Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Episode Four

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It’s slightly odd to think that during the eighties Horror of Fang Rock wasn’t a story with a terribly good reputation.  But then this was the decade (in British fandom certainly) when many of us only had very limited access to the series’ past, so we had to rely on what DWM or the fanzines of the day told us was true.

And since Graham Williams was still persona non grata for many, Horror was often lumped in with the majority of the other stories from this period as something of a disappointment.  Only City of Death managed to escape this chorus of disapproval.

It’s interesting that part four opens with what we later learn to be the shape-shifting Rutan (still looking remarkably like Rueben) running into Vince for a brief and (on Vince’s part) painful meeting.  Had Vince been killed at the end of part three then the actor wouldn’t have received a fee for the final instalment (this seems a trivial matter, but Doctor Who, like many other series of the time, tended to be quite frugal about matters like this).

I wonder if the original plan had been to end part three with Vince’s death?  It would have been a strong cliffhanger, especially since it would have immediately followed the Doctor’s weary statement that he’d been wrong all along about their mysterious foe.

But no matter, Vince now bites the dust and Adelaide follows him shortly after.  This leaves Skinsale as the last man standing, apart from the Doctor and Leela.  Whilst Leela and Skinsale head off to find a weapon to use against the Rutan, the Doctor settles down for a friendly chat with the glowing green blob.

If one were being critical, then it’s probably fair comment that part four does somewhat dribble to a conclusion.  The Rutan (looking rather like – I’m sorry – a large piece of green snot) and the Doctor have a nice little natter for a few minutes which rather slows the story down.  That Dicks chose a Rutan as the monster is a nice nod to Holmes (Holmes had already named them as the age-old enemies of his creations, the Sontarans).  Or it could just be that Dicks was running short of inspiration …..

As is often the way with even the most repellent of monsters, they tend to be very garrulous once you get them talking (a fact which Dicks slyly drops into the script) and the Doctor now knows exactly what he has to do.  Destroy the Rutan mothership – which is shortly due to land – and the rest of the Rutan fleet will scoot off to look for easier pickings elsewhere.

This is a little hard to swallow, but it’s even harder to believe that the Doctor could rig the lighthouse’s lamp into a deadly ray with little more than a dash of ingenuity and a diamond from Palmerdale’s body belt.  It’s easy to criticise the modern series for plucking solutions out of the air, but this is just as bad.

Since Dicks wrote both the script and the novel, there’s one small change which has always interested me.  Skinsale dies because he stays behind and scrabbles for Palmerdale’s extra diamonds.  When Leela asks where Skinsale is, the Doctor tells her he died with honour.  This is obviously not so and Dicks – when he penned the novelisation – chose to make this plain.  Was it not originally played as Dicks wrote it, or did he take the later opportunity to tighten up a this slight plot oddity?

But even if the ending slightly disappoints, Horror of Fang Rock is still an essential story.  Base-under-siege stories always work (although familiarity did breed contempt a little during the Troughton era) and thanks to the unusual lighthouse setting this one works better than most.

Finishing with a touch of Wilfrid Gibson doesn’t hurt either.  “Aye, though we hunted high and low, and hunted everywhere, of the three men’s fate we found no trace. In any time, in any place. But a door ajar and an untouched meal and an over-toppled chair”.

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Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Part Three

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Horror of Fang Rock was the last time that Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes worked together on the same Doctor Who story.  If one had to choose the most significant writer who ever worked on the series then Dicks and Holmes, along with David Whitaker, would surely have to be towards the top of the list.

All three had similar career paths – they had all served as script-editors and helped to broaden the mythos of the series in numerous ways (they weren’t too shabby as writers either).  If pressed, I might have to plump for Terrance Dicks – as not only did he help to stabilise the series in the early seventies (following the rocky road the show had trod in the later Troughton era) thereby ensuring that the programme had a long term future, but he also had the good sense to commission Robert Holmes.  And a Doctor Who cosmos without Robert Holmes scarcely bears thinking about ….

That’s a bit of a flip reason true, since Dicks was no slouch as a writer himself.  Fang Rock is probably his best solo script for the series – which is especially impressive when you consider that it was a last minute replacement for his rejected vampire story.  Compare and contrast with The Invasion of Time, which also had to be cobbled together at great speed.  True, the season closer also had to stumble through the production from hell, but had the script been sounder then things wouldn’t have turned out to be so shambolic.  But that’s a story for another time.

