The Talons of Weng-ChiangBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

The Discontinuity Guide sums up 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' with the quotation, "I may have had a bash on the head, but this is a dashed queer story". It is entirely fitting; 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' combines giant rats, a killer ventriloquist doll with the brain of a pig, a disfigured madman from the future, and a villainous oriental magician, in a Victorian period setting. The first time I ever saw 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' it became my favourite Doctor Who story of all time, and after many, many repeated viewings it has remained so. With a great villain, superb supporting characters and Tom Baker on top of his game, it summarizes everything that is great about the Hinchcliffe era. 

'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is often compared to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but as Andy Lane pointed out, the Doctor's costume aside it owes far more to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels. As anyone who has read any of these will know, Rohmer's novels feature an evil oriental genius who uses his Elixir vitae to extend his lifespan and is served by the Si-fan, essentially a Triad. In some respects, Magnus Greel resembles Fu Manchu, since he is an evil scientist who uses his organic distillation plant for the same ends as the Elixir vitae, and is served by his own equivalent of the Si-fan, the Tong of the Black Scorpion. But Li H'sen Chang shares some of the attributes of Fu Manchu, most notably in the way that he is portrayed; Chang is played by English actor John Bennett (who puts in a highly impressive performance), and whilst it is rather unusual from a twenty-first century perspective to see an English actor made up to look Chinese, this acts (intentionally or otherwise) as a visual nod to Christopher Lee's portrayal of Fu Manchu in several films. In addition, there are thematic links to Rohmer's work; the Fu Manchu novels are very much a product of their time and are typified by their "yellow peril" mentality, with Rohmer's oriental anti-hero on one hand thoroughly evil, whilst on the other treated with a strangely contrasting air of grudging respect and almost awe. This is perhaps a literal example of xenophobia, as the Chinese in Rohmer's novels are portrayed as an alien but honourable culture with strange and exotic customs. There are nods to this dichotomy in 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang'; Litefoot describes the Chinese as inscrutable and uses politically incorrect terms such as "Chinks" and "Wongs", whilst also fondly remembering his upbringing in Peking, treasuring the gifts from the Emperor to his family, and marveling at the use of fireworks at his father's funeral. In addition, Holmes seems to be knowingly poking fun at the stereotyping that he himself incorporates into his script, with Chang dryly remarking, "I understand we all look the same", and "The bird has flown - one of us is yellow". 

Chang is an effective villain, and unusually for a secondary villain is very well characterised; few villains in Doctor Who repent their sins before they die, but Chang is one such example. Having blindly served Greel for many years, his master's betrayal cuts deep, as he humiliates Chang publicly by introducing Casey's corpse into his stage show. Chang's realization that he has long served a monster is completed when one of the rats drags him to his lair and he finds himself in a "charnel house" full of human remains. Chang's repentance in no way excuses the fact that he has led many a young woman to a grisly death, but it stands as an interesting and effective piece of characterisation. Bennett's performance makes it doubly successful, and he excels in his many scenes, particularly the stage show in Episode Four, as he plays a game of cat and mouse with the Doctor; not only does Bennett make a great villain, he also makes a convincing stage magician! 

Mr. Sin is another memorable Holmes' creation, fulfilling the traditional role of murderous henchman, but with a considerable twist. The Peking Homunculus is an exercise in grotesquerie, a homicidal robot dwarf with the brain of a pig and the appearance of a large, if rather repulsive, doll. It's technological origin fits in perfectly with the era from which it supposedly hails, whilst its appearance is somehow appropriate to its Victorian surroundings in the story. As the token monster, it excels, snorting and cackling horribly as it kills or anticipates death, and the Doctor's grave warning as to the danger it represents are realized in Episode Six, as its bloodlust finally builds to a crescendo and it slaughters Greel's men when they enter the room. To a lesser extent, this is also shown by the fact that it turns on Greel, although this is also motivated by self-preservation, since unlike Greel it listens to the Doctor's insistence that the Zygma experiment is appalling dangerous. With two such memorable villains, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is already ahead of its game, but it is Michael Spice as Magnus Greel, alias Weng-Chiang, who really steals the show. 

Magnus Greel is a truly loathsome villain. Like Morbius in 'The Brain of Morbius' (voiced of course, by Michael Spice), and the Master in 'The Deadly Assassin', Greel is motivated not by power and conquest, but by an overwhelming need to survive. To this end, he will stop at nothing; he thinks nothing of murder of the abducted girls for the sake of his well being, dismissing them as "slatterns" and treating them as mindless cattle; in Episode Five he literally compares them to food. In addition, his desperation is such that he frantically denies the Doctor's warnings about the failure of the Zygma experiments, and this denial threatens to destroy a large area of London. Throughout the first five episodes, he is portrayed as a malingering ghoul, hiding in the shadows in a dank subterranean lair, where he feeds on the life energy of helpless victims. The entire script is geared to emphasize that Greel is utterly depraved; the Doctor and Leela refer to him as a "blackguard", "a gangrenous vampire" and "an underground crab". To add an extra dimension of degeneracy to his character, his chosen victims are all young women; there seems to be no particular reason for this, save that he prefers preying on young women to young men. Significantly, he strips his victims, including Leela, to their underwear before placing them in his machine. Everything about Greel reeks of evil; like the Master in 'The Deadly Assassin', he is physically as well as morally twisted. He is quick to dismiss Chang, who it is suggested nursed him back to health and has served him loyally for many months, with great rapidity when Chang makes mistakes, but not satisfied with dismissing him for his failure, he also gleefully decides to publicly humiliate his faithful servant, seemingly on the spur of the moment. He's unrelentingly sadistic, and Holmes' script allows him to be a rare example of a villain who can choose not to kill his enemies so that he can make them suffer instead, without it seeming contrived. The fact that he begs piteously when faced with death almost adds insult to injury. And then, as if all this wasn't enough, we get the revelations about his past in Episode Six. 

