~ 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.
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.)
- 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.