Eye of Heaven
Last Man Running
The Shadow of Weng-Chiang
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
|Dates||Feb. 26, 1977-
Apr. 2, 1977
With Tom Baker, Louise Jameson.
Written and script-edited by Robert Holmes
(based on an idea by Robert Banks Stewart).
Directed by David Maloney. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe.
|Synopsis: A Chinese magician in Victorian England searches alongside a living, killer mannequin for the lost time machine of his master, the god Weng-Chiang.|
A Review by Carl Malmstrom 1/3/97
The Talons of Weng-Chiang is, personally, my favorite Doctor Who story. It finds the perfect blend of everything. The scenery is believable without being overdone: it's nice, simple, and accurate. The Doctor is at his best, both in his Holmesian garb and his witty lines. Leela and Professor Litefoot are both charming as his companions, and Magnus Greel is a truly evil villian. Even the old 'its-large-becuase-its-near-the-camera' monster, this time a rat, is a charming bit of kitsch in this story. I find very little at fault with this story becuase there is very little fault to find: the actors are excellent, the sceneery, for once, is good, and the viilians are believable. All in all, the story is a triumph.
Dark, Oriental Madness by Therese Drippe 30/3/99
The TARDIS materializes in a dark, foggy London street. The Doctor and Leela climb out, Leela dressed in a ridiculous, rather inaccurate "Victorian" outfit. Not that you can see very well at this point, since it's just plain too dark. Some dark thugs creep out of the darkness, and Leela fights them off. Or at least it would seem that way, but it's rather dark. The thugs run off into the darkness, and the adventure really gets going, albeit mainly in the dark.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang is generally considered a Doctor Who classic. But one can't help feeling that classic status is given on an "It reminds us of classic English literature" basis. The plot moves along at a moderately exciting pace, though it takes a while to bring you to an edge-of-your-seat level. The characters are all interesting, and the villains are lovely. I disagree with Carl, however, in that I find a dwarf creature who goes mad and starts oinking, a little hard to take. I don't think you could quite class these villains as "believable". Still that does not at all lesson one's enjoyment of them.
All scenes between Leela and the kindly old gent, Professor Litefoot, are a delight as she adjusts to Victorian manners. Indeed this theme reoccurs occasionally throughout the remainder of the story, with the Doctor explaining the concept of "how to take tea" as they enter the TARDIS to leave. Tom Baker, in deerstalker hat and with a beautiful, versatile walking stick, is utterly charming. My favorite shot is when he rests his chin on the top of his stick and grins at Leela and Professor Litefoot as they discuss the methods of stabbing.
And, of course, to top it off we have a series of females being kidnapped, mindless henchman (martial artists, this time), the mad Magnus Greel, and the joys of giant rats. I personally found the rats downright cute, and not overly terrifying, but I suppose if I actually met one...
Sadly, the main flaw in Talons of Weng-Chiang is the darkness. It is downright "Crow-esque", in the number of wet, black streets, dark black basements, dark sidewalks and dark hideouts for villains. I realize that it's a budget saving device, but it does strain the eyes. This is one you can only watch at night, with all other lights out. If it had a few more well-lit scenes mingled with the dark, it would have been more truly a classic. 8/10
Classic? by Usman Oyibo 29/9/99
I always liked Doctor Who especially in the 70's. Like in any good television show that are the classics, and the stories we rather not mention. In Doctor Who stories we like to think of classic are stories like, Pyramid of Mars, The Ark in Space, Inferno, City of Death, Genesis of the Daleks, Caves of Androzani, and The Deadly Assassin come to mind. I have seen other reviews of Talons of Weng-Chiang on this site and after several watchings i have come to the conclusion that this story doesn't compare to any of the classics I mentioned above. Here are the reasons why i don't believe it is a classic.
Basically my first problem is with the villians. I keep hearing about the great villians in this story, and after watching it i can't say that they were any. First let's start with Magnus Greel: What made him a great villian? I mean he didn't say or do anything that made him frightening. he wasn't as diabolical as the Master in The Deadly Assasin, or as sinister as Sutekh in Pyramid of Mars. To me he seemed like a idiot who just happened to have other idiots (Chang and the rest of his Tong friends) eager to help him. This brings me to Chang himself. The problem I see with Chang is he had a lot of potential but wasn't used in the right way. The Tong aren't very interesting themselves, and are just used as henchmen. Mr. Sin like Chang, had potential but wasn't used in the right way. The scene in the very first episode where Sin comes out of the shadows to kill Buller was very effective, but the later scene like when he "marched" slowly at leela with a dagger in hand, in the first attempt to take back the time cabinet, wasn't as effective. The scene when Greel "forces" one of the Tong members, who had failed him in bringing the bag with the key to the time cabinet, to shallow a poison tablet, Sins' stupid laughter was annoying, and I'm not going to comment on the scene where Tom Baker is wrestling with a 'doll' version of Sin in the last episode.
The next problem in this story was the loose ends. I don't expect every story to explain everything, but their are too many things in this story that had little or no explain what so ever. These things were:
How did Greel give Chang the power to hypnotize, and read other people minds? This was supposed to be a main part of the story, and not once was this explained.
Did Greel have these powers? I mean if he supposedly found a way of doing this, and give them to Chang, couldn't he have given himself these powers?
Why didn't Chang use his powers on Buller to make him forget about his wife? That would have been more effective, and intelligent than sending Sin to kill him only to have the police discover the body in the water. If Chang had any brains at all he should have been more careful.
Why didn't Chang used his powers more effectively? Chang would have been a more effective villian if instead of just hypnotizing women to feed to Greel, he had hypnotized Litefoot and Leela into helping him to get the time cabinet. That seems to be more effective, and intelligent that the way they broke into Litefoot house. This just strikes me as villian stupidity. After all Chang he could read every ones mind except the Doctor, and he did hypnotize jago into forgetting that Buller came looking for his wife, so why didn't he use that ability when he went to Litefoot house?
How and where did Greel get his equipment from? My guess is that he send Chang to steal it for him or to hypnotize someone into giving it to him. (judging from previous information the first choice seems more likely) But how did get the laser gun, the dragon with the laser eyes, or the organic distillation machine? It doesn't seem likely that he would have be able to produce any of these things in the 19th century, and unless he manage to get these things out of the time cabinet before it was confiscated (which also doesn't seem likely). I don't see how he was able to get these things.
If Greel was so desperate for life force why did he only use women? Not once in this was there given a scientific explaination for why Greel only fed off of women's life forces. Plus in the scene where he takes Leela to the place of one of the hypnotized girl Chang's brought, Greel examins them and complains that Leela has muscle like a horse, supposedly indicating that Leela was strong. The point I'm trying to make is again why was he so picky in his health situation?
What about the rats that are still in the sewers? The Doctor only killed one of them. I mean these rodents can present major problems if they aren't sterile and have the ability to mate and multiply.
Again for the following reasons mention above I don't believe this story should be labelled a classic but if you are looking for a classic story I suggest any of the stories I've listed above in the first paragraph.
A Review by Michael Hickerson 9/11/99
Whenever a fan poll of the greatest Doctor Who stories comes out, it seems as if the Talons of Weng-Chiang always seems to end up closer and closer to the top of the list. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why...
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about Talons. But when compared to such classic stories as Pyramids of Mars or Genesis of the Daleks, it pales by comparison.
Talons is good, but it's not great.
As the coda to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes years, it certainly tries to incorporate the best elements of the era into a blend of sci-fi/horror. At points, it works--Greel is certainly interesting enough of a villain early on in the story as is Mr. Sin. Indeed, if you overlook the obviously fake rat that serves as the lynchpin for not one but two cliffhangers and you've got some fairly good production values evident. Add to it the clever and witty give and take between the Doctor and Leela (who comes off better here than in some other later stories such as The Invisible Enemy). Leela gets some interesting character moments--we see her as more than just an instinctive savage but as an integral part of team--the instinct and strength to the Doctor's wit and intelligence. She also proves resourceful at times--switching places with the girl to find out where Greel is hiding is one of the better moments.
However, there are a lot of elements that work against the story.
The driving force of the narrative is that Greel wants the time cabinet back. He spends the first four episodes with the key but no cabinet and then the last two with the cabinet but no key. At times, the lengths taken to keep the tension in the story going are a bit too hard to take. The idea that Greel obtains the cabinet but forgets the key is laughable based on how obsessed he is to get back inside the cabinet. Of course, if he gets the key back too early, he escapes and the story ends...
And for a Robert Holmes story, the pacing is a bit off. The story meanders for five episodes before kicking things into gear for the final one. We find out that Mr. Sin is part pig, who Greel is and what he plans to do and get a huge amount of technobabble in the final episode. With a six part story, this is a bad idea--especially as Holmes is usually the master of pacing and reveletions.
