Doctor Who and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (AudioGo)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 28 January 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Starring Tom Baker
Written by Terrance Dicks
Narrated by Christopher Benjamin
Released by BBC AudioGo, January 2013
Reviewing a twenty-first century reading of a twentieth-century novelization of a Doctor Who television serial set in the nineteenth century can be a reminder that perspective, as it travels through time, can become as distorted as Magnus Greel was by his precious zygma beam. When both television and book forms of The Talons of Weng-Chiang appeared in 1977, popular culture’s Victoriana was shaped by different currents of memory, nostalgia and imagination to those we know today. Most obviously, the story’s music-hall setting would have been familiar to many television viewers. The Good Old Days, where Leonard Sachs hosted an hour of music hall featuring contemporary entertainers in late Victorian or Edwardian dress, was a recurring part of the BBC schedule as it had been since 1953. Drama series set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were fashionable, Upstairs Downstairs having been followed on ITV by sagas of the great such as Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill and Edward the Seventh, with Lillie and Disraeli still to come. Television closer to Doctor Who’s viewing time included several series set in the same period, including the turn-of-the-century The Phoenix and the Carpet and the Sunday afternoon Dickens adaptation Nicholas Nickleby.

All these programmes were fed by the fact that in the 1970s the end of the Victorian period was just within or just outside living memory. Pennies and ha’pennies of Queen Victoria weren’t difficult to find in my (post-Victorian) grandparents’ house. Britain had spent most of the twentieth century trying to live up to an imperial myth largely manufactured in the late nineteenth century, of an empire where the sun never set and where British arms and British ships, military and merchant, dominated the globe. Just over thirty years before, Britain had fought, it thought, to defend that empire; by 1977 that empire was gone and with it economic self-assurance and a secure sense of national identity. However, historical dramas set in the Victorian period didn’t just compensate for national bewilderment; they were a reminder of a society from which mid-twentieth century Britain had escaped, one of poverty and disease and rigid conventions governing relations among classes, genders and ethnic groups. At the same time, the culture of British industry still owed much in the 1970s to the Victorian age; it was one where trade unions pointed both to the craft skills of their nineteenth-century predecessors and to the battles won by them for fair wages and working hours, and where managing directors still based their businesses on heavy machinery which had not changed greatly in eighty years. While for Doctor Who’s child audience, its eyes fixed on the twenty-first century, the 1890s of The Talons of Weng-Chiang might seem like ancient history, for many of the adults watching the 1890s might not have felt a long time distant.

This sense of time displacement is relevant to consideration of the book and the audio. One of the first things Christopher Benjamin’s vinicultured voice brings out is how careful Terrance Dicks was to explain the nuances of the story’s setting to his target audience of children reading Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang by themselves. With the visual element removed, the written and spoken word both rely on Dicks’s depiction of the social hierarchy of the music hall audience for initial contextualisation. This opens the first chapter and introduces music hall as something which appeals to all classes in the 1890s, but which does not unite them: ‘toffs’, ‘bank clerks and shop assistants’, ‘Labourers, dock workers, soldiers and sailors, even some of the half-starved unemployed’ are all present but all in places assigned by their spending power. The effect is more raw than that conveyed by the well-groomed audience seen on television at the Royal Theatre, Northampton. It also conveys something of the gap between the welfare state of a 1970s Britain which thought itself egalitarian and an 1890s London which had no social safety net and where class distinctions were dominant in a way easily comprehensible to the child readership.

Terrance Dicks’s attention to replacing lost visual and aural cues with new written detail friendly to an intelligent young audience also applied to characters. Listeners to Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang will hear Christopher Benjamin relate Dicks’s outline of Litefoot’s background as the rebel member of a family with aristocratic connections, and his resigned tones as the elderly waterman spitting his way through life, baffled at the expedition undertaken by the Doctor and Litefoot complete with giant fowling pistol. Dicks’s invention of Teresa’s occupation as ‘a waitress in a gambling club, in Mayfair on the other side of London’ compensates for the loss of Teresa’s costume and make-up, which some viewers have understood as representing a profession unsuitable for children’s literature. Christopher Benjamin’s falsetto Teresa is a brave attempt at youthful feminine joie-de-vivre, but his real strength is the matter-of-fact relation of events which he steadily leavens with urgency and horror as Chang presents his victims to a suitably maniacal Greel.

As 1977 has receded into the past, so John Bennett’s appearance as Li H’sen Chang, a white European actor under pseudo-oriental prosthetics, has caused more and more pained expressions among admirers of the story. Terrance Dicks, in an allusion to the cultural baggage Bennett’s casting and make-up carried with it, contrasted Chang with ‘most Oriental magicians who were usually English enough once the make-up was off’. Chang’s name recalls that of Chung Ling Soo, really the American-born William Ellsworth Robinson, killed when a trick went awry at the Wood Green Empire in north London in 1918. It’s possible that Robert Holmes’s choice of name for his Chinese magician was based on the expectation that an actor of western appearance would play Chang under make-up. Bennett’s casting in this vein drew attention to the artifice of Doctor Who and its reliance on a showbusiness tradition of deception, as well as an exoticism which portrayed the Chinese as unquestionably ‘the Other’. Dicks’s reference in the text acted as a historical note and placemarker for a visual gag at the expense of both conventions which could not be reproduced on the page. However, the fiction of Sax Rohmer, whose Fu Manchu is based on the assumption that world affairs were a competition between easily-defined ‘races’, would still have been current in the childhood of many parents and grandparents watching. The film series starring Christopher Lee was a very recent memory.

Chang’s character is based as much on an understanding of the audience at home as white British as it is upon Chang’s manipulation of the prejudices of the white community. Chang is used, of course, to emphasise the Doctor’s own Otherness – ‘Are you Chinese?’ reminds the hypothetical white British viewer and listener that the Doctor does not share their prejudices. A twenty-first century restaging might seek to reinterpret Chang for a more broadly-conceived audience, but this is not an option here. Christopher Benjamin reads the speeches of Li H’sen Chang in a stage Chinese which suits the status quo, but Chang is now doubly a recreation of past attitudes, steeped in an irony which has lost some power since the 1970s. Nevertheless Benjamin recognises that for all his crimes, Chang is a person to be treated with some sympathy, and his reading of his final scene has the distance of someone dulling with opium the torment of moral self-realisation as well as his physical agony.

