Doctor Who: Talons of Weng Chiang (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros sink their critical talons into this classic Fourth Doctor story...
The year was 1976 and Doctor Who had entered a golden period—in a very short space of time, Tom Baker had come to be regarded by the general public as the definitive Doctor and producer Philip Hinchliffe had taken the show into what was eventually to be regarded as a “gothic period”, in which the emphasis was on horror and many of the staples of literary and cinematic areas of that genre were being used as the inspiration for many stories in that particular era.
The TARDIS materialises in the East-End of London around the time of Jack the Ripper and the Doctor intends to show Leela some of the history of her ancestors. Things are not well in the Limehouse area, as young women are still disappearing—could the Ripper still be at work, or are they going missing for a purpose far more sinister than the gratification of a twisted killer? Whilst making their way to a local theatre, The Doctor and Leela are set upon by a group of Chinese ne’er-do-wells who have seemingly murdered a cab driver. The Doctor and Leela escape unscathed, but this incident was merely the beginning of a mystery that will bring them face-to-face with notorious 51st century despot Magnus Greel, his diminutive murderous henchman, Mr Sin and not to mention a giant rat…
The Talons of Weng Chiang seemed to contain a series of elements and factors that all seemed to come together and produced, in Doctor Who terms, a perfect storm; Tom Baker was arguably at the top of his game, relishing the part before getting bored with it toward the end of his tenure; Louise Jameson was never more appealing as Leela, who works wonderfully well when such a strong, yet culturally unsophisticated, character is dropped right into Victorian London; having Robert Holmes, who was arguably Doctor Who’s finest writer also didn’t help, either; the story also benefited from being a period piece, which allowed the production access to the vast resources of the drama department in terms of props, scenery and costumes. The director of The Talons of Weng Chiang was David Maloney, who would direct several of the most highly-regarded stories in the original run of Doctor Who, and was someone who knew how to create the moody atmosphere necessary for such a grim story.
The period setting cannot be faulted, with foggy cobbled streets, Hansom cabs being pulled along by horses, music-halls and dingy opium dens all having an air of authenticity that just screams "BBC drama department". Baker and Jameson are both decked out in appropriate clothing, with Baker sporting a deerstalker and cape, along with Jameson dressed like Eliza Doolittle, which was intentional, as that was essentially the relationship between Leela and the Doctor.
The guest cast are also wonderful—Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot are wonderful, both bringing what were already well-written characters to begin with and fleshing them out to provide the most fully-formed and engaging one-shot characters in Doctor Who’s history. The contrast between the vaguely shifty impresario Jago and the upright academic Litefoot makes for an endlessly fascinating contrast. Their chemistry was such that Big Finish recently started a series of Jago and Litefoot audio books. Deep Roy arguably terrified a generation of kids with his portrayal of the sinister Mr Sin, however, the knife-wielding right-hand man of Magnus Greel seems almost cute when he’s not trying to kill people.
Having Caucasian actor John Bennett playing the magician and mesmerist Chinese Li H’Sen Chiang is quite possibly the only misstep in the story, as it’s screamingly obvious that Bennett is not Asian, but acquits himself as well as he can in the role. It would have been infinitely preferable to have an Asian actor in the role, but either someone with sufficient acting chops wasn’t available, or there was an undercurrent of racism in place at the Beeb at the time.
Oh, speaking of missteps, we would be remiss in our duties if we didn't mention the notorious giant rat in this story—it wouldn't have been so bad if it had been photographed better, but time and studio constraints probably limited what they could do to minimise the ludicrous appearance of it. Having director David Maloney drop the lighting like he did in Genesis of the Daleks would have helped, along with very quick cuts, but only total blackness would have hidden the phoney nature of the beast.
Writer Robert Holmes continues his trend for having the sort of interesting character names of which Dickens himself would have heartily approved. Holmes also manages to create tantalising hints at a back-story regarding Magnus Greel that fleshes out the character and broadens the scope of the Doctor, and it mentions that he was part of the front-line at the Battle of Reykjavik, which nearly brought about the Sixth World War. Such little glimpses really fire the imagination, so much so that a story about that skirmish was eventually written by Warren Ellis in the Doctor Who Monthly. This story also allowed Holmes to draw on his experiences in Asia during the Second World War, as the Chinese play an integral part of the story; many would argue that some of the portrayals of Chinese characters are borderline racist, but they were in keeping with the depictions of them during the time in which the story was set. Holmes' obvious love of the authors of the Victorian era is fairly obvious, with the Doctor acting in a Holmesian manner (Sherlock, not Bob—but they both smoked large pipes) and other authors of the period that had either a conscious or an unconscious influence on Holmes were H Rider Haggard and Sax Rohmer, especially the latter, as Li H’Sen Chiang is clearly based upon Fu Manchu.
