Thursday, 29 November 2012

Queen Wolf

Doctor Who
Tooth And Claw
Series Two, Episode Two

Somewhere in the Doctor Who offices, there's a list of things the show must do every year, without fail.  On it you will find: travel to the past, meet a famous person, battle a supernatural monster, and this year, Queen Victoria + werewolf = Tooth And Claw.

It's solid.  The plot's efficient, the scares are effective, and there's loads to like.  And yet, I find myself thinking there's something lacking here.

It's certainly not the presentation.  Everything looks great, from the highland-approximating locations to the awesome CGI werewolf, and the story moves at a hell of a pace.  In his and Benjamin Cook's marvellous book The Writer's Tale, Russell T Davies used Tooth And Claw as an example of ruthless editing, and quite right: it's obviously been nipped and tucked to within an inch of its life.  The thing goes whoosh.

Nope, nothing horribly scarring here.
Even so, there's time to slow down and scare the pants off you.  In any werewolf story there's going to be a horrific transformation scene, and this one's eyebrow-raisingly gruesome for a family show.  The creature's subsequent attacks are shot with considerable attention to icky-noised detail, but all that's nothing to the moment when the survivors gather in a locked room, the music cuts away, and they just listen to the wolf outside, trying to find its way in.  Hooray!  They're being subtle!

Speaking of which, the performances are of an absurdly high standard this week.  Pauline Collins is the star, giving us a Queen Victoria who's equal parts grief and strength, but everyone else is right up there too.  There's the coldly determined Father Angelo, leading the wolf-worshipping Brethren; the guilt-ridden Sir Robert, who goes along with their plan to protect his wife; and the duty-bound Captain Reynolds, who tries too hard to laugh at Her Majesty's jokes.  Altogether, an embarrassment of actorly riches.  Even the werewolf's human counterpart, a nameless man played by Tom Smith, rocks your socks off just sitting there divulging his plans.  That stuff probably didn't scream "Brilliant" on the page, but on-screen it's an entirely different kettle of fish.

The plot doesn't exactly scream "Brilliant" either, but all the same it's a definite improvement.  The Brethren's trap for the Queen, itself containing a trap for the wolf, is all quite nicely worked out.  Well, apart from the silly bits: it's a bit stupid that they just waited around for Queen Vic to saunter in their direction once in a full moon, it's amazingly lucky they picked the one house designed by a guy with an anti-werewolf laser, and the wolf's crippling mistletoe allergy is both convenient and vague.  But what can I say?  It's quite coherent, and it's worlds better than the Random Plot Hole Generator seemingly used in most other episodes.

Overall, the production's close to faultless.  What really bugs me about this one is the stuff that comes as standard: the Doctor, and Rose, and the-Doctor-and-Rose.  It doesn't matter what other amazing stuff you've got in the mix if your heroes are setting the audience's teeth on edge.

To be fair, Rose has her moments.  Encouraging the servants to ignore the wolf and concentrate on escaping, then telling the Doctor off for being late, ought to top any companion-behaviour Wish List.  But the running joke of trying to get Queen Victoria to say "We are not amused" is a total own-goal.  It's not funny for the audience, no one on screen finds it funny, and even though Her Majesty chastises Rose for acting like a callous moron, and quite rightly, nothing comes of it.  We're right back in Callous Morontown by the end credits, as our gallant duo postulate that Queen Vic's probably a werewolf anyway.  What was the point?

"These are our 'respect for the dead' faces."
The Doctor seems to be right there with Rose in the callous moron stakes, and gets taken to task by the Queen, also to no avail.  I just don't get it  why make our two heroes the most annoying people in the episode?  Maybe one of them can be disconnected from all the, er, gritty realism, but isn't it the point of two characters, to balance it out?  As it is, they both learn nothing, ignore the telling off and go back to normal at the end.  In general, everyone else is thesping their brains out, leaving David's gen-you-wine Scots accent and Billie's the-audience-are-not-amused routine spluttering in the dust.

And that's just the major league irritating stuff.  Also annoying?  The Doctor, as well as starting a tradition where he screams at people to listen to him and they don't, keeps acting like a human.  So now he's a big fan of The Muppet Movie, plus Ian Dury & The Blockheads, and he jumps up and down and goes Eeeeee! when he meets a famous person or a werewolf?  Hrmph.  The Doctor works best when it's clear he's not from round here, and the closer he gets to acting like an ordinary bloke, albeit with psychic paper and a TARDIS, the further he gets from Planet Interesting.  (And as for the catty remark about Sir Robert having fun with a bunch of bald men while the wife's away, that's just about the unDoctorliest thing he's ever said.  What the hell?)

For all the bits that have been really well worked-out, some of it's just plain weird.  The opening scene with the Brethren storming Torchwood Castle is shot like a kung-fu movie from the '70s crossed with The Matrix, but aside from making me laugh, what's it actually there for?  They don't do anything like it again later on.  Best guess, it's there because it looks cool and starts the episode with a bang, but honestly, it's so bizarre (and that crash zoom is so funny) they might as well have saved the wire-fu budget for next series.  Some episode or other is bound to need the extra cash.

Perhaps weirdest of all, though, the Queen's telling off.  Now, I know they had it coming what with all the silly remarks, but what is she on about with their "terrible life", and the equally terrible conclusion that's bound to be the result of it?  What's so bad about travelling around and helping people?  What, besides a couple of bad jokes, did they actually do besides save her life and spare the entire British Empire a future that smelled of wet dog?  Take the Doctor out of the equation and you get exactly the same events, apart from one thing: Wolf 1, Queen 0.  The Doctor helps, simple as that.  I'm all for examining the show from another angle, but it does have to be one that makes sense.

"And it shall be called Torchwood,
and it shall be on BBC2 after the watershed,
and there shall be sex and swearwords and sex and..."
Her overreaction isn't just baffling why bother knighting them if you're going to banish them forever?  but it's a seriously clumsy bit of foreshadowing as well.  Why is the end drawing near?  'Cos someone they met who knows nothing about them randomly said so!  Altogether now: fin-ahhh-lee!  (And did I say foreshadowing?  Good, because coming soon, TORCHWOOD, yes, an organisation called TORCHWOOD will feature in the series finale, and DID I MENTION THERE'S A NEW SERIES COMING SOON AND IT'S ALSO CALLED TORCHWOOD?  If it were any more barefaced, Her Royal Highness would be wearing a John Barrowman T-shirt.)

There's a lot to recommend about Tooth And Claw, but the whole never feels like much more than the sum of its parts.  That, and it never truly escapes being "What famous person and monster shall we do this year?"  I'm probably old-fashioned, but I like a story to come from a more imaginative place than just filling in this year's blanks.

1 comment:

  1. She just banished them because they're a pair of dicks.