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The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

Perhaps I'm becoming more cynical as I get older, but fewer and fewer Doctor Who stories reach out and grab me in the manner of the star field explosions on the screen in the first few seconds of every Peter Davison episode. But seriously, it takes a lot more to impress me with a Doctor Who story these days than it ever did in the past. The Talons of Weng-Chiang, I might add though, managed it effortlessly.

Quite simply, there has never been a more fitting story for a Doctor Who producer to end on. Having watched the entire story for the first time, I was left with a very real sense that I had just witnessed one of the very finest Doctor Who serials ever made.

The fictitious Victorian atmosphere with fog gaslight hansom cabs was so effective, not to mention a direct steal from the pages of Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels. I might have expected the great detective himself to step from the shadows, had the Doctor not beaten him to it. His costume was undeniably that of the Baker Street sleuth's, courtesy of costume designer John Bloomfield, much respected for his work on BBC drama/historicals, and magnificent it was too - a definite improvement on the bohemian scruffy look that goes hand in hand with Tom Baker's character. The Doctor may have donned his old costume again after this story, but Tom Baker got another chance to don the deerstalker, when he played Sherlock Holmes himself in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a role he undoubtedly won through his performance in The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Every character was a joy to watch, from the amusing theatre owner, Mr Jago, to the sinister Magnus Greel. Every one of them was incredibly well rounded for a Doctor Who story. Usually one or two characters are 'fleshed-out', but rarely the whole cast. Professor Litefoot was a stereotypical Victorian gentleman, and an excellent foil for the overly eccentric Doctor. Whilst Henry Gordon Jago instantly assumed the Time Lord to be an amateur detective from Scotland Yard, Litefoot was far more perceptive of the Doctor's true origins. If the Doctor's talk of fishing in the Fleet River and the world war of the 51st Century astounded him then he was too polite to show it. Instead, over the course of the six episodes, Litefoot slid obligingly into the role of Sherlock Holmes' Dr Watson, as was so obviously, but effectively, pointed out in the final episode: "Elementary, my dear Litefoot," says the Doctor.

Greel, on the other hand, was a sinister megalomaniac full of burning hatred. It was impossible to feel any sympathy for 'the Butcher of Brisbane', the war criminal from the future. There have been many villains like Magnus Greel in the show, both before and after him, but Greel is one of the better ones, not so much like the 50's B-Grade film villains. Michael Spice was very convincing in the perhaps difficult role, and anyone who has witnessed the superb Peter Davison finale, The Caves of Androzani, will see some similarity between Magnus Greel and Sharaz Jek. Both are mad, wear leather masks to hide facial injuries that are remarkably very, very similar. Robert Holmes, who used the main character from The Phantom of the Opera in both cases, of course wrote both stories. At a first glance, it seems terribly unoriginal of Holmes to use the same idea twice, but Sharaz Jek is a very different interpretation of the 'phantom' from Magnus Greel, despite the all-too obvious similarities.

Even more sinister, though, was John Bennett's Li H'sen Chang, the great Oriental magician. Chang was creepy and mysterious, with his hypnotic eyes wad low, commanding voice. This was especially evident when playing opposite Tom Baker, and the theatre performance in episode four where the Time Lord becomes dangerously involved in Chang's act is perhaps the best example of this. Chant is made even more believable though, by the fact that he is simply very misguided, believing Greel to be none other than the great god Weng-Chiang. Chang was a villain one could feel some sympathy for. His death scene in the opium den reveals Chang's true nature as the son of a peasant who had become a great magician with patronage from Greel, only to be destroyed both mentally and physically by the betrayal and abandonment of his god, Weng-Chiang.

Mr Sin, the Peking Homunculus, was an inspired creation, played with astonishing skill by Deep Roy. At first we were led to believe he was Chang's servant, posing as a ventriloquist's. Then we learnt that Sin was Greel's servant, an organic assassination weapon, no less. Finally, in episode six, Sin was the abomination that had murdered the Commissioner of the Icelandic Alliance and his family, and now ruthlessly gunned down the Tong henchmen, and fired upon everything in sight, including his master, Greel. It was a crazed killing machine, governed by the cerebral cortex of a pig. This lethal single- minded soft of creature is not one we see so very often in Doctor Who; the one that springs to mind though is the Raston from The Five Doctors.

