21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Tooth And Claw

When Doctor Who returned to TV screens in the mid 2000s, the official BBC website ran a recurring feature called The Fear Factor. What happened was that a family of kiddywinks would preview the upcoming adventure and rate it from one to five as to how terrifying it was (1 = Harmless; 5 = Pooh Your Pants). When it came to Tooth And Claw, the kids were suitably quaking at an episode that was touted as the scariest to date for the 21st century revival.

Now the scare factor in the reboot of Doctor Who has been a bit of a bone of contention. Some will argue that it's nowhere near as scary as what had gone before: The late '60s stories paraded scary monsters week in week out; The early '70s went close to the knuckle with blank-faced dummies, killer dolls and suffocating chairs; The mid-'70s stories contained regular haunted house and Gothic horror scenarios and monsters, not to mention grisly deaths by the shedload. Even the late '70s (a period not normally noted for scares) featured recurring motifs of skulls, bones and mystical monsters.

Modern-day stories, however, haven't been quite as uncompromising as say, Pyramids Of Mars or The Robots Of Death – there's more of a tighter leash these days, on how far programme makers can go with portraying genuine horror. But nevertheless, some of the RTD-era stories did serve up some scary stuff, including gas mask faces, Weeping Angels and werewolves.

Tooth And Claw marks a welcome return to the darker methods of storytelling in the mid 1970s – interestingly, Hinchcliffe and Holmes had never selected that old Hammer House staple, the werewolf, to terrify kids with. In fact, the only time that Doctor Who had attempted this monster was in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy with Mags, and even then, the result looked like a slightly wasted member of We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Going To Use It.

Luckily, Tooth And Claw gets this genre spot on in a tale that not only ups the fear factor for kids, but also gets the season back on track after the disastrous New Earth. Werewolf creatures have been a part of popular fiction, going right back to the days of Ovid's Metamorphoses or Greek mythology. Recently, there have been a slew of werewolves in Hammer Horror films, as well as in the oft-mentioned American Werewolf In London and poor old Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter books and films. On TV, we had the recurring character of Oz the werewolf in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and George and Nina in Being Human – inexplicably, George always screams like a woman when mutating.

Tooth And Claw pays homage to this popular horror icon with a suitably dark story. Technically, the werewolf in question is actually an alien being which landed on Earth in 1540, which has since survived by passing its lycanthropic form from human to human.

So what makes this story so effective? The ever-versatile Euros Lyn manages to conjure up an atmosphere of dark foreboding, right from the ominous opening in which the abode of Sir Robert MacLeish is hijacked by a squad of psycho Hare Krishnas. The whole story is brilliantly shot, with moodily-lit interiors, subjective camera angles and some excellent special effects.

The werewolf itself is a case in point – it's a big improvement on the Slitheen from the previous season. This time around, the main monster is a real force to be reckoned with, moving about like greased lightning and ripping its victims to shreds. Interestingly, we never see the actual attacks – what Lyn does is to rely on effective POV shots and disquieting sound effects and screams to provide the horror. The sound effects of the ravenous wolf are right on the money, and the yells of its victims are equally powerful. Jamie Sives (playing Captain Reynolds), in particular, is responsible for some of the most blood-curdling screaming ever heard in the series.

Mind you, even the Host in human form is a creepy proposition, and full marks go to Tom Smith for his eerie portrayal – the softly-spoken, high-pitched quaver makes for a great contrast with the later violence. The great big black eyes also contribute to that inscrutable fear, although why do werewolf hosts always seem to have these great big zoned eyes? They look like they've been dragged out of some Acid House nightclub in 1988.

Russell T Davies' script is luckily, much better than the one for New Earth. It proves that the man can write straight-ahead action adventure – there's no satirical or topical point to make this time around. The whole aim of Tooth And Claw is just to scare kids, which it does very well. It's constructed in a logical, well thought-out manner – the clues are dotted throughout, including Queen Victoria's Koh-i-Noor diamond, Sir Robert's father's findings, and also the whopping great telescope that is ultimately used to defeat the werewolf. The story unfolds gradually rather than a sudden, hurried build-up in the last 10 minutes or so. Davies has often said that he likes to write vertically, in that he pushes the action up or down in a building, and there's a sense of that in Tooth And Claw, as the Doctor and co dash up the stairs and through various rooms to lure the werewolf into the carefully planned trap, as set out by Sir Robert's father.

This story carries on the established tradition of including a famous historical figure – this time around, it's Queen Victoria, who gets to team up with the Doctor and Rose. Unlike Charles Dickens, Queen Vic is less accessible – a forthright, no-nonsense sort of curmudgeon who isn't easily impressed or swayed by events unfolding around her. Her sense of humour is sarcastic and biting, swiftly dismissing Reynolds' over-enthusiastic appreciation of her joke with a caustic “I shall contain my wit in case I do you any further injury”. However, there's also a rare vulnerable side to Victoria, especially when she discusses her late husband with the Doctor (“The dead stay silent – and we must wait”) – she sees the appeal of ghost stories and legends as the hope of contact with the great beyond.

