One of the great conceits of tonight's Dr. Who episode “Tooth and Claw” (8 p.m. and 1 a.m. Eastern, Sci Fi Channel) is the Doctor's attempt to take Rose to see Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1979. Had I a time machine, there would be countless sights to behold, but near the top of the list would be mythic, classic concerts I was too young to attend. It's refreshing, after years of vicarious TARDIS travel, to see the device used in a manner which I'd likely exploit. (The Doctor half-jokes, “What else is the TARDIS for?”) But alas—a wee lass?—the TARDIS materializes in 1879 Scotland. I mourn this not because their Scottish adventure is lackluster, but because given the Doctor's propensity for finding trouble, I ponder the potentially sinister plot brewing behind the scenes of a rock concert. And how might the Doctor have been the inspiration for “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”?
“Tooth and Claw” opens with a sequence unlike anything the series has ever showcased: a group of dangerous-looking monks take over Torchwood Estate in true Crouching Tiger, Hidden Werewolf fashion—brandishing staffs, they flip about in both graceful slow-mo and lightning-fast real time, taking down the estate servitors with ease. No doubt a striking, well-choreographed opening, and yet I couldn't get past the gimmick: the monks never again in the episode exhibit these skills. Did producer Russell Davies worry the historical setting might be off-putting, and feel the need to open with such theatrics? Och! Ne'er min' th' karate, what's inside th' cage th' monks dragged intae th' cellar?
Star David Tennant is a Scot, and upon the Doctor realizing he's in Scotland, the actor loses his Doctored affectation in favor of his natural accent…which Rose attempts to mimic, to comically disastrous effect.
The Doctor: Oh, I'm dazed and confused. I've been chasing this wee naked child over hill and over dale. Isn't that right, you…tim'rous beastie?
Rose: Och aye! I've been oot and aboot!
The Doctor's claim that he's Dr. James McCrimmon is an in-joke for fans—Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) was the Doctor's Highlander companion during the Patrick Troughton era of the series. And speaking of that era, we next meet Queen Victoria, played by Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine), who way back in '67 appeared with Troughton and Hines in the story “The Faceless Ones” (pictured above). Collins' 1967 character, Samantha Briggs, was even considered for companion status, but instead the position went to Deborah Watling who played—wait for it—Victoria Waterfield. Was all this meant to subliminally fester in the mind of the hardcore Who fan, or have I simply taken Six Degrees a step too far?
Psychic paper: ACTIVATE! Before you can say Victoria's Secret, the Doctor is onboard as the Queen's protector, and Rose has made a bet with him that she can get the Queen to proclaim, “We are not amused.” There's much giggling and merriment between the two leads bordering—intentionally, it seems—on the insufferable.
The caravan arrives at Torchwood Estate, and is greeted by its proprietor, Sir Robert (Derek Riddell). Clearly ill at ease and surrounded by meddling monks (now dressed as staff), he begrudgingly ushers Queen and company inside. Soon the Doctor discovers an alien plot to infect Her Majesty with the curse of the werewolf; in true Who fashion, even a werewolf is given scientific explanation. The resolution - involving a telescope that belonged to Sir Robert's father, which was also a pet obsession of the late Prince Albert (who spent much time at the Torchwood Estate)—is clever and well written, and everything ties together pretty tightly in the end.
Truth be told, I didn't much care for “Tooth and Claw”, which is bizarre as there's nothing intrinsically off-putting about it. It's a tighter story than “New Earth,” and it's got some great performances; Collins and Riddell are both standouts. The production design is gorgeous and accomplishes the one thing at which Doctor Who's always been successful—period pieces. The werewolf looks fan-friggin'-tastic, the action scenes are well paced, and there's a genuine atmosphere of menace shrouding the goings-on. Indeed, during the UK run, many fans considered it a season highpoint—which illustrates one of the oddities of Doctor Who: What often works for you may not work for me, and vice versa. (Contrast this with Battlestar Galactica, where we can all pretty much agree that “Black Market” is a turkey.) After the crazed antics of “New Earth”, I wasn't game for another episode full of chase scenes—I wanted some heart, an element I've come to appreciate about the new Who.
Furthermore, Tennant hasn't been given a chance to delineate his character since the last 20 minutes of “The Christmas Invasion” (although the moment the Doctor first sees the werewolf and marvels, “That's beautiful!” is defining). Further-furthermore, I had difficulty dealing with the feeling that I was falling out of love with Rose Tyler. She is no longer the Rose I warmed to in Season One. That's okay, and dramatically sound—but please don't put me in a position where I find myself disliking her.
“Tooth and Claw's” final moments do provide some meat, with the Queen, who is most definitely not amused, chastising the Doctor and Rose for their flippant attitudes, banishing them from her Empire, then proceeding to set up the Torchwood Institute for battling forces from the unknown. The Doctor's theory, however, that the future Royal Family bloodline is corrupted by the blood of lycanthropes hints that his flippancy remains intact (with Rose cackling all the way into the TARDIS).
NEXT WEEK: The return of two old friends, Anthony Stewart Head as the baddie, and lots and lots of chips in “School Reunion”. (A recap that could alternatively be titled “You'll Believe a Fanboy Can Gush!”)
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Pyramids of Mars,” starring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue. For more writing about the series, see “Dr. Who” in the sidebar at right.