Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang - Review


It is no secret that in fictional terms, Victorian London has always been a favoured location of many a book, television series or serial, audio play or other various forms of media. With the exception of the Doctor Who series nowadays, it is surprising how little the show had visited the era before The Talons of Weng-Chiang came along. The Victorian Era had appeared in 1966's, The Evil of the Daleks, But Talons would be when it was allowed to appear in all its horse-drawn coaches' glory. This delay turned out to be a good thing though as there had never been a better suited story than this one for the Victorian setting. Talons appears to gleefully pillage the extraordinarily vast storeroom of Victorian tropes to create one of the darkest and moodiest stories the show had ever created. It is so stuffed with little atmospheric details, it instantly becomes a timeless classic. Unfortunately, nowadays the story is let down by a few slightly racist moments, otherwise it would truly excel.

And at six episodes, this story is quite a long one. The Doctor and Leela arrive in Victorian London dressed as tourists, wanting to see a show taking place at The Palace Theatre. Instead, they end up tracking down a serial killer who is somehow connected with the powerful Chinese magician, Li H'sen Chang and his disturbing ventriloquist doll, Mr. Sin. Joining the Doctor and Leela through this adventure are the theatre's owner, Henry Gordon Jago and the coroner, Professor George Litefoot. The killer is masquerading as the ancient Chinese god, Weng-Chiang, the god of abundance. His powers include the ability to create giant rats in the London sewers, granting Chang the ability to hypnotise people and Sin the ability to move and think on his own. But the killer isn't Weng-Chiang, but an Icelandic fugitive war criminal from the far future named Magnus Greel, who escaped his own time in a primitive time machine which resulted in him horribly disfigured and in constant need of fresh victims who can replenish his DNA. The only reason that Greel is pretending to be a god is because he crashed in China. His continual masquerade as Weng-Chiang is more of a way to keep Chang on his side than anything else who worships him as a god. But Greel's time-machine went missing and ended up in London, as a family heirloom to Litefoot, whose family had previously lived in China for decades befriending a number of local dignitaries. But the time-machine has become dangerously unstable over the years and now threatens to blow up London.

Talons is the final story in the universally regarded, Season 14 of the show. It also holds the position of being the final story for producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor, Robert Holmes, both of whom had decided to take Doctor Who down a much darker path than it had ever dared to tread before. Their departure from the show wasn't through a necessary shakeup within the departments of the BBC but from the continual complaints from Mary Whitehouse and her Board of Listeners, a religious group who maintained vigilance over television and what was or wasn't suitable for television. Needless to say they got some pull within the BBC thanks to their continual interference. But if Hinchcliffe and Holmes had to go out on a story, then what a story to go out on, Talons stands out particularly because of the 'go for broke' attitude it has. The amount of money which was spent on this one story drove the budget manager to leave in frustration but the final product looks great, especially for mid-seventies television. It made perfect use of the expensive night shoots to capture its atmosphere and there is fantastic set design throughout, especially Greel's lair in the final episode with the massive statue of a golden dragon, who stands, towering over everyone in those scenes.

Doctor Who had used a few 'pseudo-historical' stories in the past, continuing on from the purely historical adventures used in the Hartnell era. These historical adventures had never been particularly popular so the 'pseudo-historical' stories had been utilised in the Troughton era, and it wasn't until The Time Warrior, the opening story to Jon Pertwee's final series that these kind of stories came back. Hinchcliffe and Holmes used these types of stories a lot more than they had been previously and Talons is the perfect example of what a truly brilliant pseudo-historical story should be. Talons weave's science fiction with Victorian-era pulp adventures and crime fiction. So really it isn't the Victorian London of history, but the Victorian London of story instead.

Talons has a large number of references to other events and horror films and books. The fact that the killer is stealing girls off the street is an obvious nod to Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who would have fallen silent by the year the Doctor and Leela arrived at the beginning of this story. They even mention him, one character saying that Spring-Heeled Jack could be back. And like the Ripper, Greel's killings have some disturbing sexual undercurrents, he prefers to pray on young and nubile women and there is something about the way he breaths and slouches while watching them die in his slightly phallic machine that allows him to feed on the life-force of his victims. The idea of draining the life-force of his victims is in keeping with the old stories of Dracula, which is, now I think about it, why he probably has talons. And his face covered by a mask comes straight from The Phantom of the Opera. That and the fact that he hides in the bowels of a theatre, coming out only to terrorise and prey on those who live above him.

