‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ — “Doctor Who”

~ Terror in the Fog ~

In ‘The Talons of Weng-Chi­ang’, the Fourth Doc­tor and Leela encounter a mys­tery with extra­or­di­nary pro­por­tions in Vic­to­ri­an Lon­don, involv­ing miss­ing women, a stage magi­cian and his malev­o­lent dum­my assis­tant, Chi­nese tongs, a mys­te­ri­ous Ori­en­tal cab­i­net, a crip­pled war crim­i­nal from the future and a giant rat.

Descrip­tion: The Fourth Doc­tor (Tom Bak­er) wants to show Leela (Louise Jame­son) her human his­to­ry and so brings her to Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land. That serves as the basis for a detec­tive game of cat and mouse as the Doc­tor and Leela (and their assis­tants pathol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Lite­foot (Trev­er Bax­ter) and the­ater manger Hen­ry Gor­don Jago (Christop­er Ben­jamin)) inves­ti­gate a mug­ging and a mur­der, strange hap­pen­ings at the Palace The­ater and a series of miss­ing young women (and one irate man whose wife was one of the missing).

Seem­ing at the cen­ter of the mys­tery is Lu H’sen Chang (John Ben­net), a pop­u­lar Chi­nese stage magi­cian per­form­ing at the Palace The­ater. It was Chang who hyp­no­tized Jago into for­get­ting impor­tant infor­ma­tion that implied that some­thing foul was hap­pen­ing at his the­ater, it is Chang who com­mands the Chi­nese tong who car­ry out the desires of his mys­te­ri­ous mas­ter, and it is his respon­si­bil­i­ty to obtain the young women his mas­ter needs to main­tain himself.

The true vil­lain is Mag­nus Greel (Michael Spice), the Butch­er of Bris­bane of World War VI, a war­lord from the 51st Cen­tu­ry. He used an exper­i­men­tal form of time trav­el to escape to the 19th Cen­tu­ry to avoid jus­tice. Accom­pa­ny­ing him was Mr. Sin, the Peking Homuncu­lus, an assas­si­na­tion weapon in the form of a dum­my mask­ing a sophis­ti­cat­ed mech­a­nism using a pig’s brain for con­trol. Greel’s body is suf­fer­ing a degen­er­a­tive con­di­tion caused by the time trav­el, and needs the life force of young humans to sus­tain him­self. He is also look­ing for his Time Cab­i­net (which is in the pos­ses­sion of Lite­foot) so that he find anoth­er, more suit­able time peri­od. What he does­n’t know is that using the Time Cab­i­net would result in not only his death but the destruc­tion of Lon­don itself.

The Doc­tor is able to par­lay own­er­ship of the “tri­on­ic lat­tice” which is the Time Key to the Time Cab­i­net into a con­fronta­tion with Greel, where he explains that he is aware of his iden­ti­ty, much to the dis­be­lief of Greel, and final­ly man­ages to force the vil­lain into his own extrac­tion device, putting an end to his career. He also removes Dr. Sin’s “fuse”, deac­ti­vat­ing the homuncu­lus. And, with the threat over, the Doc­tor offers to buy every­one muffins.

Com­men­tary: Hyp­no­sis as tele­path­ic con­trol, with the added flair of glow­ing, flick­er­ing eyes on the part of Chang. (Not the best of spe­cial effects but remem­ber, this was a 70’s BBC pro­duc­tion.) Its pow­er­ful enough to drawn its vic­tims back to the the­ater after being entranced hours ear­li­er, or to enthrall a vic­tim almost imme­di­ate­ly, which Chang uses to obtain vic­tims for his mas­ter or to pre­vent Jago from being too curi­ous. Even the Doc­tor uses it, to clear Chang’s pre­vi­ous con­trol of Jago.

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Rec­om­men­da­tion: Def­i­nite­ly rec­om­mend­ed. One of the best Tom Bak­er episodes, with Leela tak­ing a major part in the sto­ry, which is always a good thing: her wide-eyed won­der at the strange­ness of Vic­to­ri­an Lon­don as well as her hunt­ing instincts all play a wel­come part here. The addi­tion of Lite­foot and Jago as sup­port­ing char­ac­ters is also a plus, as they evolve from sim­ple com­e­dy relief or expo­si­tion­al char­ac­ters to real par­tic­i­pants in the sto­ry. Even Chang devel­ops as a char­ac­ter, not a typ­i­cal thing for the vil­lain of the sto­ry. Add to the mix the well-writ­ten script by script edi­tor Robert Holmes and atmos­pher­ic direc­tion of David Mal­oney, not to men­tion the atmos­pher­ic sets and set­ting, and you have an excel­lent production.