Baker even manages to out-James-Bond Jon Pertwee during the first episode, by dryly quipping "were you trying to attract my attention?" to a murderous Chinese rogue after having a knife thrown and narrowly missing him. Pertwee's teeth must have been gnashing, as Baker didn't need to keep asking the writers to give him a bit of charm—Baker had that in abundance.
We have always had a bit of a problem with Doctor Who stories that are more than four episodes in length—it has nothing to do with our attention span, but rather than most stories that are longer than the norm generally feel over-padded and can be quite wearying. There are certainly exceptions to this, The ten-part Troughton finale The War Games moves along at a brisk clip, as does Hartnell's twelve-part epic (or eleven if you discount the lousy The Feast of Steven) The Daleks' Master Plan, and we're pleased to say that The Talons of Weng Chiang, which is a six-parter, doesn't outstay it's welcome, as Robert Holmes' witty and snappy dialogue, along with fabulous performances from all concerned, keeps things moving and holds your attention in a vice-like grip.
The Talons of Weng Chiang would mark the end of an era for Doctor Who in two ways—firstly, this story was the end of Doctor Who's "gothic" period (although the first story in season fourteen, The Horror of Fang Rock, would retain some elements of this period), and a lighter atmosphere would pervade the show; the end of this golden era was brought about by the imminent departure of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe, who was the main more or less responsible for what was considered by many as a golden age of Doctor Who. Hinchcliffe's departure would leave a gap that many fans would argue was never properly filled in the production, but he seemed to ensure that he was going out on a high by pulling out all the stops and taking advantage of the story being the final one of the season and allocating more money to location filming.
Just one more thing, it should be pointed out that the level of horror and violence in this story is higher than usual, with all manner of women in jeopardy and all manner of knives, nunchaku, guns and Janus thorns being deployed, not to mention the generally creepy atmosphere of fog-cloaked London streets. Whitehouse may have loathed it, but everyone else lapped it up, especially the kids who were peeping out from behind the sofa...
The Talons of Weng Chiang was originally released on DVD during Doctor Who's fortieth anniversary year, 2003, and though it had many impressive extras, many felt that more could have been done with it. As part of the planned series of Revisitations box-sets, this story has been remastered and the results are pretty impressive, mainly when the film sequences are on-screen, as they seem noticeably sharper and cleaner than the previous DVD release. The interiors don't fare so well, as studio cameras and Outside Broadcast cameras didn't cope with low-level lighting too well at the time, resulting in grain and a certain degree of noise on-screen, but fans can rest assured that this is almost certainly going to be the best that The Talons of Weng Chiang is going to look and the Doctor Who Restoration Team has come up trumps again.
There's nothing to complain about in the audio department, with the dialogue being as clear as it could possibly be, given the limitations of the sound recording equipment of the time, and Dudley Simpson's wonderfully atmospheric score sounds fine.
All of the special features that were included on the original 2003 release have been included here, along with many new ones...
Audio Commentary: Actors Louise Jameson, John Bennett and Christopher Benjamin, along with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and director David Maloney all give their thoughts on the show as they watch it. This is the same commentary track that appeared on the original release, but it's still good fun, even if Tom Baker is conspicuous by his absence.
Production Subtitles: As always, there is a vast amount of information to take in if you select this option; facts, figures, notes, observations and details of script changes are all there for you to absorb. Great stuff, as always!
Coming Soon: A trailer for Robert Holmes' previous story, The Seeds of Doom, is included to whet your appetites.
The Last Hurrah: Tom Baker and Philip Hinchcliffe meet at the Baker residence to discuss the making of what would be their final story together. There are also contributions from actors Louise Jameson, Trevor Baxter, Christopher Benjamin, along with late director David Maloney, designer Roger Murray-Leach and costume designer John Bloomfield. This is great stuff, a definitive look at the making of one of the best (if not the best) stories in the show as a whole—Baker and Hinchcliffe spark marvellously off each other, and having the producer and Louise Jameson chatting informally together (not to mention Baxter and Benjamin) also makes this more interesting than the average talking head style of documentary—it's fabulous stuff, and even has Baker and Hinchcliffe debated as to whether the depiction of the Chinese in the story could be considered racist. The end of this featurette is almost moving, as it has a list of the Doctor Who production team who were to leave at the end of the shoot of The Talons of Weng Chiang. Oh, and be sure to check out the running visual gag during the Tom Baker interview...
