Everybody knows that The Talons of Weng-Chiang, broadcast in 1977, is one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever created, but that doesn't mean that it isn't worth, once in a while, looking at it again and reminding ourselves of why it is so good.
In fact, I hadn't seen it at all until the Christmas of 2001, when the video was given to me as a gift. When I watched it a second time today I was struck by how many of the little details I'd missed: little details which make it something you can watch and watch again. There are too many little things to mention, but they are everywhere: dialogue, set-dressing, looks, camera-angles. And they all compliment the big things. My favorite big thing is probably Litefoot. Trevor Baxter is given a script overflowing with Victorian cliches, but manages to produce a performance which plays on this, and doesn't get drowned by it. Litefoot is a Victorian oddity: quirky and unusual, but not a parody. Or, not a parody which turns the whole story into a farce. The whole of the story is like this: it is overflowing with cliches and Victorian silliness, but this doesn't destroy the ambience, ruin the tone. At no point does The Talons of Weng-Chiang feel as though it is over-treading the mark, turning its historical setting into a pastiche or a parody.
And because the setting does, even now, successfully evoke the dark and moody atmosphere (literal and metaphorical) of a Victorian reality, the story transcends its 25 year vintage, as gripping and entertaining today, in 2002, as it was then. However far from reality the depiction of London may actually be, the BBC, 70s depiction, contains the sense and quality of being real, and it is this sense and quality that allows the viewer to become absorbed in the murk, and fog, and sinister machinations of the setting. Some of the best BBC costume dramas recreate an era perfectly, but fail to actually have the feeling and buzz of reality that is here. I never bored of looking at it, just watching scenes and shots: and sometimes on this level Doctor Who can be really boring.
The story in Talons of Weng-Chiang isn't anything more elaborate or clever than any other Doctor Who story, really. It works, and does the job, but it is the execution of the story which makes the whole thing tick: the atmospheric evocation of time and place, the stunning control of sub-plots and all characters (there are no 'secondary' characters, because each of the performances is strong, and highly watchable), and the structuring of the narrative. Another thing about The Talons of Weng-Chiang is that it isn't flabby - lots and lots of things happen, and the whole story feels more like four episodes than six.
And the Doctor. The Doctor is classic. Each and every line of his dialogue makes you want to rewind and listen to it again: the scene where the assassin misses the Doctor, and is killed by Leela, is quite simply one of the best moments in Doctor Who. Tom Baker was often very good, and often just went on auto-pilot, but here is he very definitely very good.
So yes, without going on too much, yes The Talons of Weng-Chiang, broadcast in 1977, is one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever made.
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The Discontinuity Guide sums up 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' with the quotation, "I may have had a bash on the head, but this is a dashed queer story". It is entirely fitting; 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' combines giant rats, a killer ventriloquist doll with the brain of a pig, a disfigured madman from the future, and a villainous oriental magician, in a Victorian period setting. The first time I ever saw 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' it became my favourite Doctor Who story of all time, and after many, many repeated viewings it has remained so. With a great villain, superb supporting characters and Tom Baker on top of his game, it summarizes everything that is great about the Hinchcliffe era.
'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is often compared to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but as Andy Lane pointed out, the Doctor's costume aside it owes far more to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels. As anyone who has read any of these will know, Rohmer's novels feature an evil oriental genius who uses his Elixir vitae to extend his lifespan and is served by the Si-fan, essentially a Triad. In some respects, Magnus Greel resembles Fu Manchu, since he is an evil scientist who uses his organic distillation plant for the same ends as the Elixir vitae, and is served by his own equivalent of the Si-fan, the Tong of the Black Scorpion. But Li H'sen Chang shares some of the attributes of Fu Manchu, most notably in the way that he is portrayed; Chang is played by English actor John Bennett (who puts in a highly impressive performance), and whilst it is rather unusual from a twenty-first century perspective to see an English actor made up to look Chinese, this acts (intentionally or otherwise) as a visual nod to Christopher Lee's portrayal of Fu Manchu in several films. In addition, there are thematic links to Rohmer's work; the Fu Manchu novels are very much a product of their time and are typified by their "yellow peril" mentality, with Rohmer's oriental anti-hero on one hand thoroughly evil, whilst on the other treated with a strangely contrasting air of grudging respect and almost awe. This is perhaps a literal example of xenophobia, as the Chinese in Rohmer's novels are portrayed as an alien but honourable culture with strange and exotic customs. There are nods to this dichotomy in 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang'; Litefoot describes the Chinese as inscrutable and uses politically incorrect terms such as "Chinks" and "Wongs", whilst also fondly remembering his upbringing in Peking, treasuring the gifts from the Emperor to his family, and marveling at the use of fireworks at his father's funeral. In addition, Holmes seems to be knowingly poking fun at the stereotyping that he himself incorporates into his script, with Chang dryly remarking, "I understand we all look the same", and "The bird has flown - one of us is yellow".
Chang is an effective villain, and unusually for a secondary villain is very well characterised; few villains in Doctor Who repent their sins before they die, but Chang is one such example. Having blindly served Greel for many years, his master's betrayal cuts deep, as he humiliates Chang publicly by introducing Casey's corpse into his stage show. Chang's realization that he has long served a monster is completed when one of the rats drags him to his lair and he finds himself in a "charnel house" full of human remains. Chang's repentance in no way excuses the fact that he has led many a young woman to a grisly death, but it stands as an interesting and effective piece of characterisation. Bennett's performance makes it doubly successful, and he excels in his many scenes, particularly the stage show in Episode Four, as he plays a game of cat and mouse with the Doctor; not only does Bennett make a great villain, he also makes a convincing stage magician!
