❉ First broadcast on this day 40 years ago, there’s so much to celebrate about ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’!
Gather round, gather round! 26 February 2017 signifies the fortieth anniversary of a specifically significant and stupendously spectacular Doctor Who televisual extravaganza embarking upon its six part sequential episodic odyssey across that most hallowed of visual transmission channels, BBC One. On this most auspicious of occasions, ladies and gentlemen, answer me this querulous query: when would be a better time to assemble and contemplatively speculate, subjectively cogitate and exuberantly celebrate 40 reasons why this adventure is a gargantuan triumph in the annals of dimensionally transcendental, heebie-jeebies inducing time travelling shenanigans? Exactly! So, settle in front of your interface of choice and read or scroll through the following list of tantalising titbits on the tremulous terror that was, and is, The Talons of Weng-Chiang!
1) The influences worn on its sleeve.
The Hincliffe era is renowned for the unashamed but skilful way it tiptoed through the graveyard of classic influences, usually of a gothic realm, and casually weaved them into a fresh story’s narrative – Frankenstein for The Brain of Morbius, the Mummy for Pyramids of Mars etc. Here, Hincliffe seemingly gave Holmes the production teams Calais’ Gothic Hypermarket shopping card as he placed Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, The Phantom of the Opera, Murders In The Rue Morgue, and Fu Manchu in his trolley. The fact that Talons still manages to craft a solid identity for itself while brazenly brandishing its ‘heritage’, and remains resolutely Doctor Who, is a testament to Holmes’ skill as writer.
2) The Doctor’s costume.
The Doctor very rarely dresses for the temporal locations he lands in. But having Tom Baker don pseudo-Holmes attire makes for a striking visual image.
3) Tom Baker.
In Talons, Tom is firing on all cylinders, and then some he has borrowed from storage. His contemplative moments are beat perfect but it is in his vitriolic outburst where he demands that Greel listens to him we have an actor at the head of his game.
4) Jago and Litefoot.
Holmes is renowned for his skilfully crafted double acts, but Jago and Litefoot are the pinnacle of his achievement. Every scene with them is exemplary, but never more so than when sharing screen time together. It is little wonder that Big Finish have used them for a series of their own spin off audios in recent years.
5) John Bennett as Li H’sen Chang.
Although this example of ‘yellowface’ casting would be unthinkable in this day and age, at the time of production it was nothing extraordinary. Whether you consider this a lapse in taste and judgement, inherent racism or a continuation of acting’s tradition of using actors out of type (such as the Elizabethan theatre casting men in female roles) is a deeply personal choice. What cannot be denied, however, is that this casting choice has become more contentious as we have adjusted our moral compass. As a result of that, what can often be overlooked in modern discourse is just how good Bennett is in the role.
6) The period detail.
It is easy to be complacent in appreciation of the BBC’s ability to skilfully recreate historic settings, especially Victorian and Edwardian ones. It’s almost as if we expect it due to the craft we have become accustomed to over the decades. This is a great shame as the incredible attention to detail can almost wash over the viewer unnoticed. That said, it does allow us to accept we are in a historic location without hesitation or question. This is especially the case in Talons as it truly feels as though we have been transported back in time.
7) Louise Jameson as Leela.
If there was ever an actress who can state they showcased their training and inherent ability to act while portraying the Doctor’s companion, it is Louise Jameson. Aside from the character bullet points any new companion is given, what we often see on screen, especially as their time on the programme continues, is an extension of the person playing that role. Louise Jameson bucked that trend from the word go, taking the brief and moulding and inhabiting a true character in the form of Leela. Leela is, for wants of a better word, a “real” person. This is showcased beautifully in Talons, and her fish out of water conversations with Litefoot are a highlight of the story.
8) The dialogue.
From Jago’s overblown theatrical lexicon to quotable lines about Cockneys, sleep being for tortoises and just how many lumps of sugar it is polite for a lady to take in her tea, Holmes’ script is rich in word and character. The rest of this list could simply consist of examples, but however pleasing they would be to read, there’s still so much more to Talons to celebrate.
