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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (S14/ 1977)

September 10, 2013




Elementary, my dear Magnus: The Doctor channels Sherlock Holmes as he faces a future war criminal against a backdrop of the Victorian theatre and London’s Chinese underworld

So, on the day we discovered the name-to-be of The Greatest Ever Sci-fi TV Show™‘s golden anniversary special (The Day Of the Doctor, no less), this very blog is also contributing its latest offering in celebration of Doctor Who‘s 50th year. Yes, this post, peeps, is George’s Journal‘s latest close-up look at/ review of a classic serial from the show’s past – and its focus is the acclaimed The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (i.e. Tom Baker‘s Sherlock Holmes one).

Yet, as this post hopefully points out, the Sherlock Holmes tributes are the least of all the goodness that Talons offers the viewer – it really is a treasure trove of late Victorian era-set adventuring. Oh yes…





Doctor: Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor)

Companion: Louise Jameson (Leela)

Villains: Michael Spice (Magnus Greel/ Weng-Chiang); John Bennett (Li H’sen Chang); Deep Roy (Mr Sin)

Allies: Christopher Benjamin (Henry Gordon Jago); Trevor Baxter (Professor Litefoot)

Writer: Robert Holmes

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Director: David Maloney








Season: 14 (sixth and final serial – six 25-minute-long episodes)

Original broadcast dates: February 26-April 2 1977

Total average viewers: 10.4 million

Previous serial: The Robots Of Death

Next serial: Horror Of Fang Rock (Season 15)







Materialising his TARDIS in late Victorian London’s East End, The Doctor steps out into the foggy, chilly night sporting a deerstalker hat and a snazzy, large brown overcoat with his new companion, tribal-savage-cum-warrior and Earth descendant Leela. He’s intent on teaching her first-hand her ancestors’ cultural history by visiting a music hall, at the nearest of which (the Palace Theatre) a poster claims Chinese magician Li H’sen Chang is the current top-billed performer. Suddenly, the pair hear a scream and discover a band of Chinese hoodlums carrying away a man’s body. Leela catches one of their number, yet a policeman appears on the scene and, claiming her actions could be interpreted as causing affray, carts the three of them off to his police station.

There, as a sergeant questions The Doctor and Leela, news comes through a heavily mauled body has been found nearby in the Thames, which The Doc assumes is that of the man. A chap now arrives at the station to act, he claims, as an interpreter for the arrested Chinese coolie. From his poster, the former is quickly recognised as Li H’sen Chang by The Doc – our hero brightly asks him to perform a trick, at which point the Chinese hoodlum instantly dies; ‘very good!’ marvels The Doctor. Unseen by him and the others, Chang had passed his compatriot a pill containing poison before leaving the station. The Doc, though, quickly takes control and concludes from a tattoo on the dead coolie’s wrist he was a member of ‘The Tong of the Black Scorpion’, a Chinese criminal organisation that is said to worship the god Weng-Chiang. He orders the sergeant to organise an autopsy on the body, for he suspects the cause of death to be from scorpion venom.

Arriving at the mortuary, The Doctor and Leela meet ace pathologist Professor Litefoot, whom having already performed an autopsy on the man murdered earlier, declares it bizarrely looks like he was attacked by a giant rodent (which doesn’t seem to surprise The Doctor at all). Indeed, the latter recalls that Weng-Chiang is considered a god of abundance, capable of making objects and beings grow to enormous sizes. With his suspicions of what might have mauled the man then, he and Leela depart for the city’s sewers where they quickly come face to face with a giant, very angry rat.

Escaping the over-sized, voracious rodent, the pair rejoin Litefoot, whom invites them both to his house for dinner. However, on the way The Doctor departs for the Palace Theatre, the last known whereabouts of the murdered man. There, he meets the manager, the amiably animated Henry Gordon Jago, whom The Doc suspects has been hypnotised by his contracted magician Mr Chang, thus hypnotises him himself but finds out little. However, Jago realises the monogram ‘EB’ on a lady’s glove he’d found in the theatre earlier must stand for ‘Emma Buller’, whose husband (the murdered man) had earlier visited the theatre to demand of Chang what he had done with her, as she had volunteered to be part of his magic act and had promptly disappeared.

The two descend into the theatre’s cellar where they are chased by a figure wearing a leather hood that conceals his face and whom knocks out Jago and attempts to kill The Doc. Meanwhile, as Litefoot and Leela eat (the latter’s lack of any table manners bemusing the former), he notices someone lurking outside, so investigates with his gun, while she’s suddenly faced by a midget brandishing a knife whom, seemingly, has a Chinese-like wooden face.

Henry Gordon Jago: Curious coves these Chinese – I’d have propelled him on to the pavement with a punt up the posterior!