Mr. Sin is another memorable Holmes' creation, fulfilling the traditional role of murderous henchman, but with a considerable twist. The Peking Homunculus is an exercise in grotesquerie, a homicidal robot dwarf with the brain of a pig and the appearance of a large, if rather repulsive, doll. It's technological origin fits in perfectly with the era from which it supposedly hails, whilst its appearance is somehow appropriate to its Victorian surroundings in the story. As the token monster, it excels, snorting and cackling horribly as it kills or anticipates death, and the Doctor's grave warning as to the danger it represents are realized in Episode Six, as its bloodlust finally builds to a crescendo and it slaughters Greel's men when they enter the room. To a lesser extent, this is also shown by the fact that it turns on Greel, although this is also motivated by self-preservation, since unlike Greel it listens to the Doctor's insistence that the Zygma experiment is appalling dangerous. With two such memorable villains, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is already ahead of its game, but it is Michael Spice as Magnus Greel, alias Weng-Chiang, who really steals the show.
Magnus Greel is a truly loathsome villain. Like Morbius in 'The Brain of Morbius' (voiced of course, by Michael Spice), and the Master in 'The Deadly Assassin', Greel is motivated not by power and conquest, but by an overwhelming need to survive. To this end, he will stop at nothing; he thinks nothing of murder of the abducted girls for the sake of his well being, dismissing them as "slatterns" and treating them as mindless cattle; in Episode Five he literally compares them to food. In addition, his desperation is such that he frantically denies the Doctor's warnings about the failure of the Zygma experiments, and this denial threatens to destroy a large area of London. Throughout the first five episodes, he is portrayed as a malingering ghoul, hiding in the shadows in a dank subterranean lair, where he feeds on the life energy of helpless victims. The entire script is geared to emphasize that Greel is utterly depraved; the Doctor and Leela refer to him as a "blackguard", "a gangrenous vampire" and "an underground crab". To add an extra dimension of degeneracy to his character, his chosen victims are all young women; there seems to be no particular reason for this, save that he prefers preying on young women to young men. Significantly, he strips his victims, including Leela, to their underwear before placing them in his machine. Everything about Greel reeks of evil; like the Master in 'The Deadly Assassin', he is physically as well as morally twisted. He is quick to dismiss Chang, who it is suggested nursed him back to health and has served him loyally for many months, with great rapidity when Chang makes mistakes, but not satisfied with dismissing him for his failure, he also gleefully decides to publicly humiliate his faithful servant, seemingly on the spur of the moment. He's unrelentingly sadistic, and Holmes' script allows him to be a rare example of a villain who can choose not to kill his enemies so that he can make them suffer instead, without it seeming contrived. The fact that he begs piteously when faced with death almost adds insult to injury. And then, as if all this wasn't enough, we get the revelations about his past in Episode Six.
Throughout 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', the Doctor discusses his enemy with an air of utter contempt, but in Episode Six when he finally learns exactly who his enemy is, Baker manages to convey whole new levels of disgust. It is testament to Holmes' talents as a writer that in one short scene, he uses a few lines to imply so much about Greel that his atrocities in the story up until that point almost pale in comparison. References to "the infamous minister of justice" and "the butcher of Brisbane" paint a picture of a monster, evoking images of the worst crimes of the Third Reich. Thousands of "enemies of the state" were, we are told, slaughtered in his organic distillation plant. By the end of Episode Six, Greel stands as one of the series' most memorable, and most despicable, villains; his final scenes, as he desperately tries to bargain with the Doctor, and is betrayed by Mr. Sin, are wholly fitting. Greel doesn't die spectacularly or dramatically; already near to death, he dies pleading and is hoist by his own petard as the Doctor throws him into the machine that he has used to kill so many others. Spice is perfect in the role, playing the part with melodrama, but never quite going over the top, even when he utters the immortal line "Let the talons of Weng-Chiang shred your fleeeeesh!" Visually, he's also striking, leather-masked and silver-robed, (with an obvious homage to The Phantom of the Opera in Episode Two) limping painfully about with filthy, scabrous hands.
In addition to these memorable villains, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' boasts two of the most celebrated supporting characters in the series' history, which form perhaps the finest example of the so-called "Robert Holmes double act". Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago, played to perfection by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin, respectively. Litefoot is the perfect Victorian gentlemen, dignified and distinguished, and with impeccable manners. The scene in which he gnaws on a leg of meat so as to avoid embarrassing the similarly-feasting Leela is charming, and shows that his air of chivalry is no act; indeed, despite initial astonishment at Leela's talk of knife-blows, he seems genuinely charmed by her throughout. He also provides reliable support for the Doctor, proving resolutely courageous throughout as he tries his best to tackle murderous Tong members and Greel himself. Jago is more the ostensibly comic figure, characterised by bluster and pompous, flamboyant verbiage. Despite his enormous ego in the early episodes (he refers to his great character several times, most amusingly during the scene in which he compares his supposedly implacable will to "the Rock of Gibraltar", just before the Doctor hypnotizes him), Jago is easily terrified, and is forced to admit that he is not so "bally brave" as he likes to pretend whilst imprisoned with Litefoot. To his enormous credit however, he proves correct Litefoot's faith in him, playing a key role in the climax, as he distracts Mr. Sin with a terrified squawk of "I say! I say! I say!" so that Leela can go for the gun, which she eventually uses to destroy the Eye of the Dragon. Jago is thus that bravest of people, someone who is afraid but overcomes it to act bravely when he needs to.