9) The balance of historical location and science fiction.
The blending of human history with the more fantastic aspects of sci-fi is a staple of Doctor Who’s DNA. Sometimes this works beautifully, in stories such as The Masque of Madragora and The Visitation, on other occasions it clashes or has lesser success, for instance Timelash and The Time Monster.
With Talons, the mix is spot on, assisted by bringing the future into the past but keeping it muted in terms of design, actively dressing Greel, and his time cabinet, in a way that doesn’t jar with their surroundings. The technology he brings to Victorian England is beyond the capabilities of that time, certainly, but it is also strangely at home and doesn’t force the viewer to suffer a moment of forced narrative readjustment. It’s almost as though the unreality of the theatrical setting asks for the surreal elements seen in Greel’s lair, both working in conjunction with each other.
10) It doesn’t take the easy way out.
When Talons was conceived, written and recorded the production team had recently resurrected the Master, and incredibly successfully. It would have been so easy to have built Talons around this now dessicated form as he searched for life essence in the virile bodies that are drained in the story and seeking to reactive his ‘time cabinet’. In fact, once you imagine that notion, you can see Talons actively screaming out for that approach, but the team sidestepped it. In an era that, with a few notable exceptions, had few kisses to the past, valuing innovation over introspection and repetition, the foe from the future was delivered in the form of Magnus Greel. And Talons is so much the stronger story for that decision.
11) The Peking Homunculus.
While, in reality, a cyborg from the 51st century with the cerebral cortex of a pig, it is presented as a creepy, living ventriloquist’s doll. This is something that taps into established, and innate, phobias about inanimate objects coming to life, especially dolls. Doctor Who has had its fair share of such creations, notably The Celestial Toymaker, Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, Rose and Night Terrors, but it is in Talons that Mr Sin takes the mannequin crown.
12) The structure.
Talons is a six part story and yet it doesn’t suffer from the fatigue syndrome often experienced while watching other such Doctor Who serials as the action is interspersed with enough padding to stuff a DFS sofa. This is largely down to the way it employs, and reverses, the 2+4 structure seen in The Seeds of Doom (which, in itself, can be seen as slightly ironic as the initial idea for this story came from an outline by Robert Banks Stewart, the writer of Seeds).
In that story, the first two episodes are almost a standalone tale taking on The Thing before making the action to England for the remaining four instalments. In Talons, the first four parts tale of the quest to get the time cabinet against a Victorian backdrop before the focus shifts to the Oriental dressage of Greel’s domain. Unlike Seeds, though, this leap doesn’t feel like two stories welded together but rather a natural, and logical continuation of the same adventure. If only the same could be said for The Stones of Blood…
13) Its language.
Talons’ dialogue has already been praised, but due of equal mention and acclaim its use of language itself. Vernacular and different registers are used to indicate where people sit in the social scale. Chang and Jago both use contrived theatrical register when in showman mode, deploying cod-oriental in Chang’s show, alliteration for Jago’s announcement, and revert to a more naturalistic way of speaking when divested of those robes. Casey and Joseph Buller’s words reflect their place within the working class, Litefoot’s his place in the more refined, and respected, echelons and Leela speaks in a way that realistically displays her temporal displacement. Elsewhere, dew-fresh Teresa uses exagerrated Cockney when distracted by Chang: “All I want is a pair of smoked kippers, a cup of rosie and put me plates up for a few hours, savvy?” Much good will it do her…
Every individual speaks differently, creating a believable world for us to visit and view. Scripts can often read as one voice speaking through the mouths of many characters, whatever their status – and not just in Doctor Who. As wonderful as Tarantino’s dialogue is, it is frequently unclear as to where his voice ends and his creations’ begin – and what they do. In Talons, even though each character is dressed in type, we are also clearly told who these people are and where their characters sit in the world by the way they speak. You could listen to it on audio and still know this. It’s a true case of show, don’t tell.