The naturally athletic Leela manages to escape her diminutive would-be assailant by jumping through a window, then hitches a ride on the carriage transporting Chang and the midget as they flee the scene. Recovering to Litefoot’s house, The Doctor takes an interest in a cabinet in the former’s dining room he claims is a souvenir from his family’s time in China; to his bemusement, The Doc considers it looks like it might be a time machine from Earth’s future, yet a small, key component that would fit in its front is missing.

Meanwhile, Leela observes as Chang hypnotises a prostitute into accompanying him to the theatre and, once arrived there, Leela switches with the girl as Chang goes away to find another – a cleaner in the theatre itself. Taking the two of them down to the cellar, Chang hands them over to the hooded figure, whom he addresses as Weng-Chiang, his master. The latter places the cleaner girl into a cupboard-like cabinet he refers to as a ‘distillation chamber’, which will transfer her ‘life essence’ to him. Leela, however, attacks him and tries to free the girl from the chamber – only to discover she’s dead, her skin utterly dried out (this presumably was what also happened to Emma Buller). Escaping, she enters the sewers again and is faced by a giant rat once more; she’s saved by The Doctor, whom has been investigating the local waterways and sewers with Litefoot, as he shoots the rat with an elephant gun borrowed from the professor.

The Doc and Leela return to Litefoot’s house, whom has bought an elegant dress for her as she and the Time Lord are set to attend a performance by Chang at the theatre; both he and Litefoot find the sight of Leela in the dress particularly ‘charming’. During the performance, Chang spies The Doctor and calls on him to assist with a ‘cabinet of death’ trick – clearly as a means to do away with him, as he had earlier promised an unconvinced Weng-Chiang he would. However, to the amusement of the audience, our man simply walks out of the back of the ‘cabinet of death’ and, once he has gone through the trick to its end, Chang opens the cabinet to find Jago’s theatre orderly inside, having been killed by Weng-Chiang, owing to his snooping about in the cellar. Now, Chang realises that Weng-Chiang – or whomever he is – is not a god; he has been duped into following a desperate, murderous false idol.

Backstage, The Doctor and Leela confront Chang, whom claims Weng-Chiang had appeared to him years earlier back in China, seeking out his help to look for a misplaced ‘time cabinet’ and requiring him to find young women whose ‘life essences’ he would absorb in order to survive.  It’s clear to all now that Weng-Chiang is a time-traveller and The Doctor believes is likely to be deformed (hence why he wears a hood), because although each time absorbs ‘life essence’ he maintains his own life, he also worsens his condition.  Jago now appears, having been forced to close the theatre, at which point Chang escapes into the sewers. The Doc and his companion return to Litefoot’s, only to discover the latter’s Chinese/ time cabinet has been stolen by Weng-Chiang and his midget, named Mr Sin, who’d been delivered to the house in a laundry basket earlier in the day. The two of them escape by carriage – but where to? Where’s their hideout?

Reading the address on the laundry basket, The Doc deduces this must be the site of The Tong of the Black Scorpion’s – and Weng-Chiang’s – HQ. Once there, he and Leela come across a blissed-out but pathetic Chang smoking opium. Before he dies from his wounds from a giant sewer rat, he leaves our hero a ‘Chinese puzzle’ of a clue to their quest: ‘beware the eyes of the dragon’. Meanwhile, having recovered a carpet-bag from the theatre’s cellar, Jago journeys to Litefoot’s, looking to pass it on to The Doctor. The two Victorians examine its contents – highly advanced time-travel technology bits-and-bobs they can make neither head nor tail of, but which includes a crystalline roundel. Brimming with adventure, though, the pair decide to take off to the Chinese laundry/ Tong hideout on their own in a bid to help The Doc.

Leela: This is a big village
The Doctor: Yes
Leela: What’s the name of the tribe here?
The Doctor: Cockneys

As soon as they arrive there, though, they’re captured by Weng-Chiang’s coolies, the latter threatening to kill Jago unless Litefoot reveals to him where the time cabinet’s key is (for he cannot operate the former without the latter) – describing it perfectly as the carpet-bag’s crystalline roundel. Under pressure then, Litefoot confesses it’s back at his house, whence Weng-Chiang, Mr Sin and his hoodlums set off again to recover it. However, The Doc and Leela have now returned here too and, the latter having found the time cabinet’s key and recognising it instantly for what it is, gather together as many potential weapons in the house as possible, for they rightly anticipate Weng-Chiang will try to ambush them. As his goons infiltrate the house, Weng-Chiang attacks an off-guard Leela in the dining room, whom defends herself and, in doing so, pulls away the face-mask of the former’s hood to reveal a terribly deformed face.