Admirers of Leela might feel disappointed by this audiobook. In Benjamin’s reading, Leela is more of a simpleton than she appeared on television, lacking the self-assurance Louise Jameson brought to the role. Dialogue of which Louise Jameson made the most – such as ‘You ask me so that you can tell me’ – is flattened and made more submissive than Jameson performed it on television. Benjamin, though, adequately represents Terrance Dicks’s interpretation of Leela as a childlike innocent in thrall to the Doctor’s genius, whose bravado often exceeds her bravery, difficult though that position is to reconcile with many of Leela’s actions in this story.

Christopher Benjamin recording The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Photo: BBC AudioGoChristopher Benjamin’s Doctor is difficult to pin down, not least because he doesn’t seem to have a fixed interpretation. For long periods his intonation is reminiscent of Tom Baker’s deep ringing tones, without capturing them, and at other times there is a mercurial self-satisfied air reminiscent of the Doctor with which Benjamin has worked most recently, Colin Baker. (Admirers of the Jago and Litefoot double act might find that Benjamin’s Litefoot is reminiscent of Trevor Baxter.) However, there is occasionally a glimpse of another Doctor, a gruff and amiable Time Lord who casts a sometimes sternly avuncular gaze over proceedings. The portrayal of the Doctor in a performed reading of a novelisation encourages expectations in a reader and while Benjamin is always authoritative there are too many different voices there to feel one is listening to a consistent portrayal; or perhaps the legacy of Tom Baker looms too large.

Benjamin’s voice is good at conveying the self-consciously heightened sense of danger in Dicks’s economical prose. Much of The Talons of Weng-Chiang depends upon the unknown lying beneath the familiar; so there is trepidation as manhole covers are removed and a deliberate, heavy wariness as characters wade through the filthy, rat-infested sewers. Benjamin and Dicks tell of a London dark and treacherous in its diversity, which it takes the universalist outsider, the Doctor, to navigate appropriately. There are some cautious notes - there seems to be care, for example, not to make ethnic epithets as emotively-charged as they might have been performed on screen in 1977.

There are some memorable moments of sound engineering in this audiobook. The echo placed over Christopher Benjamin’s voice in the pathology lab scenes almost dispel associations with the cramped tiled room and its anachronistic electric sockets covered by even more anachronistic adhesive plastic in the television production. The giant rats are relieved of the burdensome necessity of appearing in the fabric-and-stuffing, and can rely on piercing shrieks alone to instil terror into the heart of the listener. There are not quite as many porcine grunts from Mr Sin as I expected, but care has to be taken not to undermine the reader’s performance. Instead, one can sometimes imagine Christopher Benjamin moving from pathology lab to the night streets of Limehouse, climbing down into Greel’s hidden chamber as a silent companion opens the hatch for him, or hauling himself up in the dumb waiter in an attempt to escape from Greel’s clutches. Despite the reservations above, it’s an admirable reading, with Benjamin moderating his Henry Gordon Jago so as not to overwhelm his narrator’s voice, but not obliterating it; the way he uses his delivery to highlight the differences of class and education between Jago and Litefoot when they meet is a particularly skilled performance.

A release of a science fiction or fantasy story set in Victorian London in 2013 raises a question of genre unknown in 1977. Can Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang be described as steampunk? If steampunk depends on a situation where ‘anachronism is not anomalous but becomes the norm’, as Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall wrote in their introduction to volume 3, part 1 of the journal Neo-Victorian Studies (available free at www.neovictorianstudies.com), then novelisation and audiobook perhaps score less highly than the broadcast version. Terrance Dicks describes Greel’s organic distillation equipment simply as ‘ultra-modern’, which isn’t adequate to the baroque eclecticism of the machinery seen on television. Mr Sin and the Eye of the Dragon fuse the futuristic with cultural signifiers of the ‘old’ in book form as well as on television, though the audiobook’s blaster sound effects probably reinforce the high-tech connotations at the expense of the image of the gold dragon from which the blaster is fired. Even as a digital download in 2013, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang remains the product of a mechanical age when the dissonance between inexplicable futuristic technology and Victorian machinery was more powerful than the imagining of impossibly world-transforming engines; its lacquered Time Cabinet is a gateway for a generic reading which from the book’s own point of view in 1977 has yet to emerge from it.

Whatever the problems it inherits from its source, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang remains a hugely entertaining story and there is much to discover in Christopher Benjamin’s reading. Linger over descriptive passages and muse on how Magnus Greel’s ramblings about time agents and the Doctor’s counter-revelations about the battle of Reykjavik came to influence the programme’s mythology. Hear how both the Doctor and Leela confound the Holmes-Dicks pastiche of late Victorian manners which for all their assumed superiority are no match for the foe from the future. That the story measures its imagined past against a present day which is now very much our history, however recent, only adds another level of curiosity to one of Doctor Who’s pivotal tales.




The Hand Of FearBookmark and Share

Sunday, 30 September 2007 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Any story to which the names of Philip Hinchcliffe or Robert Holmes are attached had better be good, or my word, they get torn apart. The Hand Of Fear is up against some seriously stiff competition and is easily the worst story of season fourteen, but it’s quite a sweet story in its own right. It feels like a real throwback to the Jon Pertwee era, and indeed it could have sat pretty as the best story of Pertwee’s final season – but it has to be said that coming immediately before The Deadly Assassin does no favours for what is a decent but decidedly average tale.

What’s immediately striking is the cheapness of the production, almost as if Barry Letts had returned as producer; this isn’t the sort of thing I dwell on normally but Hinchcliffe was usually such an effective and efficient producer that such bland, boring sets, harsh lighting and silly videotaped model shots seem very out of place. With Roy Skelton hamming it up off screen, Bob Baker and Dave Martin writing and Letts-stalwart Lennie Mayne directing, the overall anachronistic effect is really quite disturbing. But there is another, more relevant downside to this prologue, in that it provides the explanation for a mystery that has yet to be introduced. Just think how much more enigmatic the titular hand would be if this scene never existed, and we knew nothing about it at all.

16mm-recorded location shooting gives us a brief respite from the cheapness, and I actually like the scenes in the quarry – although it’s hard not to snarl at the constant “this time it’s really a quarry, tee hee” banality from some corners. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen have a wonderfully comfortable, breezy relationship with each other (didn’t they always?), and Sarah being buried under the rubble caused by the superb explosion is much more affecting for the viewer than it would have been had it been the third Doctor and Jo Grant. The stone hand she finds is a wonderful prop and very spooky, just lying there, although to reiterate the scene would be vastly improved without that earlier prologue which is in effect an instant spoiler.