Throughout 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', the Doctor discusses his enemy with an air of utter contempt, but in Episode Six when he finally learns exactly who his enemy is, Baker manages to convey whole new levels of disgust. It is testament to Holmes' talents as a writer that in one short scene, he uses a few lines to imply so much about Greel that his atrocities in the story up until that point almost pale in comparison. References to "the infamous minister of justice" and "the butcher of Brisbane" paint a picture of a monster, evoking images of the worst crimes of the Third Reich. Thousands of "enemies of the state" were, we are told, slaughtered in his organic distillation plant. By the end of Episode Six, Greel stands as one of the series' most memorable, and most despicable, villains; his final scenes, as he desperately tries to bargain with the Doctor, and is betrayed by Mr. Sin, are wholly fitting. Greel doesn't die spectacularly or dramatically; already near to death, he dies pleading and is hoist by his own petard as the Doctor throws him into the machine that he has used to kill so many others. Spice is perfect in the role, playing the part with melodrama, but never quite going over the top, even when he utters the immortal line "Let the talons of Weng-Chiang shred your fleeeeesh!" Visually, he's also striking, leather-masked and silver-robed, (with an obvious homage to The Phantom of the Opera in Episode Two) limping painfully about with filthy, scabrous hands. 

In addition to these memorable villains, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' boasts two of the most celebrated supporting characters in the series' history, which form perhaps the finest example of the so-called "Robert Holmes double act". Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago, played to perfection by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin, respectively. Litefoot is the perfect Victorian gentlemen, dignified and distinguished, and with impeccable manners. The scene in which he gnaws on a leg of meat so as to avoid embarrassing the similarly-feasting Leela is charming, and shows that his air of chivalry is no act; indeed, despite initial astonishment at Leela's talk of knife-blows, he seems genuinely charmed by her throughout. He also provides reliable support for the Doctor, proving resolutely courageous throughout as he tries his best to tackle murderous Tong members and Greel himself. Jago is more the ostensibly comic figure, characterised by bluster and pompous, flamboyant verbiage. Despite his enormous ego in the early episodes (he refers to his great character several times, most amusingly during the scene in which he compares his supposedly implacable will to "the Rock of Gibraltar", just before the Doctor hypnotizes him), Jago is easily terrified, and is forced to admit that he is not so "bally brave" as he likes to pretend whilst imprisoned with Litefoot. To his enormous credit however, he proves correct Litefoot's faith in him, playing a key role in the climax, as he distracts Mr. Sin with a terrified squawk of "I say! I say! I say!" so that Leela can go for the gun, which she eventually uses to destroy the Eye of the Dragon. Jago is thus that bravest of people, someone who is afraid but overcomes it to act bravely when he needs to. 

Amidst all these fine performances, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson still manage to shine. Baker puts in one of his finest performance, and one of the last of his more balanced performances as the Doctor prior to the series' shift in emphasis towards humour. He displays his usual talent for wit throughout, with his deadpan humour making the best of hugely entertaining scenes such as his insistence that Litefoot's Chinese fowling piece is made in Birmingham. In addition to wit, he has some of his most commanding scenes in this story; the Doctor's utter contempt for Greel is almost tangible in Episode Six, and I also love his psychological duel with Chang in Episode Four, as he participates in his stage show. The look on his face as he moves the pack of cards towards his face positively dares Chang to shoot him. He's also at his most commanding, effortlessly gaining the trust of Litefoot and Jago, and also easily taking command in the police station after the Tong member commits suicide, despite having been treated with great suspicion by the "flat-footed imbecile" of a policeman only moments before. As in 'Pyramids of Mars', he also bristles with nervous tension as he desperately races to stop Greel from using the Zygma cabinet. And his costume, which really is a nod to Sherlock Holmes, is great. Leela too is superb here; thrust into an environment almost as alien to her as the Sandminer, she struggles to make sense of it, and this allows Holmes to poke fun at Victorian etiquette with glee, especially in her scenes with Litefoot. As usual, her warrior nature also comes to the fore, and she briefly clashes with the Doctor after killing his would-be assassin with a Janis thorn in Episode One; I love the way he sheepishly stops lecturing her about killing after she points out that her victim was trying to kill him. In addition, her hatred of Greel is very convincing, as she constantly swears to avenge the victims of "bent-face", and her defiance in the face of death in Episode Six is rather impressive. Her softer side is also on display here too though, she seems fascinated by the theatre and by Litefoot's sense of chivalry, and the scene in which she shyly displays her new Victorian dress to the Doctor and Litefoot (leaving them both briefly speechless) is charming. She also screams for the first time worth mentioning, revealing that it takes being attacked by a ten-foot long giant rat to really rattle her. Which is fair enough, really. 

The production is superb; the mist-shrouded location footage meshes perfectly with the splendid sets, to really evoke the desired period costume. It's also authentically seedy, with on screen use of opium, and Teresa obviously a prostitute. Dudley Simpson's incidental score is just as impressive as that for the previous story. Admittedly the rat looks too cuddly, but it's only briefly seen and David Maloney makes a sterling effort to hide the limitations of the prop. To be honest though, it's offset by so much that is good here that I can entirely forgive it! The last story of the Phillip Hinchcliffe era, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is for many fans the xenith of his tenure on the show. For me, it's more than that; it's the jewel in the crown of the entire television series. It also heralds a change; with Graham Williams taking over as producer, a more light-hearted, less gothic horror oriented direction lay just round the corner. The change would be dramatic, but fortunately not too abrupt; Season Fifteen would prove to feature stories typical of both producers' styles, serving as a transitional stage between the two…