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.