Rueben’s looking far from well, but isn’t actually dead (or so it appears).  Once again the Doctor’s still several paces behind the action and is working from a false premise – he believes that Rueben’s seen the creature and has valuable information, but the truth’s a little more complicated.

Whilst the Doctor attempts to contact Rueben through a locked door, Palmerdale is tempting Vince with a fortune (fifty pounds).  Palmerdale has a limited opportunity to make a killing on the stock exchange with the information supplied earlier by a reluctant Skinsale.  Skinsale would much prefer that he didn’t of course (since he would be ruined if the news leaked out).  Quite how this would be isn’t quite made clear – some kind of insider trading obviously – but it’s not really important.

The key fact is that Palmerdale attempts to bribe Vince to use the telegraph to broadcast a message to his brokers, so Skinsale destroys the telegraph machine to ensure this doesn’t happen.  This is clearly a very bad move as it isolates them from the mainland.  The Doctor helpfully spells this out.  “To protect your honour, you’ve put all our lives in danger”.

It’s a good dramatic moment and played well by Tom (the Doctor doesn’t display anger at Skinsale, only weary resignation).  But you have to wonder why the Doctor or indeed anybody else hadn’t thought to radio for help before.  And let’s be honest, even if Skinsale hadn’t wrecked the telegraph it’s impossible to imagine the Doctor ever lowering himself to request anybody’s assistance, certainly not turn of the century human beings.

Therefore the destruction of the telegraph is a bit of a red herring, although it serves a useful purpose in allowing us to see that Skinsale is just as corrupt and untrustworthy, in his own way, as Palmerdale.

We’re closer to the end of the story than the beginning, so it’s clearly time that the remaining humans are bumped off, one after another.  Palmerdale is the first to go, which sends Adelaide into a fit of hysterics (swiftly curtailed after Leela gives her a good hard slap!).  There then follows a nice exchange between the two, which sees Leela tell Adelaide that she shouldn’t put her faith in astrology.  “A waste of time. I too used to believe in magic, but the Doctor has taught me about science. It is better to believe in science”.

Before we’ve caught our breath from Palmerdale’s demise then Harker is also killed off and a couple of scenes later the Doctor and Leela discover Rueben’s cold, dead body. This is a bit of a mystery since Rueben has recently been seen alive and well.

The Doctor finally understands. “The chameleon factor, sometimes called lycanthropy. Leela, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead, I’ve locked it in, with us”.

It’s a slight oddity that the Doctor refers to lycanthropy, since that only refers to the change between a human and a werewolf, but the Doctor’s ominous pronouncement is an interesting point on which to end the episode. Having the Doctor or the others placed in danger would have been more of a hook, but the realisation that the Doctor’s been wrong all along is also frightening and disturbing – albeit for a different reason.

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Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Part Two

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I’ve previously mentinoed Terrance Dicks’ firm grip of basic storytelling principles and there’s further evidence of that here.  Our new characters – Lord Palmerdale, Skinsale, Adelaide and Harker – all have interlocking conflicts with each other which will help to keep the drama ticking along.

Palmerdale (Sean Caffrey) plainly sees himself as the top dog and is quite happy to boss young Vince about.  And although Adelaide (Annette Woollett) might be Palmerdale’s employee she too has no compunction in ordering Vince to do her bidding.  There’s a nice moment of class comedy played out during the scene where Adelaide asks Vince his name.  He replies Vince Hawkins and she graciously responds. “Thank you Hawkins”.  He’s pleased to have received kind words from a lady and the fact that she used his surname doesn’t register with him.  The mistress/servant divide is plain here (just as the opposite is in play with the Doctor and Leela, who always call Vince by his first name).

If Palmerdale and Adelaide both seem rather superior (although having to share a cramped lighthouse with a killer will no doubt wipe the smiles off their faces) then our first impression of Skinsale (Alan Rowe) is rather more favourable.  The audience is invited to view the arrogant Palmerdale with disdain and it’s Skinsale who is allowed to articulate these feelings.  That Skinsale is placed in opposition to Palmerdale (along with Skinsale’s wry humour) immediately makes him a likeable character although, as we’ll see, his ruthless self-interest will prove to be dangerous.

The Doctor continues to brood and Tom dominates the screen whenever he’s on.  The moment where he strides into the crew room and places his feet on the table (a Tom adlib possibly?) is one of those little touches which adds so much to the feel of the story.  The Doctor’s baiting of Palmerdale is another treat.

