Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

"Doctor, you make me wear strange clothes, you tell me nothing: you are trying to annoy me."

As a snarky space god once said to a starship captain with a fetish for Earl Grey tea, all good things must come to an end. And such is the case with the successful Hinchcliffe/Holmes partnership.

After the controversy surrounding ‘The Deadly Assassin’, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ days as the mischievous overlords of Doctor Who were well and truly numbered. The wicked witch of middle-England, Mary Whitehouse, had finally gotten her own way and Hinchcliffe was on his way out with Holmes soon to follow. Graham Williams would take over next season and lighten the tone of the show, ditching the horror and ramping up the comedy. I’ll debate the pros and cons of the Williams era in latter reviews, but for the time being let me sing the praises of the final story of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes’ era.

‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ is like a great big "F**k you" from Phil and Bob to their critics, a defiant middle-finger to Whitehouse and her cronies, who had repeatedly complained that Doctor Who had become too violent and scary for children under their watch. Hinchcliffe and Holmes responded by making the show more violent, scary and horrific. Along with Hinchcliffe, this was also director David Maloney's swansong from the series, and he really goes that extra mile to make sure this was one farewell to remember.

'Talons' is almost the quintessential Hinchcliffe/Holmes production: near perfect slice of Victorian Gothic horror, mixed with the show’s own unique sensibilities, along with Holmes' gift for witty dialogue and detailed characterization. The whole thing is a glorious monster mash of Fu Manchu, Sherlock Holmes, Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Jack the Ripper and My Fair Lady, featuring mutilated bodies in the Themes, giant rats in sewers, a killer stalking the foggy streets of Victorian London targeting young women, a blood-thirsty ventriloquist's doll with the brain of a pig, and a dying villain who spends his final moments smoking opium!

The story also benefits from two great guest turns from Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Jago and Litefoot respectively, a classic Holmesian double act so wonderful the BBC even considered a spin-off starring the duo (which Big Finish eventually produced). They may not actually meet until Episode 5, but Baxter and Benjamin both give such great performances that they are equally brilliant apart as they are together. Meanwhile our favourite Baker Street detective – sorry, rogue Time Lord and his savage Eliza Doolittle continue to develop their blossoming relationship nicely. Baker has reached his absolute zenith as the Doctor, while Jameson continues to be a complete joy as Leela. Her reaction to putting on the evening dress for the first time is priceless.

I’d call it perfect, but in good conscience cannot. This story has two major flaws that it is impossible to look beyond. The first is sinister stage magician, Li H'sen Chang. Chang is a great villain and would’ve been even better if the production team had actually bothered to cast a Chinese actor in the role, rather than sticking an English actor in Asian make-up. That was just wrong in the 70s and is ten times as wrong now. The story’s second major flaw is the giant rat. While everything else about the production is first rate and top notch, that terrible giant rat really does let the whole side down.


Unseen Adventures

The Doctor was with the Filipino army at the final advance on Reykjavik.

Name-drop Alert

The Doctor once shared a salmon he caught in the Fleet with the Venerable Bede (I wonder what was he doing that far south?).

Notes and Quotes

--This is the first story to make references to the events of the 51st century (apparently Steven Moffat’s favourite future era) and is also the first time that Time Agents are mentioned.

--The Doctor describes Magnus Greel as the infamous Minister of Justice and the butcher of Brisbane. His henchmen, Mr Sin, is the infamous Peking Homunculus, made for the Commissioner of the Icelandic Alliance's children in the Ice Age around the year 5000. It had one organic component, the cerebral cortex of a pig. According to the Doctor the pig part took over and almost caused World War Six (I would love to see that story).

--Louise Jameson looks lovely in that dress and Leela’s girlie reaction is simply priceless.

--The Doctor doesn't wear his trademark scarf in this episode. This is also the first story where Leela isn't wearing her leather skins.

--The Doctor’s outfit is just one of the story’s many tips of the hat to Conan Doyle. Professor Litefoot even has a housekeeper called Mrs. Hudson.

--The story was partially inspired by a story outline by Robert Banks Stewart called 'The Foe from the Future'. Big Finish Productions produced 'The Foe from Future' as an audio play in 2012 as part of their Doctor Who: The Lost Stories series.

--The Doctor has a toy Batmobile in his pocket.