Baker and Martin, as writers, aren’t that good at structuring a story and providing a coherent plot and as such nothing they wrote for the show was particularly amazing (indeed the following season’s Underworld comes perilously close to being an all-time nadir). However, they do seem to have a talent for easy-going and naturalistic dialogue here and therefore The Hand Of Fear is peppered with likeable characters who feel more like real people than is customary for Doctor Who. Directors’ habits of reusing actors are always fairly obvious and it’s hard to watch Rex Robinson and not think of him as “the bloke from The Three Doctors and The Monster Of Peladon,” but he puts in a charming performance and manages to rekindle some of the dampened mystery by his conversation with the Doctor about the hand. With this, not to mention the possessed Sarah up and about stealing the hand, I have to say that part one is a lot of fun. There’s no depth or subtext of any kind for me to get my teeth into, but it pushes the right buttons. 

Sladen puts in a terrific performance as a woman possessed, eschewing the standard zombie-like clichés in favour of someone twitching and skittish, as if she’s being piloted by someone unused to the controls as it were, and her lilting, erratic speech is really quite creepy. The scenes in Nunton power plant (Baker and Martin reinforcing the Pertwee references by ripping of their own idea, Nunton being only one letter out from the plant from their earlier The Claws Of Axos) are terribly padded and rather dull after a while, but the cliffhanger to part one is an absolute killer as the hand starts to move.

Unfortunately the second episode begins by undoing much of that cliffhanger’s good work, with the emergency meltdown sequence removing the tension a bit more with every long-winded minute. The Doctor claiming he can survive temperatures of 200 degrees “if I’m quick” is silly and is an early example of the kind of superpowered Doctor who can spirit his way through spinning blades. It raises the question of how his clothes survive intact, but I suppose we must be thankful for these small mercies.

There’s still a lot of padding, with much running up and down stairs at the power station. I don’t know quite what the logic was behind the use of the fish-eye lens and its surrealism doesn’t quite come off, unless the idea was that the tension should increase in direct proportion to Tom Baker’s nose expanding to twice the size. Dr Carter’s death is a superb stunt and very well edited, although on a mildly amusing note his body ends up looking like it’s dancing to ‘Night Fever’.

Professor Watson phoning his family is a nice attempt at injecting some poignancy but it comes across as rather crude in a “kiss the children for me” way, although his inability to tell his wife that anything is wrong is a far more effective and telling moment.

The Doctor bursting through the vent (like he’s been posted, according to Baker on the DVD commentary) is one of my favourite moments in the story: Doctor Who was rightly never an action-adventure series but occasionally someone like Tom Baker with immense physical presence could successfully pull off those dynamic little scenes, although the fact that he doesn’t make a perfect landing adds to his credibility by not portraying him as an expert gymnast. Thus Sarah is rescued, and brought before Professor Watson: the line of “I think we’d all like an explanation” is about as crude as feed lines come, although it does remind us that there is a really brilliant, if not particularly original, idea at the heart of this story.

The CSO’d hand looks better than average, with less tell-tale fringing and an effort made to make it actually cast a shadow. Still though, despite many good moments, I can feel this story’s promise of a high rating slipping away. Like many average stories, The Hand Of Fear is in essence very good but it loses crucial points by being poorly paced and structured, denting its ability to tell a coherent story. Hence yet more superfluous scenes in the plant, and repetition abounds as the hand gets locked up, let out, captured, etc, etc…

Episode three at least gets off to a more dynamic start as Eldrad begins to regenerate in earnest, and the possessed Driscoll casually strolling into the core (“probably vaporised,” as the Doctor says) is really quite disturbing. The missile strike is exciting but improbable, but well presented with fairly unobtrusive stock footage. Eldrad’s final emergence is very well done, with a superb costume and an enigmatic performance from Judith Paris.

The scene where the Doctor and Sarah exchange “I worry about you” lines is genuinely sweet, and far more effective than the new series’s bludgeon. It’s followed by the great first exchange with Eldrad, and it’s also good to see a kind of mini-conclusion for Watson. Suddenly the episode is picking up again. It doesn’t last long though, as the sudden wave of technobabble in the TARDIS makes it feel a bit Trekky all of a sudden. The cheapo Kastrian set looks a bit better with the lights turned down, but even that doesn’t last long either. The cliffhanger though is genuinely shocking, a product of some excellent videotape editing.

Thankfully the lower levels of Kastria are slightly less bland than the surface, and the Doctor’s moody suggestion that Eldrad’s story is not adding up adds a small but welcome dose of extra mystery.

Eldrad’s apparent death is another effective moment as the viewer doesn’t realise just how sympathetic she is until this point. She’s replaced by Stephen Thorne, who resorts to his usual generic acting technique of SHOUTING VERY LOUD – it just about worked in The Daemons, but this is his second encore at this point (third if you count the handful of lines he had in Frontier In Space) and it’s beginning to wear a bit thin. How did he ever get the gig narrating The Fred Dibnah Story? His costume is quite good, a sort of small mountain, but unfortunately it’s all too obviously falling apart. At least he gets some motivation through, and it’s a nice twist to have him fooling the Doctor and Sarah all along – and it’s a bone-chilling thought, a race submitting to their own destruction willingly through fear of a tyrant. It’s a good job that Paris was doing this though, as Thorne doesn’t deal with that kind of subtlety. Unfortunately, his death is rushed and clumsy – watching him step over a scarf and get CSO’d down an abyss is just about the least inspiring thing I’ve seen for months.

Now we come to the story’s acknowledged highlight: Sarah’s departure. It’s certainly the best departure of any companion, with some real though added, unlike many. Which is better: Rose’s “I wub oo Docta, sniff, snivel” at the end of Doomsday, or the Doctor’s quite understated “until we meet again, Sarah” from this? I know which one I’ll pick. It ends well, with Sarah’s happiness at being home about to tip into rampant hysteria, and with that magic glimpse at the sky.

The Hand Of Fear is a pleasant and enjoyable story that could, and should, have been far more. It doesn’t let down the quality of the season in general, grants Sarah a good leaving scene and has some great ideas of its own…but it’s just not quite Hinchcliffe.





The Deadly AssassinBookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 December 2006 - Reviewed by Shane Anderson

It’s interesting to watch a Doctor Who story that I haven’t seen in years, especially when I remember it so well that I’ve practically memorized parts of the dialogue. I’ve seen “The Deadly Assassin” more times than I can remember, but as with so many episodes, a fresh viewing causes me to see it in a different light. I’ve always thought it was a good story, but now I think it’s outstanding. It doesn’t water down the Time Lords as much as I seem to remember. The Time Lords of “The Deadly Assassin” are a varied lot, as any society would be, from the down to earth Spandrell to the haughty and politically astute Borusa to the ruthless and determined Goth. There isn’t a bland face among the supporting characters. 

