Back Add a Comment Share:
Facebook Button
Even with the much-respected masterpiece of Metropolis in mind, Science Fiction has had a bad rap when it comes to being taken seriously by the general populous. The advent of campy serials such as Flash Gordon gave this genre's reputation a further nosedive. But as far as mega-el-cheapo production values are concerned though, none stay more in the collective consciousness than the Doctor Who television series. The Talons of Weng-Chiang was the last six-episode story made for the fourteenth season of this extremely long-running show and, as I understand it, is the most favoured by fans of this production year. Made in 1977, the depicted fashions of the nineteenth century still hold strong today, but it's the visual effects and general stunt work which scream out the decade that it was made in.

"I've lost all my traveller's cheques" ... "Haw, what kind were they?"
1977 wasn't exactly the year of political correctness when many a derogatory reference was made to persons of Asian descent, but then it was probably a lot worse during the period depicted in Talons. Indeed, when Kung Fu was produced five years earlier, the mentality at the time was to cast a Caucasian actor (David Carradine) for the main lead of a Shaolin Monk because Bruce Lee looked too Chinese. This thinking led to the inevitably ridiculous portrayals of Eastern characters from a white-man's point of view and, just like a badly dubbed Hong Kong action flick, there is much to amuse yourself with here.

Episodes
Doctor Who (Tom Baker) appears in Victorian London around the late 19th century to "the sound of death" as purported by his faithful sidekick Leela (Louise Jameson). As they venture towards the local theatre to witness the wonderous magician Li H'Sen Chang (John Bennett), the duo are attacked by the Jackie Chan Reject Stunt Team from Hell who then steal away their victim for whereabouts unknown.

Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) has his hands full what with running a busy theatre and unwittingly performing the odd evil deed for the mysterious Chinese Tour Group. It is soon apparent that the devil is afoot with many local girls going missing as well, which are being kidnapped by Li to help keep his master Weng-Chiang (Michael Spice) alive. Pathologist Professor Lightfoot (Trevor Baxter) helps Dr Who unravel the mystery as they discover giant rats and supernatural Chinese goings-on.

Video
As most Doctor Who fans will know by now, the BBC commissioned a team of talented multimedia personnel to digitally restore the oft-neglected and extensive back catalogue of these classic episodes. Most, if not all, of this footage is stored on some really ancient video tape stock, some of which has degraded so much that it was initially deemed impossible to bring back from the dead. However, today's miraculous technology managed to create completely missing frames that would have been impossible to achieve five years earlier, as demonstrated in all its glory with The Tomb Of The Cybermen.

"I'm having Tom Cruise for dinner tonight.  What have you got there?"
Thankfully, Talons doesn't require such an extensive re-birthing, but it is one of the few serials that utilises film as well as video to create the final event. Therefore, the image quality of Talons varies between the two mediums, although the end result of its remastering is hardly the fault of the DVD encoders but more to do with the lores source material. The video camera equipment in particular was of the old-styled valve-imaging system which left behind many lighting trails of bright elements etc. And an unfortunate side-effect of the use of video for its production is the slight noise level coming through in the form of white/grey dots surrounding the image - this appears in a good third of Talons where this technical fault is all too noticeable, as well as a problematic colour phase-shifting, which can prove a slight irritant.

I'd say that Talons is about 30% film (exterior) and 70% video (interior). The black levels are usually the first sign of anything going awry in a Doctor Who television serial, but thankfully these fears are laid to rest as they are relatively deep here considering. Shadow detail is pretty much well-realised depending on the scene in question and the differences are not necessarily dependent on whether it comes from film or video. Low-level noise doesn't make its presence known except in a couple of the daylight scenes ironically. So too the few film artefacts present are only the most obvious here as well. Focus on the whole is slightly soft, if not ill-defined, in some places with a slight rounding off of the edges.

Grain is typically most prominent in the filmed portions whereas the original video recordings are less so. There are many smoky & foggy outdoor images present that would usually challenge the already overworked MPEG encoding (especially when you add the burden of low-grade film stock) but these hold up quite admirably in this DVD. The colour scheme is very earthy which hardly gives a chance for the brighter hues to shine through, but then this is London we're talking about with its permanent grey skies.

The image is by no means top quality, but is an acceptable transfer not without its faults.