Amidst all these fine performances, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson still manage to shine. Baker puts in one of his finest performance, and one of the last of his more balanced performances as the Doctor prior to the series' shift in emphasis towards humour. He displays his usual talent for wit throughout, with his deadpan humour making the best of hugely entertaining scenes such as his insistence that Litefoot's Chinese fowling piece is made in Birmingham. In addition to wit, he has some of his most commanding scenes in this story; the Doctor's utter contempt for Greel is almost tangible in Episode Six, and I also love his psychological duel with Chang in Episode Four, as he participates in his stage show. The look on his face as he moves the pack of cards towards his face positively dares Chang to shoot him. He's also at his most commanding, effortlessly gaining the trust of Litefoot and Jago, and also easily taking command in the police station after the Tong member commits suicide, despite having been treated with great suspicion by the "flat-footed imbecile" of a policeman only moments before. As in 'Pyramids of Mars', he also bristles with nervous tension as he desperately races to stop Greel from using the Zygma cabinet. And his costume, which really is a nod to Sherlock Holmes, is great. Leela too is superb here; thrust into an environment almost as alien to her as the Sandminer, she struggles to make sense of it, and this allows Holmes to poke fun at Victorian etiquette with glee, especially in her scenes with Litefoot. As usual, her warrior nature also comes to the fore, and she briefly clashes with the Doctor after killing his would-be assassin with a Janis thorn in Episode One; I love the way he sheepishly stops lecturing her about killing after she points out that her victim was trying to kill him. In addition, her hatred of Greel is very convincing, as she constantly swears to avenge the victims of "bent-face", and her defiance in the face of death in Episode Six is rather impressive. Her softer side is also on display here too though, she seems fascinated by the theatre and by Litefoot's sense of chivalry, and the scene in which she shyly displays her new Victorian dress to the Doctor and Litefoot (leaving them both briefly speechless) is charming. She also screams for the first time worth mentioning, revealing that it takes being attacked by a ten-foot long giant rat to really rattle her. Which is fair enough, really.
The production is superb; the mist-shrouded location footage meshes perfectly with the splendid sets, to really evoke the desired period costume. It's also authentically seedy, with on screen use of opium, and Teresa obviously a prostitute. Dudley Simpson's incidental score is just as impressive as that for the previous story. Admittedly the rat looks too cuddly, but it's only briefly seen and David Maloney makes a sterling effort to hide the limitations of the prop. To be honest though, it's offset by so much that is good here that I can entirely forgive it! The last story of the Phillip Hinchcliffe era, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is for many fans the xenith of his tenure on the show. For me, it's more than that; it's the jewel in the crown of the entire television series. It also heralds a change; with Graham Williams taking over as producer, a more light-hearted, less gothic horror oriented direction lay just round the corner. The change would be dramatic, but fortunately not too abrupt; Season Fifteen would prove to feature stories typical of both producers' styles, serving as a transitional stage between the two
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The Talons of Weng-Chiang is long and tedious, but worse, its racist nonsense.
It has style, but thats all aside from that, its full of cliché and devoid of meaning. I watched this recently after many years, and while I probably considered it a classic, or at least decent Doctor Who when I was younger, seeing it again as an adult lowers it in my estimation quite a bit.
Episode One: the Doctor is attacked, and describes the Chinese attacker as a little man. The crafty, villainous Li Hsen Chang is portrayed by John Bennett in makeup because, of course, English men play Chinese men better than Chinese men do.
Episode Two: the charming, harmless Professor Litefoot describes the Chinese as an odd sort of people, and interstellar traveller the Doctor fails to point out that another culture is only odd from an English perspective that to the Chinese, the English are probably odd. Robert Holmes, in his interest to give the Doctor a role that pays tribute to Sherlock Holmes, seems to have forgotten that the Doctor would have something other than an English perspective. He even has the Doctor somewhat coldly hope that that girl Leela (as though he hasnt known her for long) is unharmed. Its as through the Doctor is replaced with another Doctor, just for this one story (until of course he starts babbling in episode five about World War Six and double nexus particles, then suddenly hes a Timelord again). The villain, Magnus Greel, also has a character that jerks wildly around, as hes incapable of walking in one scene, then leaping like a mountain goat to escape the Doctor at the theatre in the scenes that pay tribute to Phantom of the Opera.
Episode Three: Litefoot wonders what the world is coming to when ruffians will attack a man in his own home. Well, they were Chinese ruffians, the Doctor replies. Were constantly told about those Chinese, and the devils. And along the way, treated to multiple, long, pointless scenes where Greel dismisses and demeans Chang, or when a supporting character like Jago tries again to be charming. At the end of episode four, given how little wed learned and how long it had taken to learn it, I felt disappointed to know Id have to sit through another two episodes. The end picks up a little, when we (finally) get to some bullets and laser beams and an appropriately exciting finale, but all the Chinese henchmen are slaughtered like so much cattle, and any excitement is too little too late anyway.
Im missing the point, you say. Its all in good fun, you say. Youre not supposed to pick apart a story as fantastic as this its the Doctor Who tribute to Saturday morning serials combined with Sherlock Holmes and Phantom, and whatever else. And yes, Chang has a few knowing winks to the camera, where he jokes one of us is yellow, or I understand we all look the same. Trouble is, these arent actually coming from a Chinese actor, but an English one, written by an English writer, and so again the perspective in wholly English.
