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TV Review: BBC’s Doctor Who – “Tooth and Claw”

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British Television barely makes the rounds in the United States, so it may come to no surprise you don’t know what Doctor Who is. The short of it is that it’s Britain’s version of Star Trek. It’s just as big and as important to the genre of science fiction. Unlike Trek however, the format allows for season-to-season experimentation.

The series tells the story of a man known as The Doctor, who is a lord of time and space. While he carries the title proudly, he engages in the vastness of the universe rather than act as a mere spectator. To do so, he steals a time machine that the Timelords (as they are called) use to travel around. The uniqueness of this particular machine is that it can change into anything on the outside. For the sake of keeping a budget on the show even in new series, the machine is disguised as a police box (a phone booth in which you can call the police) on the outside. When The Doctor heads inside the police box, the inside is massively bigger. In the series early days, this allowed the producers a chance to combine live and in-studio filming to prevent having the building of a massive set.

But the key to the series’ success is largely the character of the Doctor. He is a lexicon of humanity, portraying every facet of human emotion through each of his lives throughout the series. He could be cold, warm, erratic, violent, deceitful and funny; sometimes all at once, and sometimes individually in each life. Because the character is this lexicon of personalities, choosing the actor can be a challenge in itself.

Russell T. Davies took on this challenge by hiring Christopher Eccelston, a man known for his dark and intense performances. Unfortunately, Eccelston is well known as an actor who bounces from part to part and doesn’t usually stick around. This suited Davies fine, as the purpose was to jumpstart the program back into the limelight. As soon as the ratings got good enough and the interest returned, he quickly signed a deal for three more years and David Tennant, a man known for his light approach to his characters, was hired. How this would take place would be new to novice viewers of the series, and familiar to past generations.

When The Doctor is near death, at his own will, he can change his entire appearance. This move was put into place as a way to quickly get an actor out and another one in without too much interruption of the story. A perfect example of this is Jon Pertwee, whose Doctor died in “Planet of the Spiders” in 1974. A few moments before the end credits he regenerated into the next Doctor, Tom Baker. Without really getting into the whole “What’s going on? Who am I?” bit that would plague the series later on, the new Doctor stepped in another adventure named “Robot”, which followed after the events of “Planet of the Spiders”.

After Eccelston’s departure last year in Series 1′s “The Parting Of The Ways,” he regenerated into Tennant. It would be a few months before we would get a full-on adventure of his Doctor (The Children In Need Special was a mere few minutes) in “The Christmas Invasion”. That adventure proved to be flat at best and proved that Davies was uncertain about how to write Tennant’s Doctor. Now with two episodes behind his belt, it’s clear that work needs to be done.

David Tennant still hasn’t found his place as the Doctor. He’s too unstable and erratic, and he lacks the chemistry needed make an average episode better. That however is just one of the many gripes I have so far with “Tooth and Claw,” which serves as the second episode of the new season.

“New Earth” suffered from Russell’s apparent lack of concentration, which continues in this episode as well. He starts out great with the pre-credits sequence showing a house under siege by mysterious “redmen.” They want Queen Victoria, who happens to make a visit to this house on her way somewhere so that they can kill her. The reason: they want the throne. It’s a simple enough plot, but that’s not enough for Russell.

The Doctor and Rose (his companion) have their little chat sequence in the opening minutes as they did in “New Earth”. While the opening was forced in that episode, in “Tooth and Claw” it barely makes sense. The audio channels seemed warbled and unclear, not to mention once again Davies turns his Who into a private music box. If you are going to make character development work, fit it into the plot. Mark Gatiss did a good job of this with “The Unquiet Dead” even though many didn’t like its throwback to ’70s Who. At least in that episode, the gas zombies looked real.

“Tooth and Claw” has perfect locations and uses them well, except for when the Werewolf comes into them. The work looks sloppy, and feels like a one-nighter thrown together before a film school final. Before it changed into the wolf, the human host for it was a far more compelling character to explore. Of course the way he was written there was just as bad as The Doctor and Rose in the beginning of the episode, inaudible and non-sensical.

Things clean themselves up once the Werewolf is released and the pace is stepped up a bit. The spatting between the Queen and Rose is Russell’s way of incorporating his politics into the episode; fine, but that would have been better suited for “New Earth.” The fighting here draws the episode to a stop and is seemingly awkward at best. If I had control of the editing booth, I would have cut most of their scenes out. But never mind any of that, let’s talk about Russell’s need to force Torchwood on us this early.

When he first announced the spin-off, I felt that it was too soon. Doctor Who did well last year, but not well enough for me to feel confident in a spin-off. Captain Jack is supposed to lead that one, but he’s so boring. If I’m gonna have his face and acting while watching Torchwood, then they might as well hire David Duchvony instead. Now, how about those “redmen”?