The arrival of Harker (Rio Fanning) ramps up the drama another notch.  The only survivor from the crew, Harker blames Palmerdale for the death of the others (this simmering resentment will eventually spill over).  For now though, he’s a handy man to have about – a practical sort, unlike the pampered upper-class types still bickering upstairs in the crew room.

The mystery of Ben’s death continues.  If he was dead, how did he find his way out of the lighthouse and into the sea?  The Doctor has an explanation for Vince.  “The shock simply stunned him, he partly recovered, staggered out onto the rocks, fell into the sea and was drowned”. It sounds reasonable, although the Doctor’s well aware that it’s not the truth. But, as he tells Leela, he can’t tell Vince the truth, because he still doesn’t know what the truth is. Whenever the Doctor is clutching at straws it helps to raise the tension just that little bit higher.

The relatively small cast and the confined space allows the Doctor and Leela to be paired together for long stretches (most stories would tend to see the Doctor and companion split up for an episode or two). Tom and Louise might have been struggling off-screen, but on-screen the Doctor and Leela make for an excellent team. Here, the Doctor shares his fears with her. “That creature, or whatever it is, will be getting bolder by now. It’s seen this primitive technology, it’s had time to calculate the physical strength of its enemies. I think we’re in terrible trouble”. Leela’s deadpan next line (“Do not be afraid, Doctor”) is another well-delivered moment as is the Doctor’s slow-burn reaction to it.

As I touched upon earlier, Terrance Dicks provided Leela with plenty of good material. Apart from her byplay with the Doctor, she gets to memorably threaten Palmerdale (“Silence! You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart”).

This week’s cliffhanger is a tad more impressive than last week’s. A blood-curdling cry causes the others to stop their squabbles as it suggests that the Beast of Fang Rock has claimed another victim ….

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Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Part One

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Doctor Who fans tend to break down sections of the show into recognisable eras.  Usually this is done by producer and not lead actor (which is understandable when, say, analysing Tom Baker’s seven year stint as his three producers – Hinchcliffe, Williams, JNT – all had very different styles).

The only problem with this method is that the cut-off is never absolute.  Horror of Fang Rock is a prime example – in mood and style it can comfortably sit alongside Talons (that it shares the same Victorian/Edwardian setting doesn’t hurt on this score).  It’s also possible to find echoes of the Williams era in several Hinchcliffe stories (when the Doctor bumps into Styggron in The Android Invasion, his cheery greeting could easily have played virtually anywhere in S15/S16/S17).

This bleeding of styles was rarely acknowledged back in the day.  In the 1980’s, when Graham Williams was still beyond the pale for many, things seemed much simpler.  His three years in charge were plainly a disaster from start to finish, not least for the unsubtle humour and schoolboy larking about.  If the Doctor mocked his adversaries and didn’t treat them with fear or respect, why should the audience?

As we’ve seen, the line between Hinchliffe/Williams wasn’t absolute, but this distinction tended not to be acknowledged.  One of my favourite summations of Graham Williams’ producership can be found in issue three of the fanzine Mondas, published in 1984.  We’ll be kind and not name the writer (a familiar name from Doctor Who fandom).  Graham Williams was apparently the man “who (unwittingly or not) almost cold-bloodedly butchered our programme, leaving it only in a fit state for recycling as dog meat”.

Hmm.  I’m slightly more of a fan ……

When he took over as producer, Graham Williams had three immediate problems to contend with.

  1. A requirement to tone down the violence and horror in the show.
  2. Galloping inflation, which meant that in real terms he had less to spend on the show for each of his three years.
  3. Tom Baker.

All three were bequests from Philip Hinchcliffe in one way or another.  The first seems to be Williams’ overriding legacy on the show, but there’s also evidence to suggest that even if the BBC management hadn’t insisted on change he would have done so anyway.  Williams (like Barry Letts) had been critical of the sadistic tone which had crept into the show during the mid seventies and was keen to steer the programme in a slightly different path (one example quoted by Williams was the moment in Genesis where Sarah is dangled over the edge of the rocket gantry by a Thal guard – a scene he never would have countenanced).

Philip Hinchcliffe liked to overspend, but it was Graham Williams who had to face the consequences. When Williams took over he discovered that budgets now had to be strictly adhered to (which led to some sticky later moments).  If the Hinchliffe era had been made in the same cash-strapped environment then it’s probable we’d think a little less of it.

