Review of Doctor Who ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ (Series 14)

Neela Debnath

doctor 6 300x226 Review of Doctor Who ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’ (Series 14)In the run up to the 50th anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’ in November 2013, Neela Debnath, with the help of BBC DVD, will be writing a review focusing on one story from each of the previous 31 series of the show. Each review will offer readers a snapshot from every series of ‘Doctor Who’ and celebrate the longest-running science fiction television programme in the world.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang was aired in 1977 and saw the Doctor donning a tweed cape and deerstalker hat to investigate the disappearance of several young ladies in Victorian London.

Firstly, though Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) is no longer with the Doctor, her last adventure was The Hand of Fear. At the end of the serial the Doctor was summoned back to Gallifrey by the Time Lords but could not take Sarah Jane with him. Therefore, he dropped her off in South Croydon or so he thought, in fact the Tardis navigation malfunctioned and she ended up being left in Aberdeen.

Although this may have been the end for her character then, Sarah Jane made a couple of appearances in the Eighties and in 2006 she was again reunited with the Time Lord in his Tenth incarnation in the episode School Reunion. Following the episode, Sladen ended up with her own spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures which highlighted the enduring appeal of Doctor Who. Sadly, Sladen passed away last year but she remains one of the best-loved companions on the show.

At this point in series 14 the Doctor now has a new companion in the form of Leela (Louise Jameson), a warrior from the savage Sevateem tribe. She first met the Doctor in The Face of Evil and forced her way onto the Tardis despite the Doctor’s protestations and ended up travelling with him. Although she is uncouth due to her primitive background she is intelligent and a quick learner. Most of the all she has a feisty nature and does not fear death, in The Talons of Weng-Chiang she throws herself quite readily into the path of peril.

The character of Leela was inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Leela is Eliza Doolittle to the Doctor’s Henry Higgins. The intertextuality is quite evident in this serial from the way in which she is educated both by the Doctor and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter), who is a combination of both Doctor Watson and Colonel Pickering.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang was the last serial of series 14 and is a wonderful story that has aged well, proving to be a true Doctor Who classic. The reason it can still be appreciated by contemporary audiences is partly because it is a pastiche of several others works of literature, including the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Phantom of the Opera and Pygmalion. On top of that there are elements of the Jack the Ripper murders in this serial. Jack the Ripper of course continues to fascinate people due to the macabre and mystery that shrouds the crimes.

The script has been penned by Robert Holmes who has put together a delightful tale with elements of dark comedy and horror. It is wonderful both as a piece of science fiction but also as a Doctor Who serial. From the apples and pears, East end cockney lingo to the foggy streets of London, it is a magnificent-looking production.

Then there is the spot-on casting. Ventriloquist dummies have always been scary and this one is no exception, its appearance is disturbing enough and Deep Roy causes waves of fear with his performance. Equally impressive is John Bennett as Li H’sen Chang, throughout he brings a gravitas to the role and is superb. Some viewers may recognise Bennett from the Jon Pertwee serial Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

Bennett manages to appear frightening and yet his performance in his final scene evokes much pathos as he speaks to the Doctor while in a heavily drug-induced state. The moment when viewers discover that Chang was a peasant plucked from obscurity and was due to perform in front of the Queen at Buckingham palace, it is completely heart-breaking. Holmes has given a lot of depth to Chang so that he is not simply a villain, he has motives for assisting the man he thinks is Weng-Chiang; fundamentally Chang is an honest man who has been misled by a mad man.

Then there is Christopher Benjamin who is marvellous as theatre owner Henry Gordon Jago. Just like Chang, Jago is a layered character who pretends to be fearless and yet is vulnerable. This was not Benjamin’s only appearance on Doctor Who, he was previously in Inferno and more recently in 2008’s Agatha Christie-inspired tale The Unicorn and the Wasp.

Production-wise the only let down in this serial is the giant rat that was put together by one of the crew with the help of his six-year-old son. When the audience sees the monstrous creature it is cringeworthy at best, with a Blue Peter feel to it – much like many of the show’s monsters. But the less said about that the better. Overall, The Talons of Weng-Chiang has something for everyone in it and is one for new Doctor Who fans thinking of exploring previous eras of the show.

It is worth noting that there is one major flaw to this serial and that is the stereotyping of Asian actors. It makes for uncomfortable viewing and is a shameful and unacceptable element to an otherwise brilliant story. I wish the story could be re-made without the shocking stereotypes. However, I take comfort in the fact that this would never happen on Doctor Who today. If anything the show has become all embracing of all races, genders and sexuality. Of course the debates over a female Time Lord or a non-Caucasian Doctor are still going on. But that’s another topic for another blog post.

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DVD & image credit: BBC

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  • paul f cockburn

    Deerstalker notwithstanding, Robert Holmes was riffing more on Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels and Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera than Conan Doyle in this serial. I agrees, though, with this remaining story one of the show’s all-time triumphs; great script from Holmes (especially when it does the plot swerve from Part 5), great cast and some beautiful direction from David Maloney, who alas never worked on the show again. (That said, Doctor Who’s loss was Blake’s 7’s gain.)

  • VicTheBrit

    Having recently acquired an almost complete set of classic Dr Who (excluding of course, the 4 year gap the BBC thought fit to destroy). I’ve been rather flitting around the episodes so this will be next on the list.

  • daniel york

    Whilst some of Holmes’s dialogue sparkles the story is vastly overrated. John Bennett’s “yellowface” performance is deeply uncomfortable to modern eyes (I’m surprised an Asian woman has no issue with this) and only serves to emphasise the fact that every other Chinese character is mute or pidgin. Coupled to this there is inherent racism throughout and the story collapses like a soggy souffle in the last two episodes.

  • Fennec

    Great story but they should never have shown the giant rat… Mind you, it wasn’t all about special effects in those days.

  • Muttlee2

    I enjoyed it but it seems quite slow paced compared with modern episodes. The story caused some controversy for some of its Asian roles being played by white actors in chinese makeup,which would not be done nowadays. In Canada,after consulting with local Chinese-Canadian groups it was not shown in Ontario. Other stations in the US and
    Canada also declined to air it.

  • Martin_Kinsella

    Bennett is obviously a spoof of Fu Manchu.

    There are other parallels with Fu Manchu as well.

    The whole era was based on, basically, ripping off sci-fi or horror genres. Still, why give that any thought when fans can look to be offended for the sake of being offended.

  • Martin_Kinsella

    I can forgive the rat, sadly even the great David Maloney could not make up for its inadequacies.

  • daniel york

    No one’s “looking to be offended”, Martin. You cite Bennett’s performance as a “spoof” (of a legendarily racist caricature let us not forget) but at the same time you’ll no doubt be singing his praises for the “pathos” he brings to it. You can’t have it both ways. Would you find it acceptable with an African character? Yes, the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era pastiched gothic genres but that’s no excuse for poor stereotypes portrayed by racial impersonators while the genuine article is rendered silent and mute.

  • daniel york

    The US and Canada are streets ahead in terms of racial awareness whereas here in the UK the forces of conservatism still cling rabidly to the idea of a clever English chap’s colonial right to impersonate some little yellow people. I cut it slack as it was written and produced in the 70’s but it really should be acknowledged how painfully unenlightened it is in its approach which very much belongs to another era.

  • Anna Chen

    This is the sort of insulting yellowface rubbish that may have entertained those without critical faculties but it made my life as a kid miserable when it was broadcast. Are you seriously OK with east Asian children seeing depictions of themselves like this? It’s disingenuous of the Indy to get an Asian woman to give this the thumbs up.

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