"I did it!  I finally shot the rabbit with the big, long, pointy teeth!"
Audio
There isn't much that can be said about this soundtrack - it is your typical mono experience complete with its laughable miscues in the foley work and the typically amateurish sound that the Doctor Who series is most famous for. Everything you hear is very clear, probably too clear, which makes watching these episodes a rather intimate journey and ultimately even more scary than your typical A-budget production. It's no wonder that kids and adults alike would get spooked by all the shoddy effects.

The audio recording does not exhibit any noticeable hiss even in the filmed portions, but on-location ambient sounds are not reproduced too well - this is understandable given the limited budget that these shows were afforded. Dialogue is easily discernable, even in the more questionable recording environments from the filmed outdoor segments. There is no surround or subwoofer usage naturally.

There is nothing here that will astound you anymore than its original broadcast did 25 years ago.

Extras
As usual, the BBC had their historians work overtime to present a delectable array of supplemental material that will have fans regressing back to their childhood days again. But why can't the same be done for the Black Adder and Monty Python R1 extras to be included in the R2 & R4 releases, hmmm?

On disc one there are two main extras. The first is the audio commentary with director David Maloney, producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and actors Louise Jameson, Christopher Benjamin and John Bennett - this is worth an extra 2½ hours of your time to listen to. It is an informal and intimate look back at the time of filming and production; the cross-section of different talents here definitely provide some very interesting insights into the creation process. The second entertaining feature is the Informational Text subtitle track which provides equally informative and humorous gems for both the casual and hard-core fan of the Doctor Who series - this is how these information tracks should be produced, unlike the relatively pathetic offerings I've had to endure in recent times. You should also reserve another 150 minutes to absorb the factoids on offer here, ranging from cut & alternative dialogue, historical facts and faults, trivia which is observed in particular scenes and the various production decisions made for the final product.

Thankfully there are subtitles available for the feature as well as the commentary, so the hard-of-hearing will not miss out on anything here - the latter should be standard in all DVD releases, really.

"At the juncture?  I thought you said Acupuncture."
Disc two holds the rest of these extras, all of which directly relate to this particular fable of the series. First up is a documentary produced in the same year entitled Whose Doctor Who (58 mins), which explores how the now-phenomenal Doctor Who television series came about. From its earliest (and shakiest) origins right up to the "present day" as it were, this is a fascinating venture back in time (ironically) for fans both young and old. It presents its views on why the fans have embraced this icon of pop culture and explores the mysteries and legend that the Doctor Who universe represents.  Next is Behind The Scenes (24 mins) which shows some extremely rough footage of various takes for this particular serial, not so much actual off-camera antics. This is purely one for all the Who'ers out there.

Blue Peter Theatre (26 mins) is one of those disturbing quirks of TV history that George Lucas would rather forget (don't mention the Holiday Special). This is a kids-only affair where some then-popular personalities demonstrate how to create your very own Dr Who Cardboard Theatrette to impress your friends with - this was well before graffiti became the next "big thing". The intro itself raises a few laughs from the unintentional mistakes made by each celebrity, let alone the clothing and hairstyles that can blind you if you're not careful. What is even more bizarre is the quality of the video itself - I'll go on record as saying this is the cleanest and most startling presentation of any image I've ever witnessed on a cathode-ray tube. I don't usually mention this sort of thing here, but it has to be seen to be believed.

The Philip Hinchcliffe Interview is from a talk-show called Pebble Mill. The discussions here are just as awkward as in the previous featurette, with the quality of presentation being worse than a VHS that was accidentally left in an oven. Trails and Continuity (2 mins) are the old TV ads and bridges used to promote the next upcoming episode in this story. Tardis Cam No.6 (2 mins) however grabs the award for Most Useless Spending of BBC Finances; a CGI-created journey of the Tardis moving around in a rather drab-looking galaxy - what's the point of this, then? The Photo Gallery (3 mins) is a photographic stills montage from set and location. An Easter Egg is also available featuring a non-titled opening sequence.

"Now, tell us the secret recipe for fried rice!"
Overall
Being the on-and-off fan that I am of Doctor Who, I can't say I was riveted with this particular storyline as I am much more inclined to explore the more fantastic elements of time travel and the Tardis itself. However, the concept of a fish-out-of-water is always one that appeals to me with Leela attributing her experiences of the past to her own warrior upbringing of the future. The extras on the second disc are all archival, but the two "commentaries" on the first disc provide the true meat for this dish. Considering the above-average asking price though, only a true collector would appreciate this 2-disc DVD set.


Links: