Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Tooth and Claw

By Jim Smith on 25 April 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

There’s something inherently mid-to-late Nineteenth century about ‘Doctor Who’. This stems partially from the literary forebears that it draws on for iconography, plot and inspiration and partially from the series frequent forays into that period. (This second reason is of course, in part, a consequence of the first). ‘Tooth and Claw’ fits into the tradition of ‘Doctor Who’ episodes set in the late nineteenth century but it also draws attention to itself for doing so as it goes about that process.

There’s a strong them of disapproving of the idea of having any faith in ‘inheritance’ running through ‘Tooth and Claw’ (a title which is very nearly an anagram of ‘Doctor Who’). The ‘Wolf’ itself is a form of biological inheritance, foisted on the innocent and the position occupied by the largely ineffectual, and profoundly ungrateful, Queen Victoria represents the apex of societal inheritance. (The cheap gags at the expense of the Royal family in the episode’s penultimate scene serve to link these two ideas even more explicitly).

Even more seriously both Sir Robert and Queen Victoria (the son and heir and the wife and inheritor respectively) of the men who built the trap for the wolf have no idea how to work it. Had the characters been left only to rely on the actions of the inheritors to get out the situation, the story seems to say, then the Empire of the Wolf would be upon us. (The Doctor even gets in a few cracks at the Baronet’s expense, such as “Your Dad got all the brains, didn’t he?” which emphasise this point further.) In fact watching Sir Robert flounder as he attempts to understand his father’s work it’s hard not to recall Tony Benn’s famous comment on the idea of inherited qualities; to wit, how would you like it if the pilot of a plane announced that he had no training in flying such a vehicle, but it was something his late Father had been very good at?

Given that Victoria’s creation of ‘Torchwood’ (which actually is an anagram of ‘Doctor Who’) will presumably survive to cause the Doctor further grief (in addition to that which it has already caused him in ‘The Christmas Invasion’) the episode as a whole seems to be suggesting that the audience both distrust those who have what they have by way of inheriting it and worry about those aspects of themselves that they regard as having inherited. In a sense it’s preaching self-reliance. (Would it be too much to suggest the Doctor’s mention of this series most notable Jacobite is another in the direction of the perfidy of inheritance? Probably.)

One might think this odd in an episode of ‘Doctor Who’ that so squarely draws on ideas of “what the series is like”, what with its Victorian setting, historical characters, random chills and slayings and an improvised-solution ending. However, the episode itself could also be argued to be trying to refute much of its own inheritance as ‘Doctor Who’ as both Victoriana and pastiche. It gives us a sourer, less sad, more sprightly but also fundamentally less pleasant Queen Victoria than we are used to from fiction. It’s also set in the middle of nowhere rather than in one of the settings one associates with such fictions (London, Edinburgh) and it transplants the distinctly European werewolf motif to Britain rather than using a more straightforwardly Victorian supernatural nasty, like M R James’ incomprehensible ghosts. It also has Kung Fu monks who are, in this form at least, the cultural property of a different continent and century entirely. The lack of a happy ending is atypical for ‘Doctor Who’ as is the Doctor’s failure to charm the historical figures his path intersects with. The Doctor is also seen to do and say distinctly un-Doctorish (though pleasingly odd) things as gamble, take the mickey out of his companion (and then hug them) and display a knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, pop music. There’s at least as much refutation, as much pushing forwards, here as there is drawing on the series own past.

This being twenty-first century ‘Doctor Who’ the production is handsome, the pace is frenetic and dialogue full of cross references and wit. David Tennant, in his third outing as the series’ hero, hasn’t yet hit the heights he achieved in the Christmas special although this week he isn’t eclipsed by Billie Piper as he was last. Pauline Collins (Queen Victoria) gives a vigorous, distinct guest performance. This is far more fun than getting someone already associated with the role would have been. The rest of the guest cast are mostly cannon (or rather claw) fodder who go through the motions with dignity and panache.

Slick and stylish, funny and fast and easily good enough to watch twice in twenty-four hours ‘Tooth and Claw’ is a primo slice of new ‘Doctor Who’. Eat up and enjoy.

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