The Doc returns to the room, faced by Weng-Chiang, whom has knocked out Leela. Weng-Chiang believes he holds the upper hand and demands the Gallifreyan hand over the time cabinet’s key. However, knowing full well that the key would break into hundreds of pieces if he dropped it, the latter makes a deal – he’ll hand over the thing at the hideout so long as Weng-Chiang leaves Leela behind and frees Jago and Litefoot. The villain reluctantly agrees. Once there, Weng-Chiang reveals his true identity; he is Magnus Greel, a war criminal responsible for thousands upon thousands of deaths in the 51st Century and a dabbler in time-travel experiments.

Leela has followed them to the hideout, but having been captured is ordered by Greel to be placed in his distillation machine. The Doctor disables the latter, though, and declaring Greel finished, pleads with him not to place the key in the front of his time cabinet and attempt to use it, as his time-travel experiments are seriously flawed – it will cause a huge implosion and wipe out London. Greel ignores him and orders Mr Sin to mount the back of a giant dragon statue and fire lasers at his foes, which emanate from the statue’s eyes (‘beware the eyes of the dragon’).

As The Doc, Jago and Litefoot take cover, Leela recovers a discarded pistol and shoots out the dragon’s eyes, disabling the laser, thus allowing The Doctor to grab Greel seconds before he activates his time machine and throw him into his distillation cabinet. Instantly, the latter crumples into nothing, having undergone a cellular collapse, and the former destroys the key. Yet everyone seems to have forgotten Mr Sin. The latter suddenly jumps Leela, only for The Doc to jerk him away from her and pull out of his back his computer core – he was actually a robot with a pig’s cerebral cortex. Taken by Greel from c. 5000 AD, Sin was known as the ‘Peking Homonculus’, created for aristocratic children, but owing to its pig brain loved carnage and nearly caused World War Three. Phew!

Their work complete, the foursome walk to the TARDIS, Litefoot trying to teach Leela the fineties of fine tea, as they do so. The Doctor and his companion warmly bid Jago and Litefoot farewell, the former pointing out that the TARDIS, as it dematerialises before them, is The Doctor’s transport, whom he’s decided is a detective extraordinaire with extraordinary devices working for Scotland Yard, hence why he travels in a remarkable ‘police box’…






The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is easily one of the best Doctor Who serials – and, truly, a contender for the very best of them all. Quite simply, there isn’t facet in which it doesn’t excel. It’s a whip-cracker of a story that snaps along from one episode’s climax and cliffhanger to the next, back and forth between locations and full of time-travel complications, music hall paraphernalia and evil diminutive pig-brained cyborgs. Like, well, all the best serials from this mid-’70s era of Who, it was written by the show’s script editor of the time, Robert Holmes – and, boy, did he know what he was doing.

He references practically everything that was worth referencing from late Victorian/ early 20th Century exotic adventure fiction/ myth: Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (The Doctor’s get-up and detail-reliant detecting; Jago and Litefoot’s varying roles as Watson to The Doc’s Holmes; Litefoot’s housekeeper ‘Mrs Hudson’; the line ‘Elementary, my dear, Litefoot’); Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu stories (a mustachioed Chinese villain in the East End perpetuating a ‘Yellow Peril’); Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and the late Victorian Jack the Ripper hysteria (an evil entity kidnapping/ murdering young, attractive women with sexual undertones), Gaston Leroux’s original The Phantom Of The Opera tale from 1909 (a deformed man hiding beneath a theatre and putting under his control, again, young, attractive women) and even George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion (Leela’s educating of her cultural ancestry by The Doc and genteel society by Litefoot and her wearing a beautiful dress bought by the latter).

Holmes takes all this Victoriana and Chinoiserie then and mixes them into a rich, heady brew that also, of course, features necessary Who ingredients, not least the sci-fi element of a fallen, flawed egotist whose time-travelling ambitions have destroyed him – and could destroy The Big Smoke. Plus, lest we forget, this serial was the introduction to the show of (what would become) the pivotal 51st Century of the ‘Whoniverse’, which Moffat’s ‘NuWho’, in particular, would build on with the likes of time agents such as Captain Jack Harkness, rebels like River Song and villains in the shape of Madame Kovarian and her ‘priest army’.

But Robert Holmes doesn’t deserve of all the credit. Director David Maloney (himself arguably already a great Who helmer – 1969’s The War Games, 1975’s Genesis Of The Daleks and 1976’s The Deadly Assassin) pitches the tone exactly right; balancing the requisite thrills and spills – including a thoroughly satisfying climax – with slower, character-driven, dramatic scenes that bring to life the sparkling dialogue spouted by practically all of the characters (especially the verbose, alliterative-admiring Jago – see first quote in the ‘Doctor What?’ section above).

