at the end of Tooth and Claw is an extra hook to the episode, taking our understanding of what Torchwood is forward in leaps and bounds.

As an episode of RTD1 Who, Tooth and Claw has a lot to recommend it – properly done werewolf storytelling, a properly Victorian mixture of the gothic and the scientific, a celebrity historical story, some impressive work from both the Doctor and Rose, a first class performance from Pauline Collins, and the confirmation of a second series story arc.

The wretched way in which the new Doctor and his companion behave at the beginning of the story makes it a surprisingly difficult episode to re-watch, simply because you have to get through all that before the story really starts kicking in and coming together. But at least in Queen Victoria, they meet someone who’s not prepared to tolerate their disrespectful attitude, and who will, albeit long after her own death, bring them terrible, terrible consequences, far in excess of what their crimes of etiquette deserve.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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