But Queen Victoria doesn't suffer fools gladly, and the best example of this is seen in that excellent scene when she banishes the Doctor and Rose (“Now leave my world!”). What's great about this is that it completely subverts the viewer's expectations. The Doctor and Rose are knighted for their efforts in defeating the werewolf, but what you think will be a smiley ending turns out to be surprisingly abrupt. Queen Vic takes umbrage with the Doctor and Rose for their annoyingly flippant attitude (“I don't know what you are, the two of you, or where you're from, but I know that you consort with stars and magic and think it fun!” she huffs), and the offending pair are forced to clear off – although they're evidently not too bothered, since they're laughing, cackling and howling while leaving in the TARDIS. It's a standout turn from Pauline Collins, who returns to Doctor Who after an absence of 39 years. It's a dignified, realistic portrayal that doesn't rely on hammy showboating, but on a shrewdly observed character study.

Back to the Doctor and Rose. Even the staunchest of Doctor Ten/Rose fans have to admit that Queen Vic's got a point. The two squeal and whoop their way through proceedings like a pair of girls on a school trip to the Victoria And Albert Museum. It's annoying for a number of reasons. Again, the Doctor's Time Lord credentials are diminished as a result. This is a more accessible Doctor than ever before, but reducing him to this juvenile, cliquey level doesn't do him any favours.

The other, bigger problem is that the pair don't seem too fazed by the death and carnage all around them. Take the scene which follows Reynolds' brutal death. All Rose can say is “I tell you wot though – wehwolf”, to which the Doctor squawks “I know!” in a high-pitched yelp, like they're going to nip down the corridor and ask to pose with the Werewolf for a picture on the Time Lord's state-of-the-art iphone. Surely a bit more respect might have been called for, given that Reynolds has just been reduced to the level of a demolished, half-eaten roasted chicken (while saving their lives)? Mind you, this is a Doctor who's quick to assume that Sir Robert's batting for the other side, just because the baldy monks are lurking around his house. Git.

In a sense though, this is again another example of the Tenth Doctor setting up his own future downfall. He's so besotted with Rose that it's as if he doesn't realise how much he's upsetting others. His flippant smuggery causes Victoria to form an elite group to defend the country from evil alien wrong-doers called Torchwood. Put it this way, if the Doctor and Rose had toned down their cliquey double act and shown just a smidge more humility, they wouldn't encounter Torchwood in the Army Of Ghosts two-parter – and ultimately, they... OK, spoilers. Just like in The Christmas Invasion, the Tenth Doctor's reckless arrogance is setting him up for a future fall – while he remains blissfully oblivious to this fact.

And look at that – the Doctor's pressing his face to a barrier that separates him from a bad wolf. Clever work, Mr Davies.

That said, David Tennant and Billie Piper do well here. Tennant's having a better time than he did in New Earth. He makes for far more of a commanding presence than he did in the previous tale, and manages a more equal balance of serious contemplation and off-the-wall lunacy. Good move to have him speak in his native accent – it suits him far better than the usual Mockney voice (also like the Jamie McCrimmon gag). It's a great idea to have him plan to visit Ian Dury and The Blockheads in 1979 (“You're a big old punk with a bit of Rockabilly thrown in!” beams Rose). I'm picturing this Doctor doing a new wave mystery tour of Ian Dury, XTC, Madness and The Specials. Incidentally, the Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick inclusion is a canny move, especially with the “It's good to be a lunatic” line pre-empting Sir Robert's father's reputation as an oddball eccentric, who nevertheless helps to save the day from beyond the grave.

Billie also does good work, when the Rose character isn't called upon to be a smug pain in the arse. She's just as capable working on her own, whether she's persuading Lady Isobel and the servants to help break free from the werewolf room or whether she's sweetly befriending Flora, the quaking servant girl.

Overall, Tooth And Claw is an excellent slice of teatime horror. The script is fast paced and well written, and it's translated superbly by Euros Lyn. The location filming adds much to the atmosphere and flavour, as do the claustrophobic confines of Sir Robert's house. Lyn's casting choices are on the button – all the guest actors give good accounts of themselves. Pauline Collins steals the show, but we also have Derek Riddell who's particularly good as the tortured Sir Robert, Michelle Duncan, who gives a sweet performance as Lady Isobel, and Jamie Sives, who makes the most of his smaller but memorable role as the dour but brave Captain Reynolds. Tom Smith and Ian Hanmore make for particularly creepy baddies – Hanmore has that haunted, eerie face perfect for the role of Father Angelo.

Although what's up with the kung-fu monks? A small motley crew of slapheads who, to my short-sighted eyes, look like multiple clones of the baldy chef from Sunday Brunch. While they make a memorable debut in the pre-credits teaser with their cross between the BBC indents trailer and a more vicious interpretation of The Goodies' 'Ecky Thump' episode, after that, they kind of fizzle out. Where do they scurry off to once events become a bit too much? Maybe to form their own pop combo called The Monkys, starting their bid for big-time stardom with “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit 'Fu”. Or maybe they're off to pay a visit to the local wig boutique.

Just a couple of other minor annoyances – Murray's Pompous Choir do their best to multi-handedly destroy the atmosphere with their relentless noise (while making odd “Hooooogh-haaaaaargh” noises for the monk bit at the start, like they've got hiccups). Plus, the blatantly obvious Torchwood plug at the end is rammed home with the subtlety of a juggernaut. To be honest, I'm not sure that Torchwood, with its greater emphasis on sex and violence, is the sort of thing for kids – it's a bit like broadcasting the Nightmare On Elm Street films on CBeebies.

Otherwise, this is a good, solid horror story for the small screen. It's got lashings of dark atmosphere, buckets of tension, a well-realised monster, not to mention a well-chosen cast and excellent production values. At long last, the werewolf gets to join the ranks of familiar Doctor Who monsters in its very own story that does deserve its reputation as a chiller for the under-10s.

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