There are a few unique aspects to the story that make it stand out among the others in the series. The most obvious aspect is that the Doctor is travelling alone, which is almost unique in the series history. This leads to more than the usual amount of the Doctor talking to himself, something which jumped out at me more than it had on past viewings. It’s not unknown for Baker’s Doctor to talk to himself or make asides, so it’s not out of character, but it is noticeable. Later in the story Castellan Spandrell fills the companion’s role, but he is a character of authority who moves independently of the Doctor and is essentially a peer, so he’s not typical companion material. 

Another aspect that could be considered somewhat unique is the utterly unobtrusive use of continuity. JNT’s Who contained a lot of references to past stories, many of which whacked you over the head with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer. While sometimes enjoyable, at other times that approach could get tiresome rather quickly. Here we are treated to a mention of the Doctor’s trial (The War Games) his exile (seasons 7 8 and 9) and subsequent remission of that exile (The Three Doctors), and it’s perfectly natural. It makes sense that Spandrell and Engin would discuss the Doctor’s history in relation to a criminal investigation. Notably, the Doctor’s history in relation to the Time Lords does not dictate the plot of the story, it simply provides some background and behavior motivation since the Doctor is regarded as a criminal by Spandrell, even before he’s accused of killing the President. In addition, Runcible's question "Have you had a facelift" and the Doctor's reply of "several so far" again feel quite natural, as two old acquaintances catching up would naturally discuss what they'd been doing in intervening years. It’s rare to find continuity handled so well within the context of a story. 

As mentioned, the Time Lords are a varied lot. They do not appear to be the awesomely powerful beings of ‘The War Games’ who put force fields around planets and dematerialize dangerous criminals, though since we see them in a different context, it’s easy to assume we’re simply seeing a different side of the Time Lords. However another option is presented us. Engin and Spandrell bring up the Celestial Intervention Agency, an agency which shares it’s initials with the American CIA, which leads me to assume that the name is something of a joke. Regardless, the existence of such a group does allow for the coexistence of the feared interventionists we saw in “the War Games” and the Time Lords of “Deadly Assassin” who assume much of Rassilon’s technology is a myth and whose society is apparently stagnant. It’s an believable society we’re presented with: the Time Lord aristocracy who rule the planet, who enjoy ceremony and are governed by a president and constitution; who are (like any group of politicians) concerned with the opinion of the general public. They don’t intervene in outside affairs, and despite being one of the most technologically advanced races in the universe have seemingly forgotten or lost much of their past technological prowess, while the covert CIA actively intervenes and has access to more technology and information than Time Lords in general. Perhaps the Doctor’s trial altered the strict noninterventionist stance of the Time Lords and he’s had more of an impact on his society than he knows. Perhaps the CIA was formed as a result of his opening the eyes of some Time Lords to the dangers in the universe. More on this later. 

Borusa and Goth are the two main Time Lords we get to know in the course of the story. Borusa’s relation to the Doctor is enjoyable since this is one of the few instances where the Doctor is confronted by an authority figure whom he seems to respect, and certainly remembers well. The Doctor is the perpetual outsider, but that’s not really the case here. He’s not comfortably at home in Time Lord society, but he knows it well and operates within it like an expert. Witness his use of the law to save his life in episode two, and his knowledge of the chapters and their reputations as he sneaks into the Panopticon in episode 1. He shows no favorable sentiment at being home, but is rather eager to leave when he gets the chance, which is entirely in keeping with his character. He mocks Borusa’s ‘adjusting the truth’ despite his respect for his old teacher, and Borusa seems quite fond of the Doctor despite being an apparent willing participant in the trial which would have led to the Doctor’s execution. It’s a unique relationship, expounded upon nicely in ‘The Invasion of Time’. Borusa comes across as pragmatic, recognizing the responsibilities of high office, but willing to mislead the public for what he considers the good of the Time Lords in general. 

Goth is an altogether different man, ruthless and ambitious, though seemingly charismatic as seen in his dealings with Spandrell. He’s more hard-edged with Borusa, who gives as good as he gets in exchanges with Goth. The conflict between him and the Doctor gains (unintended at the time of this was made I’m sure) depth since Bernard Horsefall played one of the Time Lords at the Doctor’s trial. In one of those happy accidents when I was taping Doctor Who off PBS, I taped the end of "the War Games", and then story that follows it on that tape is “the Deadly Assassin”, so it’s easy to watch the trial of the second Doctor and then go straight into this story. Of course it’s never stated that Goth and the Time Lord are the same character, but why not draw that conclusion since the first character is never named? It alters the way I see the characters of Goth and the Doctor relate in the story since they’ve met before and have some small history together. Goth presides over two trials of the Doctor and is almost responsible for his death. In the first instance he’s clearly out for justice by Gallifreyan standards, but in the second his motives are not so noble. However, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him, since despite his evident character flaws, he’s under the influence of the Master and thus not entirely to blame. Goth seems out of his depth during the hunt through the Matrix dreamscape in episode three. Despite being armed and knowing the terrain, he makes several mistakes which cost him the struggle. 

Another aspect of Goth that distinguishes him from other Time Lords is the fact that he’s been off planet. As I mentioned above, it’s easy to imagine that his exposure to the outside universe during the Doctor’s trial opens up his mind to the responsibility of those in power to fight evil, and so he begins to examine the universe and its problems, and to travel. He mentions meeting the Master on Terserus, and like the Doctor and the Master, Goth has had his mind broadened by spending time outside Time Lord society. His dream world in the Matrix does not reflect the environment of Gallifrey, but contains a lot of imagery from Earth. Perhaps it’s been tailored by Goth to be something familiar and disturbing to the Doctor (and of course the viewer), and it is worth noting. 

Peter Pratt’s interpretation of the Master is a far cry from Roger Delgado. Seen for the first time since “Frontier in Space”, the Master is ghastly looking and is as ruthless as he ever gets. His plan is dangerous but sound enough, and had he exercised restraint and not involved the Doctor, it would have succeeded. Just like “Colony in Space”, he puts the knowledge of the Time Lords to better use than they do, as he uses the information about the artefacts Rassilon left behind in an attempt to perpetuate his life. This Master is a far cry from the lunatic we see in Logopolis or Castrovalva. Unlike those stories, the Master doesn’t kill for no reason and doesn’t chuckle insanely, and most of all isn’t stupid enough to cause the destruction of half the universe by not doing his homework. He knows the effect that releasing the power of the Eye of Harmony will have, and he’s prepared a way to survive it. He plans ahead and considers consequences. He’s simply out to survive and take his revenge on the Doctor. However, as the Doctor observes, hatred is the Master’s weakness, and it proves his undoing as the Doctor, being the master improvisationalist that he is, lies about the sash and distracts the Master long enough to avert total disaster. 