So, while Talons is an interesting story, it's not the classic that everyone makes it out to be. Certainly it's worth viewing and its not as bad as Invisible Enemy or Underworld.
But it's certainly not a classic...
A Keeper by Nate Gundy 25/1/01
Man oh man do I like this one. First of all, it's classic Hinchcliffe, and yet it ain't. It's gothic and dark and bloody-minded, and yet the main baddie, Magnus Greel, is really a Williams-era baddie in Hinchcliffe threads. He's not an all killing, all powerful, nihilistic Sutekh. He's a egomaniacal loser who thinks he's more important than anyone else. Of course this is Hinchcliff so he at least has to be deformed and decaying and thought to be a god.
Then there's Li H'sen Chang, the ultimate small-time loser. You know, the toady who gets seduced by the glamour of the big-time loser. The Goths and the Countess Scarlionis of the world. That little snot who was always beside the bully in your elementary school. Chang is a wonderfully tragic figure, born a nobody who's given the opportunity to be a somebody. Turns out he's good at it, and he doesn't forget who made him what he is. The fact that it takes him so long to accept that Greel has dumped him is one of the great characterization pieces of story. Let's here it for the small-time loser.
Of course we can't forget Lightfoot and Jago. Brilliant characterizations and spendid chaps both. You can't help but love Henry Gordon Jago. What a great name. What a great guy. Sure, he's pompous -- but in a cuddly and good-natured way. And when he admits to Lightfoot that he's not terribly brave when it comes down to it, you can't think of a more adorable idiot...with an amusing affinity for alliteration. And Professor Lightfoot, the ultimate gentleman who would have made a great companion had the producers been willing to accept someone over-forty in that capacity. Already a man of science, it would be great to see him adapt to the wonders of the Whoniverse. And I don't think his chemistry with the Doctor and Leela would tire that quickly either.
Ah, the Doctor and Leela. A wonderful pair. She really brings out the best in him. Because her presence proves him not to be as patronizing as all that. Affectionate, yes, but not patronizing. Damn I love this story. So yeah, it's a little long, so yeah there's no reason given for Greel needing only girls (other than it gives you that Jack the Ripper feel), so yeah it's darkly-lit. It's still one of the best acted, best directed, best written Who stories I've ever seen. Hope that counts for something.
Oh, and Casey's great too.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 24/3/01
This is a true classic story of Doctor Who. The programme was at its peak during this time. Hinchcliffe had successfully adapted many of the great stories to fit the DW format, this was his swansong. It is equally derivative of classic literature as much of his tenure - yet they were brilliant stories, and deserved the DW treatment. Too many people have agreed that the Hinchcliffe years are the best, for it not to be so.
The 3 greatest elements of successful Who are as follows (in no particular order:- 1. Characterization 2. Atmosphere 3. Story. Talons, like so many of this era, gets top marks in all these departments. It ably fits into its extended format - with absolutely no padding whatsoever.
In characterization it excels. The Doctor is wonderful, draped in a Holmesian outfit (clearly a nod as to where this story is inspired from), he roams London's foggy streets exuding authority and humour. Leela proves just what a marvelous character she is - the manners and savagery of the late 19th Century showing through her eyes. Of the others Litefoot and Jago are the standouts. Brilliantly brought to life by both the actors and Robert Holmes dialogue - they are amongst the best Supporting characters DW has produced.
The atmosphere of the story is pure Conan-Doyle, with touches of Fu Manchu and Phantom of the opera thrown in. The BBC excel in depicting such a stage, the story is marvelously brought to life. Much credit to the creative staff for this.
The story is top notch. Robert Holmes wrote some classic DW stories. This is the best of the lot. He successfully welds together all the above inspirations with the magic of Who. He creates a very good villain in Magnus Greel, and combines the old (19th Century legends) with the new (bold Sci-Fi ideas).
Doctor Who was totally unmissable in those days, as the Doctor took you fantasy lands, that fuelled the imagination unlike any other show. This brought that era to an end in a glorious fashion. Classic. 10/10.
That's better but it needs work by Mike Jenkins 27/12/01
While people have a good mind to call this a classic, I call it good but it does fall a bit flat to its own imagery. True there are some great lines but they are spread across padding and spooky atmosphere and while I love spooky atmosphere, it's a bit overkill in this one. This is due exclusively to the fact that this story, like so many before it, has no busisness being six parts. Congrats, my dear Holmes! Now you're writing padded six parters! You'd think with a name like Holmes and a reputation such as he has that he could carry it off better then a 7/10 but unfortunately he doesn't.
Casey and the other bloke are weak, both in characterization and in
acting. The Chinese are cliched in an almost racist way, but well acted
nonetheless, such is the main villan. Tom and Leela are great as usual,
and their interplay with the old man is nicely handled, but even with all
these elements, the simplicity of the story would not allow it to be
carried as long as it was. The puppets and the giant rats are both comical
and whether or not this is intentional is unimportant. The sewer layer is
diabolical; I just wish we got to see more of it. Enjoyable but Holmes is
withering. Could've been better.
This is one of those classics that you forget about and then usually end up falling in love with. The incidental characters reflect the obvious atmosphere of the story. The gritty material and interesting plot twist help retain interest over its 6 part length. Leela develops as a character, there's lots of laughs, plenty of gimmicks and the Doctor confronts a long lost arch enemy. I remember when I was young (when I was first introduced to the show) that Tom Baker was indeed my favorite and it had a great deal to do with stories like this. For me at that point, atmosphere was just as (probably more) important than script. And while this story has plenty of atmosphere, the story is a remarkable blend of Sherlock Holmes and Science Fiction. As I got older and discovered the other Doctors, it wasn't until years later that Tom Baker again took his rightful place at the top of 'The List'. I think re-watching this story definitely had something to do with that.
A Dashed Queer Story by Andrew Wixon 24/2/02
Every half-decent production team takes the opportunity, at some point in its tenure, to make the story that they think epitomises great Doctor Who, that encapsulates everything they think the show should be about. For the Letts/Dicks team it was The Daemons (also, arguably, Planet of the Spiders). JNT and Chris Bidmead gave us Logopolis. And for Hinchcliffe and Holmes the magnum opus is this story, The Talons of Weng Chiang.
No other production team would have had the guts to make this story, no other writer could have written it. No previous team, for example, would have had the nerve to make such an adult-oriented tale, and no future team would have been allowed to. This is not children's TV, less so even than the other Season 14 stories. There are blatant references to the smoking of opium, implied ones to prostitution, an unflinching treatment of violence and gore (let's not forget that this story had to be heavily re-edited to avoid a 15 certificate on its initial video release). And no-one else but Robert Holmes would have been able to create such a memorable script, which simultaneously manages to pastiche Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, the Phantom of the Opera and the legend of Jack the Ripper. It's a packed confection and Holmes clearly revels in it and in two of his greatest creations, Jago and Litefoot.
And, furthermore, this is a classic Doctor Who story because it's a story only our show could tell. Robots of Death could have been rewritten as a standalone SF play or serial, for example, but Talons is the result of diverse narrative and visual styles being worked together with the DW format as a catalyst. The Time Cabinet and the homunculus are from a pure SF tradition, but the costuming and sets are from a BBC costume drama. The pulp depravity of Greel and his monstrous pets come from yet another source, as does the larger-than-life characterisation of Jago.
It's such a potent, heady, wonderful mixture that you overlook the flaws in the story: the racist overtones (in a lot of ways this story prefigures Steve Coogan's Frenzy of Tongs spoof), the very contrived way that Greel conveniently forgets to take the Time Key with him to the House of the Dragon, and the unforgivable way that Chang is written out an episode and a half before the end of the story. Minor blemishes. This may not be the single best Doctor Who story of all time - but there are none better.
A Review by Rob Matthews 11/4/02
By no means overrated, Talons of Weng Chiang is nevertheless not one of my absolute favourite Doctor Who stories.
Oh yeah, granted it represents the show at its best in terms of scripting, direction and performances, and it is the kind of thing you might show to a non-fan to demonstrate a high-quality Who production (though if I were you I'd edit out the rat as best you can!). But it's not a cohesive story the way the same season's Deadly Assassin or Robots of Death were.
Basically it has a good if not groundbreaking plot surrounded by a lot of padding. And some of that padding actually contradicts the basic plot. But its really the padding that people like. No reason why they shouldn't, but that is the case. This story's appeal is in its scripting, its set pieces, its gothic horror effects and its healthy dose of ruddy comedy rather than its plot. The illusionist who really does have evil powers, the genuinely frightening killer mannequin, the Chinese Triad, the deformed Phantom of the Opera-style villain, Leela let loose in Victorian society, and of course Litefoot and Jago, all good stuff. In terms of rich vocabulary it's an archetypal Robert Holmes script, heaving with delicious nomenclatures and verbiage: 'Weng-Chiang', 'Henry Gordon Jago', 'Magnus Greel', 'A Peking homunculus with the cerebral cortex of a pig'. In terms of style, It's a blend of Hammer horror, Sherlock Holmes and Jack-the-Ripper lore - though at least two of these elements are contentious. I'm not convinced that it's like Sherlock Holmes simply because the Doctor wears a deerstalker, and neither am I convinced that a story is good simply because it reminds us of a series of horrible murders.