14) How it paints the future.
Although firmly entrenched within its Victorian setting, the future of Earth is stridently heard, but in a deft manner. A future world Empire is evoked by the use of casual but laden phrases and allusions. Mr Sin almost caused World War Six, we are introduced to the science of Zygma experimentation, and the Battle of Reykavik sounds as real and locked down as the Battle of Canary Wharf. Unlike the way The Power of the Daleks strives, but ultimately fails, to place visions on a huge colony existing on Vulcan in the viewers’ minds by repeatedly saying there is a colony, Holmes’ use of a similar technique, but tempered with identified events and details, successfully creates a wider world outside the confines of the setting.
15) Its legacy.
Holmes created a world that fans loved, and one that has inspired them. As well as the Jago and Litefoot audios, Emotional Chemistry, The Shadow of Weng-Chiang, The Butcher of Brisbane and even Captain Jack’s backstory as a Time Agent, have clear roots within Talons. An adventure from forty years ago, broadcast once, has clearly influenced aspects of modern continuity.
16) Dudley Simpson.
To praise Dudley Simpson’s work is akin to applauding the BBC’s period detail – it is expected to deliver, and it does. It isn’t until you hear someone applauding that music that you focus on it, rather than simply going with it. There is a reason Simpson was used so extensively on Doctor Who, and that is that he consistently produced scores that evoked the tone and mood of the adventure without burying the dialogue with its pride of achievement. Its beauty is that you hear it, you acknowledge it, you feel it… but it doesn’t demand your attention, or derail it. Oh, and if you look closely you can see the man himself as the conductor of Jago’s theatre orchestra.
17) Philip Hinchcliffe.
You have to admire a man who, when asked to tone down the violent content depicted in Doctor Who, rightly or wrongly stuck to his guns and didn’t. Or, rather, he simply turned the gas down one notch and, rather like David Cameron after the Brexit vote, left the next incumbent producer to carry out that task in full. In his farewell story, the horrors are still there, and in abundance – as are, as was mentioned earlier, numerous examples of his era defining use of literary and cinematic influences. It’s almost as though he’d decided to join Holmes in that hypermarket and cram a whole future season within the framework of one adventure. The fact Talons doesn’t burst at the seams, didn’t have Mary Whitehouse baying for blood again, or leave the viewer feeling intoxicated, is both astounding and a testament to its brilliance. And Hinchliffe’s.
18) David Maloney.
The director not only shot the story in a way that makes it perfectly acceptable to view as a film, as was proven with its initial, truncated and non-episodic VHS release, but managed to get every actor involved to deliver an A-Game performance. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast.
19) The ghoul.
This is not referencing the ‘phantom’ at the Palace Theatre but rather Patsy Smart as the crone who slavers over the drowned victim at the beginning of episode one. Her relish at seeing the body is singularly repulsive and memorable, encapsulating a character that lives on beyond her screen time – onions or no onions.
20) Its title and how you hear it.
Talons gets the story title into the action in a truly memorable way. Michael Spice’s delivery of, “Let the talons of Weng-Chiang shred your FLEEEESSSHHHHH!” is deliciously arch, but totally in keeping with being spoken by a deranged, fugitive war criminal, and former Minister of Justice, from the 51st century.
21) It features a rat.
A huge rat. There might be more on that later.
22) The locations as character.
The streets of Victorian London are alive, vibrant and breathing – a tangible extra in themselves. And when a 1977-era member of the public left their brand new Porsche in one of the street scenes, the production team covered the car with a tarp and dumped a pile of hay and manure on top of it to conceal it.
23) The theatre.
Being able to record in an actual theatre, just as The Greatest Show in the Galaxy filmed in a real tent, just adds to the atmosphere. The fact that the theatre also recalls, or pastiches , The Good Old Days adds another pleasing Who-nod as Jago deliberately channels the delivery of Leonard Sachs who would, of course, go on to star in Arc of Infinity.
