The Talons Of Weng Chiang
February – April 1977
‘Oooohhh, you wouldn’t serve ‘at wiv onions. Make an ‘orse sick ‘at would’
Patsy Smart, credited as The Ghoul, sans false teeth, with wide eyes and hair wild is one stereotype amongst a huge swathe of the buggers that populate ‘Talons’. It is Hinchcliffe and Holmes ‘Victoriana on Acid’ and the kitchen sink all thrown in at once and stirred very adroitly.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way before I start. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you. It’s a fan cliché. But it needs to be said.
It’s seriously crap, isn’t it? To our jaded 21st century eyes it’s supposedly the one element that slightly lets the story down. A collective groan echoed round the room when I last watched this with the other half because we both knew ‘it’ was about to appear. Back in 1977, I wasn’t convinced either so I’m not going to use the excuse that audiences watched things differently in 1977 and therefore overcame problems like this with ease. They didn’t. I was there. I remember. It was crap then.
So, rat not withstanding, what have we got here? A kaleidoscopic magical mystery tour through the Victorian London of our dreams. And our survey said…eee-uuurr…fog…music halls…'Phantom Of The Opera'…'Fu Manchu'…'Jack The Ripper'…'Sherlock'…It’s not meant to be an accurate period drama rather it’s our mind’s eye version of fog-enshrouded London and criticisms ranging from problems about various ethnic stereotypes or that Holmes (Sherlock not Bob...Bob may have worn one!) never wore a deerstalker and such like can be dampened by pointing out that the whole package is one huge stereotype of Gothic Victoriana with knobs on. Yes, I agree that the Chinese stereotyping would just never happen now and is often wincingly thrown into the mix but then you’ve got a 51st century war criminal kidnapping young girls and er…draining them…of their essences. The Butcher Of Bribane has come to town. Serial killers at 6.30 on a Saturday night.
It’s a bit long and awfully padded in the last two episodes but there are so many little moments, almost a greatest hits package that could be used as an accusation the series was being lazy, but this bowls along in such a fun way that you can compensate with that. It looks ravishing, with gorgeous studio interiors and atmospheric location filming, and the OB work at an actual theatre lends a wonderful verisimilitude to the proceedings. All with lovely Expressionist shadow and light. Really, it’s too much and shouldn’t work but David Maloney manages to marshal it all and holds it together with verve. A template for how to make a perfect Doctor Who serial? No, I wouldn't go as far as that as it isn't a terribly original plot and only gets by on sheer chutzpah.
Thematically, let's have a dig around. Greel is the ultimate victim of both physical and psychosomatic illness. His emotional needs are rigourously expressed through his crumbling body and disfigurement. His body image is a symbol of the self-awareness of a damaged Ego. He is the epitome of a failed being trying desperately to un-make himself. He is obsessed by the Zigma experiments and thinks they succeeded and the frustration of knowing that they didn’t really work is what he is all about. His corrupted body also renders him impotent and his kidnapping of sexually available women is subconsciously compensating for this frustration as well his attempt to get to the source, or womb, of creation to cure his condition..
He is also a trickster figure, a supposed former God, representing older and darker layers of the mind and his acolyte Chang is literally a trickster/magician who deals with illusions. Chang is a figure in flux, worshipful and honourable to his master Greel because he has been given power, but also full of his own illusions at the end and again with this delusion comes actual physical disintegration from the rat attack
One can also see the plot as a series of thresholds that open onto both the conscious and unconscious realms and the inner and outer worlds. There is the threshold of time – Victorian England and the 51st Century – symbolised by the time cabinet where the unconscious future has poured into the conscious present. There is the front door of Litefoot's house and the outside world - cosy, civilised Victoriana contrasting with the 'savage' Tong Of The Black Scorpion. There is the threshold between the front of house of the theatre and Greel’s lair – one is about make-belief and play and the other is the repressed, dark underworld of Greel’s mind. Greel could also be akin to Janus, the double headed God, a gatekeeper looking forward and back into time and into the conscious and unconscious realms.
Mr. Sin, with the cerebral cortex of a pig, aka the Peking Homonculus, represents the nadir/threshold of future science. This is a science which is more like alchemy where again we see the repeated pattern of Greel’s desire for transformation, to force the essence of life to appear. Science flying too high and too far ahead and then collapsing to form the damaged creatures we see in Sin and Greel. You could also link these thresholds to each of the double acts in the story.
The whole thing is populated by sweet character portraits, ranging from Patsy’s Ghoul and Sgt. Kyle at the station through to the major double acts: the Doctor and Leela, Litefoot and Jago, Greel and Chang. And the double acts drive the whole thing as they interchange throughout the story. John Bennett is very good as Chang and his downfall and subsequent death in the opium den has a strange dignity to it that actually makes you reconsider the character and his morals. Greel really is a product of the 51st Century and you get a vivid sense of what happened at Rekyavik and with the Zigma experiments. Again more of that crucial world building that characterises this season. Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter seem to be utterly in their element and it is a shame that the once rumoured spin-off never materialised as they both nail the Holmesian (in both senses) quintessence of the script. Actually Benjamin is more Dickensian really – ‘I can see it now…come and see the phantom’s lair. Bob a nob.’
Finally, Tom and Louise really hit the heights here. Louise is particularly good, probably the best ever, as Leela. The Eliza Doolittle connection comes to its fruition here and she is actively part of the plot, trading insults with Greel (‘bent face’) as she goes. We have seen her grow as a character and the series is made so much more gratifying for that attention to this development
The season ends here as does Hinchcliffe’s tenure on the show. It’s a remarkable tenure too with many landmark stories to his credit with a push to make the programme more adult and to put as much of the money up on screen that caused more trouble than it was worth. The repercussions were felt for many years. One wonders just how much further he would have gone with the series had he stayed on.
So let’s at least toast the end of this era with a hot buttered muffin from the muffin man.
A quick word about the DVD edition: An essential purchase as it contains loads of extras including a commentary by Louise Jameson, Philip Hinchcliffe, David Maloney, John Bennett And Christopher Benjamin (sadly, Maloney and Bennett have since passed away), an archive 1977 documentary "Whose Doctor Who", Blue Peter clips, Behind The Scenes/Studio Footage, Philip Hinchcliffe interview from a 1977 edition of Pebble Mill, trailers and continuity plus all the episodes restored by the Restoration Team.
THE TALONS OF WENG CHIANG Region 2 DVD (BBCDVD1152 Cert PG)
Cathode Ray Tube Doctor Who Robert Holmes
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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- from the north...
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