Anyway, I've got my own take on this thing. Just one point first -
I think, given that this was a kid's show, that more effort should have been made to point out that Chinese people aren't actually evil! Chang's death has pathos, but kids don't get pathos. What this story needed was an Asian good guy. However, that was only a problem at the time of broadcast, and needn't concern us now.
I've thought a lot recently about this script, and about Robert Holmes' work for the series in general, and in trying to define his approach I tend to come up with words like these; fleshy, hungry, meaty, mortal, greedy, conspiratorial, selfish. He both celebrates and condemns his avaricious and rapacious characters, from loveable scamps like Jago to loveable conmen like Garron and Unstoffe, from loveable murderers(!) like Glitz and Dibber to comedy-horror cannibals like Shockeye.They're all out for themselves, whether to line their wallets or fill their stomachs. He thinks in terms of ripeness and rottenness too - the 'comely' Sharaz Jek who's flesh has melted from the bones, the Master who has decayed into a living cadaver, the Timelords who are 'rotten to the core'. And the converse - Peri, whose beauty Jek must have in Androzani, Peri who's 'in her prime and ripe for the knife' in The Two Doctors, Jamie who's the youngest and meatiest of the 'jacks'... Few Doctor Who stories communicate a worldview beyond the moral, and one of the most striking things about the character of the Doctor is that he's free of most of the things that drive us, like sexuality, fear of death, the need for money. But Holmes' scripts are based around all of these things. And none more so than Talons of Weng Chiang. The story's worldview is centred on our animal nature, on ripeness and appetites.
Talons is not really about a war criminal from the future. I suspect - though I may be wrong - that the story was worked out backwards and that the impetus was to do a Doctor Who variation on the Jack the Ripper myth; one where the murderer turns out to be something Doctor Who-ey, like an alien or time traveller; the details could basically be worked out as an afterthought. This is a story about a murderer, a murderer who needs to kill in order to stay alive, but - and fans often avoid this point or shrug it off as 'Ripperesque' -, he is also very definitely a sexually-motivated murderer.
Greel needs human 'life essences' to stay alive, but if he were killing only for survival he wouldn't restrict himself only to the quasi-whores of the story. Greel chooses his victims, he wants them to be young women, and though he protests that this is because 'the slatterns will never be missed', he clearly wants them to be young women who he fancies - Why else would he complain about Leela having 'muscles like a horse'? If anything, you'd think her strength would make her a more suitable 'life donor'. No, he complains because she's too butch for his tastes. It's as explicit a revelation of his nature as the timeslot would allow, but its definitely there and it's uncomfortable. As it should be.
Does anyone know Alfred Hitchcock's film Frenzy? I'm a big Hitchcock fan but it's the one film in his canon that I find utterly repellent. That too is about a Ripper-style murderer, and features a similar analogy between food and human flesh, hunger and desire. In Weng-Chiang the fate of all ripe matter, decay and rottenness, is always in sight. The analogy runs right through the story: the grotesque old woman by the riverside comments that she wouldn't like to have that (the corpse) served up with onions; Chang announces as he drags the two women away from the theatre that 'My master must feed'; the victims are effectively 'juiced' until they're 'dry as old leaves'; Chang is kept in a rat's 'larder' full of rotten flesh; Litefoot and Jago are referred to by Greel as 'stinking heaps of rubbish'; Greel is the 'Butcher of Brisbane', and everyone has a muffin at the end, almost as the story's dessert. The scenes involving Leela tucking into Litefoot's cold meat supper and being offered an orange by the Doctor as a reward for good behaviour also draw our attention to the subject of appetite. Okay, the fact that people eat food isn't exactly a revelation, but bear in mind a scriptwriter isn't obliged to make any mention of such things, any more than he's obliged to put in scenes where, say, Jago leaves the room to go for a poo, or Sarah Jane has trouble running away from a Cyberman because of menstrual cramps. And the final scene, where Litefoot teaches Leela about how a lady should take her tea, works as a very subtle thematic wrap-up - tea's a legal and therefore socially acceptable narcotic, as opposed to the opium the Scorpion mob are addicted to. 'A lady should take only one lump of sugar' because civilisation is based on individual restraint.
So the victims in this story are analogous to meat or fruit being turned prematurely rotten. In fact, it's not even an analogy. They are meat. And this story remind me of that ugly fact in a rather queasy way - in fact in much the same way as Holmes' more explicit 'human meat' story The Two Doctors, which I similarly admire on one level despite that churning feeling in my stomach.
I should hastily point out here that Holmes' writing is very much on the side of the human spirit - witness his lovely scene where Jago admits to Litefoot that he's not all that brave when it comes down to it - plus the wonderful scenes between Leela and Litefoot, where he shows himself to be a true gentlemen (as opposed to the hypocritical Victorian type) by eating his meat the same way as she does rather than risk embarrassing her. But the underlying tension in this script is between mind and matter, between you and what you're made out of. While Holmes revels in the delights of the former - his adoration of language, his celebration of friendship and companionship and conniving -, he revels equally in the inarguable reality of the latter. If you'll forgive the half-arsed metaphor, Holmes' characters shine brighter because of the black canvas they're painted on.
So Talons of Weng Chiang is great TV because of the rich scripting, the performances and atmosphere. And it's exceptional Doctor Who because it has a clear sense of worldview and of the human condition. But it's uncomfortable too, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I'd recommend it with that one qualification.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 22/6/02
Talons is one of the stories that struck me as special the first time I saw it in movie format on my local PBS station back in the 1980s. At this point, Tom Baker was the only Doctor I knew, and Leela was my favorite companion. Toss in a Jack the Ripper pastiche, a magician and dangerous time travel experiments, and I was hooked.
Move forward to 2002, and Talons still hold up extremely well. Robert Holmes, from an idea by Robert Banks Stewart, comes up with a great, atmospheric story for the Doctor/Leela Team that was hitting its stride at this point.
The story, although straightforward, has enough turns and twists in the plot to keep things moving. It starts off as a ghoulish murder mystery, with the Doctor in full Sherlock Holmes mode. As the sci-fi elements move into the story, it never loses sight of its setting, or the way people from Victorian London act.
In my most recent viewing, the scene with the cabbie confronting Li H'sen Chang about his missing wife really stood out, showing Holmes's gift for dialogue. The other great touch was having Henry Gordon Jago keep his alliterative speaking style, even when off the stage. Mr. Sin was an interesting creation, a savage killer in a small package. And, even though Greel was a maniac, he did have interesting motivations for his actions, dubious might they be. Li H'sen Chang was the story's tragic figure, the front figure doing horrible things out of faith and duty to his "god", Weng Chiang.
The whole cast, regulars and guests, are on top form. Tom Baker and Louise Jameson make a great team in this story. Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin shine in their respective roles of Litefoot and Jago.
As a story on its own, and as a culmination to the brilliant season 14 (Best Who Season by far), The Talons of Weng Chiang is another example of what makes great Doctor Who.
'Classic'... is it or isn't it? by Jonathan Martin 16/8/02
There's been a fair bit of chatter on this, one of the 'Big' titles in Doctor Who, but there seems to be a lot of contention upon whether we should be calling this a 'classic' or not...
What is a classic? Not a particularly original question. What sort of criteria might a story have to meet to obtain this prestigious title?
Does it have to have an engaging storyline, even-paced, and ties up every loose end? Hmm... As Usman Oyibo and other reviewers have pointed out, Talons is hardly watertight in the plot department, but most find it engaging.
Does a story need to have the main cast on top of their form, and the guest cast at the same level? (Provide examples): No worries here: Tom's at his very best, love his reaction when that chinaman takes the scorpion venom at the police station and he thinks it's one of Chang's tricks. Leela is also put to good use and Louise Jameson rises to the occasion particularly with those wonderful scenes with Litefoot at dinnertime. As other reviewers have mentioned, he and Jago are a delight to behold.
Does it have to have 'Great' villains? Well, Usman believes that a villain needs to be frightening, to be great; I disagree. Greel is wonderful, with his rotting body and miss-placed pride in his crappy experiment. He is truly pathetic, and Robert Holmes is keen to enhance this impression with Magnus' fussing over whether he has the 'perfect' girl to make up his life juice, and his referring to everyone around him, particularly the Chinese, as filthy and such when he's not exactly the prettiest and most hygienic fellow himself. I love that line where he screams, "bring the other two hags here!" It's just great. The chap playing Chang has been praised over the years, and he's certainly a unique and interesting (misguided, but aren't they all) villain, and is our little piggy friend Mr Sin.