Tom Baker. Ah, where do you start.  Tom and GW didn’t enjoy the best of working relationships to put it mildly.  Many believe that because Tom was by now so firmly entrenched in the series he was disinclined to listen to anybody else’s point of view.  But it’s possible to argue that Tom was simply looking to do the best for the programme (railing against unimaginative scripts) and that his actions weren’t motived by pure self-ego.  The truth probably lies somewhere inbetween.

The series had suffered from testy relationships between the lead actor and producer before.  William Hartnell and John Wiles were never a marriage made in heaven whilst Patrick Troughton’s interactions with both Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin weren’t much better. Terrance Dicks’ portrait of Bryant – a barely functioning alcoholic – is a rather unflattering one, but it suggests the reason why the professional Troughton felt frustrated towards the end of his stint on the show.  That Sherwin and Troughton didn’t get on can clearly be evidenced by Sherwin’s commentary on The War Games.  Whenever Sherwin’s in the chair and Troughton’s on the screen an acid put-down is never far away.

But if the turmoil between Baker and Williams would spill out onto the screen in later stories, at this point in time there’s no hint of what was to come.  Part one of Horror of Fang Rock is a model of efficient storytelling – establish your location (a lighthouse), your first wave of principal guest characters (the three lighthouse keepers – Ben, Rueben and Vince), introduce the Doctor and Leela, mix well and stand back.

The three keepers are, handily, of different generations.  So we have the old man, Rueben (Colin Douglas), the middle-aged Ben (Ralph) and the youngster Vince (John Abbott).  That they’re of varying ages is an obvious touch as it quickly helps to differentiate their characters.  Say what you like about Terrance Dicks, but he understood the basics of storytelling.

Rueben might be the oldest, but he’s not the senior man in charge here (a point which no doubt rankles with him).  Ben and Rueben articulate two very different viewpoints – science and superstition.  Indeed, had Ben not met his imminent death then it would have been interesting to see him and Rueben develop through the serial, almost as a surrogate Doctor and Leela.

Ben embraces the brave new world of electric-powered lighthouses whilst Rueben harks back to the good old days of oil.  Both, in their own ways, are entrenched in their own positions, although we’re no doubt meant to side with Ben.  That partly helps to explain why he’s first for the chop – having a level-headed sensible chap around is far less fun than the doomy, superstition-ridden Rueben (“‘taint natural”).  Vince occupies the middle ground as he’s prepared to listen to both of them (and the Doctor as well).

Louise Jameson was never too enamoured of this script (mistakenly believing that it had been written for Sarah-Jane).  I can’t see many causes for complaint though as Leela’s provided with some good material throughout.  The moment when Leela changes out of her wet clothes in front of a scandalised Vince (“I’m no lady Vince”) is just one nice character beat.

Tom Baker is in full brooding mood.  This may be because the script required it, but the evidence seems clear that at this point in time he wasn’t enjoying a harmonious relationship with his co-star (the fact that a female director had been assigned simply darkened his mood even more).  But if his playing here is partly informed by his off-screen irritations, then no matter – it’s also the perfect choice for the story.

Another interesting wrinkle is the air of mystery that hangs over Fang Rock.  We have a dead body – Ben – but the Doctor doesn’t know who killed him or why.  And it’ll be a long time before he finds out (Tom’s Doctor might often characterised as an unstoppable know-all, but that’s not the case here).

The cliffhanger (a toy boat runs aground) might be a little anti-climatic, but there’s little else to complain about here.  Some forty years to the day when this episode was first broadcast, Horror of Fang Rock part one still engrosses.

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

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Finally the Doctor and Greel have a face to face meeting. The Doctor has dealt with Greel’s proxy – Chang – previously, but it’s not until now that Greel and the Doctor have the chance for a chat.

As time went on, Tom’s Doctor became more and more flippant (although to be fair, flippancy was always part of his character). Some dislike his mockery of the villains (maintaining that it diminished them) but I’ve never had a problem with it. Yes, the Doctor gives the impression that he’s not taking Greel seriously (“never trust a man with dirty fingernails”) but there’s still a palpable air of threat and menace from the masked man.

Jago and Litefoot continue their sojourn as prisoners of Greel. This brief dialogue exchange is lovely –

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.
LITEFOOT: When it comes to it, I don’t suppose anybody is.
JAGO: Well, I thought I ought to tell you anyway, in case I let the side down.
LITEFOOT: You won’t, Henry. I know you won’t.