--The Doctor seems to be relaxing his 'No Janis Thrones' policy.

--Regular series composer Dudley Simpson cameos as the conductor of the orchestra at the Palace Theatre.

--You gotta love Leela's battle strategy, if a kitchen knife to the neck doesn't work, leap over the furniture and jump out of a window.

The Doctor: "Sleep is for tortoises!"

Jago: "Well, if you need any help, Doctor, I hope I know where my duty lies."
The Doctor: "I knew I could rely on you."
Jago: "Oh, to the limit! Though, I suppose you've got your own men scattered throughout the audience."
The Doctor: "No."
Jago: "No? You mean nobody?"
The Doctor: "Nobody. When the moment comes, Mr Jago, you and I can face our destiny shoulder to shoulder."
Jago: "Oh, corks."

Leela: "Why are you putting fire in your mouth?"
Litefoot: "Good lord. Has the girl never seen a pipe before?"
The Doctor: "There's no tobacco where Leela comes from."
Litefoot: "Sounds healthy, but exceedingly dull."

The Doctor: "Hah! Do you know what this is?"
Leela: "You ask me so that you can tell me!"
The Doctor: "Exactly."

The Doctor: "Never trust a man with dirty fingernails."

Leela: "What's the tribe here?"
The Doctor: "Cockneys!"

Litefoot: "I think this entire enterprise is rash and ill-considered."
The Doctor: "My dear Litefoot, I've got a lantern, a pair of waders, and possibly the most fearsome piece of hand artillery in all England. What could possibly go wrong?"
Litefoot: "Well, that for a start. It hasn't been fired for 50 years. If you try to use it it'll probably explode in your face."
The Doctor: "Explode? Unthinkable. It was made in Birmingham."

Jago: "I had the thought of communicating directly with Scotland Yard where, as you know, he's held in the highest esteem."
Professor Litefoot: "The Doctor is?"
Jago: "Oh, yes, of course. It's my opinion he solves half their cases and then lets them take the credit for it. Don't you agree?"
Professor Litefoot: "I have no idea."
Jago: "No, why, it stands to reason. I mean, they're policemen. And we all know, ay, they're solid, sterling fellows, but their buttons are the brightest things about them. Don't you agree?"

The Doctor: "'Eureka' is Greek for 'this bath is too hot'."

Jago: "That's my trouble, Litefoot."
Professor Litefoot: "What?"
Jago: "Well I'm not awfully... Well, I'm not so bally brave when it comes to it. I try to be but I'm not."
Professor Litefoot: "Well when it comes to it, I don't suppose anybody is."

Leela: "We must trap them in the crossfire, Doctor. Somewhere in the open where they cannot find cover."
The Doctor: "What sort of crossfire? Hazelnuts? Bread pellets?"
Leela: "A house this size there must be protection. The professor will have weapons in fixed positions to guard the approaches."
The Doctor: "I brought you to the wrong time, my girl. You'd have loved Agincourt!"

Three and three quarters out of four starship captains with a fetish for Earl Grey tea.
--
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.

3 comments:

Anthony Pirtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony Pirtle said...

As soon as I saw the title I knew we were in for another one of those sad yellow-face performances that mars several stories in the classic Doctor Who run.

And yet, I can't deny that this is a really good story, maybe not in my top ten serials up to this point in the classic series, but certainly in my top twenty. It has a terrific villain in Magnus Greel, a wonderful double act in Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot, and Tom Baker and Louise Jameson really are at the top of their respective games.

But the yellowface performance isn't what is most offensive about this story to me. John Bennett at least imbues Li H'sen Chang with some humanity. What is most objectionable is how every other person in the story of Asian descent is portrayed as a coolie thug.

Running a close second is the fact that the Doctor never calls anyone out on their abject (though regrettably typical) racism. Unlike others, I don't find his labeling his alleyway assailants "little men" as necessarily a bigoted slur, but when Leela identified Li simply as "the yellow one" I really wanted the Doctor to say a few words about how ridiculous it is that humans persist in identifying each other by perceived differences in skin tone...or something along those lines.

And yes, the rat is rubbish.

Anonymous said...

I have not seen this episode, but look forward to seeing it on reruns. Most of the flaws being talked about are various transgressions of the omnipresent PC religion and not anything of substance or importance in the story. Must be quite good.