And do the special effects and monsters have to be top class? Well obviously not, this is Doctor Who we're talking about, but I can't understand the confidence the production seem to have the in that silly 'giant' rat, the director lingers on it "gobbling" up that meat about 99.5% longer then he should have.
Rob Matthews gave us a typically insightful review (it reminds me so much of a yr. 12 literature exam), and his talk of an analogy of food is intriguing and no doubt valid, Jago's line about it being "no time to think about food" is another example worth noting.
But he is one of the few reviewers not preoccupied with this "classic" problem. Do I think it's a classic? Well, I don't really care; I don't think it's all that important, but if I had to define classic I'd say this (wait for it...):
A story may be considered a Classic whether it has more padding then Paddington Bear, crappier monsters then um... giant rats... as dark as the soul of any chinaman (yes Talons is sure racist!), as long as lots and lots of people bloody well like it, and this story certainly qualifies, and so this is a CLASSIC!!!
How Talons Converted Gilbert by Nick Needham 19/8/02
There are two Dr Who stories which, in my experience, are guaranteed to win over non-fan sceptics. One is The Seeds of Doom. The other is The Talons of Weng-Chiang. That’s a good introduction to either: but from here on, I’m talking about Talons.
My most colourfully vivid example of this win-the-sceptic experience came back in the late 1980s. The sceptic in question was my aloof, scornful, ultra-logical friend Gilbert, whose contempt for televisual fiction in general, and Dr Who in particular, was almost infinite. I’m sure he believed there was something puzzlingly retarded about myself and my other friend Iain on account of our uninhibited enjoyment of (most!) Dr Who. As fate or providence would have it, all three of us were staying for a few years in the same accommodation; and of course, Gilbert became bored, and succumbed to joining Iain and myself in watching some Dr Who. My memory is not 100% certain but I’m fairly sure that Gilbert’s baptism of fire was Talons. He must have expected something childish, ludicrous, and pathetic, to judge by his previous attitude and comments. However, Talons defied all his preconceptions, and by the time we were in episode 5 he had been completely entranced, and was laughing in the right places with the rest of us.
Thereafter, Gilbert would refer to Talons as "the Chinese one", and would even demand, "Do you have any other stories like the Chinese one? The Chinese one was brilliant." I can’t analyse what he found to be brilliant in it (although he did seem very struck by the mytho-Victorian ethos and the Jago-Litefoot characters). But I know I’ve always been very warmly disposed towards Talons, not necessarily for its capacity to convert sceptics like Gilbert, but for its richness of atmosphere, its fine gallery of adventure-book characters (Chang, Jago, Casey, Litefoot, Mr Sin, Magnus Greel, plus a rather wonderful rendering of Leela), its pacey dialogue, its sure-footed synthesis of science fiction with Fu Manchu, Kung Fu, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, and Phantom of the Opera, and its startling and perhaps unique double recasting of the villain (Chang at first seems the bad guy; then it’s revealed he’s serving someone far more revolting, Magnus Greel; and finally even Greel is shown to be ultimately under the thumb of Mr Sin). And what other Dr Who adventure has portrayed a villain’s death so sympathetically and humanely as that of Chang in episode 5 of Talons? The scene does nothing to advance the plot; it is there merely to bring the personal story of Chang to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. It never fails to move me.
I may be in a lonely minority, but I don’t even think the rat is that bad.
Talons wouldn’t be my absolute desert-island Tom Baker story (that honour must fall to Genesis Of The Daleks), but it would run a close joint second along with Seeds Of Doom. Come to think of it, all Tom Baker’s Hinchcliffe six-parters were corkers. And for sheer redolence of larger-than-life humanity, Talons is in my book the best of the three.
A blatant rip-off done well by Tim Roll-Pickering 23/9/02
There's little attempt to even disguise the roots of this story as a pastiche of the popular image of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu stories, combined with the by-now repetitive crippled villain that seeks to become whole again through manipulating others. There are numerous visual references to these sources, most obviously the Doctor's costume and deer stalker that evoke the traditional (albeit inaccurate) image of Sherlock Holmes or Professor Litefoot being the spitting image of many a screen portrayal of Dr. Watson. Even Jago's description of the Doctor as a detective called in by Scotland Yard to sort out their most difficult crimes, after which they then take all the credit, is spot on about Holmes. The 'yellow peril' Fu Manchu elements are less well known but they provide for an interesting contrast with the traditional Victorian London setting. It's amazing that Victorian Britain had previously only been seen in The Evil of the Daleks, given how dominant the literature of the period is in popular culture. Nevertheless it provides for an impressive backdrop to the events of this tale, showing both the poverty of the Victorian East End as well as Litefoot's more upmkarket house. There are few punches spared for a series going out in the early evening and we get to see prostitutes, opium taking and a man getting his leg bitten off. This is a clear step away from the romantic vision of Victorian London that has been pushed by some.
By now the cliché of a villain who has been crippled as a consequence of his own ambition and who is now seeking to restore himself to his full form so that he can once more seek power is getting exceptionally repetitive. Even the variant of Magnus Greel requiring the life force of young girls in order to replenish himself is not sufficient to disguise this, though it does make for a noticeably downbeat element in the story. Michael Spice's performance as Weng-Chiang/Greel is at best average, with the mask proving extremely limiting for the actor and he is easily overshadowed by John Bennett as Li H'Sen Chang. That Bennett is not even Chinese but instead an actor wearing make-up is not at all apparent (and would be utterly unacceptable on television today) and his performance is one of the highlights of the story.
Of the rest of the cast the main honours go to Christopher Benjamin as Jago and Trevor Baxter as Litefoot. Both admirably complement the Doctor through a number of bizarre situations, most notably the scene where Litefoot and Leela are having dinner and the latter shows her complete ignorance of etiquette.
Productionwise this story has some excellent values that are not far off the BCC period dramas from the same time. Few parts disappoint, though it is obvious that Mr Sin is an actor in a suit. But it is the script that is the story's strongest point, packed with many wonderful lines such as the Doctor's '"Eureka" is Greek for "this bath is too hot"'. Jago's lines in particular are wonderful in showing his degree of pomposity and the result is a story full of delights. As producer Philip Hinchcliffe's final story The Talons of Weng-Chiang sums up many of the best elements of the past three years, most obviously the strong script, good production values and co-ordination of production, that produced a strong run of good stories. It is a good story to finish with. 9/10
All Good Things... by J. Paul Halt 27/3/03
All good things must come to an end, or so the cliche goes. The Talons of Weng-Chiang marks not one, but two endings. It is the end of the superlative Season 14, of course; but it also, and far more critically, marks the end of the popular Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of Doctor Who.
For his final story as producer, Philip Hinchcliffe called on his best writer -- story editor Robert Holmes -- and his best director -- David Maloney -- who had also collaborated to superb effect in The Deadly Assassin. But this time, Holmes and Maloney were not breaking formulas. This time, they were using them. The resulting story encapsulates everything that made the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era what it was.
Tom Baker is in absolutely flawless form in this story. From the moment he steps out of the TARDIS in Episode One to the moment he returns to it at the end of Episode Six, he gives nothing but his best to every scene.
It probably helps that the setting is so perfectly suited to his Doctor. Caught in the midst of a deadly mystery centered around a theatre in Victorian London, Baker's Doctor gets the chance to play Sherlock Holmes against a beautifully-realized backdrop that borrows elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Fu Manchu, and blends them into something distinctly Doctor Who.
The period production is exceptional. The atmosphere is so lustrously rich and thick, when you inhale you can almost smell the streets of Victorian London. As with the best stories, it's the details that really sell it. The rough, Cockney accents, consistent among all the characters living or working around the theatre. The filthy old hag, cackling in grotesque glee as she shows the police the body floating in the Thames. The casual racism the police and even the likeable coroner, Dr. Lightfoot, display toward the Chinese throughout the serial. Some of it may have drawn ire from critics of its day, but it all adds up to a feeling of authenticity. From the characters' clothes, to their attitudes, to their speech and their slang, there is nothing that ever peeks through to make us question that we are watching real people, in the London of that age.
Nor do the guest performances let the production down. Much has been written of the scheming, cowardly, yet oddly amiable Henry Jago (brought deftly to life by Christopher Benjamin). And Trevor Baxter's Lightfoot makes almost as enjoyable a Henry Higgins to Leela's Eliza Doolittle as he does a Watson to Tom Baker's Holmes.