The one quibble about this story (yes, it seems there's at least something wrong with every Doctor Who story) is that the giant rats of the early episodes are somewhat less than totally convincing. How they can live in London's sewers and have pink ears and fluffy fur I don't know. Luckily, such was the filming that the rats were often heard but not seen; a really effective way to convey horror. And talking of the rats - what a cliffhanger it was when the rat came out of the darkness and grabbed Leela's leg in its jaws.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang contained some of my all-time favourite Doctor Who quotes too - "Sleep is for tortoises" and " Eureka is Greek for 'This bath is too hot'" brilliant. I now realise that this is one of my all-time favourite Doctor Who stories - and there was me thinking that The Deadly Assassin was my favourite of Season 14. My only regret is that Philip Hinchcliffe was removed from the show after this story, and Graham Williams put in his place. From all reports, and if my memory of the 1980 screening serves me right, we shall now witness a gradual downhill slide of standards over the next three seasons, standards that reach their lowest point with the Seventeenth Season. After the brilliance of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, I shall, now have to wait for the Eighteenth Season to see another classic of its kind.

Reviewed by Cornelius Stone

Me and Doctor Who go right back to the very first episode of the first series, okay? My appreciation of this long-running TV series is steeped in the chemistry of the early years. I miss the historical adventure; I don't know about you, but it's my view that Doctor Who could and should contain at least one story set in the history of Earth's past per season. I know the genesis of programme policy, largely following on from the low ratings of The Gunfighters, but I think it's a load of boots to insist that non-SF Doctor Who cannot succeed.

Which brings me to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, not free from the stuff of SF, but a whole glorious six episodes set in the late 19th Century in the mystique of classically fog-shrouded London. The atmosphere the story line exudes is delicious. The intricacy of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is realised by the end of Part Four, when Greel and Mr Sin ride away, the Time Cabinet safely in their possession, Greel laughing his malevolent head off. And you realise only Li H'sen Chang has fallen, for all every-ones' efforts.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is by Robert Holmes, who wrote such classic serials as Spearhead from Space (the first Pertwee episodes), Terror of the Autons (the first Master), and The Time Warrior (the first Sontaran - you get the idea). His invention of Mr Sin is where he outdoes himself in the character stakes here. As much as I loved the Yellow Peril of Li H'sen Chang (nicely played by Michael Spice), and approved of the ravaged Greel, little Mr Sin, the homunculus with the pig's brain, steals the show. Like a midget Gerry Anderson bad dream, with nothing to say but with plenty for us, the viewers, to write into his murderous deeds, Doctor Who produced in this little bastard something as marvellously creepy as the Cybermat, likewise proving that you don't have to come up with King Kong to induce terror. Quite the opposite. Smaller, more insidious horrors are easier to believe - ask someone afraid of spiders - no one is stricken by matted on animated plasticine dinosaurs.

After the screamers Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith, Leela is one very inspired about-face. So as not to go straight back to the screamer syndrome, Leela had to be followed up by a lady Time Lord, don't forget. Leela is at her best here, going hand in hand with Greel. I suppose you could compare the leather-outfitted warrior woman to the partner John Steed finds in Mrs Emma Peel in The Avengers. Essentially, Leela is an equal of sorts, even if she's not a Time Lord, not a technologically advanced know-it-all and not able to fathom the Doctor's cryptic commentary more than half the time. This is the sort of woman I should have liked to have seen pitted against Roger Delgado's Master, resisting his hypnotic penetration by will power alone. Much fun is had between Professor Litefoot and Leela, as Litefoot updates his conception of the term "lady-like".

Between The Talons of Weng-Chiang one week, and Horror of Fang Rock the next, it's been a wonderful mini-season of Doctor Who stories set in the past. They're not the period pieces of old I'd love to see reintroduced exactly, but they are divergent, forming an exquisite contrast to the otherwise endlessly glossy control-panels-everywhere inorganic Doctor Who that palls after too much of it.

This item appeared in TSV 3 (October 1987).

Index nodes: The Talons of Weng Chiang