Watch espe­cial­ly for the con­fronta­tion scene between the Doc­tor and Li H’sen Chang at the the­ater, espe­cial­ly when the Doc­tor calm­ly chal­lenges the magi­cian: there is some­thing going on between them there that you can almost feel through the screen.

The one draw­back is the mechan­i­cal rat, a very obvi­ous­ly-fake one. Of course, there had to be one to fol­low the Holmes theme, and from a pure sto­ry aspect, it makes a very good men­ace, but the actu­al pro­duc­tion was just so cheap it should have been left out. (Or maybe just sug­gest­ed and shown only in shad­ow and darkness.)

Triv­ia:

  • The work­ing title was ‘The Talons of Greel’ but ‘The TA-lons of Weng-Chi-ANG’ has such a pulp feel that is so appro­pri­ate here.
  • This is the only Tom Bak­er episode where he does not wear his trade­mark scarf.
  • The Sher­lock Holmes ref­er­ences abound here: the Doc­tor is wear­ing the clas­sic Inver­ness coat and deer­stalk­er hat, the pres­ence of Doc­tor Lite­foot as a sur­ro­gate Wat­son, and of course, any men­tion of a giant rat brings to mind the leg­endary unrecord­ed case of the Giant Rat of Suma­tra, “a sto­ry for which the world is not yet pre­pared.” (And does that make Leela the Irene Adler surrogate?)
  • Mag­nus Greel men­tions Time Agents and being hunt­ed by them. (“A Time Agent would­n’t ask ques­tions. A Time Agent would know.”) This is first and only men­tion of the Time Agency until Cap­tain Jack Hark­ness appears in ‘The Emp­ty Child’.
  • This sto­ry is also unusu­al in that the Doc­tor actu­al­ly kills the vil­lain, instead of just let­ting the vil­lain kill him­self through his own care­less­ness. The alter­na­tive, of course, being not only the destruc­tion of Lon­don (and him­self) is a com­pelling rea­son for the action, but the Doc­tor also states he was with the vic­to­ri­ous forces in the final bat­tle of World War VI, so there could be some emo­tion and poten­tial vengeance and delayed jus­tice involved here.
  • The Doc­tor also did not object when Leela used one of her fatal Janus thorns on an assas­sin attempt­ing to kill him ear­li­er, too, despite hav­ing done so in the past.
  • The episode was also con­sid­ered a ‘back-door’ pilot for the char­ac­ters of Lite­foot and Jago but noth­ing ever came of it. How­ev­er, the actors worked on a num­ber of audio pro­duc­tions by Big Fin­ish and are slat­ed to be reunit­ed with Louise Jame­son (Leela) in a future pro­duc­tion. The char­ac­ters have also appeared in a cou­ple of nov­els. But I can’t find any men­tion of the obvi­ous, hav­ing Jago and Lite­foot join the Torch­wood Insti­tute, although, as the exact time peri­od for this sto­ry is unclear, it may be that Torch­wood was not estab­lished until much later.
  • This was the final episode pro­duced by Phillip Hinch­cliffe. He would be replaced by Gra­ham Williams at the start of the next season.
  • This was the first episode with John Nathan-Turn­er as the series pro­duc­tion unit man­ag­er. Nathan-Turn­er would go on to replace Gra­ham Williams.
  • The orches­tra con­duc­tor at the Palace The­ater is none oth­er than Dud­ley Simp­son, the com­pos­er of the inci­den­tal music for this series and many oth­ers, includ­ing the title music for such BBC shows as “Blake’s 7” and “The Tomor­row Peo­ple”.
  • Stage magi­cian Ali Bon­go assist­ed with the mag­ic per­for­mances in episode 1. He would also be mag­ic advis­er to a num­ber of oth­er British TV series.

One Response to “‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ — “Doctor Who””

  • linda marie says:

    As a per­son old enough to remem­ber ALL of the Dr.Who Doc­tors ( includ­ing the one in the movie ‑before the Tv show),  tom Bak­er is my favorite.  I must admit that i do not recall this par­tic­u­lar episode.  I have been a “whov­ian” ( a fan of the doc­tor) ever since.  I even have a mem­ber­ship to a “Dr. Who” fanclub.
     My fel­low Amer­i­cans are slow­ly get­ting to know the good doc­tor thanks to “BBC Amer­i­ca” ( Tv net­work). Chan­nel 135 on the Dish Satellite .
    Thanks for the stroll down mem­o­ry lane.  I enjoy your blog very much —
    Keep smiling,
    Linda 

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