But most memorable of all is John Bennett, who is purely magnificent as the silkily sinister Li H'sen Chang. Bennett is riveting every instant he is on screen, whether he is performing his (convincingly spellbinding) magic act on stage, or whether he is smoking an opium pipe on his deathbed while railing against the betrayals that led him there. Sinister, despicable, and ultimately tragic, Bennett's Chang is one of the genuinely great one-off villains of the entire series.
So magnificent is Bennet's Chang, in fact, that it is a shame Chang is not the principle villain of this particular piece. Talons of Weng-Chiang is indeed a summing-up of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, the bad as well as the good. Sadly, that includes a tendency to feature a supporting "hench-villain" who is far more interesting than the actual villain turns out to be.
Like Solon was to Morbius, like Harrison Chase was to The Krynoids, that is what Li H'sen Chang is to Magnus Greel, the ranting madman from the future who passes himself off as "Weng-Chiang". Chang is a magnetic presence. He is sinister, multi layered, and endlessly fascinating. Greel is another bloody ranting madman, from an era of the show that had seen a few too many ranting madmen already. Once Greel takes over centerstage from Chang, the story becomes (in this reviewer's opinion) far less absorbing. It stops seeming like a darkly magical Chinese puzzle box, and starts seeming more like a typical Doctor Who story.
Which isn't to say that the story stops being entertaining. Greel's backstory is nicely integrated into the serial, neatly avoiding "info-dump" scenes that might have ground the pace to a halt. But the final two episodes (centering around Greel) simply don't have the same "pull" to them that the first four episodes (centered around Chang) possessed.
There are other minor complaints, of course. The giant rat looks like a badly put together stuffed animal, and scenes where it is meant to be threatening end up being hilarious. Never have genetic mutations looked so cuddly! But to complain about poor special effects in a Doctor Who story is to miss the point. And the giant rat is not so prominently featured as to harm the story, in any case (of course, I liked Invasion of the Dinosaurs, so what do I know?).
None of these complaints severely harm this mesmerizing tale. The all-around excellence of this production proves yet again that Doctor Who tends to be at its best in historical settings. And the final collaboration of Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Holmes, and director David Maloney results in a tale that is not only the finest story of a very fine season; it is a fitting valedictory address for a period that many fans consider the show's "golden age".
Overall Rating: 9/10
A Review by Gareth McG 10/6/03
In contrast to Genesis of the Daleks, The Caves of Androzani, Pyramids of Mars, and Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng Chiang is the first Doctor Who story that I’ve had high expectations for which left me massively disappointed. My preconceptions were based on that striking promo photo of the two Mr. Sins (the puppet sitting on the actors knee), amongst other things, so I knew that this story was about the Chinese underworld and that excited me. The Chinese have always been something of a curiosity with some rather bizarre customs. Yet, for all that, they remain unexplored in the world of TV drama. Therefore I was full of hope for Talons. Maybe it would even let us into such secrets as whether Chinese chefs really use pigeons in the chicken curry! Rather inevitably in retrospect, I was left disappointed. I’d expected something very sinister but while Talons is darkly lit or “Crow-espue”, as one reviewer puts it, it is not really very dark in tone at all. Yes, it’s fabulously shot, the Chinese imagery is, indeed, successful and the BBC yet again stake their claim on being the undisputed masters of period drama but nevertheless this just doesn’t float my boat at all.
I’ve always preferred Doctor Who swaggering along in all its post-modern glory but Talons just feels so trite and old fashioned. The Sherlock Holmes comparisons brings me to issue with a previous contributor, Jonathan Martin, who has criticised reviewers on this site for being overly concerned about whether or not Talons should rank as a classic. I, for one, consider it a very relevant argument. If you think about it in terms of music Talons is like a rather predictable cover version. Sure, it has some science fiction elements - all Doctor Who adventures do - but in general its concepts are totally unoriginal. Perhaps Tim-Roll Pickering expresses it better when he calls it “a blatant rip-off well done”. Everything is here from the dark, foggy streets to the toothless old woman and it’s all competently done but Doctor Who at its best has always had far more to offer than mere plot/genre recapitulation and I just can’t see how this can compare with such highly original offerings as Genesis or Caves. Even Robots and Pyramids, two Holmes/Hinchcliffe stories that people may feel are also duplicating other cinema classics, are far more successful because the subtle use of their sources makes them end up feeling more like Doctor Who than anything else. Whether it is music or TV drama, originality deserves to be crowned the true defining achievements of any body of work. Talons, however enjoyable you might find it, just feels like a Sherlock Holmes adventure from start to finish.
It’s not only the imitation that bothers me though – there is also a lot of poor characterisation. Granted, Li H’Sen Chang and Jago are very well played, they both look the part (Jago’s flushed cheeks definitely tell a story or two) and the latter is well written (who hasn’t met a 50-something Englishmen like him before?) but even so their characters are badly misjudged at times. The problem is that we lose respect for them and, even worse, it’s difficult to muster a sympathy vote as consolation. The truth of the matter is that Jago, sorry Henry-Gordon Jago if you please, is nothing short of a snob, a charming snob admittedly but still a snob and he’s the type of person who just irritates the hell out of me. Crucially, while he does provide quite a few giggles, we are always laughing at Jago rather than with him. The misjudgement is even sadder in the case of Chang because for a while it looked as if he was going to become a truly memorable Who villain. His quiet menace made him a fascinating character but the type of pathetic insecurity that we eventually witness is totally at odds with all this. Things becomes absurd when we realise that he is stupid enough to worship a by the book, ranting megalomaniac like Greel. It is comparable to a young kid who is trying in vain to get on the right side of the school bully. Greel, therefore, is not only a nauseatingly unimaginative character himself but he also manages to destroy both the potential of one of the better characters and the potential of one of the better scripting ideas - an exploration of the mystery of faith. If Greel had been quietly cunning in the way in which he was attempting to manipulate Chang then the latter’s plight would have evoked real sympathy. Instead, he just becomes implausible. By the end he is a broken man, betrayed and destroyed by everything he believed in but the viewer is long past caring. Even when the fourth Doctor expresses his condolences to Chang it feels more like an attempt to coax the truth out of him rather then the deeply touching gesture that it should have been. Of the rest, Litefoot is just plain dull and, despite valiant efforts, even Leela comes across as unconvincing in this setting, a particular disappointment after the success of Robots of Death.
The compulsively watchable Tom Baker saves the day though, his deep-rooted passion for the series even shining through on the accompanying DVD documentary. The great thing about Baker is that he knows exactly when to inject a bit of humour into a scene and there were a few occasions here where he really did have me creasing up on my home sofa. When he starts talking Chinese, for instance, he milks it for every bit of comedy that it’s worth, even though the writers clearly intended this as a serious moment. Another thing I’m always in awe of is his quick-as-a-flash disregard for authority such as when he calls the policeman an imbecile. Funniest of all though is when the Doctor rips the piss upon being reminded by Greel that he has something belonging to him. Out comes the little furry mouse, the yo-yo, the toy bat-mobile, the jelly babies etc., the Doctor hilariously remarking that he was always taught never to trust a man with dirty fingernails. Only in Doctor Who do you get such magic moments as this and, for all its faults, it makes me pleased that I finally got to see Talons. So, yeah, watch it, if only for Baker alone. Just don’t get your hopes raised too high, especially in terms of original ideas, or convincing looking giant rodents either for that matter!
A Review by Paul Rees 11/7/03
The Talons of Weng-Chiang has to be, I think, one of the most well directed, well designed and well produced stories ever. It has an epic, filmic quality to it reminiscent of those old Hammer horror movies: this really looks, sounds and feels like 19th century London. The costume design is simply wonderful, as are the sets.
What really brings Talons alive, however, is the quality of the dialogue and the aplomb with which it is delivered by the cast. There's barely a word out of place here, with Jago and Litefoot both delivering some delightful repartee. Litefoot in particular is one of my favourite Who characters, being the embodiment of an old-fashioned English gentleman.
The plot here is also top quality: OK, so it borrows heavily and at times it does slip into cliche territory - but when it is done as well as this, who really cares? The disfigured malcontent slinking in the shadows; his preying upon young women; the interplay between the Doctor and Chang; the bizarre role played by the diminutive Mr Sin; the atmospheric scenes set in and around the music hall. All these elements make Talons a feast to behold.
And yet, and yet... Talons is not quite the peerless masterpiece which it really should be. Let's leave aside the fake-looking giant rat for a moment; it's really in the last two episodes that the story begins to unravel just a little. Within thirty minutes, we see Jago and Litefoot locked up and then escaping incarceration on no fewer than three separate occasions. The ending is also a little unsatifsfying, with Mr Sin's betrayal of Greel being left pretty much unexplained and rather convenient; and then there's the casual racism that surfaces from time to time, specifically in relation to London's Chinese community.