Despite the less than stellar quality of my old off-air copy, I have to admit that the Panopticon set looks impressive. The Time Lord robes and high collars are very fitting for this austere race, and the Master looks suitably emaciated, though he would be a bit more convincing if his mouth moved better. And the poor guy can’t even close his eyes! No wonder he’s in such a bad mood. The chancellery guard don’t seem incompetent so much as outclassed by the Doctor and the Master, despite Spandrell’s sarcastic remarks to Hilred. The commander gets some exercise in police-work, since Spandrell mentions running Shobogans in for vandalism, so crime is not unknown on Gallifrey. Crimes on the scale that the Master attempts to perpetrate are another matter entirely. 

The story itself plays around with the four episode structure in a creative way. Episode One sets up the conflict and tension beautifully by showing the viewer the presumed assassination of the President by the Doctor, and ending with the same event. In between we are introduced to all the characters and situations as the Doctor works with the limited time he has to try and prevent what he has forseen from actually taking place. Episode two deals with the fallout from the events of episode one and sets up the Doctor's enemies and allies. Now the plot is a little thin for four episodes, so rather than drag out episode three with empty running around after false leads, etc., the story takes a brilliant left turn into surrealism and the wonderfully depicted duel between the Doctor and Goth, which is an outstanding bit of drama. Part four finishes the story up with a suitably grand threat and climax. Never does the story feel strung out, and so it's a triumph on the structural level as well. 

I used to be irritated that Robert Holmes had diminished the Time Lords from the high-and-mighty beings that were seen in the War Games. I’ve changed that opinion to a large degree. They are certainly de-mystified, but still interesting and in many cases equal to the Doctor, and believable as an aloof race that has turned away from the universe. As such, they no longer grow as a society. Having achieved the pinnacle of technological achievement, they’ve diminished and have become self-absorbed and complacent. The Doctor’s boredom with their society is entirely understandable. Anyone who would rather risk death time and time again at the hands of numerous hostile alien races would be out of his mind with boredom on Gallifrey. In short, “The Deadly Assassin” adds to rather than ruins the Time Lords, and is a minor masterpiece of characterisation and drama. Highly recommended.





The Face of EvilBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

The Face Of Evil is the forgotten story of season 14: The Deadly Assassin, The Robots Of Death and The Talons Of Weng-Chiang are flagged up as the classics (no argument from me), while The Masque Of Mandragora and The Hand Of Fear are the usual candidates for the one story per season that fans are by law required not to like. In the middle of it all nestles this story, always overlooked. This is a shame, as it's really quite a natty little tale. It's also important as it introduces Leela as a companion: not the best idea really as a character starting out in a position of less knowledge than the audience is a hard one to transplant into a setting other than their own, as John Wiles learned with Katarina. Also, Louise Jameson's performance took some time to smooth out (probably not helped by the fact that Tom Baker hated her guts) and consequently she is destined always to be remembered as the companion who didn't wear many clothes.

It begins in a fairly ordinary way, with stagy actors going on about a backwards religion, but it's no worse than the average beginning of any story. It then becomes genuinely disturbing, as we get to hear an old man getting eaten alive by some vicious monster called a Horda. Blimey, what's this monster? It must be seriously impressive to be flagged up so in the script!

The forest, our next location, is a nice enough set and benefits by being well shot on film. It is slightly strange for a hardcore fan like me though to hear background effects that date all the way back to The Daleks in 1963, and the invisible monsters make the same noise as the Skarasen from Terror Of The Zygons. Baker shoots in on absolute top form with his knotted hanky and gigantic alarm clock in his pocket nice examples of his bonkers character, while not overdoing it like he would in future seasons. although his talking to himself and directly to the camera is a reminder back to the previous episode where there was no companion to give him a real reason to talk out loud. Him meeting Leela is another very good scene with more great dialogue, perhaps showing why Chris Boucher is so highly regarded as a Doctor Who writer even though he only penned three stories. However, as all three were script edited by Robert Holmes (there are definite Holmesian touches in the dialogue) I'm never quite sure who to give the credit to.

Leela seems much more intelligent within her own society, but is still extremely violent; this is a violent episode in general, with people getting shot with crossbows and poisoned with Janus thorns (much better used here than in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang) left, right and centre. Although hardly the most intense story of the season this is still full-blooded in a typically Philip Hinchcliffe way, with the same high level of production values. The invisible monsters aren't brilliant compared to how the effects were done in The Daleks' Master Plan, but streets ahead of Planet Of The Daleks. The footprints look terrible, with rectangular blocks in the floor being lowered down in slow motion, but the destruction of the clock looks brilliant.

After this the jungle moves to being shot on videotape, which always highlights fakery. This example is particularly shameless, using industrial piping as vines, but it gets by on the general weirdness such as the sky being jet black in daylight. It's hard to notice anyway as attention-grabbing plot points are dealt out slowly, where the Doctor meets more of the natives and discovers that all is not as it seems on this planet. Neeva's Welsh accent is jarring but since it's an alien planet there's no good reason why it should be any more out of place than the other characters' Queen's-English (these are without doubt the poshest savages since The Time Meddler). The scene where Neeva waves the "artefact" around the Doctor is well written but ridiculously played by David Garfield, who staves of laughter by doing a Rolf Harris impression.

After escaping the Doctor manages to threaten the natives with a jelly baby, in my favourite scene in the story. The Sevateem really are a backwards people: those haircuts are just so 1967. After this scene - a very Holmesy one - we come to the cliffhanger, and it's a knockout. One of the story's major strengths is that all three cliffhangers are excellent, this one being the moment the Doctor sees his own face carved in a mountainside. The only thing that jars is the constant switching between film and video, but it's only a minor quibble.

When watched all in one go, it is very noticeable that the titles of each episode form almost the only breaks in Dudley Simpson's omnipresent score: this one is average, neither great nor terrible, but it is very intrusive. The discovery of Neeva's sanctum is an interesting scene as we get to hear Baker talking to himself over a radio link, which is played to be so ordinary that it's hard to notice how imaginative it is. The dialogue between the Doctor and his alter-ego is excellent, foreshadowing the plot without actually giving anything away.