In fact, the English are the best at everything: its impossible for the professors gun to fail, when it was made in Birmingham. In any other story, and amusing throwaway line, but here its English superiority in a story that strikes these notes constantly, intentionally or not. A dying Chang reveals that he was to perform for the Queen at Buckingham palace, something that he clearly saw as a penultimate achievement. And while Jago and Litefoot represent the two English classes, fighting side by side against the alien threat, the Chinese characters are unsophisticated cannon fodder, or in the case of Chang, someone who appeared more sophisticated, but finally wasnt. Jago and Litefoot and also written in a way that attempts to sell them off as charming, while Chang is dry and humourless, and ultimately gullible.
Doctor Who fans, apparently thrilled to actually see a little style in the show, are keen to overlook its glaring faults. But when you add the racist elements to the Muppet rat, and the little dummy the Doctor throws around at the end, and all you have is an embarrassment. Its time fans admitted it. Or at least, for goodness sakes, acknowledged it.
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Enough has been said about the racism implicit in many of the characters in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. My only advice is that if you concentrate only on a few jibes that are correct for the Victorian era and ignore the brilliant character development, creepy period atmosphere, and some of the tightest plotting for a six-part serial; then you will miss all that is worth savouring about it.
The odd thing about The Talons of Weng-Chiang that may turn off some first time viewers is that no one knows whats really going on throughout the entire story except for the villain, Weng-Chiang. And as The Doctor says of him when asked who he is, I dont know. He didnt introduce himself. Weng-Chiang or Magnus Greel if you prefer isnt about to reveal his secrets to anyone. So the audience is almost as much in the dark as Leela, Litefoot, or Jago. The only advantage a viewer has is that were used to watching science fiction, so can follow ideas like time travelling cabinets and life essence transferral machines. And even at the episode six denouement, we only discover the true nature of Greels technology in quick snippets of easily missed dialogue.
The only other difficulty I can see people having with The Talons of Weng-Chiang is that all the supporting characters are so well-written that they overshadow The Doctor himself. Hes in fine form here, with almost every scene played perfectly. Example one approaching the Chinese thugs carrying a dead body in episode one with the phrase, Say, could I help you with that? then going into Doctor Whos most blatant (and bizarre) example of Kung Fu cinema. Example two casually reminding the apparent Orientalist Litefoot that his authentic Chinese blunderbuss is in fact an imitation from Birmingham. Example three walking into Litefoots dining room carrying a map and talking, sitting next to Greel, looking him straight in the face, and saying Oh good! I see you let yourself in. Example four, et al every other scene hes in. Hes a bit too uniformly serious in this story for my own Tom tastes. I prefer some of his crazier moments in Ark in Space or the occasional bit of City of Death-style madcappery. But if you like the more dour, moody Fourth Doctor of season 14, this is the perfect place to go.
Leela too has some excellent moments. Disguising herself as the dolled-up prostitute Teresa in episode three to infiltrate Greels secret hideaway is just right for her action hero persona. The way she spits curses at Greel as hes about to suck the life out of her in episode six, you can almost feel the saliva on your face. And her dinner with Litefoot speaks perfectly to the Eliza Doolittle concept that was originally behind her character, in addition to being hilarious.
Just as a side note, Leela looks nothing like Teresa, even with her face covered, but Chang doesnt notice. Pretty ironic considering his earlier comment regarding his characters ethnicity, I suppose we all look the same.
Its Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago who most often steal the show from The Doctor, though. They had quite a bit of chemistry as a comical double act, but they didnt even meet until episode five. So we first meet them as fabulous characters in their own right. Litefoot comes across quite well as an over-earnest, but very out-of-his-depth police pathologist. Tracking down a murder mystery he can handle, sort of, but you can tell how confused he is once forty-ninth century technology starts making its appearance. Still, hes good in a pinch, and a charming fellow, really. As I mentioned, the dinner scene with Leela is hilarious, as hes just too polite to eat from a plate when he sees her tearing straight into a side of beef. When he tells The Doctor that Weng-Chiangs bandits wont catch him napping again, you know hes going to fall asleep in time for them to break into the house. But hes so charming when he says it that you really, truly do want to believe him.
But it was Jago who stole my heart in this story. Maybe its the frustrated actor in me, but the way he talks about the skill and theatricality he brings to his job announcing the acts, ad-libbing jokes, and taking care of the accounts makes me smile at this blustery old fart who puts so much honest effort into his usually thankless job. Hes the perfect archetype of the portly bellower who talks big but is a bit of a coward underneath. When The Doctor discovers the hologram of the ghost that Weng-Chiang set up to keep people away from his hideout, you see Jago faint behind him at the sight of it, leaving The Doctor to drag him away. This is only one of the many cracking funny moments Jago has in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. He and Litefoot do work wonderfully together, Litefoots earnestness fitting perfectly against Jagos blustering cowardice. And it is a wonderful moment for Jago when he finally gives himself enough bravery to distract the carnage-happy Mr. Sin so Leela can grab a nearby gun without being shot. Seeing these two walk off into the fog at the end reminded me just a little bit of the end of Casablanca, a much more upbeat beginning of a beautiful friendship.
