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 whats 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 dont know. He didnt introduce himself. Weng-Chiang or Magnus Greel if you prefer isnt 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 were 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 Greels 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. Hes 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 Whos 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 Litefoots 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 hes in. Hes 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 Greels secret hideaway is just right for her action hero persona. The way she spits curses at Greel as hes 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 doesnt notice. Pretty ironic considering his earlier comment regarding his characters ethnicity, I suppose we all look the same.
Its 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 didnt 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, hes good in a pinch, and a charming fellow, really. As I mentioned, the dinner scene with Leela is hilarious, as hes 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-Chiangs bandits wont catch him napping again, you know hes going to fall asleep in time for them to break into the house. But hes 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 its 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. Hes 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, Litefoots earnestness fitting perfectly against Jagos 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 cant 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 Doctors 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 HSen 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 hes on the surface, hes 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 masters 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 Ive noticed in many other serials.
Episode one excellently sets up our creepy tale, introducing us to the unsettling character of Li HSen 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. Im 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 Doctors superbly shot chase around the upper chambers of the theatre. Plus, we get the whimsical break in the terror supplied by Leela and Litefoots dinner.
Episode three gives us a disturbing play-by-play of Changs 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 Greels 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 Greels anachronistic technology, aside from smashing the key to the time cabinet. Of course, given that the story has given us little explanation of Greels origins and technology, its only fitting that The Doctors 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, Its the muffin man. Come on, Ill buy you some muffins.
And then the four of them are eating muffins.
On the giant rats, theres 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.