Doctor Who: The Talons Of Weng-Chiang Review
One of the strengths of Doctor Who has always been its willingness to borrow from a myriad of different sources and this is seen to its best advantage in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. A witty, gripping and thoroughly enjoyable Gothic extravaganza, this Victorian-set Tom Baker story reels in influences varying from Conan-Doyle and Sax Rohmer to "Phantom of the Opera" and "Pygmalion" yet still manages to work as coherent and intelligent telefantasy.
In fog-shrouded London during the late 19th century, young women are vanishing without trace after attending performances at the Palace Music Hall run by impresario Henry Gordon Jago (Benjamin). Jago's star attraction is a Chinese illusionist of uncertain provenance named Li H'sen Chang (Bennett) whose powers of hypnotism are being used to further the power of Chang's master, a mysterious figure in black who haunts the vaults of the theatre. Chang's macabre dummy Mr Sin (Roy) is also rather more animated than one might reasonably expect, and why is blood dripping from his knife ? Arriving in the Tardis, the Doctor (Baker) and Leela (Jameson) become involved when they are attacked by some Chinese thugs, one of whom prefers to kill himself rather than reveal the identity of his employer. The police pathologist Professor Litefoot (Baxter) offers them shelter at his home while the Doctor investigates the link between the theatre, Chang and the disappearing women.
I'm reluctant to reveal any more about the plot because much of the charm of this story lies in the ingenious narrative which begins as Victorian melodrama and develops into a classic science fiction action adventure. It's a very clever mixture of a straight historical adventure - the type which were at their zenith during William Hartnell's first two seasons as the Doctor, many of which are sadly gone from the archives but which can be sampled in the excellent The Aztecs - and an alien menace story, in which an intergalactic evil is pitted against planet Earth. The Philip Hinchcliffe-produced seasons 12 to 14 featured three superb stories of this type - Talons, Pyramids of Mars and The Masque of Mandragora - and they suit Tom Baker's Doctor very well. Baker was always at his best when in an environment which he knew a lot more about than the inhabitants and these pseudo-historicals allow him to be as flamboyant as he likes. Here, dressed in deerstalker and cape - Sydney Paget's view of Holmes rather than Conan-Doyle's of course - he relishes the chance to play a sort of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Nayland Smith (nemesis of Fu Manchu) and he makes the most of some splendidly arrogant Holmesian moments with Jago and Litefoot. Whether swanning around in a pea-souper, dismissing Chinese assassins and confused London bobbies with equal indifference, or facing up to a particularly nasty laser gun, Baker is in his element and he's wonderfully entertaining to watch. He gets some great dialogue too - "Sleep is for tortoises" for example, or in response to Leela's request for better defences, "I've brought you to the wrong time-period my dear, you'd have loved Agincourt". His relationship with Leela is well defined too, having settled into a sort of Henry Higgins-esque mixture of tutelage and reluctant respect, and he plays well with Louise Jameson. The widely reported tension in their relationship - Baker didn't like the inherent savagery of Leela's character - gives a certain edge to the scenes they play and prevents the sentimentality which occasionally surfaced in his relationship with Sarah-Jane Smith. Jameson herself is also on top-form here and, allowed to wear proper clothes for once, she looks fantastic. Leela, is a fascinatingly typical mid-seventies semi feminist creation; a strong woman who can look after herself so far but often requires a man to get her out of trouble, and who is dressed in skimpy chamois-leather to attract men who might otherwise be turned off by her independence.
The writer of Talons, Robert Holmes, was one of the most consistently inventive contributors to Doctor Who and was also the script editor during the time that it was made. His script is well paced, enough so to ensure that the story doesn't flag in the middle like many six-parters of the time, and packed with colourful - some might say somewhat florid - characters. Holmes gained a reputation for what tend to be called "Classic Holmesian double-acts" and Talons contains one of the best in Litefoot and Jago, even though they don't actually meet until episode five. Both characters are vividly played and given enough substance to suggest that they might lead lives independent to their appearance in this particular story. Trevor Baxter makes Litefoot the very image of the contented bachelor-scientist who is broad minded enough to accept the idea of time travel but sufficiently repressed to be shocked by Leela's most unladylike behaviour. Christopher Benjamin is equally good as the flamboyant Jago whose theatrical exuberance hides his natural cowardice and he's very touching in the last episode when he's allowed to become a pleasingly unlikely hero. When they finally get together in the last third of the story, they have instant chemistry and are enough fun to make one regret that a mooted spin-off for their characters never got off the ground. John Bennett - under impressive if politically incorrect make-up - is perfect as Chang, matching inscrutable villainy with pathetic crawling to his master, and Michael Spice makes a memorable villain as the mysterious cloaked figure who may or may not be the ancient Chinese god Weng-Chiang.