But I cant discuss this story without mention of the villains, and what villains they are. Weng-Chiang/Magnus Greel is the most mystifying of all. We first hear the name Weng-Chiang as The Doctor describes him, an ancient malevolent Chinese god. But once we see him, we see a psychotic broken figure with a hidden face and disfigured hands who, while quite malevolent, does not seem all that Chinese. The sight of him firing a laser pistol, and The Doctors discovery of future technology is enough to clue the viewer into the less than heavenly origins of the character. It is just his psychotic nature that makes him so compelling. Hardly fitting the standard profile of a Chinese god, we are left to wonder about his nature until The Doctor finally fills us in at the end of the story with recollections of his own experiences in the forty-ninth century. If he were subtle and less brutally violent, we would be more likely to believe that he was a supernatural being. The clash with our initial expectations of him draws the viewer deeper into the mystery of what exactly he is. Plus, he is also an entirely repulsive character, taking pleasure in every death around him, laughing maniacally when he forces his henchmen to commit suicide. And there is rather clearly a perverse sexual overtone to his prediliction for feeding on the life force of supple young women. Perhaps if he is too deformed to attract them, he will instead see them die.
And of course, Li HSen Chang. Yes he was played by a white man in fairly obvious makeup, and yes his accent was atrocious. But as no one is willing to give an adequate explanation, I will move on and say what a marvellous character! Here is a man driven to the murder of ten young women in London alone to please his master, his supposed god. Ever since he was a peasant, Chang has devoted his life to the service of Weng-Chiang, and he is positively menacing. His low, accented voice is perfect to deliver completely certain threats. When hes on the surface, hes in control, hypnotising his victims at will and having those who get too close to his operation despatched as easily as that angry cab driver in episode one. Then when he descends into his masters hell, he is at times forced to beg forgiveness from his psychopathic lord. And when Greel betrays and abandons him, he willingly runs into the sewers to be chewed to death by giant rats. His last scene, dying in an opium den, his thoughts only on how he has wasted his life, offer him some little redemption for the destruction he has caused in the service of a false god.
But all these wonderful characters would be useless if lost in a muddled plot, but with Robert Holmes, we have a story with hardly a single throwaway moment. There may be some slow moments, perhaps inevitable in a Doctor Who story more than two hours long, but we are always on edge, waiting for the next developments to occur. Plus, every episode sees a part of the story arc develop with a considerably different character. The ominous atmosphere is present throughout, but each episode is a little different in tone, making sure that none of the action quite blurs together between the episode barriers as Ive noticed in many other serials.
Episode one excellently sets up our creepy tale, introducing us to the unsettling character of Li HSen Chang. The gruesome death of the cab driver insane old Victorian bag lady with no teeth included! sets the tone for the proceedings. Mr. Sin brandishing his knife for the first time is just plain scary. Deep Roy has quite a good performance here as the psychotic robot Mr. Sin. Im sure this was much more fun in a grisly sort of way than his later role as an ewok in Return of the Jedi. Episode two sees the mystery build as we see Weng-Chiang for the first time, as well as The Doctors superbly shot chase around the upper chambers of the theatre. Plus, we get the whimsical break in the terror supplied by Leela and Litefoots dinner.
Episode three gives us a disturbing play-by-play of Changs kidnaps, as he hypnotises the prostitute in the early morning and leads a theatre cleaning girl to her death. Episode four sees the battle of wits at times both amusing and shocking between The Doctor and Chang during his magic performance. Seeing Chang at the height of his power only makes his fall from grace in this episode all the harder. Episode five sees the shift from Chang to Greel as the plot focusses on the hunt for Greels new hideout. We also get two versions of this hunt the serious one from The Doctor and Leela, and one tinged with low to middle comedy from Jago and Litefoot. How oddly appropriate that the comedians find it first!
Episode six, of course, sees the climactic final fight, as the mad Greel dies in his own machine with which he has killed so many others. A minor quibble with this episode, we never see what The Doctor does with all Greels anachronistic technology, aside from smashing the key to the time cabinet. Of course, given that the story has given us little explanation of Greels origins and technology, its only fitting that The Doctors deconstruction of the Zygma equipment be cut for the much more character-centric tea discussion over muffins. I think this was one of the best ending lines for a final battle scene I remember seeing in Doctor Who. Some bells ring nearby, and The Doctor says, Its the muffin man. Come on, Ill buy you some muffins.
And then the four of them are eating muffins.
On the giant rats, theres a real person in a rat suit in some of those shots, as I found out in the Whose Doctor Who documentary that came with the dvd. The rat scenes are really the only moments in this serial where viewer commentary like Cheap 1970s BBC effects coming up! are all that necessary.
Incidentally, The Talons of Weng-Chiang contains a throwaway reference to Time Agents, which would reappear as more important parts of the Who universe in the novel Eater of Wasps, in which they were morally ambiguous operatives The Eighth Doctor had to deal with. However, it was this organization that gave us Captain Jack Harkness, so perhaps they have been redeemed at least a little.
An endnote: John Bennett gave a wonderful performance, but I thought of a good Asian actor who could have played the part well, if perhaps with some makeup to make him appear the same age he was when I first saw him in the mid-1990s. Soon Tek Oh, who played Bon Bon Hai, a recurring villain on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Now, he was menacing.
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Like City of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang represents a kind of series zenith for lots of Doctor Who fans; for many, its simply The Best Story Ever, with The Best Doctor Ever, from The Best Production Era Ever, etc., etc. Now, I dont intend to make hamburger out of this sacred cow, exactly, but I will perhaps take an unflinching look at it, udders and all.