These are frustrating negatives, because Talons is so nearly the perfect Who story. As things stand, it is 'merely' an excellent one.
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 17/12/03
The Talons Of Weng-Chiang combines everything it takes to make classic Doctor Who. Firstly the setting adds atmosphere, complete with a great double act in Jago and Litefoot. Characterisation is strong on all fronts, the Doctor playing both Holmsian detective and teacher to Leela, who despite being out of her depth is still able to bring her background to the fore, whether it is in fighting off Chinese gangs or being taught table manners. The villiains are strong too, John Bennett being particularly enjoyable as the mesmeric Li H`sen Chang, although Greel is somewhat too shouty. If you ignore the rat (or accept it for what it is) then you have another example of classic Doctor Who in this story.
Elementary Holmes by Mike Morris 7/2/04
It's back, and this time it's got cliffhangers and numchucks. If there's one thing I could never get my head around it was this story's lack of availability in unedited format, and finally that's been rectified. Talons has arrived in a HMV near you.
There's been a fair bit of discussion about this story on this site lately, which - as someone has already said - seems to centre around whether or not it's a classic. I don't really know what the word "classic" denotes in Doctor Who, in fact (for reasons that Terrence Keenan articulated lately) I actually despise the word itself. And yet I think if there's one word that describes The Talons of Weng-Chiang it's "classic". It's practically an archetype. It's Hinchcliffe in microcosm, but more so it's Robert Holmes in microcosm. And many of the successful elements have recurred in Doctor Who over and over again - the setting, the villain, the stylised characters. Talons is a certain type of Doctor Who, and that type is probably Who's most popular format. Just like The Daemons summarises the Pertwee era, Talons summarises the Hinchcliffe era. It also summarises Robert Holmes' style of storytelling, which is maybe why it's so damn impressive.
What's interesting, though, is that I've agreed with most of the criticisms I've read, and yet it hasn't made me like Talons any less. In fact, I think much of what people list of negatives are actually what makes this story works so well. And so, I wouldn't mind a bit of a comeback here. I think that there are three main criticisms of the story, which I'll tackle in sequence.
Before that, I'll state my theory on why this is the story for many people. There have been many better scripts - in fact, in terms of newness, imagination, plotting and even dialogue, the script for Talons is probably the season's third or fourth best (this is a reflection on the quality of the season, but still). Bluntly, I think the thing that really hits the viewer is the production values.
Examining Phillip Hinchcliffe's impact on Doctor Who is actually quite difficult. The most obvious thing to say is that the production standards became extremely impressive - and one of the interesting things about DVD commentaries is that you can hear him stressing this often. Talons is maybe his greatest achievement as far as that's concerned. It looks gorgeous. Only the oft-derided Giant Rat lets the side down (and it's nowhere near as bad as it's made out to be), but everything else looks completely convincing, and this is a rare quality for Doctor Who. The numerous shots of the fog-bound streets and hansom cabs are the kind of thing one sees in a flagship BBC drama, and to see them in Doctor Who is astounding. This extends to little scenes, such as the tracking shot to the Missing Girls poster - direction is tight and the camerawork is flawless. These touches, such as the sequence where Leela sees Li-Hsen Chang abducting a girl in the morning, all add up. Were that sequence to be shot in studio everything would be closer, Leela would probably have to hide two feet away and it wouldn't be anywhere near as effective. Although we fans don't need good effects, it's thrilling to have them and makes the story more accessible for a wider audience. Even my mum liked The Talons of Weng Chiang, and that's saying something.
Okay, and now for those criticisms.
1. It's unoriginal.
Yes, it is; most of the ideas have been used in previous Robert Holmes stories. Holmes was, of course, a delightfully quirky writer, and there are many signature "Holmesian" ideas in Talons. We have a double-act, the most obvious Bob Holmes trait, but there's more. Robert Holmes characters tend to be larger-than-life and theatrical, verging on stereotypes in fact, and there's plenty of them. Holmes' dialogue is often stylised, and his love of words is obvious, so who else would you expect to write a line like "have you got the oopizootics coming on?" Holmes also loves "guard-dog" monsters (Giant Rats, the Shrivenzale, the Magma Beast, Kroll, and many more) and manipulated human agents of the main evil power. And Magnus Greel bears all the traits of the classic Holmes villain. He is deformed, he is desperate, he is close to death, he is imprisoned in a sense and his motivation is more about survival than conquest. Of course, he's also mad as a balloon. A quick glance through the great Holmes villains shows how common this thread is - Morbius, Sharaz Jek, Noah and The Master of The Deadly Assassin are all similar in many ways. By bringing all his fascinations into one story, Holmes produces an exemplar of his work.
So Talons is unoriginal, but not in a negative way. One shouldn't forget that most Hinchcliffe-era stories are unoriginal pastiches of B-movie sources, so to condemn Talons for this is to condemn the entire era.
This story is effectively Robert Holmes' masterwork, insofar as it encompasses all the most outstanding elements of his writing. Rather than Holmes running out of ideas and using up old, spent ones, it's more the case that he takes all the key elements of his storytelling and addresses them better than ever before. Rob Matthews makes this point above, in his usual perceptive way, and discusses the story largely in the general context of Holmes' writing. I think he's more or less right to say that Holmes' work is dark, meaty and very much centred on human desires. For many stories these elements are pulled in by other constraints, but in this story they are highly apparent. That he's done them before is irrelevant; what matters is that here they are done better than ever before.
The hunger-lust-desire subtext is particularly prevalent. I don't find this as uncomfortable as Rob does; I think abandoning oneself to instinct can be a liberating and healthy thing, and it's not like any characters are savage or irrational - apart from, of course, the main villain. However, that's really a question of taste. What's indisputable is how clear this strand is, another example of the supreme skill with which it's told.
2. Talons is padded.
No, no, no. The story's pace, in my opinion, is lovely. It isn't padded, it's slow, and they're two very different things. Excuse me as I climb onto a very familiar soapbox; I'll say again that, contrary to what a lot of Doctor Who fans assume, "slow" isn't automatically a bad quality. There's nothing wrong with a slow-paced narrative, and one thing that makes the story so enjoyable is the way it's not afraid to take a bit of time to examine its setting. It evokes Victorian London so well because it takes the time to do so; to show us Litefoot and Leela sitting down to dinner, to show Jago's introductory speech and the crowd's reaction, to give us the wonderfully corny Daisy sing-song, to showcase the beautifully rickety flytower interior, to basically meander around the setting that makes the story so successful.
This isn't padding. The very word "padding" annoys me. It should mean scenes that don't add anything to the story (i.e. pointless corridor chases), but is often taken to mean "scenes that aren't directly connected to the plot". Just because Doctor Who stories are generally based on economy and quickness doesn't mean slowness doesn't have value - in fact, given that it's so scarce in Doctor Who it's something to be treasured. There's far more to storytelling than just resolving the plot as quickly as possible, there's the creation of atmosphere, the exploration of themes, the development of characters. Rob Matthews points out above that "fans really enjoy the padding", but I don't think he goes far enough; that the time-out scenes aren't padding.
The Litefoot/Leela dinner scene is very important, for example. One reason that Magnus Greel is a genuinely frightening creation is that he's a total contrast to the mannered society around him, and even to Li-Hsen Chang's courteously menacing villain. This contrast is played out in a more benign fashion in Litefoot and Leela's dinner together, enlarging a theme which crops up elsewhere; the contrast between Mr Sin the on-stage comedy puppet (by definition a collection of mannerisms) and Mr Sin the savage killer, between the Doctor and the routine-bound policemen, and all sorts of references to politeness in the script. Related themes are theatricality and, particularly, concealment. Henry Gordon Jago is a combination of the two, with his extravagant character concealing his rather timid nature. The setting of the theatre itself expresses this as well, with the contrast between the (theatrical) public area and the dark, almost mysterious world backstage (which is why the flytower chase scene isn't at all gratuitous). Then there's Magnus Greel, concealing himself behind a mask; Li-Hsen Chang's inscrutable exterior; the rats and Greel's base, hiding beneath the city in the sewers. Sigmund Freud would get a book out of it. There isn't one scene in The Talons of Weng-Chiang that I'd want to remove. And more than any other it's this element that, to my mind, elevates this story from good to great.
3. The characters are cliched, and the story is a little racist.
Yes. The characters are all stereotypes, of course. One might including the setting here, which is basically a character in itself and fits in every Victorian cliche imaginable. But then, part of Holmes' genius is that he's not afraid of cliched, slightly unbelievable characters who talk and act like no-one in the world would. His characters are usually one-noters cranked up as far as they can go, and although that can backfire, in the hands of a good actor it's dynamite. Also, Holmes underscores them with such humour that it's hard not to be sucked in. The bottom line is that Doctor Who is melodrama, and the best characters will therefore be melodramatic. So yes, Litefoot is very much a jolly-good-chap Victorian gentleman, and Jago a sort PT Barnum-esque bag of theatrics, but they are what the story needs and they are played superbly.