Jago’s cowardice has been evident right from the start, but the fact that he admits it (and Litefoot doesn’t think any less of him because of it) is nicely done.

If the Doctor was rather playful with Greel at Litefoot’s house, then the mood changes once both are back in Greel’s lair.  Once he discovers that the man masquerading as Weng-Chiang is actually Magnus Greel (“the infamous Minister of Justice. The Butcher of Brisbane”) there’s a definite gear-change.

DOCTOR: I know you’re a wanted criminal and that a hundred thousand deaths can be laid at your door.
WENG: Enemies of the state! They were used in the advancements of science.
DOCTOR: They were slaughtered in your filthy machine.
WENG: So, you are from the future, and I, for all my achievements, are only remembered as a war criminal. Of course, it is the winning side that writes history, Doctor. Remember, you would not be here if it were not for my work.

Both Baker and Michael Spice are sparking here. Spice, hidden behind a mask, has been somewhat hampered throughout the story but his skill as a voice actor means that Greel is still a fully-formed character, despite the fact we never (apart from one glimpse) see his features.

The Doctor is locked up with Jago, Litefoot and two young girls, Greel’s latest victims.  That they’re so very young is the sort of plot-point you probably wouldn’t see today (Holmes did have some dialogue explaining that their age – on the point of puberty – was the reason why Greel had abducted them).  Ah, it was a different time back then.

The Doctor might not carry a weapon, but he’s happy to improvise.  His home-made gas bomb is one such example – and the sort of thing that would vanish from the series once Graham Williams took over.

The final battle is a little anti-climactic (and the less about Tom wrestling with an obvious Mr Sin dummy the better) but it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is Who at its best.  It’s a real regret that they don’t make them like this anymore.

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

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Amongst Tom Baker’s many skills as the Doctor was his ability to deal with strangest of dialogue.  The Doctor’s description of Mr Sin is a case in point – in a lesser Doctor’s hands it might have come across as a comic moment,  but there’s no such sense with Baker.  “The Peking Homunculus was a toy, a plaything for the Commissioner’s children. It contained a series of magnetic fields operating on a printed circuit and a small computer. It had one organic component. The cerebral cortex of a pig. Anyway, something went wrong. It almost caused World War Six”.

Now that Greel’s finally obtained the time cabinet he’s rather chuffed (“oh, how I have dreamt of this moment. To be free of this putrefying carcass”) but wouldn’t you believe it, he’s lost the key. All these years when he had the key but not the cabinet and now the position is reversed. You have to feel a little sorry for him, master criminal he is not.

But you have to feel sorrier for the unfortunate Ho, who left the bag containing the key behind at the theatre.  He takes the sting of the scorpion and dies horribly as the chuckling Mr Sin looks on. This is another of those nightmarish moments which many argued crossed the boundaries between children’s and adult’s television (although Holmes’ original draft – Greel takes out a revolver and shoots Ho multiple times – was even more uncompromising).

And finally … Jago and Litefoot meet. It’s easy to see why Robert Holmes briefly considered spinning these characters off into their own series and even easier to understand why the Big Finish series of audio plays has entertained so many. Benjamin and Baxter make for a wonderful team.

Litefoot, like he was with the Doctor, has to play the straight-man somewhat, but he’s more than simply a foil for Jago’s comic bumbling. Their first scene is a treat – Jago mistaking Litefoot for his own butler and then attempting to back out of a nocturnal adventure due to his weak chest!

Chang’s brief reappearance is something of a surprise, but the sight of him – doped up on opium and missing a leg – provides us with clear evidence that he’s not long for this world. Thanks to Bennett as well as Holmes’ script, Chang is much more than a single-minded villain. His wistful regret that he was shortly due to perform before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace (hopefully he would have kept Mr Sin under control) is a nice touch.

Bennett’s casting will always be a bar to some people, but I don’t find the oft-repeated accusation that Talons painted a strong negative portrait of the Chinese to be correct.

Jago and Litefoot may be many things, but they’re no match for Greel and quickly find themselves locked up. Their abortive escape attempt – via the dumb waiter – doesn’t really go anywhere though. Possibly this was a spot of padding from a now desperate and weary Holmes. Benjamin and Baxter still manage to entertain though.

But things pick up with the cliffhanger, as Leela (and the audience) views the unmasked Greel for the first time ….

Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Part Four

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After being largely absent from the previous episode, Henry Gordon Jago comes roaring back in this one.  Once again, Robert Holmes’ skill at creating vivid characters even extends to the ones we never see.  Jago, once more delightfully teamed up with his factotum Casey (dumb and dumber), clearly has little love for his wardrobe mistress.

JAGO: The woman’s a bloodsucker. She’s trying to ruin me.
CASEY: Well she said.
JAGO: Don’t tell me, Casey. I’m an artiste. Every night at this time, I feel like an old warhorse scenting the smoke of the battlefield. As the house fills, the blood starts tingling through my veins. My public is out there waiting for me. I can’t talk about money at a time like this.
CASEY: But you don’t do anything, Mister Jago.
JAGO: I, I announce the acts, I count the tickets, I smile at people. You’ve no idea of the strain it puts on a fellow. Furthermore, she spend seventeen and threepence on the wardrobe last week.

Another lovely scene for Christopher Benjamin and Chris Gannon.

The moment when Jago and Litefoot will meet is coming closer, but for the moment they’re still apart.  The Doctor, having managed to rescue Leela (well, did you really imagine he wouldn’t?) is preparing for a night at the theatre.  Having decided last episode that the best way to locate Greel’s lair would be by the sewers, he’s clearly now knocked this plan on the head.

This is possibly a consequence of the way Robert Holmes had to cobble the scripts together at high speed, but since the Doctor was already aware that Greel’s bolt-hole was somewhere in the theatre, wouldn’t it have been easier just to walk in through the door?  Especially since he knew that large (albeit cuddly) rats were loose in the sewers?  True, he was on hand to rescue Leela, but that wasn’t the intention (just a fortunate coincidence).

Christopher Benjamin sparkles throughout.  His hero-worship of the Doctor, whom he’s convinced is a top private investigator, is delightful.  A decade or so later Holmes would recreate the character in The Two Doctors, as what is Oscar, if not a Jago clone?

One of my favourite Jago moments occurs when he pays a surreptitious visit to the Doctor and Leela’s box.  As an aside, did the Doctor pay for this first-class treatment, did Jago lay it on or did the Doctor just breeze in?  Anyway, Jago crawls into the box on his hands and knees, proud to be standing by the Doctor during his hour of need.  Alas, his pride gets a bit wobbly once the Doctor informs him that he’s quite alone and the theatre isn’t surrounded by a ring of policemen.  Jago’s plaintive “oh corks” as he shuffles out is wonderful.

It’s easy to see how The Good Old Days influenced this part of the story (a reference which wouldn’t have been lost on the contemporary audience and – thanks to the recent repeats – possibly not on a section of today’s viewership).

With Greel having tired of Chang’s bungling, Chang is now on his own.  Some might have attempted to flee, but he carries on his twice-nightly magic act.  What a trouper.  It’s a fascinating touch that Greel doesn’t kill him – instead he sabotages his act (something which no doubt would have hurt him more).

John Bennett’s been excellent throughout, but never better than when a defeated Chang tells the Doctor about how he, just a humble peasant to begin with, helped Greel.  Unless Greel was a student of Chinese folklore (slightly difficult to believe, but not impossible) then possibly Chang was the one who dubbed him Weng-Chiang.  But however it came about, Chang on one level does seem to believe that Greel is a reincarnation of his god.

With Chang defeated, it looks as if the story is coming to an end – but Holmes still has two episodes to fill so from the next episode he’ll spin events off into a different direction ….

Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Part Three

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It’s fair to say that by Talons, Tom Baker’s Doctor has become something of a tyrant. Breezing through the story with an air of disdain, the Doctor might interact with the likes of Leela, Jago and Litefoot, but it’s rare that he ever seems interested in their opinions – this is a Doctor who always knows best.

How much of this was due to the scripting and how much was Tom Baker’s own input is a moot point. His dislike of Leela’s character is well-known (his personal relationship with Louise Jameson was also strained at the time) so it seems possible that some off-screen antipathy was bleeding onto the screen. But since the S14 Doctor is still far less objectionable than the breaktakingly rude Pertwee model from S8 it’s never been too much of an issue for me.

The attack on Litefoot’s house (an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the Time Cabinet) has two consequences – it takes Leela away from the Doctor’s side and puts her on a collision course with Greel as well as teaming the Doctor and Litefoot up as they attempt to locate Greel’s lair.