It’s very clear that Doctor Who needs new villains and not carbon-copies of Power Rangers episodes. Instead of wolves or Daleks or Cybermen, they should try to incorporate some less humanoid villains. They pulled that off in the “Stones of Blood” episode and even did it with “Planet of Evil.” I’m sure the CGI would look impressive if they did a villain like that. The need for two-legged villains makes the show seem more of the same that we always see in science fiction. But before they fix any of that other stuff, they need to hone in on who David Tennant is as the Doctor.

I’m starting to get irritated with his motor-mouthing of the dialogue. Tom Baker was able to pull that off and be clear; Tennant however is struggling to say word one. He should get some balls and tell Russell to get a KISS approach to it. The barebones nature of the show allows for a play with the format now and then, and it’s not always necessary to make the Doctor an overeager teenager. But then, there’s Rose Tyler.

I don’t get Russell’s take on her. In his episodes, she comes off as a brat with a thumb stuck up her butt half the time. In other episodes, she seems to be interesting and full of intelligence and wit. Again, I refer to “The Unquiet Dead,” which was perhaps the greatest showcase of Billie Piper’s capability to not make her character appear as a dumb blonde. If Russell intends to write her as an annoying sidekick, then either kill her off or put her in a locked dungeon for the next few episodes of her contract until he can find his niche for her.

I love Doctor Who, but I’m getting extremely fed-up with the insecurity of the screenwriting by Russell Davies. If you ever wanted to know what an unfocused screenplay looked like, any one of Russell Davies’ Who episodes will do. Doctor Who is a simple adventure series. If you keep it that way, you’ll keep this viewer happy. You go all over the place, you’ll lose me in the time vortex of channel surfing.

About Matthew Milam

  • Chris

    Not sure I agree with all the comments here… but I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t understand a word of that first scene in the TARDIS. The audio was incomprehensible!

  • mrh

    Here’s a question, how can someone in Chicago be reviewing an episode which hasn’t aired in the UK?

  • mrh

    of course I meant hasn’t aired in the US.

  • http://insidebrain2005.blogspot.com Matthew Milam

    I used the Tardis!

  • Lisa R

    Well, obviously, you’re in the minority, finding RTD’s screenplays unfocused, Captain Jack boring, and Tennant unsatisfactory. Thank heavens enough disagree with you that we were able to get a 2nd (and upcoming 3rd) series.

    BTW, your audio of the Tardis may have more to do with the means by which you are watching the episode (and I shall say no more on that, because it’s the same method by which I watch it, living in Texas) than the episode itself. Such is the risk one takes when not seeing it in its native medium.

  • http://insidebrain2005.blogspot.com Matthew Milam

    I may be in the minority, but I bet that minority grows after Series 2 ends. I’m sorry but Tennant needs to either step it up, or tell RTD to write better.

    As far as Captain Jack, it’s taken him awhile to reappear; I seriously hope his character is written better in Torchwood.

  • Nicholas Jackson

    I think the rather derogatory nature of this review is unfounded. David Tennant is a wonderful new doctor, lively and exciting, he might have a slight Scottish twang but a man can’t change his accent and sometimes us Brits have trouble understanding American accents. Davies writing has brought new depth to the characters, we understand them better and feel more intune with them, Rose is one of the best assistants since she takes an active role in the adventure and is not there to just scream. As for Captain Jack I am looking forward to his new series, just a shame he could not come back into Dr Who. Long story short, Dr Who is better than ever!

  • http://insidebrain2005.blogspot.com Matthew Milam

    I watch British shows all the time here in America, and none of them have the audio problems this series seems to be coming into.

    Compared to the high-budget of this Who, you could actually hear what was being said in the earlier versions.

  • Sheree

    Well I agree with Captain Jack being a tad boring, but David Tennant is a wonderful actor as is Billie Piper, the TARDIS scene at the beginning seemed fine to me I can hear everything they are saying, so you should check whatever Tv you were watching it on.

  • Erin

    I don’t agree with anything in this article except that we were bashed over the head with Torchwood references. I think David Tennant is doing a fine job as the Doctor considering how he is written. I think as the series progresses he will settle into the part a bit more. Maybe you are just having trouble adjusting after Christopher Eccleston? I think the acting on all accounts is great and the writing entertaining even if it’s not perfect. And the werewolf was astonishing! I had no trouble understanding what was being said, so I don’t know what the problem was there. So I respectfully disagree.

  • Rass

    Doctor Who is not “Britain’s version of Star Trek”. Doctor Who predates Star Trek by several years. That, and the two shows are nothing alike.

    btw, I had no trouble understanding anything which was said. I believe this to be an American issue due to my own experiences in the USA.

  • sue

    Dr Who is deep in the British mind set–we all watched it (from behind the sofa) when we were kids. And it was a lot earlier than Star Trek. It is nice to see it back and the nature of the show is that it changes–as does the Doctor.