Moving On: This short featurette focuses upon the fact that The Talons of Weng-Chiang was producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s final story as the producer on the show. The man himself reflects upon some of the vague ideas he had for the next season if he had stayed on-board and also mentions the unprofessional manner he was informed of his departure, not to mention the possible reason why he was moved on. It's short, but nevertheless interesting, as Hinchcliffe is always a great subject.
The Foe from the Future: This brief featurette takes a look at the original concept ideas for The Foe from the Future, which was eventually superseded by The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Writer Robert Banks Stewart, along with producer Philip Hinchcliffe explains how the two stories had virtually nothing in common. It's always interesting to hear about rejected Doctor Who stories, and this one would have been quite interesting, if a little too reminiscent of The Android Invasion.
Now and Then : The latest instalment of this occasional series visits the locations seen in the story and compares how they looked on screen in over three decades ago to how they look now. At times, it's a pretty depressing affair, as no human being can halt the march of time, but it's surprising just how much of the Victorian architecture is still present, mainly due many of them attaining listed building status.
Look East: This short vintage news item dates from January 1977; a regional BBC news programme dropped in on the filming of The Talons of Weng-Chiang at the Northampton Repertory Theatre. Reporter David Cass, being a self-admitted Who fan, obviously jumped at the chance to interview Tom Baker on location at the theatre in Northampton. Baker seems somewhat restrained, but still fires off one or two of his trademark quips in a fairly entertaining regional news segment.
Victoriana and Chinoiserie: This is an interesting discussion of the numerous literary influences and references that Robert Holmes included in his scripts for this story. Along with producer Philip Hinchcliffe is Dr Anne Witchard, University of Westminster lecturer in English Literature. Academic featurettes on Doctor Who releases are a tricky thing to get right—the Magna Carta one on The King's Demons was impressive, but the Manchurian Candidate featurette on The Deadly Assassin was awfully dry; happily, this one is pretty entertaining, even if Dr Witchard is a little stiff to begin with, she eventually loosens up and helps gain a greater perspective of how the fictional characters in The Talons of Weng Chiang literary, and in some instances, real-life people from the era.
Music Hall: Much of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is set within a Victorian music hall, and this featurette looks at the history of the music hall. Hosted by Michael McManus, with Gerald Glover, Pamela Cundell, Johnny Dennis and Victor Spinetti, and featuring songs performed by Katy Baker, this is an informative and entertaining look at the origins of this venerable theatrical institution. It's not nearly as dry as you would imagine, with plenty of examples of songs from the era, performed by the very easy-on-the-eye Katy Baker, and it also charts the demise of music hall, with the usual suspects present, radio, cinema and television. All-in-all, it's a very pleasing way to spend twenty minutes.
Limehouse: A Victorian Chinatown: Limehouse, is situated in the old docklands area of London’s East End. It served as the setting for many works of literature, not to mention The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Dr Matthew Sweet shatters the myths and uncovers the truth surrounding the area. With Roehampton University’s Dr. John Seed, Dr. Tom Wareham, the curator of the Museum of London Docklands and—fresh from her appearance in one of the other documentaries on this disc - University of Westminster lecturer in English Literature, Dr. Anne Witchard, these three academics lend an air of authority to this nineteen minute documentary that really gives it a tremendous amount of weight and it's also very enjoyable to sit through.
Photo Gallery: This compilation of stills from the story is a little different from previous ones, as most of the photos are moving as they appear on-screen; some fans will be unhappy about this, not being presented with the whole image on the screen at one time, but for us, it helps to add a little energy to what can occasionally be something that's a chore to sit through. Dick Mills' special sounds can be heard over the images.
PDF Materials: If you feel the urge to pop disc two into your PC, you will be able to access the original Radio Times listings for The Talons of Weng Chiang, along with the listing for The Lively Arts Doctor Who episode, plus two reader's letters—one from an eleven-year-old complaining that there aren't enough monsters in Doctor Who (to which "Producter Designate" Graham Williams replies), and one from a gentleman certainly old enough to know better asking when Leela is going to be back in her leathers.