The time barrier effect is good, as have most of the other effects been so far, and I like the way it is presented to the audience; these days people see the need to justify every science-fictional concept with a pseudo-authentic explanation, but here all we know is that time is somehow moved forward a couple of seconds. It's science...fiction! We are shown the barrier just in time for the Sevateem to attack it, and for a tribe of warriors they are seriously laughable in battle. Their plan of action seems to mainly consist of shouting "ATTACK!" at the top of their voices while creeping very slowly towards the enemy and doing nothing else once they get there. One of them even does a Red Indian war cry, for crying out loud. The scene where the Doctor breaks Calib's leg (so he claims) I consider an insult to anyone who's ever broken a bone (i.e. me) as he is up and on his feet in seconds. I am never sure whether this is a joke - the Doctor's subsequent threat to break Calib's nose would suggest so - but it is presented as being serious enough (just not very painful).

The Doctor is captured, and I love the scene where he dismisses Neeva's claim that he can physically renew himself as ridiculous. We then get the Horda scene, a wonderfully written and designed scene let down by a badly-choreographed fight scene with Leela rolling around the floor like a toddler. And, of course we get to see the Horda. Actually we saw them right at the beginning, slithering along at the end of a piece of string, but this is where we are told that this deadly creature we've been hearing so much about is in fact a plastic stick with a fin at one end and some Blue Peter-made teeth at the other. Frankly, things crawling in my bath have been scarier than that (i.e. me again). However, it is nice to hear some effort made to make the stone blocks actually sound like stone as they part, as opposed to polystyrene. On the subject of sounds Xoanon's second voice sounds a lot like one of the robots from the subsequent story, which is odd as Brian Croucher didn't actually play a robot in it. Maybe I'm hearing things - it certainly sounded like Baker mispronounced Tomas's name "Thomas", which made me laugh.

The CSO used to put the Doctor and Leela by the face of the idol is poor, but it's an impressive scene nonetheless. The cliffhanger, as I said before, is great, as the Doctor's image is lit up in the air. I should have been expecting it really having already heard Tom Baker's voice coming from somewhere other than Tom Baker's mouth (no, you sicko, from the speaker), but it's still wonderful to see.

Episode three gets off to a slightly muddled start as Boucher sets himself the task of introducing a completely new place and people halfway through the story. It's easy to see how the story is structured with such a sudden change between episodes, which is unusual when watching a serial all in one go. Unfortunately the design of the spaceship is bland and the Tesh look completely ridiculous, little eight-stone weaklings dressed as playing cards from Alice In Wonderland. However, Xoanon looks good: a little screen-savery perhaps, but a good screen saver, and the three actors talking together produce a brilliant atmosphere. What is also good is that the Doctor discovers the plot at the same speed as the audience for once, making the very well-written expositionary dialogue seem natural and appropriate for once. Another nice touch is the fact that all the planet's troubles have happened because the Doctor screwed up.

The scene when Leela and the Doctor are about to get diced by the laser is very derivative and closer to the lightweight action adventure that characterises most of season 15. It does show some hints of religious imagery, which would be appropriate to the story and in keeping with the deliberately Biblical imagery of Neeva's litanies - but maybe it is I who am now talking out of somewhere other than my mouth. The other action scenes are similarly staid and uneasy - a shame, as it's generally a well directed episode - but then again there are mirrored sets which must be difficult when shooting multi-camera. The final scene has a lot of plot delivered, but it is told like a story and makes very compelling listening. This is followed by one of the best cliffhangers of the 70s, with a massive image of the Doctor's face screaming "WHO AM I?" in a child's voice. It's surreal, creepy, and at least as scary as the one in The Deadly Assassin that had Mary Whitehouse choking on her garibaldi.

The final episode continues this air of bizarreness, with the Tesh getting scared by mood lighting. It's fun to watch Xoanon trying to kill the Doctor, even though the electrocution effect is rubbish, and if I'm in an unforgiving mood I'd say that Leela actually managed to shoot the Doctor. The Sevateem breaking in allows for some excellent characterisation of the Tesh, who are more concerned with not getting agitated than with actually stopping their enemies.

In the end though it reverts to a simply defuse-the-bomb scenario, which I would have thought was below this story, although the resolution is still more imaginative than usual. The end scene with Xoanon seems very forced and largely unnecessary as it's only repeating what we already know, but the old gramophone player is a nice touch. We must be thankful the episode is not written by Russell T. Davies, or the Doctor and Leela would probably start grooving to 'Dancing Queen' (see The End Of The World). The final coda is over quickly, a "get the companion into the TARDIS before the studio lights get turned off" moment, but it's well written and better than some companions got, for example Dodo. All in all then, despite a few dodgy moments of production in the second half, this is a very solid story with very little to dent it.





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Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Adam Riggio

Enough has been said about the racism implicit in many of the characters in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. My only advice is that if you concentrate only on a few jibes that are correct for the Victorian era and ignore the brilliant character development, creepy period atmosphere, and some of the tightest plotting for a six-part serial; then you will miss all that is worth savouring about it.

The odd thing about The Talons of Weng-Chiang that may turn off some first time viewers is that no one knows what’s really going on throughout the entire story except for the villain, Weng-Chiang. And as The Doctor says of him when asked who he is, “I don’t know. He didn’t introduce himself.” Weng-Chiang – or Magnus Greel if you prefer – isn’t about to reveal his secrets to anyone. So the audience is almost as much in the dark as Leela, Litefoot, or Jago. The only advantage a viewer has is that we’re used to watching science fiction, so can follow ideas like time travelling cabinets and life essence transferral machines. And even at the episode six denouement, we only discover the true nature of Greel’s technology in quick snippets of easily missed dialogue.

The only other difficulty I can see people having with The Talons of Weng-Chiang is that all the supporting characters are so well-written that they overshadow The Doctor himself. He’s in fine form here, with almost every scene played perfectly. Example one – approaching the Chinese thugs carrying a dead body in episode one with the phrase, “Say, could I help you with that?” then going into Doctor Who’s most blatant (and bizarre) example of Kung Fu cinema. Example two – casually reminding the apparent Orientalist Litefoot that his authentic Chinese blunderbuss is in fact an imitation from Birmingham. Example three – walking into Litefoot’s dining room carrying a map and talking, sitting next to Greel, looking him straight in the face, and saying “Oh good! I see you let yourself in.” Example four, et al – every other scene he’s in. He’s a bit too uniformly serious in this story for my own Tom tastes. I prefer some of his crazier moments in Ark in Space or the occasional bit of City of Death-style madcappery. But if you like the more dour, moody Fourth Doctor of season 14, this is the perfect place to go.

Leela too has some excellent moments. Disguising herself as the dolled-up prostitute Teresa in episode three to infiltrate Greel’s secret hideaway is just right for her action hero persona. The way she spits curses at Greel as he’s about to suck the life out of her in episode six, you can almost feel the saliva on your face. And her dinner with Litefoot speaks perfectly to the Eliza Doolittle concept that was originally behind her character, in addition to being hilarious.

