4 years, 4 months ago
|Awooooo! (Werewolves of Glasgow)|
It’s April 22nd, 2006. Gnarls Barkley continues to hold the number one slot with “Crazy.” Rihanna also charts, along with holdovers from the previous week: the Black Eyed Peas, Pussycat Dolls, and Mary J Blige. Streets’ The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living tops the album charts, which also feature Massive Attack, Pink, and Morrissey, the latter with Ringleader of the Tormentors, which is at least an album I’m terribly sentimental about, since I saw him tour for it. In news, the first military parade through Dublin since 1970 commemorates the 1916 Easter Rising. Floods break out in Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia along the Danube, and Queen Elizabeth II turns 80.
Speaking of old queens, we have Queen Victoria as our requisite “famous person from history in the first three episodes.” But perhaps more interestingly, we have Russell T Davies’s sixth consecutive episode of Doctor Who. In many ways it mirrors the first story of that run of six (which is, I am fairly certain, the longest single-writer block of consecutive minutes of Doctor Who ever), in that it is a script born of production crisis. Davies’s original brief for the story was famously “werewolves, kung fu monks, and Queen Victoria.” This setup was given to another writer (whose name hasn’t, to my knowledge, leaked) for development. The story came back without monks or a werewolf, and instead featured an alien living in Queen Victoria’s eye. The writer was apparently frustrated with the process and decided Doctor Who was not really for him, and thus Davies stepped in to write a script to his original brief.
But let’s pause to consider what his original brief was. After all, it’s a bewildering set of images with no inherent links. The werewolves and Queen Victoria are at least vaguely adjacent, but the kung fu monks really come out of nowhere, conceptually speaking. It resembles nothing so much as the kitchen sink approach that, in the 1980s, led to such inspiring ideas as “a Concorde, the Master, Tegan’s departure, and a cameo from dead Adric,” “the Master, Kamelion, a new companion, Turlough’s backstory, and Lanzarote,” and, of course, the memorable “the Second Doctor, Sontarans, and New Orleans, sorry, wait, we mean Seville.”
But underneath this is the fact that if there was one thing John Nathan-Turner really was fantastic at it was remembering that it was helpful to have Doctor Who generate excitement every week of its run. This is notably different from most shows, which are only capable of becoming event television for their premieres and finales, or, perhaps, if they do some major mid-season plot twist. Big Brother has a tough time generating anything like the impact of launch night or the finale, hence its needing to rely on an endless succession of format-breaking tricks in the middle to maintain the tone of reverential obsession the series trades on. But Doctor Who, when it’s functioning well, just generates an event unto itself every week.
There’s a general trend here that Doctor Who is a part of. Let’s link it to comics, they having been the guiding influence of the previous television era of Doctor Who under Andrew Cartmel, and, perhaps more interestingly, a heavy influence on Davies, who is a known comics fan. In this regard he was surely aware of the trend towards what is, in comics, called decompressed storytelling. This became trendy around the turn of the millennium as Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch (the latter tapped to do design work on the first series of Doctor Who) did The Authority, a comic that combined “widescreen” panels of high-octane action with a slower pace of storytelling that allowed what many writers would do in one issue to take up three or four. This led to the topic becoming the style du jour of Marvel in the early 2000s, perhaps most notably with Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man, which somewhat infamously took until most of the way through the third issue to actually get around to showing Spider-Man in his costume.
The style’s influence on television is obvious, being the dominant approach of HBO shows, and, perhaps more to the point, itself owing no small debt to the more methodical pacing of BBC “proper drama.” And inevitably an eventual backlash started, spearheaded in a large part by Grant Morrison, whose big DC Universe event Final Crisis coincided with eerie precision with Doctor Who’s similarly themed fourth season finale, and who is the obvious inspiration for a Scottish kung fu monk. Answering a question in a 2009 interview about supposed “event fatigue” in superhero comics, Morrison responded, “‘Events’ in superhero comic books FATIGUE you? I’m speechless. Admittedly they do tend to be a little more exciting than the instruction leaflets that come with angina pills but… ‘fatigue’? Superhero comics should have an ‘event’ in every panel!”
It’s not difficult to see how this approach intersects with Doctor Who, a series that actively spends its time reinventing itself weekly with a new glitzy and high concept trailer. Doctor Who does not spend its time meticulously examining every aspect of its premise - it gets right into the story and moves like hell through the concept before discarding it in favor of another one. It’s a bastion of hyper-compressed storytelling, in which the inherent density of its medium is exploited to deliver as much content as it is conceptually possible to convey in a single chunk of time. In a real sense the ideal form of Doctor Who is its trailers, a point we’ll discuss in detail towards the end of the season.
In that regard Tooth and Claw, like The Unquiet Dead, in part needs to be understood as something that belongs to its previous story. Its job is in part to, following a story featuring plague zombies, cat nurses, the far future, a talking face, and bodily possession humor, suddenly present the viewer with a montage of Queen Victoria, followed by a bunch of kung fu monks in vibrant orange, followed by some werewolves. Notably, this trailer gives no indication of plot. It is, in fact, straightforwardly presented as “here is Queen Victoria, here are some kung fu monks, and oh yes, there’s a werewolf.” Even the visuals are keyed to look radically different from anything we’ve seen in New Earth, with Tooth in Claw being processed in what’s known as a “crushed” style whereby the blacks are darkened, producing a grainier, starker feel that contrasts sharply with the candy-colored medicine bags of New Earth.
The point, in other words, is to go at the end of the big, frothy season premiere and to generate a sense of momentum for the rest of the season. This, in turn, sets up the somewhat odd phenomenon of the kung fu monks, who really do just exist for the sake of the trailer and then for the cold open in which grainy and stark agrarian Scotland is suddenly invaded by bright orange kung fu monks led by Ian Hanmore, the current go-to actor for bald creepy villains (he’s since played essentially the same role in The Fades and Game of Thrones). They have no larger role in the plot. But this is, all told, the correct way to handle the laundry list approach. If we take the purpose of the laundry list of items to be producing a good trailer then discarding extraneous ones once they’ve served their spectacular purpose is, from a storytelling perspective, the right call. So complete is the monks’ dedication to the trailer that they even resemble the “Tai Chi” ident from the then-current “Rhythm and Movement” series.
Again, in a trope aware milieu there’s an appreciable cover for this. The kung fu monks are obviously just there so Doctor Who can have kung fu monks. With no way of reading them as anything other than publicity bait all the possible critiques about superficiality vanish. “The monks are just a superficial stunt for the trailers,” you say, and the show stares blankly at you, wondering if your next critical insight will be “that box is blue!”
But what’s interesting about Tooth and Claw is that the story changes out from under us. It gives every appearance of meandering through another “look at us” romp before, in the final moment, pulling the rug out and turning the entire story into one about the Doctor and Rose’s arrogance as they prance through life ignoring the consequences. And, in doing so, it sets up the remainder of the season’s arc, in which the consequences of the Doctor’s actions here eventually cause him to lose Rose. This means that the first two episodes of the season, in an odd way, mirror the structure of The Christmas Invasion, with the four month gap serving roughly as the special’s first forty minutes, New Earth and most of Tooth and Claw serving as an extended cut of the Doctor casually dispatching the Sycorax, and the final bits of Tooth and Claw reiterating the disturbing downfall of Harriet Jones.
But there’s something quizzical underneath it. Davies is, as is well documented, a republican (Americans - this means “opponent of the monarchy,” not “right wing lunatic”), and having the declaration of the Doctor’s immorality come from Queen Victoria is thus telling. Let’s not forget that Queen Victoria creates the villains of the season in response to the Doctor. The idea that the story sides with her is farcical - she is, after all, revealed to be a werewolf mere moments before she establishes Torchwood. And, of course, in time we’ll learn that the end form of Torchwood is actively imperialist, which further hammers home the point that Queen Victoria is wrong here.
This is an interesting point that underlies the larger theme we’ve been developing for the Tennant era. Yes, the Doctor’s arrogance is his downfall. But in the general case, at least, the Doctor’s arrogance is not misplaced. Indeed, in order to get that message across Tooth and Claw would have to be a bad episode, which it isn’t. To portray the Doctor’s arrogance as misplaced it would have to have us share Queen Victoria’s frustration and anger with him. But she’s not the point of view character for this story - the moment where she turns on the Doctor and Rose (right after that marvelous “Dame Rose of the Powell Estate” line) is shocking, especially as it simultaneously doubles as the punchline to the extended “I am not amused” joke. As an audience we’re blindsided by Queen Victoria’s turning on the Doctor, because we’ve been, reasonably accurately, expected to have been enjoying ourselves for the previous forty minutes of the episode. Instead the episode puts us firmly on the Doctor and Rose’s side, and even goes so far as to make them thoroughly unchastened in the wake of Queen Victoria’s banishing of them.
Central to this is an important point that is so obvious as to be easily overlooked, which is that the Doctor and Rose’s adventures do not, in fact, cause anybody to die. This is because, and again, I recognize that this is terribly obvious, everybody within their adventures are not actually people but actors, and Equity rules haven’t allowed casually killing actors off since Underground. Which is to say that the reason the audience has been on the Doctor and Rose’s side through the entire story is that their adventures aren’t real and thus it’s perfectly OK to delight in the casual slaughter of a dozen or so people simply because it’s all a game. I mean, sure, there are ways it could be problematic, but none of them have to do with the moral issues of killing imaginary people. They have to do with the nature of drama as an imitative practice and thus what it suggests about the real world. And there aren’t really any significant problems here.
Now one can, of course, suggest that the Doctor and Rose are morally wrong within the logic of the story. But the story, as noted, doesn’t side with Queen Victoria’s judgment. Which suggests that the Doctor and Rose are morally off the hook by virtue of the fact that they recognize that they’re just in an adventure story and that none of the people who die are ones who are marked as “real.” The closest thing is Sir Robert, who gets a heroic death scene, but who is marked as doomed from the moment he becomes a traitor, and who thus does not constitute some tragedy that the Doctor and Rose have to get upset about. (Contrast that with Cassandra’s death, which, because she breaks out of her pre-ordained role in the narrative in her final scenes, is tragic, hence New Earth ending with the Doctor taking one last mournful look at her death - because she became the sort of character we have to care about, whereas Robert’s sacrifice is ultimately redemptive and, more to the point, excitingly violent.) Fundamentally, getting morally outraged about the trail of death that follows an adventure story around is silly.
In which case the fundamental problem with Queen Victoria’s outrage is that she doesn’t realize she’s in a fictional story, whereas the Doctor and Rose do. The latter fact is consistent with decades of Doctor Who, but the former is interesting, particularly inasmuch as it seems to suggest an inherent link between the horrors of empire and this lack of fictional awareness. The implications of this link aren’t explored by Tooth and Claw, but its existence alone is intriguing as we move forward to other stories.
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