This is where the story might be accused of racism, as the Chinese characters are all evil and about as cod-Chinese as cod-Chinese can be. Maybe this is questionable; but we shouldn't lose sight of that fact that the story is obviously a slice of escapist hokum and no-one in it is believable enough to be taken seriously (just as I find it funny, rather than offensive, that the story features a leprechaun-like Irishman replete with green jacket and woeful accent). Ultimately, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is like most Doctor Who of the era; it's brash, colourful, not too deep and there to entertain. That the characters can all be categorised in the same way isn't a weakness, it's a strength. It's especially fortunate that Leela was a companion (although the desire to do a "Pygmalion" story was apparently an idea Holmes and Hinchcliffe had knocked around for a while), as an everyday Sarah Jane Smith wouldn't have worked. She would have been too ordinary, too real, and would either have been drowned out by the surroundings or shown up their inherent silliness.
There are other reasons that these sterotypes work. First of all, they are all incredibly theatrical - and the setting's a theatre, so that's all right. Secondly, they are gradually undercut as the story goes on - as it gets more fantastic the characters become more real, anchoring the story in the same way. The "I'm not so bally brave" is just lovely, revealing Jago's exterior as the veneer we always knew it was. And so many scenes are simultaneously brashly comic and very touching, such as the scene where Greel chokes Jago - Litefoot's defence of a man he's barely met shows his integrity brilliantly, but there's still room for the little "I say, steady on," joke. And then there's Li-Hsen Chang's wonderful death scene. Again, it's the removal of the "sinister oriental" veneer that makes it so gorgeous, with Chang exposed a rather innocent man whose ambition stretches no further than a performance for Queen Victoria. And his final breath is marvellous - he genuinely seems on the edge of throwing up.
The only limiting factor amid all this genius is that Michael Spice, as Weng-Chiang, doesn't really have the acting chops to make him as frightening as he should be. Greel lacks the soft-spoken rationality of Sutekh that would make him believably god-like. Nor does he pull off the malevolence that Peter Pratt invested in the Master, and he doesn't quite manage the cold-blooded scientist either. Rather he's a bit of a ranting maniac who does far too much evil cackling. But the character's conception is brilliant, and he does so many nasty things that he remains frightening. The "sting of the scorpion" death of one of his stooges is really very nasty. Besides, Mr Sin is so new-shorts-please-matron scary that it really doesn't matter.
Overall; what a thing of beauty this is. It is a magnificent slice of Doctor Who that thoroughly deserves its place among the greats. It's a piece of storytelling that revels in escapism, which sucks the viewer in utterly and gets better every time it's watched. Something special.
Not second best by Antony Tomlinson 3/8/04
In Doctor Who Magazine's 40th anniversary poll, The Talons of Weng-Chiang was revealed to be fans' all-time second favourite Doctor Who story (after the terrific Caves of Androzani). I had never seen Talons, but this result led me to get a copy. I have now watched the story a twice - and I'm sorry to say that I wouldn't even put it in my list of top ten favourite Tom Baker stories.
That said, I can see why this story stands out in people's minds. True, it features many of the features that largely define the Hinchcliffe era (particularly Terror of the Zygons and Pyramids of Mars). Thus, it has a mythical ancient enemy (the Loch Ness Monster; an ancient Egyptian God; an ancient Chinese God) that is revealed to be a futuristic being. It also has the Fourth Doctor wandering around Earth, charming and alarming people with his alien manner. And it has absurd racial stereotypes (haggis-eating, bagpipe-playing Scots; fez-wearing, superstitious Arabs; pig-tail wearing, suicidally fanatical Chinese).
Despite these links to previous stories, however, it feels very different to its predecessors. In part, I think this is explained by the sheer slickness of its production, which exceeds that of these previous tales. In fact, I think that this may be the best looking Doctor Who story ever. The sets are amazing - the streets of London are wonderfully other-worldly, with their hanging fog and blackened walls. The music-hall is also splendidly realised. And the costumes are divine (the BBC was the master of period drama at this point, so perhaps it is no surprise that it all looks so good). The costumes of Mr Sin and Magnus Greel are also terrifically scary. They have a wonderful air of corruption about them. Sin's deformed, pasty white face is horrible, as is the sickly kinky, rank leather mask of Greel.
And controversially, I also think that the giant rats are damn good - I cannot understand why people have got it in for them. Indeed, if giant rats really existed, I'm pretty sure that they would look much like the ones in Talons - I can't see what these props are supposed to be lacking in. Even their movement is impressive - they are horrifying as they run through the sewers at the end of episode one, their fangs glinting in the darkness. And as they chew Leela's leg you can imagine Mary Whitehouse having a fit. So lay of the rats, guys - their crapness has become a myth of fandom that I don't believe is justified at all.
Another factor that sets the story apart from similar tales is its length. Stories like Terror of the Zygons and Pyramids of Mars saw a lot of action crammed into four episodes, leaving little time for the TARDIS crew to relax and explore their surroundings. Not so the six-episode Talons of Weng-Chiang. To our delight, we get to see the crew act as tourists - thus they visit the theatre, go for dinner and mess about in boats. I think most fans (myself included) like to gain a sense of the environment in which the Doctor has landed, and to see our hero relax - we don't just want it all to be plot and action (that is why City of Death is so popular and the Fifth Doctor era is not). In this respect then, Talons gives us just what we want.
So why do I have a problem with The Talons of Weng-Chiang? Well, I am sorry to say that my biggest problem with this story is Tom Baker. For it seems to me that it was at this point in the series when Tom Baker began to lose his grip on the Fourth Doctor's characterisation. Indeed, I think we can see this point in the character's development (combined with his psychotic fits in The Horror of Fang Rock) as something of a menopause for the Fourth Doctor - the point at which the complex character of the Hinchcliffe years broke down to become the buffoon of the Williams era.
So what is wrong with his performance? Well, it seems that Baker is on autopilot for most of the story. He spends half the time with this smug, distant look on his face that is clearly supposed to make him look like he is having dark, mysterious thoughts. However, it actually makes him look like he's going senile. This makes it hard for us to engage with the character. For instance, just look at him in the scene in the theatre box, when Jago talks to him about their mission. The Doctor just stares into the distance the whole time with a stupid smirk on his face, while the man beside him actually does some acting. He clearly thinks that this is all he needs to bother doing to seem alien and eccentric. It makes you want to thump him. And he keeps on doing this stupid trick throughout the whole story. What was the director thinking of, here? Was he too scared of Baker to tell him to put some life into his performance?
In fact all the Fourth Doctor's quirks are rendered irritating here. His habits of bursting into smiles at unexpected points, looking goggle-eyed and mumbling nonsense as he awakes from unconsciousness are done so mechanically that it feels as though Baker can't be bothered to do any more than portray a parody of himself. Even his namedropping of the Venerable Bede is ruined, as Baker makes a utterly half-arsed attempt to fill the line with some inexplicable gravitas.
It is as though Baker was thinking about something else during the entire filming of this story, and so lazily relied on whatever expressions and actions he found worked in the past (his quirks are so automatic here that they are reminiscent of Pertwee's neck-scratching - a quirk that replaced, rather than enhanced the Third Doctor's character). It is hard to believe that this is the same man who burned up our screens with energy in The Ark in Space. It is all very sad.
Most of the other actors (with the exception of the man playing the needlessly shouty Greel) are good. However, while a six-episode tale is splendid for exploring characters in greater depth (see Genesis of the Daleks), Talons does not actually have many real characters. Thus it is left spending significant amounts of time trying to explore stereotypes like Jago and Litefoot. Unsurprisingly in doing so, it reveals nothing about these characters that we did not know from their first scenes - thus we are shown that Jago is a good-hearted coward and that Litefoot is stuffy but brave (that said, Li H'sen Chang is an interesting character - it is just a shame that we don't get to see more of him rather than spending time with Jago and Litefoot in pointless moments like the dumb-waiter escape scene).
So in all, I am sorry to say that The Talons of Weng-Chiang is clearly not the second best Doctor Who story ever. Rather, it is proof that no matter how good a televised Doctor Who story looks, and no matter how good its formula, it can only work if its actors are utterly committed to its realisation, and are given real characters to play (Russell T. Davies take note). Unfortunately this is not the case in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Thus the story is just a huge, wasted opportunity.
A Review by Joe Ford 14/11/04
Supercallafragalisticespialldocious! What a damn brilliant story and no mistake. I have ploughed through the reviews on the Ratings Guide and laughed myself silly when people have tried to clutch at any old excuse to drag this story off its perch but it is mostly pretentious nonsense, a desperate attempt to convince that this is anything but perfect. Here are a few priceless examples...