Just as a side note, Leela looks nothing like Teresa, even with her face covered, but Chang doesn’t notice. Pretty ironic considering his earlier comment regarding his character’s ethnicity, “I suppose we all look the same.”

It’s Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago who most often steal the show from The Doctor, though. They had quite a bit of chemistry as a comical double act, but they didn’t even meet until episode five. So we first meet them as fabulous characters in their own right. Litefoot comes across quite well as an over-earnest, but very out-of-his-depth police pathologist. Tracking down a murder mystery he can handle, sort of, but you can tell how confused he is once forty-ninth century technology starts making its appearance. Still, he’s good in a pinch, and a charming fellow, really. As I mentioned, the dinner scene with Leela is hilarious, as he’s just too polite to eat from a plate when he sees her tearing straight into a side of beef. When he tells The Doctor that Weng-Chiang’s bandits won’t catch him napping again, you know he’s going to fall asleep in time for them to break into the house. But he’s so charming when he says it that you really, truly do want to believe him.

But it was Jago who stole my heart in this story. Maybe it’s the frustrated actor in me, but the way he talks about the skill and theatricality he brings to his job announcing the acts, ad-libbing jokes, and taking care of the accounts makes me smile at this blustery old fart who puts so much honest effort into his usually thankless job. He’s the perfect archetype of the portly bellower who talks big but is a bit of a coward underneath. When The Doctor discovers the hologram of the ghost that Weng-Chiang set up to keep people away from his hideout, you see Jago faint behind him at the sight of it, leaving The Doctor to drag him away. This is only one of the many cracking funny moments Jago has in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. He and Litefoot do work wonderfully together, Litefoot’s earnestness fitting perfectly against Jago’s blustering cowardice. And it is a wonderful moment for Jago when he finally gives himself enough bravery to distract the carnage-happy Mr. Sin so Leela can grab a nearby gun without being shot. Seeing these two walk off into the fog at the end reminded me just a little bit of the end of Casablanca, a much more upbeat beginning of a beautiful friendship.

But I can’t discuss this story without mention of the villains, and what villains they are. Weng-Chiang/Magnus Greel is the most mystifying of all. We first hear the name Weng-Chiang as The Doctor describes him, an ancient malevolent Chinese god. But once we see him, we see a psychotic broken figure with a hidden face and disfigured hands who, while quite malevolent, does not seem all that Chinese. The sight of him firing a laser pistol, and The Doctor’s discovery of future technology is enough to clue the viewer into the less than heavenly origins of the character. It is just his psychotic nature that makes him so compelling. Hardly fitting the standard profile of a Chinese god, we are left to wonder about his nature until The Doctor finally fills us in at the end of the story with recollections of his own experiences in the forty-ninth century. If he were subtle and less brutally violent, we would be more likely to believe that he was a supernatural being. The clash with our initial expectations of him draws the viewer deeper into the mystery of what exactly he is. Plus, he is also an entirely repulsive character, taking pleasure in every death around him, laughing maniacally when he forces his henchmen to commit suicide. And there is rather clearly a perverse sexual overtone to his prediliction for feeding on the life force of supple young women. Perhaps if he is too deformed to attract them, he will instead see them die.

And of course, Li H’Sen Chang. Yes he was played by a white man in fairly obvious makeup, and yes his accent was atrocious. But as no one is willing to give an adequate explanation, I will move on and say what a marvellous character! Here is a man driven to the murder of ten young women in London alone to please his master, his supposed god. Ever since he was a peasant, Chang has devoted his life to the service of Weng-Chiang, and he is positively menacing. His low, accented voice is perfect to deliver completely certain threats. When he’s on the surface, he’s in control, hypnotising his victims at will and having those who get too close to his operation despatched as easily as that angry cab driver in episode one. Then when he descends into his master’s hell, he is at times forced to beg forgiveness from his psychopathic lord. And when Greel betrays and abandons him, he willingly runs into the sewers to be chewed to death by giant rats. His last scene, dying in an opium den, his thoughts only on how he has wasted his life, offer him some little redemption for the destruction he has caused in the service of a false god.

But all these wonderful characters would be useless if lost in a muddled plot, but with Robert Holmes, we have a story with hardly a single throwaway moment. There may be some slow moments, perhaps inevitable in a Doctor Who story more than two hours long, but we are always on edge, waiting for the next developments to occur. Plus, every episode sees a part of the story arc develop with a considerably different character. The ominous atmosphere is present throughout, but each episode is a little different in tone, making sure that none of the action quite blurs together between the episode barriers as I’ve noticed in many other serials. 

Episode one excellently sets up our creepy tale, introducing us to the unsettling character of Li H’Sen Chang. The gruesome death of the cab driver – insane old Victorian bag lady with no teeth included! – sets the tone for the proceedings. Mr. Sin brandishing his knife for the first time is just plain scary. Deep Roy has quite a good performance here as the psychotic robot Mr. Sin. I’m sure this was much more fun in a grisly sort of way than his later role as an ewok in Return of the Jedi. Episode two sees the mystery build as we see Weng-Chiang for the first time, as well as The Doctor’s superbly shot chase around the upper chambers of the theatre. Plus, we get the whimsical break in the terror supplied by Leela and Litefoot’s dinner. 

Episode three gives us a disturbing play-by-play of Chang’s kidnaps, as he hypnotises the prostitute in the early morning and leads a theatre cleaning girl to her death. Episode four sees the battle of wits – at times both amusing and shocking – between The Doctor and Chang during his magic performance. Seeing Chang at the height of his power only makes his fall from grace in this episode all the harder. Episode five sees the shift from Chang to Greel as the plot focusses on the hunt for Greel’s new hideout. We also get two versions of this hunt – the serious one from The Doctor and Leela, and one tinged with low to middle comedy from Jago and Litefoot. How oddly appropriate that the comedians find it first! 

Episode six, of course, sees the climactic final fight, as the mad Greel dies in his own machine with which he has killed so many others. A minor quibble with this episode, we never see what The Doctor does with all Greel’s anachronistic technology, aside from smashing the key to the time cabinet. Of course, given that the story has given us little explanation of Greel’s origins and technology, it’s only fitting that The Doctor’s deconstruction of the Zygma equipment be cut for the much more character-centric tea discussion over muffins. I think this was one of the best ending lines for a final battle scene I remember seeing in Doctor Who. Some bells ring nearby, and The Doctor says, “It’s the muffin man. Come on, I’ll buy you some muffins.”

And then the four of them are eating muffins.

