Our Doctor Who expert, Tony Cross, is journeying through all of time and space to bring us his thoughts on every available Doctor story. Today is the Fourth Doctor adventure Talons of Weng-Chiang...
Ah, another piece of high quality Hinchcliffe & Holmes Doctor Who has zipped past. As a six part episode its pace is slightly more sedate than usual but it never feels particularly slow.
This is Doctor Who as Sherlock Holmes meets Fu Manchu. It's a homage to both - including casual Victorian racism about 'those devilish' Chinese - set in the foggy East End of London Town. Where old ladies watch the peelers drag rat-nibbled corpses from the Thames & the man with the twisted face lurks amongst the opium dens. Where women are disappearing mysteriously from streets leading to rumours of Jack the Ripper's return & the music hall rules. With its Daisy, Daisy singalongs & preposterous perambulation introducing incredibly inventive acts. It's the Victorian London of a thousand stories: both written & filmed. It's got an atmosphere you could cut with one of Leela's knives.
It also has a thorny issue of the 'Chinese-ing up' of a white British actor (John Bennett) to play Chinese peasant cum oriental magician Li H'sen Chang. Bennett's good, especially in the moment where the Doctor & Leela come upon him dying in the foul rookery that was Weng-Chiang's base. It feels a little uncomfortable to me because I do wonder whether the production team could have looked a little harder to find a Chinese actor capable of playing the part. This is 1977 we're talking about. However I may be over-reacting to something. It doesn't affect my enjoyment of the story much but I would love to know how a Chinese person watching this would feel.
As I said Bennett does do a good job & he's not the only one. There's a fine pair of perfect performances from Christopher Benjamin as Henry Gordon Jago & Trevor Baxtor as Professor Litefoot. Jago is the owner of the theatre & fond of elongated words with a tendency to mild cowardice. Litefoot is a pathologist with a thick skull, some experience of China & a bit more bravery than Jago. Kept separate until Episode Five they make a fine couple. So fine that Big Finish have done two series of adventures for one of Doctor Who’s most three dimensional character pairs given life through the excellent writing of Robert Holmes.
Holmes is often talked about the best writer of Doctor Who & with something like Talons you can see why. There's a decent plot, a dash of technobabble & futurebabble, wit & intelligence. There's quotable lines. It has nutrition for the mind so what's not to like.
The main villain of the piece is Magnus Greel, a time-travelling war criminal from the 51st century with a skin problem & a Peking Homunculus for company. Greel is played by Michael Spice (last heard of as the voice of Morbius in Brain of Morbius) & is one of those Doctor Who villains driven to the edge by their situation. He stays just the right side of hamminess except one or two scenes of unnecessarily manic 'bad guy' laughter.
The Peking Homunculus (Deep Roy) is first introduced to us as Li H'sen Chang's ventriloquists dummy.
There's something creepy about vent's dummy’s full stop. Just see either 'Dead of Night' (a brilliant piece of portmanteau British horror from the 1940s) or 'Magic' starring Antony Hopkins to prove my point. When the vent's dummy turns out to be a homicidal robot with the cerebral cortex of a pig that makes it even more horrible.
Tom Baker is again great in this being enough of a Sherlock Holmes to convince someone to let him have a shot at playing the part in a television adaptation, which did not go well. Tom's a wonderful Doctor Who but a little chaotic to be Holmes I think.
Louise Jameson also does another lovely job as Leela as she is dropped into a world she doesn't understand. She's a sf Eliza Doolittle & she gets some great comedy scenes with Litefoot, including a lovely little moment at the end involving a discussion about how many sugars a lady should have in her tea. She also gets some proper action sequences. She also gets chased by a giant rat in her underclothes.
Ah...now I have mentioned them let me just say that yes, the giant rats are not the most convincing of monstrous creations but director David Maloney generally does a good job of hiding the worst of their 'men in suitness', although not totally.
We'll gloss over those damn rats though as a minor quibble in a story with many exceptional qualities & well worth a watch if & when you get the chance.
Tony Cross is the creator of the wonderful Centurion Blog's found HERE and HERE.
Image – BBC.