Since the Doctor’s dressed as Sherlock Holmes, it’s hardly surprising that he’s now been given his Watson subsistute in Litefoot. I surely can’t be the only person to wish that when Tom tackled Sherlock Holmes a few years later in the Classic Serial adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Trevor Baxter had been cast as his Watson.  A missed opportunity alas.

Holmes (Robert, rather than Sherlock) always delighted in expressive language, as can be seen several times across this episode.  The Doctor clearly has a low opinion of Greel and tells Litefoot why.  “Some slavering gangrenous vampire comes out of a sewer and stalks this city at night, he’s a blackguard. I’ve got to find his lair and I haven’t got an hour to lose”.

Many were of the opinion that this era of Who wasn’t really suitable for children and when Chang abducts a prostitute (the latest intended victim for his master) you have to admit that they might have had a point. Once again, Holmes delights in a spot of ripe dialogue as Teresa tells Chang that her plans don’t include him. “As far as I’m concerned all I want is a pair of smoked kippers, a cup of rosie and put me plates up for a few hours”.  Cor blimey guv’nor!

Although David Maloney was always a more than capable director – next to Douglas Camfield, he was probably the series’ best – the fight between Leela and Greel doesn’t quite convince. Possibly the studio clock was ticking, but Louise Jameson rather daintily steps around Greel’s lair (there’s little sense of a savage warrior here).  In story terms, it’s also not quite clear why she heads out into the sewer – true, Greel did have a gun, but Leela’s the type likely to have pressed her attack on regardless.

Ah, the sewers.  That means that giant rat is due to make another appearance.  Poor Leela – reduced to her underwear, soaking wet and gnawed by a rat, so not her best day ever.  And since Louise Jameson was suffering from glandular fever at the time it probably wasn’t one of her favourite days either.

At this point in the series’ history, it’s not a surprise that even the capable warrior Leela needs to be rescued.  The Doctor’s on hand, with a Chinese fowling piece (made in Birmingham), but how good a shot is he?

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

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Although we learnt in episode one that the Tong of the Black Scorpion (“fanatical followers of an ancient Chinese god called Weng-Chiang”) seem to be involved in this devilish business, it now becomes clear that Chang is merely a subordinate character and his master – Weng-Chiang (or at least someone masquerading as him) – is the one directing events.

Weng-Chiang, or Magnus Greel to give him his real name, lives beneath the Palace Theatre.  Why he should do this – unless he’s a devotee of The Phantom of the Opera – is never made clear.  But since Chang is performing at the theatre it makes some sort of sense that Greel is close at hand – especially since Chang has been abducting girls off the street for him.

The science-fiction elements of the story now begin be pulled together as we learn that Greel is a refugee, afraid of the intervention of time-agents.  Why he wants the girls is also explained (“the disease grows worse. Each distillation lasts less than the time before”) and that until he recovers the Time Cabinet he’ll never be whole again.

It’s a remarkable coincidence that the Time Cabinet is in Lifefoot’s possession.  He’s unaware of its significance, regarding it as little more than a Chinese curio, although we’ll learn more about this in episode three.

For those who worry about such things, then the timeline of this story is very odd.  If Litefoot’s had the cabinet for decades, what has Greel been doing all this time?  We see that his body is in collapse, with only the life-essence from young female donors keeping him alive, so how has be survived during this period?  He can’t have been in London for more than a few weeks (based on the number of girls abducted) so are we really supposed to believe he’s only just decided that reclaiming the Time Cabinet might be a good idea?  And since Litefoot’s father was a notable member of the British government in China, surely it wouldn’t have been too difficult to work out that his family was the one gifted the Time Cabinet ….

Episode two sees the Doctor encounter Jago for the first time.  There’s a characteristic gear-change from the Doctor – to begin with he’s jovial – pretending to be a music-hall act ( “dramatic recitations, singing, tap-dancing. I can play the Trumpet Voluntary in a bowl of live goldfish”) – but in a double-heartbeat he turns serious.  As touched upon before, Tom could do this better than anyone and both he and Benjamin make these scenes – largely expository ones – sparkle.

Another signature moment occurs when Leela and Litefoot enjoy a bite to eat, with Leela’s table-manners being somewhat lacking.  Litefoot, the perfect host, elects to copy his guest in order not to make her feel awkward, which gives Trevor Baxter another nice character moment.

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.