In his last job as a director for the programme, David Maloney goes out on a high note with exquisitely judged pacing and the sort of Victorian atmosphere so thick that you could cut it. One of the marks of a good Doctor Who director of this period is how cunningly they mask the mixture of film and videotape and the transitions here, while not seamless, are certainly not jarring. The decision to film some of the theatrical sequences at the Royal Theatre in Northampton was an inspired one, adding a layer of reality which is not always present in the stories set during Earth's past (or even Earth's present, as witnessed by Mrs Farrell's lovely CSO kitchen in Terror of the Autons !). This adds to the grittiness which was an essential part of Philip Hinchcliffe's time as producer of the show.
The only reservation I (and most other writers on the subject) have about this story concerns the special effects. Generally speaking, these range from the very good - one bit of make-up may well have you reverting to childhood and rushing behind the sofa - to the adequate, but one major aspect is simply disastrous. This is, all together now, the giant rat. Unable to decide whether to film a real rat and enlarge it or create a model, the end-result is hopelessly amateurish and ruins what might otherwise be a stunning cliffhanger ending to episode one. It looked bad at the time - the memory cheats but not this much - and doesn't look any better now. All I can suggest is that you watch indulgently, have a giggle and then get back into the atmosphere of the thing as a whole, which isn't hard to do.
Much has been written about the violence of the shows during the Hinchcliffe era but I want to echo what the man himself has said about how the violence was never gratuitous and was always responsible - i.e. it shows that violence has unpleasant consequences. You may sometimes wince at the violence here - and one or two moments do stretch the 'PG' category - but there is always a subtle touch which ensures that no more is shown than is absolutely necessary. The drug references are also surprisingly graphic for this certificate, especially in a lovely moment during episode five which demonstrates the restorative properties of opium. This frankness of Hinchcliffe's tenancy was one of the things which led to the taming of the programme in subsequent seasons, following complaints by the egregious Mary Whitehouse and the lack of grittiness was the main problem of later Tom Baker shows. To be fair, this has been overstated since the best of the later Baker stories - Image of the Fendahl, City of Death - are a match for any that came before, but it's undoubtedly the case that Seasons 12 to 14 were an annus mirabilis for the show that was never to return.
Given one of the very best Doctor Who stories, BBC Worldwide have produced a superb double-disc DVD package which is among the most impressive releases of the year so far.
The picture quality is generally pleasing. If you want to understand some of the problems in restoring twenty five year old television material to a standard suitable for DVD release then I suggest you have a look at the Doctor Who Restoration Team website which explains the number of problems with the material which had to be solved. There is a grainy appearance to some of the scenes, notably the exteriors, and the rest of the story is variable in quality. The appearance of the image is often rather soft but the low-level lighting of the story has been well served in this transfer which features rich, deep blacks and a good level of contrast. Colours are impressive throughout. Much work has clearly been done here and it has paid off in a picture which has its flaws but is a vast improvement on the 1988 video release of the story.
The soundtrack is a clean, crisp mono track that serves the material very well.
One immediate advantage of this release over the previous videotape - alongside the higher quality of the transfer - is that it is both unedited by the BBC and uncut by the BBFC. A scene involving chainsticks has been restored along with a brief incident of bloodletting. The story is, unlike the video release, presented in episodic format with opening and closing credits, recreating the original experience of watching the story.
The two-disc set contains a number of valuable and interesting extra features, as we've come to expect from the recent Doctor Who releases. The first disc contains the six episodes of the programme along with a running commentary and informational subtitles. The subtitles are fascinating for a fan of the programme with fanatically minute attention to details such as filming dates and locations. The commentary is a good one, featuring Louise Jameson, Christopher Benjamin, John Bennett, David Maloney and Philip Hinchcliffe. Each episode mixes and matches the participants, with variable results. Louise Jameson is wonderfully enthusiastic and Hinchcliffe is analytical and self-deprecating. The other three are less gripping but never less than pleasant company, and all agree that the show has dated extremely well. What comes over is a sense of pride and enjoyment of the work and this makes it a very entertaining track to listen to. This commentary is also subtitled in English.
The second disc includes the main selection of bonus materials. The one which will most interest fans of the show is the 1977 'Lively Arts' documentary, "Whose Doctor Who". "Lively Arts" was a Melvyn Bragg presented precursor of "Omnibus" and this is a fascinating look at the show from the viewpoint of the production staff, viewers, children and child psychologists. There are some lovely archive clips from the series - if you can watch the scene from "The Web Planet" without giggling then you're of a stouter disposition than me - most of which are less dated than the interviews with the psychologists, one of whom claims to be 'a bit like Doctor Who myself'. The psychology is dubious but presumably respectable and it is at least a time capsule into a pre-Bulger time when children were still considered innocents. The kids themselves are great fun, especially one precocious little girl who is so honest and engaging that she should have been given her own newspaper column. Great moments of embarrassed parents too - especially the mother whose daughter reveals that they go about pretending to be Ice Warriors. There are contributions from Philip Hinchcliffe and a reassuringly dotty Tom Baker and behind the scenes clips of the making of Talons - notably a scene where John Bloomfield (what is he wearing ?) agonises over the infamous giant rat. Running 58 minutes and divided into six chapters, this documentary is sheer pleasure from start to finish.
The 'Behind the Scenes" feature is a revealing but hard-going 25 minutes of black and white home movie footage of studio recording for the show. It's worth sticking with for some nice moments from the most erotically strict female floor manager in television history, but only fans are likely to get much out of it. The image quality is abysmal, but that's only to be expected and it's pretty amazing that this still exists at all.
More entertaining, indeed utterly riveting, is the "Blue Peter Theatre" compilation. I can't begin to do justice to this 26 minutes of pure seventies kitsch but, from the opening scene taking place in a studio set for Tom Baker's debut show Robot to the bizarrely celebratory ending involving Dick Mills and lots of silly noises, you will be unable to tear your eyes away from the screen. Lesley Judd is still a total babe, John Noakes is clearly totally disinterested in the programme and Peter Purves - a Who veteran himself - wisely stays on the sidelines in an unfortunate selection of shirts until called upon to use a plunger in an unusual and possibly illegal manner. You could try making the theatre yourself - you need a box, some rods, tin foil, cut-outs from a 1977 edition of the Radio Times, double-sided sticky tape and the lid from a fabric conditioner bottle along with the patience of Job - but I suggest you find something more worthwhile to do, such as wearing big eyes and glitter and pretending to be a monster from The Underwater Menace. Blue Peter connoisseurs will find this item reason enough to buy the disc, especially as Jason - the elusive and possibly satanically possessed cat - and Shep make several appearances.
We also get a 10 minute Philip Hinchcliffe interview from a 1977 edition of the much-missed by some (god alone knows who) Pebble Mill At One. This is fascinating for the incredibly patronising interviewing style of David Seymour and the barely contained hostility of Hinchcliffe when pressed about the violence in the programme.
There is a continuity announcement included for the story and for "Whose Doctor Who" and a trailer for the latter programme. I rather like these myself but, again, they are mainly for fans of the show. Incidentally, the BBC 2 line up for the evening of Sunday 3rd April is far better than the rubbish they show nowadays and even includes, gasp, a foreign language film - does that suggest I might be getting old ?
There is a Tardis Cam feature - this is the last one, which is a mercy to us all - and a photo gallery, along with an easter egg featuring the title sequence without titles, if that makes sense.
All the special features are subtitled in English.
The story can be watched either as a complete block or episode by episode. Each episode is divided into six chapter stops.
I can't recommend this DVD package highly enough. It's a delight for both the casual viewer and the fan of the show and is as essential a purchase as I've seen so far this year. If the BBC can continue this standard with upcoming releases then I for one cannot wait to see them.