Russell T Davies perfected the shopping list approach to Doctor Who, particularly for the historical stories, so we get things like: Charles Dickens and ghosts; Shakespeare and witches; Agatha Christie and a giant wasp. The classic series rarely went in for this sort of thing, although the combination of a period setting and a monster was one of Philip Hinchcliffe’s box of tricks (mummies in 1911, etc). It is a headline-grabbing approach to writing Doctor Who stories, but here Davies takes things arguably a step too far by going for the triple-whammy: Queen Victoria, a werewolf and… erm, kung fu monks.
The first two of these fit nicely together. Not only is it the good old approach of doing a Hammer Horror story and setting it in history, but there is some logic to the combination. Queen Victoria was indeed a haemophiliac, and had no family history of the disorder. It appears to have been a spontaneous mutation, which is not as unusual as it might sound, accounting for about a third of cases (it’s certainly more likely than “werewolf bite”!)
The fighting monks are a different kettle of fish though, because they exist simply to provide a memorable image for the trailer, to generate a bit of publicity. Once they have performed that function they are discarded. On the one hand it might seem unfair to criticise a writer for doing something he is openly trying to do: adding something in for the purpose of bringing in new viewers. But it is difficult to get on board with the televisual equivalent of click-bait.
Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed…
Right from the start, the Doctor are Rose are having a whale of a time, starting with their bit of fun with a Scottish accent. They don’t mess around with accents when they are on an alien planet, just in Scotland. This is a metafictional allusion to David Tennant’s own accent, although he is genuinely putting on an accent here that is not quite his own, which is a really clever way to approach the scene. These kinds of actor allusions, a form of in-joke that the viewer is allowed to be involved with, are not infrequent. In fact there is another in this episode, when Victoria compares Sir Robert with Sir Walter Raleigh, the actor having recently played Raleigh in The Virgin Queen. Another one will crop up in the next episode, with Anthony Stewart Head using a bit of Buffy-speak: “forget the shooty dog thing”. When this works well it is an entertaining little bonus for the viewers. When it doesn’t it is shoehorned in and results in something that doesn’t flow naturally. You know that weird little quote from The Brain of Morbius where the Doctor jokingly tells Sarah to stop crying or he’ll bite her nose? It’s an actor allusion to his role in The Canterbury Tales (1972).
So the Doctor and Rose are enjoying themselves from the word go, and this provides an opportunity to being to subvert the idea of the Doctor as a messianic figure, which was built up in the previous episode. He is a flawed character because he lacks empathy. The Tenth Doctor says sorry a lot, but that’s a hollow use of words when he is shown to be having such fun while people are dying. The Doctor admiring the monster of the week is a recurring theme, and here that is challenged. But the Doctor is not the issue here, because our moral compass is more often the companion.
Quite simply, Rose is dreadful in this story. Apart from a compelling moment with the host before the transformation (‘there is something of the wolf about you’) she seems incidental to the story, merely there for comedy value. And the comedy misfires horribly. The running joke about the ‘we are not amused’ bet is torturous, with Rose coming over as a disrespectful fool. ‘I bet you’re not amused now’ – no wonder the Queen gets angry.
Victoria does have a point here, and this is a very odd moment, because Doctor Who as a body of work generally sides with an anarchist Doctor against all notions of authoritarianism and the establishment. But it also teaches the importance of doing the right thing, and caring when things go wrong. When the establishment is on the side of caring and taking a threat seriously and the Doctor and his companion are both having a ball while death surrounds them, this makes for a striking internal conflict, and unusually we are led to a point where we side against them. There is a line of argument that we are not actually expected to side with the establishment here because the Doctor and Rose are unchastened and do not take their banishment seriously, but that’s not quite right because there are consequences to all this. Never again do we see the Tenth Doctor and Rose both acting with such a lack of empathy.
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.
Some bonus observations:
- We are again firmly in the realms of fantasy with a bit of technobabble to pretend it is a sci-fi episode. The monster of the week is a “lupine wavelength haemovariform”. Once we’ve got that bit of nonsense out of the way, then it’s a werewolf.
- A rare scream for Rose, proving that even 21st Century companions have to scream occasionally!
- Doctor Who has generally steered clear of werewolves in the past, perhaps in the realisation that they are a great concept on paper but very difficult to do well on screen. Numerous attempts in film and television over the years have been unintentionally hilarious. Even in relatively recent times, Buffy the Vampire Slayer failed to present a convincing werewolf, whilst doing almost everything else faultlessly. However, over the last couple of years special effects work has moved on to such an extent that the time was right for Doctor Who to finally battle a werewolf. The werewolf here is very scary indeed, thanks in part to some inspired direction, such as the Doctor and the werewolf on either side of a door, both listening for the other.
- The Doctor cleverly takes the legend of the Koh-i-Noor to pieces, pointing out that anything you own will result in the owner dying, if you wait long enough. These kinds of legends really do function on that level. For example, the curse of Tutankhamun could be seen to be responsible for the deaths of everyone who entered the tomb, although it took nearly 40 years to do that, so it was a bit of a lazy curse.
