Monday, August 29, 2016

"The Talons of Weng-Chiang"

Aired Feb 26 - Apr 2, 1977


6 Episodes


Story 91


Written by Robert Holmes

Directed by David Maloney

Synopsis

The TARDIS arrives in London at the close of the 19th century, and the Doctor and Leela quickly become embroiled in sinister goings on. They are attacked by members of a Chinese tong, while innocent women are disappearing form the fog-shrouded streets.

The mystery seems to centre on the Palace Theatre, where impresario Henry Gordon Jago has employed Chinese stage magician Li H'Sen Chang for a long run. But Chang is much more than he appears. He is behind the disappearances, using his immensely effective powers of hypnosis to control the women. And his ventriloquist's dummy, Mr. Sin, appears to be both alive and assisting him.

The Doctor's investigations, meanwhile, involve seeking the aid of Professor Litefoot, the pathologist investigating a dead body found in the Thames. The corpse appears to have be mauled by a large unknown creature and the Doctor deduces that the creature is some kind of giant rat. He and Leela eventually encounter just such an impossible animal in the sewers beneath London, it having been created by someone unknown advanced science capable of  enlarging creatures.

Eventually, the Doctor uncovers the role of Li H'Sen Chang, and discovers that Chang is in service to what he believes is the embodiment of an ancient Chinese god Weng-Chiang. But Wneg-Chiang is in fact Magnus Greel, a despotic war criminal from the war-torn 51st Century. Using a dangerous form of time travel he has invented, Greel has journeyed back to the 19th Century, whereupon he lost the Time Cabinet that brought him here. The journey also severely damaged Greel's body, forcing him to absorb the life essence of others to survive. Greel's twisted nature means he prefers young girls to provide him with the essence he needs, and it's his experiments responsible for the giant rat in the sewers. His acolyte Mr. Sin is not a dummy, but is in fact a cybernetic homunculus with the brain of a pig.

Greel discovers that the Time Cabinet is in the possession of Litefoot, and he sends his men and Mr. Sin to retrieve it. The Doctor and Leela, along with Litefoot and Jago, arrive at Greel's lair to stop the criminal. During the battle, the Doctor manages to force Greel into his life force extraction chamber where the Butcher of Brisbane is finally destroyed. The threat from Greel may be ended, but the Doctor must still deactivate the berserk Mr. Sin, which he manages to do by ripping out his control circuitry. 

Bidding farewell to Jago and Litefoot, the Doctor and Leela head on their travels through time and space...


Analysis

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is most definitely a classic of Doctor Who. From a production standpoint, the classic series was never this assured before, nor would it ever be so again. There are lots of adjectives you can use to describe the production values of classic Doctor Who, but this is the only story where you could use sumptuous. This is a story that looks perfect. It's an evocative, atmospheric, expensive-looking story. Part of that is because the story is set during a period that the BBC excelled at depicting better than anyone. The Victorian era is the BBC's bread and butter, and it shows throughout. 

This was the swan song of producer Philip Hinchcliffe after three years of producing the show and leading it to great heights of success and sophistication. It would also prove to also be the final serial directed by David Maloney, without a doubt one of the finest directors to work on the series. And it was also the final serial to be worked on by designer Roger Murray-Leach, who was a brilliant production designer capable of producing hugely effective and innovative sets that maximized the look of the stories on which he worked.

As a result, all the stops were pulled out for this story. And it shows in every second. Yes, like much of the Hinchcliffe era, the budget was blown. This was one of the reasons why the producer was moved onto other series. But you can't deny that the three years where he was in control are probably the best looking the series ever looked. I won't go as far to say that Doctor who looked expensive during this era, but it never looked cheap, and rarely did the series ever look like it was over-ambitious and fail to realize the ideas within the stories. It was almost as if Hinchcliffe was trying to show the BBC what the budget of the series should be in order to be its most effective. Shame they didn't listen.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang also features some of the best writing of Robert Holmes, especially from an atmospheric point of view. Drawing from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer and other early pulp writings, Holes creates a pastiche of Victorian adventure that is hugely effective within the format of Doctor Who. And then he adds in one of the most crazy and bizarre backstories for the villains in the history of the programme. The idea of merging Victorian horror with the tale of 51st century war criminal and his pig-man robot-thing killing women to stay alive and using a cupboard to travel through time, all aided by Fu Manchu, is genuinely kind of bonkers. And yet it all works.

Holmes' immense gift at characterization shines through as well. Every single character is great. Obviously the main supporting cast are all part of Doctor Who legend; from Chang to Casey to the desk sergeant to Greel himself, all get moments to shine. But the crown jewels are clearly Jago and Litefoot. Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin shine in the roles, exemplifying Holmes' famous double-act character set-up. The six episode structure gives them time to develop and grow on their own before coming together and nearly stealing the whole show. It's no wonder there had been talk of a spin-off, and the duo eventually got their own successful series of audio plays from Big Finish. 

John Bennett as Li H'Sen Chang
The regulars excel too, with Tom Baker at the height of his powers and confidence. Given an entirely new costume for this single story, Baker clearly relishes the richness of the story and raises his game appropriately. And Louise Jameson is wonderful throughout too. Freed from her ridiculous leather skins (at least temporarily) we get to see Leela continue to develop. Her innate skills serve her well, here, and she continues to de depicted as very smart, if uneducated in modern ways. 

But there's a big problem with The Talons of Weng-Chiang. As much as it is a triumph, it's also appallingly racist. I think that if I could ask Holmes and Hinchcliffe about this, they would be horrified, so it's not as if I believe that they deliberately or maliciously wanted the serial to have such racist overtones. And some of the racist aspects might well be totally unintentional. Take the casting of caucasian actor John Bennett as the Chinese character Li H'Sen Chang. I don't quite believe that it was impossible to have found an Asian actor capable of playing that role in 1977, but I concede it would have been difficult, and maybe they simply didn't have the time. There are plenty of contemporaneous examples of similar casting decisions in the 1970s. I'll admit that Bennett does a great job in the role, giving depth and and nuance to what on the page might have come across as even more of "yellow peril" role than what we wind up with. I certainly wouldn't want to trade a performance as good as his for a lesser one. But there's no denying that the man is effectively in "yellow-face" and there's also no denying how much that makes one squirm with discomfort.

The problem with doing a pastiche of something like the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer is that those novels were exemplars of a horribly racist view of Asia and Asians. They are novels of the "other"; the unknowable, barely human, inscrutable horde with sinister intentions. If you do a pastiche of those novels, then your modern story simply has to comment in some way about that aspect, and in the character of the Doctor, you have a tailor-made character who can accomplish that. He is the perfect character to comment on the racist attitudes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to puncture those beliefs or at least stand up for more enlightened values. But in this story the Doctor participates in those beliefs himself, when in the past he has always been a champion of the marginalized and dispossessed. It's a huge, huge problem with the story, one that makes what is otherwise such a triumph on all fronts, a compromised masterpiece.

But, if you can put this troubling aspect in its historical perspective, then there's no denying that from a production, writing and performance view, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is perhaps one of the five best stories in the entire history of Doctor Who, and a fitting swan song for the leader of perhaps the show's definitive era.


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