Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Episode One

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Following the recent death of Trevor Baxter, I pulled Talons off the shelf for another rewatch.  For me, it remains the ultimate Who experience, Robert Holmes blending together a mix of literary sources in order to serve up a potent brew of Victoriania  menace.

It has its critics though, most of whom find John Bennett’s performance as Li H’sen Chang distasteful.  I think Bennett is wonderful, but the fact that he’s a British actor made up to appear Chinese is a stumbling point for many.  This was a common practice during this era of television though – the pool of ethnic actors in the UK being somewhat limited – and the fact that Timothy Coombe struggled to find good Chinese actors for relatively small parts in The Mind of Evil suggests that the problem had been a long-term one.

Had Bennett’s performance been a caricature (“me velly solly”) then it would be easier to side with the critics.  But Chang is a sharply-drawn, multi-faceted character who’s much more than just an Oriental heavy.  Throughout the story Bennett is able to give Chang considerable light and shade, meaning that by the end it’s possible to believe he was just as much a victim of Greel as everyone else was.

I’ve often wondered if Bennett’s casting was, in part, something of a sly joke.  The most famous Chinese magician on the early 20th Century British stage was probably Chung Ling Soo, remembered mainly for his dramatic on-stage death.  The fact that Chung Ling Soo was actually an American (William Ellsworth Robinson) makes it possible that the audience at home were being invited to wonder whether Chang was also pretending to be Chinese.  I may be over-thinking this though ….

Chang might have a heavy Chinese accent when performing on stage, but off-stage he’s quite different.  It’s never emphasised throughout the story, but there’s something of an irony in the fact that Chang – imbued with great powers by his master, Greel – can only utilise them on the music hall stage.  The fact that he’s a Chinaman in London means that any other doors (business, polite society) are barred to him.

Talons was written to a strict deadline, which might explain why Holmes was content to borrow so heavily from existing texts (especially The Phantom of the Opera and the tales of Fu Manchu).  But even given the pressure he was under, Holmes didn’t skimp on the dialogue, with the result that Talons is an actors gift – with Christopher Benjamin (as Henry Gordon Jago) the prime recipient.

Holmes liked to pair characters off and we can see this with Jago, as throughout the story he teams up with – in order – Casey (Chris Gannon), the Doctor and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter).  With Casey, Jago is dominant (as befits his status as Casey’s employer), like everybody he’s immediately subordinate to the Doctor (Jago’s hero-worship of him is a delight).  He also defers to Litefoot to begin with (a question of social standing presumably) but the pair quickly forge a more equal relationship in the heat of adversity.

In this story, even the minor characters are vividly sketched.  Patsy Smart’s dribbling crone, on hand to watch the police fished a badly mutilated body out of the river, is a case in point.  “On my oath, you wouldn’t want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oh, make an ‘orse sick, that would”.

Earlier, the Doctor and Leela had stumbled across a Chinese gang carrying this body (cab-driver Joseph Buller).  Buller might not have been on-screen for long, but the scene immediately prior to his death – stalked by Chang’s knife-welding ventriloquist dummy Mr Sin (Deep Roy) – is a memorable one.

Tom Baker’s Doctor is treading a fine balance here.  When one of the Chinese gang dies a horrible death in front of his eyes (via a poison capsule surreptitiously supplied by Chang) his first reaction is to laugh uncontrollably.  The Doctor quickly becomes business-like, but it’s a jarring moment that possibly only Baker could have pulled off.

An interesting point about this episode is that there’s no tangible science fiction elements.  The giant rat (not terribly good, but I think we can take that as a given) might be the first indication that there’s more to this story than just a mysterious murder, but we’ll have to wait until part two before things become clearer.

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