On the giant rats, there’s a real person in a rat suit in some of those shots, as I found out in the Whose Doctor Who documentary that came with the dvd. The rat scenes are really the only moments in this serial where viewer commentary like “Cheap 1970s BBC effects coming up!” are all that necessary.

Incidentally, The Talons of Weng-Chiang contains a throwaway reference to Time Agents, which would reappear as more important parts of the Who universe in the novel Eater of Wasps, in which they were morally ambiguous operatives The Eighth Doctor had to deal with. However, it was this organization that gave us Captain Jack Harkness, so perhaps they have been redeemed at least a little.

An endnote: John Bennett gave a wonderful performance, but I thought of a good Asian actor who could have played the part well, if perhaps with some makeup to make him appear the same age he was when I first saw him in the mid-1990s. Soon Tek Oh, who played Bon Bon Hai, a recurring villain on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Now, he was menacing.





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Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

Like ‘City of Death,’ ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ represents a kind of series zenith for lots of Doctor Who fans; for many, it’s simply The Best Story Ever, with The Best Doctor Ever, from The Best Production Era Ever, etc., etc. Now, I don’t intend to make hamburger out of this sacred cow, exactly, but I will perhaps take an unflinching look at it, udders and all.

The most usual objection to be made against the story, when any objection is made at all, is that it is racist. The fan response to this tends to be a combination of “It’s not racist, it’s mocking the Victorians’ racism!” and “Well, things were different in the 1970s.” The second statement is certainly true, even if it doesn’t really excuse much; the first doesn’t quite wash. Victorian racism is indeed on display throughout ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang,’ but, oddly, Robert Holmes’s script never explicitly criticizes it, and the few truly identifiable swipes against it (Chang’s dry “I understand, we all look alike”; the Doctor’s one or two sarcastic responses to generalizations about the Chinese, e.g.) cannot be said with absolute certainty to come from the screenplay, and could easily be ironic line readings chosen by the actors or the director.

These observations out of the way, it is probably fair to say that this objection to ‘Talons’ has been somewhat exaggerated. No, the script isn’t aggressively critical of 19th century attitudes about race, but it isn’t enthusiastic about them either, and if this were the story’s only troubling aspect it might be easier to see why it’s so often overlooked.

But judged simply in terms of its entertainment value, ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ seems to me to be only a fair representative of the Philip Hinchcliffe era, and not nearly as good as some. In particular, the story often strikes me as a poor man’s ‘Brain of Morbius.’ Michael Spice’s presence aside, the plot has many parallels to the earlier story – both have crippled, technologically advanced megalomaniacs relying on human administrators to restore them to their former glorious states, via methods most unwholesome. But Greel is a less convincing villain than Morbius, whose unhinged rants make much sense when one considers the unending frustration that must be experienced by a brain sitting in a jug. Greel’s ranting, on the other hand, seems unconnected to his physical malady; in fact, one would think his disintegrating body would have made him too weak for the kind of relentless roaring Spice does in the role. Furthermore, while Holmes’s evocative “infamous minister of justice” and “butcher of Brisbane” lines are wonderfully sinister, they don’t quite jell with the pathetic paper tiger we see here, who can’t even do anything when his servants fail him but belittle and yell. And boy, does Spice yell – in fact, if anything, he seems bent on out-shouting his performance in ‘Morbius.’ In my view, a weak, obviously dying, more truly phantom-like Greel would have made more sense with this plot, but Spice didn’t choose this road, and the result is generically hammy Who villain, hardly belonging in the pantheon of greats. 

The rest of the problems are relatively minor, but they’re still worth noting. Henry Gordon Jago is a well-loved Holmes creation, but his alliteration rather grates on me, and he doesn’t really get a chance to be anything but pompous until the final episode. There’s a strange Anglocentric quality to some of the jokes, notably the Doctor’s strange, out-of-character one about Birmingham – why would a Time Lord know or care about such things? And speaking of the Doctor, Tom Baker puts in a decent performance, but the character strikes me as strangely all-knowing here. Perhaps it’s all part of the Holmes homage conceit (I mean Sherlock, not Robert, this time), but even so, the Doctor seems to do very little real deduction, but rather just leaps to the correct conclusions based on some very convenient foreknowledge (about the Tong of the Black Scorpion, the Time Cabinet, the Peking Homunculus, and of course the mythology of Weng-Chiang itself). He is the Doctor, of course, but it all feels a bit unnatural – I much prefer a Doctor who does a bit of genuine detective work, be it in this story or any other.

All this said, there are of course some wonderful, rightly beloved elements sprinkled here and there throughout the episode. I don’t generally find Louise Jameson very convincing as Leela – the character is brilliantly conceived, but the actress rarely sells it for me, despite looking the part (and then some, ahem). However, here her snarling contempt for Greel, and her lack of fear, shines through perfectly, and the line “When we are both in the great hereafter I shall hunt you down, bent-face, and put you through my agonies a thousand times!” gave me chills. And her interplay with Litefoot, an extremely likeable character, is charming; you sense that Jameson and Trevor Baxter got on rather well. I actually think the giant rat puppet works surprisingly well, especially when it’s rushing the camera, and of course Mr. Sin is a creepy, surreal idea with a terrific name (and I think he looks a bit like Jennifer Paterson, but maybe that’s just me). The screenplay and direction keep the action moving along, and in Episode Six everything comes together so well that we almost forget the bumps we encountered on the way there. And then there’s Mr. Chang . . .

Probably the greatest irony of ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang,’ with its nebulous racial sensibilities, is that it is the story’s one ‘yellowface’ character that emerges as its single most successful element. Li H’sen Chang is an extremely complex creation – cold, and hideously unconcerned with the lives he takes for his master; and yet the character has a genuine pathos about him, even a tragedy. In his performance, John Bennett radiates cool loathing for the bigotry and blindnesses of his Victorian surroundings, and one can easily see how Chang could want to believe that an ancient god from his homeland would come to deliver him from a degrading, performing-monkey existence in a vulgar, foreign music hall – even to the point of grasping at straws, or committing murder. Holmes gives Chang the most beautiful lines of the story – even throwaway ones like his description of the Doctor as having “hair that curls like a ram” have a touch of poetry in them, and by the end we are genuinely angry at Greel for his thankless mistreatment and misunderstanding of his patient, deluded servant. Chang’s final scene, in which he is allowed to recognize some of his mistakes, and make a kind of peace with his fate, is a welcome piece of mercy on Holmes’s part, the character expires with a dignity that was sorely lacking in his Victorian life anyway. 

Of course, it would have been interesting to see an actual Chinese actor do the part . . . .








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