Ah, the characters… Talons boasts surely the greatest supporting double-act in the show’s history. Jago and Litefoot are a magnificent creation – a Cockney opportunist/ Victorian gentleman academic odd-couple wonderfully realised by their players Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter. They don’t actually meet until the fifth of the six episodes, but prove a perfect pairing as soon as they do – in fact, so perfect is it, it sort of feels as if they’ve known each other the whole story.

Indeed, the fact that this is a six-episode-long serial is also moot. For, unlike some of the long stories of Who lore, at no point does it lag – least of all in the middle, the point at which many of its ilk tend to droop. From its cracking start (‘NuWho’ originator Russell T Davies has claimed Episode One is the best example of TV drama-writing imaginable, and who’s to argue?) to its exciting end, Talons is utterly terrific.








Producer Philip Hinchcliffe has in recent times claimed he doesn’t feel Robert Holmes consciously referenced all this serial’s literary/ mythic influences, believing the writer plucked them from the ether of inspiration and organically worked them in. That’s surely debatable, but what isn’t is Talons‘ origins as a different story entirely. At first, the sixth and final story of Who‘s 14th – and, in fact, Hinchcliffe’s final – season was to be written by Robert Banks Stewart (who had scripted, among others, the excellent serials that were 1975’s Terror Of The Zygons and 1976’s The Seeds Of Doom) and entitled The Foe From The Future, featuring a time-traveller attempting to take over a Devon village.

Fate rarely plays a hand in the fictional science-is-king world of Doctor Who, but in the show’s behind-the-scenes world, it often does. For Stewart was took up a role offered by ITV to run a soap opera and so wasn’t available to turn his treatment for The Foe From The Future into a script, thus, as script editor, Holmes was tasked to re-write it. Obviously he did more than that – he took merely its time-traveller from the future element (Magnus Greel) and shaped an entirely new story around it.

Of particular interest in how Talons came to the screen is its locations. Unusually, perhaps, much of the ‘outside broadcast’ bits that are supposed to be set in and around Limehouse in London’s East End were actually filmed in and around Limehouse; the show’s team pretty much being able to shoot in the real locations as written in the script. This filming usually took place in the middle of the night (much of the serial is set at night) and, in one scene a giant bale of hay appears, which was in fact a street resident’s Porsche covered in a tarpaulin itself covered in hay, following its owner’s decision not to remove his prized car despite being asked to. The theatre that features prominently, though, isn’t in London at all. Its actually the Royal Theatre in Northampton, whose late Victorian building-date and thus appearance perfectly fitted what was needed. Featuring in a cameo as the composer of the theatre’s orchestra is Dudley Simpson, the show’s then incidental music composer.

Cast-wise, Talons certainly lucked out (as in so many other areas). Most prominently here, of course, are Christopher Benjamin (Jago) and Trevor Baxter (Litefoot). The former had already appeared in Who as an avuncular government minister in Inferno (1970), but like the latter, it could be said his career was defined by his Talons role. By the time of his casting for this story, Baxter was a seasoned thesp, having worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and written several stage plays, which he still does today. Indeed, Jago and Litefoot’s popularity with fans has proved so enduring that in recent years they’ve appeared in several of their own Doctor-less audio adventures.

Elsewhere, ‘Peking Homuncus’ Mr Sin was played by actor Deep Roy, whom has appeared in many other big and small screen fantasy favourites, such as Blake’s 7 (1978-80), Return Of The Jedi (1983), The NeverEnding Story (1984), Return To Oz (1985) and as Scotty’s ‘cute’ assistant Keenser in Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) and as ‘every’ oompa-lumpa in Tim Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005). More controversial, mind you, is versatile and acclaimed actor John Bennett’s portrayal of Li H’sen Chang. Now, to my mind and those of many Who fans, he gives an excellent performance as the tragically exploited Chinese magician, yet down through the years, the fact he ‘yellow faced’ to do so (a Caucasian actor playing a South East Asian character à la Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s) has drawn its detractors, although unlike Rooney’s performance, his could hardly be called racist.

Criticism, though, could be more fairly levelled at some of the story’s treatment of its Chinese characters; not that there’s anything that could be called racist, but perhaps a little xenophobic – The Doctor, for instance, doesn’t call out anyone around him for their anti-Chinese statements, something that would be unthinkable in today’s ‘NuWho’. Still, it should be recalled that Talons was not made in 2007, but 1977; it dates then from a decade in which Britain was even less comfortable with immigration and outside cultural influence than this one. And, in any case, this factor should in no way detract from the undeniable quality on show in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and the excellent entertainment it provides – as Henry Gordon Jago might put it, to watch Talons is a practically perfect past-time; a positively unimpeachable experience.





Next time: City Of Death (Season 17/ 1979)


Previous close-ups/ reviews:

The Deadly Assassin (Season 14/ 1976/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Pyramids Of Mars (Season 13/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)


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