The most usual objection to be made against the story, when any objection is made at all, is that it is racist. The fan response to this tends to be a combination of Its not racist, its mocking the Victorians racism! and Well, things were different in the 1970s. The second statement is certainly true, even if it doesnt really excuse much; the first doesnt quite wash. Victorian racism is indeed on display throughout The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but, oddly, Robert Holmess script never explicitly criticizes it, and the few truly identifiable swipes against it (Changs dry I understand, we all look alike; the Doctors one or two sarcastic responses to generalizations about the Chinese, e.g.) cannot be said with absolute certainty to come from the screenplay, and could easily be ironic line readings chosen by the actors or the director.
These observations out of the way, it is probably fair to say that this objection to Talons has been somewhat exaggerated. No, the script isnt aggressively critical of 19th century attitudes about race, but it isnt enthusiastic about them either, and if this were the storys only troubling aspect it might be easier to see why its so often overlooked.
But judged simply in terms of its entertainment value, The Talons of Weng-Chiang seems to me to be only a fair representative of the Philip Hinchcliffe era, and not nearly as good as some. In particular, the story often strikes me as a poor mans Brain of Morbius. Michael Spices presence aside, the plot has many parallels to the earlier story both have crippled, technologically advanced megalomaniacs relying on human administrators to restore them to their former glorious states, via methods most unwholesome. But Greel is a less convincing villain than Morbius, whose unhinged rants make much sense when one considers the unending frustration that must be experienced by a brain sitting in a jug. Greels ranting, on the other hand, seems unconnected to his physical malady; in fact, one would think his disintegrating body would have made him too weak for the kind of relentless roaring Spice does in the role. Furthermore, while Holmess evocative infamous minister of justice and butcher of Brisbane lines are wonderfully sinister, they dont quite jell with the pathetic paper tiger we see here, who cant even do anything when his servants fail him but belittle and yell. And boy, does Spice yell in fact, if anything, he seems bent on out-shouting his performance in Morbius. In my view, a weak, obviously dying, more truly phantom-like Greel would have made more sense with this plot, but Spice didnt choose this road, and the result is generically hammy Who villain, hardly belonging in the pantheon of greats.
The rest of the problems are relatively minor, but theyre still worth noting. Henry Gordon Jago is a well-loved Holmes creation, but his alliteration rather grates on me, and he doesnt really get a chance to be anything but pompous until the final episode. Theres a strange Anglocentric quality to some of the jokes, notably the Doctors strange, out-of-character one about Birmingham why would a Time Lord know or care about such things? And speaking of the Doctor, Tom Baker puts in a decent performance, but the character strikes me as strangely all-knowing here. Perhaps its all part of the Holmes homage conceit (I mean Sherlock, not Robert, this time), but even so, the Doctor seems to do very little real deduction, but rather just leaps to the correct conclusions based on some very convenient foreknowledge (about the Tong of the Black Scorpion, the Time Cabinet, the Peking Homunculus, and of course the mythology of Weng-Chiang itself). He is the Doctor, of course, but it all feels a bit unnatural I much prefer a Doctor who does a bit of genuine detective work, be it in this story or any other.
All this said, there are of course some wonderful, rightly beloved elements sprinkled here and there throughout the episode. I dont generally find Louise Jameson very convincing as Leela the character is brilliantly conceived, but the actress rarely sells it for me, despite looking the part (and then some, ahem). However, here her snarling contempt for Greel, and her lack of fear, shines through perfectly, and the line When we are both in the great hereafter I shall hunt you down, bent-face, and put you through my agonies a thousand times! gave me chills. And her interplay with Litefoot, an extremely likeable character, is charming; you sense that Jameson and Trevor Baxter got on rather well. I actually think the giant rat puppet works surprisingly well, especially when its rushing the camera, and of course Mr. Sin is a creepy, surreal idea with a terrific name (and I think he looks a bit like Jennifer Paterson, but maybe thats just me). The screenplay and direction keep the action moving along, and in Episode Six everything comes together so well that we almost forget the bumps we encountered on the way there. And then theres Mr. Chang . . .
Probably the greatest irony of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, with its nebulous racial sensibilities, is that it is the storys one yellowface character that emerges as its single most successful element. Li Hsen Chang is an extremely complex creation cold, and hideously unconcerned with the lives he takes for his master; and yet the character has a genuine pathos about him, even a tragedy. In his performance, John Bennett radiates cool loathing for the bigotry and blindnesses of his Victorian surroundings, and one can easily see how Chang could want to believe that an ancient god from his homeland would come to deliver him from a degrading, performing-monkey existence in a vulgar, foreign music hall even to the point of grasping at straws, or committing murder. Holmes gives Chang the most beautiful lines of the story even throwaway ones like his description of the Doctor as having hair that curls like a ram have a touch of poetry in them, and by the end we are genuinely angry at Greel for his thankless mistreatment and misunderstanding of his patient, deluded servant. Changs final scene, in which he is allowed to recognize some of his mistakes, and make a kind of peace with his fate, is a welcome piece of mercy on Holmess part, the character expires with a dignity that was sorely lacking in his Victorian life anyway.
Of course, it would have been interesting to see an actual Chinese actor do the part . . . .
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 14
Reviewing a twenty-first century reading of a twentieth-century novelization of a Doctor Who television serial set in the nineteenth century can be a reminder that perspective, as it travels through time, can become as distorted as Magnus Greel was by his precious zygma beam. When both television and book forms of The Talons of Weng-Chiang appeared in 1977, popular culture’s Victoriana was shaped by different currents of memory, nostalgia and imagination to those we know today. Most obviously, the story’s music-hall setting would have been familiar to many television viewers. The Good Old Days, where Leonard Sachs hosted an hour of music hall featuring contemporary entertainers in late Victorian or Edwardian dress, was a recurring part of the BBC schedule as it had been since 1953. Drama series set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were fashionable, Upstairs Downstairs having been followed on ITV by sagas of the great such as Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill and Edward the Seventh, with Lillie and Disraeli still to come. Television closer to Doctor Who’s viewing time included several series set in the same period, including the turn-of-the-century The Phoenix and the Carpet and the Sunday afternoon Dickens adaptation Nicholas Nickleby.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Starring Tom Baker
Written by Terrance Dicks
Narrated by Christopher Benjamin
Released by BBC AudioGo, January 2013
All these programmes were fed by the fact that in the 1970s the end of the Victorian period was just within or just outside living memory. Pennies and ha’pennies of Queen Victoria weren’t difficult to find in my (post-Victorian) grandparents’ house. Britain had spent most of the twentieth century trying to live up to an imperial myth largely manufactured in the late nineteenth century, of an empire where the sun never set and where British arms and British ships, military and merchant, dominated the globe. Just over thirty years before, Britain had fought, it thought, to defend that empire; by 1977 that empire was gone and with it economic self-assurance and a secure sense of national identity. However, historical dramas set in the Victorian period didn’t just compensate for national bewilderment; they were a reminder of a society from which mid-twentieth century Britain had escaped, one of poverty and disease and rigid conventions governing relations among classes, genders and ethnic groups. At the same time, the culture of British industry still owed much in the 1970s to the Victorian age; it was one where trade unions pointed both to the craft skills of their nineteenth-century predecessors and to the battles won by them for fair wages and working hours, and where managing directors still based their businesses on heavy machinery which had not changed greatly in eighty years. While for Doctor Who’s child audience, its eyes fixed on the twenty-first century, the 1890s of The Talons of Weng-Chiang might seem like ancient history, for many of the adults watching the 1890s might not have felt a long time distant.
This sense of time displacement is relevant to consideration of the book and the audio. One of the first things Christopher Benjamin’s vinicultured voice brings out is how careful Terrance Dicks was to explain the nuances of the story’s setting to his target audience of children reading Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang by themselves. With the visual element removed, the written and spoken word both rely on Dicks’s depiction of the social hierarchy of the music hall audience for initial contextualisation. This opens the first chapter and introduces music hall as something which appeals to all classes in the 1890s, but which does not unite them: ‘toffs’, ‘bank clerks and shop assistants’, ‘Labourers, dock workers, soldiers and sailors, even some of the half-starved unemployed’ are all present but all in places assigned by their spending power. The effect is more raw than that conveyed by the well-groomed audience seen on television at the Royal Theatre, Northampton. It also conveys something of the gap between the welfare state of a 1970s Britain which thought itself egalitarian and an 1890s London which had no social safety net and where class distinctions were dominant in a way easily comprehensible to the child readership.
Terrance Dicks’s attention to replacing lost visual and aural cues with new written detail friendly to an intelligent young audience also applied to characters. Listeners to Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang will hear Christopher Benjamin relate Dicks’s outline of Litefoot’s background as the rebel member of a family with aristocratic connections, and his resigned tones as the elderly waterman spitting his way through life, baffled at the expedition undertaken by the Doctor and Litefoot complete with giant fowling pistol. Dicks’s invention of Teresa’s occupation as ‘a waitress in a gambling club, in Mayfair on the other side of London’ compensates for the loss of Teresa’s costume and make-up, which some viewers have understood as representing a profession unsuitable for children’s literature. Christopher Benjamin’s falsetto Teresa is a brave attempt at youthful feminine joie-de-vivre, but his real strength is the matter-of-fact relation of events which he steadily leavens with urgency and horror as Chang presents his victims to a suitably maniacal Greel.
As 1977 has receded into the past, so John Bennett’s appearance as Li H’sen Chang, a white European actor under pseudo-oriental prosthetics, has caused more and more pained expressions among admirers of the story. Terrance Dicks, in an allusion to the cultural baggage Bennett’s casting and make-up carried with it, contrasted Chang with ‘most Oriental magicians who were usually English enough once the make-up was off’. Chang’s name recalls that of Chung Ling Soo, really the American-born William Ellsworth Robinson, killed when a trick went awry at the Wood Green Empire in north London in 1918. It’s possible that Robert Holmes’s choice of name for his Chinese magician was based on the expectation that an actor of western appearance would play Chang under make-up. Bennett’s casting in this vein drew attention to the artifice of Doctor Who and its reliance on a showbusiness tradition of deception, as well as an exoticism which portrayed the Chinese as unquestionably ‘the Other’. Dicks’s reference in the text acted as a historical note and placemarker for a visual gag at the expense of both conventions which could not be reproduced on the page. However, the fiction of Sax Rohmer, whose Fu Manchu is based on the assumption that world affairs were a competition between easily-defined ‘races’, would still have been current in the childhood of many parents and grandparents watching. The film series starring Christopher Lee was a very recent memory.
Chang’s character is based as much on an understanding of the audience at home as white British as it is upon Chang’s manipulation of the prejudices of the white community. Chang is used, of course, to emphasise the Doctor’s own Otherness – ‘Are you Chinese?’ reminds the hypothetical white British viewer and listener that the Doctor does not share their prejudices. A twenty-first century restaging might seek to reinterpret Chang for a more broadly-conceived audience, but this is not an option here. Christopher Benjamin reads the speeches of Li H’sen Chang in a stage Chinese which suits the status quo, but Chang is now doubly a recreation of past attitudes, steeped in an irony which has lost some power since the 1970s. Nevertheless Benjamin recognises that for all his crimes, Chang is a person to be treated with some sympathy, and his reading of his final scene has the distance of someone dulling with opium the torment of moral self-realisation as well as his physical agony.
Admirers of Leela might feel disappointed by this audiobook. In Benjamin’s reading, Leela is more of a simpleton than she appeared on television, lacking the self-assurance Louise Jameson brought to the role. Dialogue of which Louise Jameson made the most – such as ‘You ask me so that you can tell me’ – is flattened and made more submissive than Jameson performed it on television. Benjamin, though, adequately represents Terrance Dicks’s interpretation of Leela as a childlike innocent in thrall to the Doctor’s genius, whose bravado often exceeds her bravery, difficult though that position is to reconcile with many of Leela’s actions in this story.
Christopher Benjamin’s Doctor is difficult to pin down, not least because he doesn’t seem to have a fixed interpretation. For long periods his intonation is reminiscent of Tom Baker’s deep ringing tones, without capturing them, and at other times there is a mercurial self-satisfied air reminiscent of the Doctor with which Benjamin has worked most recently, Colin Baker. (Admirers of the Jago and Litefoot double act might find that Benjamin’s Litefoot is reminiscent of Trevor Baxter.) However, there is occasionally a glimpse of another Doctor, a gruff and amiable Time Lord who casts a sometimes sternly avuncular gaze over proceedings. The portrayal of the Doctor in a performed reading of a novelisation encourages expectations in a reader and while Benjamin is always authoritative there are too many different voices there to feel one is listening to a consistent portrayal; or perhaps the legacy of Tom Baker looms too large.
Benjamin’s voice is good at conveying the self-consciously heightened sense of danger in Dicks’s economical prose. Much of The Talons of Weng-Chiang depends upon the unknown lying beneath the familiar; so there is trepidation as manhole covers are removed and a deliberate, heavy wariness as characters wade through the filthy, rat-infested sewers. Benjamin and Dicks tell of a London dark and treacherous in its diversity, which it takes the universalist outsider, the Doctor, to navigate appropriately. There are some cautious notes - there seems to be care, for example, not to make ethnic epithets as emotively-charged as they might have been performed on screen in 1977.
There are some memorable moments of sound engineering in this audiobook. The echo placed over Christopher Benjamin’s voice in the pathology lab scenes almost dispel associations with the cramped tiled room and its anachronistic electric sockets covered by even more anachronistic adhesive plastic in the television production. The giant rats are relieved of the burdensome necessity of appearing in the fabric-and-stuffing, and can rely on piercing shrieks alone to instil terror into the heart of the listener. There are not quite as many porcine grunts from Mr Sin as I expected, but care has to be taken not to undermine the reader’s performance. Instead, one can sometimes imagine Christopher Benjamin moving from pathology lab to the night streets of Limehouse, climbing down into Greel’s hidden chamber as a silent companion opens the hatch for him, or hauling himself up in the dumb waiter in an attempt to escape from Greel’s clutches. Despite the reservations above, it’s an admirable reading, with Benjamin moderating his Henry Gordon Jago so as not to overwhelm his narrator’s voice, but not obliterating it; the way he uses his delivery to highlight the differences of class and education between Jago and Litefoot when they meet is a particularly skilled performance.
A release of a science fiction or fantasy story set in Victorian London in 2013 raises a question of genre unknown in 1977. Can Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang be described as steampunk? If steampunk depends on a situation where ‘anachronism is not anomalous but becomes the norm’, as Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall wrote in their introduction to volume 3, part 1 of the journal Neo-Victorian Studies (available free at www.neovictorianstudies.com), then novelisation and audiobook perhaps score less highly than the broadcast version. Terrance Dicks describes Greel’s organic distillation equipment simply as ‘ultra-modern’, which isn’t adequate to the baroque eclecticism of the machinery seen on television. Mr Sin and the Eye of the Dragon fuse the futuristic with cultural signifiers of the ‘old’ in book form as well as on television, though the audiobook’s blaster sound effects probably reinforce the high-tech connotations at the expense of the image of the gold dragon from which the blaster is fired. Even as a digital download in 2013, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang remains the product of a mechanical age when the dissonance between inexplicable futuristic technology and Victorian machinery was more powerful than the imagining of impossibly world-transforming engines; its lacquered Time Cabinet is a gateway for a generic reading which from the book’s own point of view in 1977 has yet to emerge from it.
Whatever the problems it inherits from its source, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang remains a hugely entertaining story and there is much to discover in Christopher Benjamin’s reading. Linger over descriptive passages and muse on how Magnus Greel’s ramblings about time agents and the Doctor’s counter-revelations about the battle of Reykjavik came to influence the programme’s mythology. Hear how both the Doctor and Leela confound the Holmes-Dicks pastiche of late Victorian manners which for all their assumed superiority are no match for the foe from the future. That the story measures its imagined past against a present day which is now very much our history, however recent, only adds another level of curiosity to one of Doctor Who’s pivotal tales.
Filters: Fourth Doctor Audio BBC Audio Series 14 B00AVLLMVY