But Greel also bears a resemblance to the monster from The Brain of Morbius, a story from the series before 14. Morbius was another war criminal who turned into a horrific biological monster who is forced to trust his life in the hands of an underling he has grown to loathe. The resemblance between Greel and Morbius probably isn't by coincidence given that both stories were written by Robert Holmes, who had a tendency to play around with the same basic character design throughout his time on the show. Greel fulfils the Hinchcliffe characterisation of a 'broken boss'. The 'broken boss', is basically the foe with unlimited, almost god-like powers who only really wants to fix themselves from injuries they had sustained in an unseen story.

For Talons, the Doctor's role is the easiest to deconstruct. He is Sherlock Holmes. I know that was a major part of his character anyway but for this story, Tom Baker gets to play Holmes. Even his costume is replaced for this story in favour of a deerstalker and inverness cape, almost making him look like his previous incarnation and the murder mystery he finds himself stuck in help to make the association between the Fourth Doctor and Sherlock Holmes even stronger. Like Holmes, Baker's Fourth Doctor is charming, eccentric, aloof, arrogant and distinctly smarter than anyone else in the story. The events are easier for the Doctor to solve because he has already worked out who Magnus Greel is. And his aloofness is often broken by sudden and wild bouts of mood-swings, that start go with ferocity which hints at something darker lurking underneath the surface. This is also one of the driving elements of his Doctor at this point in his era, there was a feeling that he wasn't just someone who stole a TARDIS and ran away, but he was something of a magician himself, after all, like he tells us in Pyramids of Mars, he is a Time Lord. He walks in eternity. This was really the only way his character could naturally progress, but was forgotten about somewhat in his next to incarnations, not to be picked up again until Sylvester McCoy took over the role and then again in the modern series, where the Doctor's got darker and moodier. The meaner take on the Doctor can be really entertaining when it is done right like it is here. It is thanks to the brilliant take on the Doctor in the early Baker years that we have the Doctor's we have now.

But because both the Doctor and Greel are both moody and powerful, it was necessary to keep them apart for as long as possible. This then means that the story relies more on its secondary characters - Leela, Litefoot and Jago, for the main bulk of the action. And I think that this is a good place to talk about the two other bumbling sidekicks the Doctor picks up in this story. Jago and Litefoot are a perfect, text book example of one of Holme's motifs, the comedy duo, who show up in virtually all of his stories. What is different about this pair however, is that they don't meet until half-way through the fifth episode as the pair are kept apart during the opening and middle acts playing the role of Dr. Watson to the Doctor's, Sherlock Holmes. It is a very clever way of bringing out Watson's bipolar persona that has accompanied him through popular culture. The main side of Watson is a competent physician and a friendly gentleman. But during the 1940s, there was a Watson who was a pompous, blithering fool. And with both Jago and Litefoot playing Watson, Talons gets to have both incarnations of Watson too. When the pair meet, they click instantly and make a great team, Jago has plenty of bluster but is fuelled by cowardice and is nicely balanced by Litefoot's more soft-spoken, level headed bravery which make the pair endearing. And they are heroes. Well, more like two overgrown boys playing at heroes. It is really enjoyable watching them get in over their heads when they spy on Greel. I would almost would have liked to see them being the main characters of this story, no matter what the Doctor was up to! And it would appear that the chemistry between the characters didn't go unnoticed by the production office as there was talk of a spin-off series thrown about for a little while. Of course, this didn't happen at the time, but we now have the popular Jago and Litefoot audio book series from Big Finish Productions for us to enjoy! And one could argue that they are the format for the Doctor's new Victorian allies, Madam Vastra and Jenny.

I suppose the next Victorian homage began a little while before Talons went into production with the introduction of the Doctor's new companion, Leela. She was Doctor Who's version of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, even down to the skimpy animal skin costume that she wore through almost the entirety of her time on the show. Here she wears an 18th century costume, up until the scene where she is chased through the sewers in her wet underwear with a giant rat behind her. It is one of the greatest I-can't-believe-they-got-away-with-that, moments of seventies television. Introduced in The Face of Evil, Leela is the most unconventional of Doctor Who companions. She isn't from modern day London, despite most of the viewers being from modern day London. This is something that happened when the show became more internationally famous during the eighties, Tegan Jovanka was Australian and Peri Brown was American in attempts to bring in more viewing figures from overseas. Leela is very different. She is from a distant planet far off in the future. She was raised as a jungle dwelling, superstitious, knife wielding primitive, thanks to the mad computer Xoanon, who was a mad version of the Doctor. (I know, it is a lot to get your head around!) The idea behind her character was that, over the course of her time on the show, The Doctor would teach her and nurture her, helping her to reach her full potential. She was supposed to be the Eliza Doolittle of the Who world. And in Talons, that idea is met head on. There are some brilliant moments that show this comparison perfectly, from her dinner scene with Litefoot to her shy showing off of her new dress. And while the show leaned more on her Queen of the Jungle aspects for her time on the series, she wasn't just a piece of eye-candy. She was heroic performing the role of an action movie heroine, something that actress, Louise Jameson, particularly excelled at. It is perfectly true that Talons shows us Leela at her best, na├»ve and unschooled but intelligent and curious, tough, sexy, brutally honest and a complete badass!

But the last homage is what doesn't show this story off in a good light but before I go into that, lets talk about that giant rat. It just looks bad. Everyone at the time, knew it looked bad but that was the problem with the behind the scenes of television at the time, show's like Doctor Who got virtually no budget and there moments in every serial of the time when this showed. It is so clearly a couple of guys in a giant rat costume and is a dismal failure of a special effect. And then, to make things worse, we get a perspective shot of a normal rat in a small set, totally ruining the cliff-hanger to episode 1.

But the biggest problem for this story, which may not have affected it much in the seventies, but it certainly does today is its treatment of the characters who come from China. They are treated like aliens. It is no secret that Talons is one of the few Doctor Who stories which are terribly dated and the main Asian character is played by an Englishman in yellow face makeup. This practice was quite common in television and movies until the 1980s but it was a practice that had started to die out when Talons was recorded. It really is bad that the casting of Li H'sen Chang was done on the wrong side of history. But was his character doomed to fall to racism because of his inspiration thanks to Fu Manchu. The real problem when it came to creating Li H'sen Chang was that Robert Holmes draws too much on a classic and well remembered villain who also happens to be wrapped up in much racial baggage and he does nothing to alter or change that racism that surrounds the character. Hopefully, this is a case of laziness rather than bigotry. The Chinese aspects are only really there to add some spice to the proceedings. And there isn't really an ancient Chinese god called Weng-Chiang, Holmes just made him up. Fun fact: There is actually a Chinese god called Wen-Chang, this is Holmes probably based Greel on.

But all that can be looked past given that Li H'sen Chang is the most important character in this story. He is the only character granted a really interesting character arc that changes him over the course of six episodes. And despite the actual actor being British, John Bennett plays Chang with intelligence and has an air of understated dignity, playing brilliantly off of Michael Spice's unhinged Greel. One moment that really stands out as a could-have-gone-one-way-or-the-other, is Chang's double entendre, he say's, 'one of us is yellow'. Had it been mishandled, it would have harmed the overall story but Bennett handles it perfectly. As Chang, he knows this how the people of the time saw him and he knows how to deal with the people of London everyday because of it. But the character of Li H'sen Chang is held back by the fact that he isn't played by an Asian actor and unfortunately, it is impossible to ignore.

But this review isn't going to conclude on that matter. It is really worth noting that Talons does more than just blending Victorian gothic, mystery and horror elements together. The horror elements are that which are most prevalent, given that during the Hinchcliffe time on the show, it was horror that was used to drive the narratives forward. All the outlandish elements of this story aren't just seemingly supernatural but the result of the technology that Chang brought through time with him. It is really evident that amongst the horror stories of the show that featured heavily in the seventies, that the production team still wanted to route the main plot in something resembling logical plausibility and to tell stories about things that could really be real. As much as an Icelandic war criminal traveling back to Victorian London to cause potentially untold havoc, could be real, I suppose...

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