- Queen Victoria banishes the Doctor from her ‘world’ (whether that be Great Britain or the whole world) and establishes the Torchwood Institute: ‘to investigate these strange happenings and fight them. I would call it Torchwood – the Torchwood Institute and if this Doctor should return then he should beware because Torchwood will be waiting.’ So the Doctor and Rose’s flippancy has serious consequences, not in the banishment which the Doctor completely ignores, but in the creation of an institution that arguably does more harm than good.
The view from across the pond:
From the wonderful music to an opening right out of The Matrix, I think we all knew we were in for something new. And it’s a wish come true for me as I’ve always wanted the Doctor to go up against a menace that could not be reasoned with! Star Trek: The Next Generation had done that once when Worf regressed to the state of a beast and it was utterly unnerving. For Doctor Who, his entire existence is about negotiating first. How can you do that against a beast? And what a beast! The werewolf! One of the most amazing mythical creatures and the Doctor is about to encounter one! In a word: fantastic.
Typical of what we’ve come to expect of RTD, he gives us a fun story with a hero we can all appreciate, and a little fan service to boot! I thought “Doctor James McCrimmon” was an exquisite touch! Long time fans know the Doctor used to travel with James “Jamie” McCrimmon back during Troughton’s era as the Doctor. Russell shows how well he writes human drama when Rose mentions that “when you hear assassination you just think of Kennedy”. What makes this so great is that, it’s probably true that a 19 year old would think that because that’s the most current major assassination that they probably taught about in school! There are a great many such dialog triumphs. The Doctor’s “stars and magic; I like him more and more…” sums up the Doctor very well; he is a bit of both! The Queen is given some excellent lines with her speech about her husband that “The dead stay silent” (I took that as an interesting contrast to last season’s “The Unquiet Dead”) Rose also shows a level of 20th Century pragmatism when she tells her fellow captives that “he’s in a cage” referring to the wolf-boy. While I found some of wolf-boy’s dialogue difficult to understand, his appreciation of Rose’s intellect was interesting. What really captivated me was the lines, “There’s something of the wolf about you…” and “you burned like the sun but all I need is the moon…” And this leads to the most astounding transformation so far: the bone-crunching, skin-pulling, vein-glowing metamorphosis of the boy into the werewolf. I felt exactly as Tennant did: beautiful!
How wonderful to create the Doctor as the ultimate role model! Unlike the Moffat era giving us such forgettable lines as “The Doctor lies” (great message for kids… ((I say that ironically))), Davies gives us this actual gem:
Sir Robert: “…and we still don’t possess any actual weapons.”
Doctor: “Oh, your father got all the brains didn’t he?”
Rose: “Being rude again!”
Doctor: “good, I meant that one. We’re in a library! Best weapons in the world. This rooms the greatest arsenal we can have. Arm yourselves!”
And one of the other classic lines, regarding cursed objects and the notion that the owner will die, “That’s true of anything if you wait long enough!”
Nitpicks and oddities: Why does the Queen not want to admit to having killed the priest? Was it me or did the Captain of the Guard remind anyone else of the woman in Dalek who accepts death just to “buy time” for others to escape? Sir Robert too for that matter! Really curious as to why Rose felt Flora had to go with her when she knew something was wrong in the house. Wouldn’t it have been more natural for Rose to go alone?? How can Rose literally watch the Captain get torn apart by the wolf and then jest mere moments later about “not being amused”? (This feels like something that would come of the Moffat era, not RTD since it seems to totally lack understanding of the human psyche. Sure, Rose has seen death, but this is mutilation and massacre.) The fact that Rose almost died at the claws of the wolf would be enough to make any other person stop with the silliness!! And has anyone noticed this Doctor’s peculiar (even disgusting) habit of licking/tasting things? First the blood on the Sycorax spaceship, now wood… odd quirk!
My kids and I often joke about one thing in Doctor Who a lot. It depicts Brits as having NO PERIPHERAL VISION! The Doctor can be looking at a box on the ground, stand and walk 2 feet, say “Hello, what’s this?” and there’s a body lying next to the box! Want to hide on someone, stand in plain sight at a 90 degree angle from the person, and you’re good! Well, here we see it again! The TARDIS lands in front of the Queen’s entourage and … no one saw it materialize?!?! No one noticed that suddenly there’s a big blue box where none existed when they were crossing that was wide open plain… there was nothing to hide it. Sure the Queen was in the carriage, but the rest of the guardsmen are all right outside!! How come no one saw it arrive?
Overall though, this was another masterpiece, especially visually. From the transformation to the visual treat of the Doctor on the other side of the door from the werewolf. Beautifully shot! Stunning! Same with the scene of the wolf on the glass and his plummet into the room! Also great was the way the camera follows the Doctor as he thinks, running his fingers manically through his hair. Wonderful. The final scene of the wolf being cast away followed by the wondrous sound of the howl… sublime!! “
Hello, what’s this?! A “POST” button… ML
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