Whose Doctor Who: This 1977 documentary from BBC2's The Lively Arts series is a retrospective on Doctor Who and is hosted by Melvyn "pass me the decongestant" Bragg. It's a fun, hour-long show, with serious contributions from people in authority about the psychological impact of the show, along with toe-curling interviews with school-children, one of whom is the quintessential middle-class, terribly well-spoken only child. This programme is included here because it features behind-the-scenes footage of the production of The Talons of Weng Chiang and has footage in the production office that sees Terrence Dicks and Robert Holmes seemingly have a disagreement over one aspect of a script—in the audio commentary of The War Games, Dicks reveals that it was all bollocks; the documentary-makers got them to stage that incident to make things a little more dramatic. There's no shortage of clips from previous stories here, and the best thing about this documentary is that is featured an excerpt from the William Hartnell story, Galaxy Four - which was probably wiped soon after—and the unedited six minute clip chosen by the production team was able to survive.
Blue Peter Theatre: This twenty-five minute piece opens with the Blue Peter gang presenting the show from the Doctor's lab set see in the early Tom Baker era—they're there because the year was 1974 and unsurprisingly, there was a strike at the Beeb. After this, it TARDIS-like travels forward in the blink of an eye and then continues in 1977, where they—with the help of an almost-embarrassed Dick Mills—show young viewers how to make their own mini-theatre (with monsters, naturally) and sound effects to accompany the performance. Some of these Blue Peter items can be toe-curling, but thankfully, this one is less cringe-inducing, mainly because no kids are in the studio to be interviewed.
Behind the Scenes: This twenty-four minute collection of time-coded studio recording footage is of pretty poor quality (from the obsolete Shibaden format, no less!), in black and white with numerous drop-outs and various VT-associated nasties, but it's fascinating to watch, as it shows the constraints that the cast and crew were under during the production of The Talons of Weng Chiang.
Philip Hinchcliffe Interview: Producer Philip Hinchcliffe is interviewed on the terribly nice magazine show Pebble Mill at One, during which, he talks about Doctor Who in general and is also pressed on the ever-present matter of screen violence and the effects upon the young audience watching it. It makes for quite a contrast to see a young Hinchcliffe being interviewed, full of youthful enthusiasm and energy, but not having that refined sardonic wit that he would come to attain in later years.
Trails and Continuity: This provides both nostalgia for people around at the time, and for those not around then, it will have their jaws hanging open at how little effort was put into creating trailers for forthcoming shows. All good stuff, though...
Photo Gallery: A large selection of design and production photographs from the story are presented here, all set to Dick Mill's special sounds. This is presented in more of a traditional style to the photo gallery on the second disc, so those more likely to moan about the newer style can peruse this parade of images instead.
TARDIS-Cam No.6: This was originally produced for the BBC Doctor Who website, and it served to show fans the possibilities that could be opened up if Doctor Who returned to television screens and used CGI. Interestingly enough, this one shows the TARDIS encountering a pod of space whales, which was the premise of one particular Doctor Who story— Song of the Space Whale—that was commissioned several times during the eighties but never produced.
The Talons of Weng Chiang is one of the jewels in the crown of the original series of Doctor Who; it was one of those magical moments when a great script from a wonderful writer was married to the production values that period dramas from the BBC are globally known for and a wonderful cast that were firing on all cylinders. As to what might have been achieved if producer Philip Hinchcliffe hadn't unceremoniously been given the elbow, who knows? The Talons of Weng Chiang could have been an indicator. However, just sit back and enjoy the story in all its glory—just cut the giant rat a little slack though...
The extras in this set—both previously available and the ones newly-created—are the icing on the cake and quite possibly make up one of the finest extras packages ever to be produced in the Doctor Who DVD range. This release is recommended more than humanly possible.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 4th October 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, Production Subtitles
Extras: Audio Commentary, Production Subtitles, Coming Soon Trailer, The Last Hurrah, Moving On, The Foe From The Future, Now & Then, Look East, Victoriana & Chinoiserie, Music Hall, Limehouse - A Victorian Chinatown, 2 Photo Galleries, PDF Materials, Whose Doctor Who, Blue Peter Theatre, Behind the Scenes, Phillip Hinchcliffe Interview, Trails & Continuity, TARDIS-Cam No 6
Easter Egg: No
Director: David Maloney
Cast: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Christopher Benjamin
Length: 144 minutes
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