Rarely have we been treated to such a luxurious story, one that takes the time flesh out of all of its characters, tell an atmospheric, gripping tale, one that frequently dazzles with its colourful dialogue and is wrapped up in a budget-bursting production that manages to make the smallest of scenes totally believable. Add to this mix the Doctor at the height of his powers, accompanied by a companion who enriches the tale, a splendid Dudley Simpson score and a fascinating look at the Victorian era (which at this point in the series had not been explored to death) all told in six beautiful episodes that ensure nothing is rushed or underdeveloped. Whilst Robots of Death, Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin are also excellent examples of how much talent was lavished on the show during the Hinchcliffe years I feel Talons is his ultimate gift to the series, the story as attention-grabbing as ever but with a production so impressive it leaves these others in the running.
Move aside Hartnell historicals... I have never seen a programme, which has been built up so expertly by its dialogue. Robert Holmes is well known for turning in a memorable phrase or two but his script for Talons is a delight, imbued with a colourful sense of fantasy that is lacking from so many of his sterner tales. Whilst the distinctive location work and detailed sets help to create the images of Victorian London it is Holmes' dialogue that transplants so effortlessly one hundred odd years back in time. His steals scream out at you as you are watching but it doesn't matter one jot, the echoes of Jack the Ripper ("Could be Jolly Jack at work again!"), Pygmalion ("I'm trying to teach you Leela"), Phantom of the Opera (the disfigured and masked Greel), Sherlock Holmes (Professor Litefoot has a housekeeper called Mrs Hudson!) help to suck you deeper into the story, a joyous exploitation of one of the most interesting periods of British history. It's not a pastiche because it incorporates these elements so successfully into the story Holmes is telling without being intrusive.
His dialogue stretches further than just conjuring up years past however, managing to paint memorable images in the viewers mind without the events even taking place. Chang's dying speech is hauntingly beautiful, the servants from the Palace of Jade coming towards him with baskets of fruit and flowers. The future is bleakly portrayed without ever being seen, Greel's infamous nickname The Butcher of Brisbane leaving behind a trail of dead girls, the Peking Homunculus almost causing World War Six, the Doctor standing with the Icelandic Alliance (now explored in Simon A Forward's Eighth Doctor adventure Emotional Chemistry)... I love how Holmes adds such depth to his tale with references like these, other writers are content to limit themselves to the story they are telling but Holmes was very fond of branching out like this and adding background colour.
The actors all bring their characters alive with panache, that could never be denied but without Holmes' dialogue I doubt they would be as memorable. Who can I pick on as the standout character when they are all written with such devilish skill?
"I would have propelled him onto the pavement with a punt up the posterior!" scoffs Henry Jago, the most colourfully verbose of Holmes' many creations. Brought to life by the ruddy and charming Christopher Benjamin, Jago lights up the screen. Every line he utters is instantly quotable, a tongue twisting delight that will leave viewers breathless just listening to it! "By dash me optics, I should have realised! That brow! Those hands! England's peerless premiere professor of pathology!" and later "The most formidable combination in the annals of criminology! It is my pleasure and privilege to be working with you on this devilish affair!" Jago never seems unrealistic because he is such a natural coward for all his outward bravado. He loves getting embroiled in the investigation with the missing girls and beams with delight when Chang is uncovered and he will get the chance to get a chance to set a tour of the lair of the phantom, bob a nob! His scenes with Litefoot are such a delight because they are such different people, one calm and collected, the other bluster and bravado and Jago's quiet admission that he is "not so bally brave when it comes down to it" is very sweet indeed.
"They wont catch George Litefoot napping a second time!" cries the esteemed Professor. Like Watson to the Doctor's Holmes Litefoot proves an valuable ally for the Doctor and Leela, his connections and home are somewhat abused throughout the story but he takes it all with a stiff upper lip and a confused frown. Whilst his pairing with Jago is brilliant, I found his scenes with Leela even better, two people at the opposite ends of the social scale, forced to spend an evening together. His astonished reaction as she grabs a hunk of meat and starts tearing into it, testing a carving knife on the flesh, is beautifully filmed and his charming reaction, rather than insulting her he abandons his plate and joins her eating with his hands, proves what a gentleman he is. Similarly good is his boggled reaction to so much of the Doctor's scientific gobble-degook; no amount of bashes on the head he receives helps him to comprehend the technobabble!
Chang and Greel make a real sinister pair; clip clopping through the streets of London in a carriage every night to seek out the Time Cabinet. The closest moment the story comes to reality (that word again) sees Chang accosting a prostitute to take back to his master to feed on, the Ripper-esque horror of these scenes chills me to the bone. Like most of Holmes' villainous character this pair are both rather pathetic, Chang because he dotes so desperately on Greel under the impression he is a God and Greel slowly dying and refusing to admit his Zygma experiments were little more than a footnote in history. Greel is more frightening because he is clearly desperate to fight back his death, hysterical to the point of utter insanity and willing to kill anyone or thing to achieve his aims. Some of his lines ("I shall not keep you waiting long" he says to Leela who is waiting to have her energy sucked from her body, "Now for my two partridges!") are sickly sinister. Once his mask is ripped away and we see how disfigured he truly is the tension steps up a mark, now we know he cannot survive how far will this madman go to achieve his freedom?
The Doctor has rarely been this commanding, stalking through the story in a Holmesian costume. Indeed the image of his wading through the sewers in a deerstalker with a rifle in his hand is burned in my memory, the fourth Doctor at his all time best. He gets hundreds of fantastic lines, loaded with humour and drama and works when paired up with any of the characters, be it Leela, Jago or Litefoot. The four of them are bloody good friends by the end of the story and an atmosphere of friendship triumphs. What really impressed me (aside from the insultingly rude way he dismissed certain characters, "It was nothing complimentary!". "Well you had a few drinks with Mrs Gusset..." "Savage, found floating down the Amazon in a hat box!") was the intenseness Tom Baker brought to the role at the climax when the Doctor is trying convince Greel to halt his experiment... by God does he scream! The fourth Doctor rarely comes across this seriously and it works really well here, reaching out to the audience with how catastrophic this could turn out.
"When we are both in the great here after I shall hunt you down bent face and put you through my agonies a thousand times!" screams Leela, close to death. Her best story by miles and in Holmes safe hands she thrives in Victorian London, slaughtering Chinese, hunted by giant rats, trying out girlie clothes and going to the theatre. Never before has she seemed so alien and so human, highlighting her against so many characters draws attention to her lack of social graces and vicious killing streak and yet in later episodes when Litefoot and Jago are in trouble she is clearly frightened for their safety and tries to convince the Doctor to save them with the beautiful retort "They are our friends, we must help them." The so-called padding from the early episodes, which set up these relationships, are satisfyingly paid off.
Having access to a real theatre is the production's biggest coup and gives the production a real sense of grandeur where tatty BBC sets would have failed. There are a number of terrific theatre scenes, complete diversions from the plot to hear a lovely rendition of Daisy, Daisy and to enjoy Chang's magic tricks. They add much to the overall entertainment of the story. The Doctor's chase back stage with Greel is superbly realised, I love it when he steps out on stage in the abandoned theatre.
I have always been a huge fan of David Maloney's direction and agree with Philip Hinchcliffe one hundred percent when he says he was the best director on the payroll. Which Doctor Who stories stand out from each era? The Mind Robber? Maloney. Genesis of the Daleks? Maloney again. The Deadly Assassin? Oh yes! His work here is extraordinary, pulling together this mammoth tale with an eye for visuals and a talent for sheer entertainment. Go stick the DVD on and watch any five minutes and you will stumble across a moment that makes you gasp with delight. The body dragged up at the key side. Leela's reaction to Litefoot's pipe. "Were you trying to get my attention?" The chase through the theatre. Mr Sin at the door and Leela jumping through the window. Chang and the prostitute. Leela screaming as she is gnawed away at by the giant rat. Casey found dead in the Cabinet of Death. "Take the sting of the scorpion!" The dumb-waiter. Greel's melted face. "I'll give you three seconds Doctor then Mr Sin will kill the girl!" Leela with the pistol. "GREEL LISTEN!" The hypocrisy of making tea. The story is just one quality scene after another with everybody in tune with each other. Maloney's stylish direction is the icing on the cake; he chose the right actors, the right locations and the right pace for the story. The result speaks for itself.
In our spanking new reality-TV driven society we don't see television of Talons' standard anymore and that is such a shame. Halfway through the series' first run, Doctor Who climaxed its season fourteen with the best story of its entire run. Flawlessly written and outstandingly acted. To steal a insult thrown at me over on Outpost Gallifrey this is like reaching a fantastic orgasm for six long episodes without all the embarrassment that comes afterwards.