Like City of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang represents a kind of series zenith for lots of Doctor Who fans; for many, its simply The Best Story Ever, with The Best Doctor Ever, from The Best Production Era Ever, etc., etc. Now, I dont 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 Its not racist, its mocking the Victorians racism! and Well, things were different in the 1970s. The second statement is certainly true, even if it doesnt really excuse much; the first doesnt quite wash. Victorian racism is indeed on display throughout The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but, oddly, Robert Holmess script never explicitly criticizes it, and the few truly identifiable swipes against it (Changs dry I understand, we all look alike; the Doctors 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 isnt aggressively critical of 19th century attitudes about race, but it isnt enthusiastic about them either, and if this were the storys only troubling aspect it might be easier to see why its 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 mans Brain of Morbius. Michael Spices 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. Greels 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 Holmess evocative infamous minister of justice and butcher of Brisbane lines are wonderfully sinister, they dont quite jell with the pathetic paper tiger we see here, who cant 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 didnt 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 theyre still worth noting. Henry Gordon Jago is a well-loved Holmes creation, but his alliteration rather grates on me, and he doesnt really get a chance to be anything but pompous until the final episode. Theres a strange Anglocentric quality to some of the jokes, notably the Doctors 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 its 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 dont 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 its 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 thats 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 theres Mr. Chang . . .
Probably the greatest irony of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, with its nebulous racial sensibilities, is that it is the storys one yellowface character that emerges as its single most successful element. Li Hsen 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. Changs 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 Holmess 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 . . . .