Litefoot has a housekeeper called Mrs Hudson. This, together with the Doctor’s attire and a reference to The Giant Rat of Sumatra, opens up the question, “Is Sherlock Holmes a fictional character or not within the Doctor Who world?’ See All Consuming Fire by Andy Lane for the answer to that one.
25) Ich bin ein Midlander.
Talons broke out of London – which is odd for a story so solidly set there. Aside from the reference to Chinese firing pieces being unable to malfunction due to being made in Birmingham, the theatre used for filming was in Nottingham. In continuation at that, the next story, Horror of Fang Rock, was filmed at the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. It’s a whim, but a fun one, to see this as mirroring the way Moffat aped RTD’s story telling in The Eleventh Hour to bridge the gap between eras. It’s also of tangential interest to note, in passing, that by returning to the Midlands so quickly for a second trip to a fog shrouded turn of the century Britain you could argue that Talons and Horror of Fang Rock can almost be regarded as a ten parter, where the Doctor and Leela encounter an extended stay, on land and at sea, in the Victorian era.
26) The Pygmalion effect.
Aside from the more Gothic strains within Talons, the serial owes a heavy debt to George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, about a man of learning attempting to refine and educate a woman considered to be from a lower, or more ignorant, birthplace. It’s not only the Doctor who attempts this, Litefoot joins in as well – but, being the gentleman he is, mirrors her eating behaviour in a desire not to embarrass her. The theme of the Doctor acting as a mentor would return to Doctor Who many years later as the seventh Doctor strived to nurture and guide Ace to a fresh destiny, but for totally different (and ultimately never realised) motives.
27) “Die, Bent face!”
While dialogue and register have been mentioned before, Leela’s summarisation of Greel’s visage warrants a mention in its own right. While she would never win any friends on social media by posting that comment below a Greel-selfie (it would, instead, generate many, many claims of body-shaming) it gives us a direct insight into Leela’s more primal, succinct and, dare it be said, honest (if unfeeling) insight of the world. It’s also more realistic than many of Ace’s nicknames for the people she encountered while with the Doctor.
28) The Doctor as a magician.
In a story where magic and illusion are key players (stage shows, manufactured ghosts, a genetically modified rodent, Greel hoodwinking Li H’sen Chang into believing he is his revered God – just as Chang ultimately deceives his audience into believing he is a great illusionist), the Doctor has a turn at auditioning for Gallifrey’s Got Talent via the same mediums. It’s a lovely scene, underplayed, and it conjures both memories of this incarnation trying on outfits in Robot as well as throwing down a gauntlet to his other selves to better his routine – one which is taken up when, many years later, and in his seventh body, he encounters the Gods of Ragnarok.
29) The theatre chase.
While its budget would never allow Talons to conjure the majesty of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’s pursuit through a theatre, the cat and mouse game seen as the Doctor and Greel battle through the scenery and rigging of the Palace Theatre is quite breath-taking.
30) Breaking glass.
The shot of Leela running across the table and then bursting through Litefoot’s front room window is rather special, and later invoked in Remembrance of the Daleks and Ghost Light by two future Pygmalion-esque characters.
These are at the core of Doctor Who (or were) and Talons has a good few to boast about. We have the ripping off of Greel’s mask (another Phantom of the Opera homage – and one more logical than Linx needing to take a helmet breather in The Time Warrior or Scaroth’s self-help exercise in City of Death), Greel’s maniacal laugh as he rides away with the time cabinet and, of course, the Doctor having apparently shot Leela as well as the rat as she (Leela, not the rat) wears water soaked and revealing lingerie #SomethingForTheDads
32) The rat.
Have I mentioned the rat yet?
33) The death of Li H’sen Chang.
Betrayed by a false god, mauled by a huge rodent, Chang is last encountered in a scene where, sans leg, he is smoking on the pipe of poppy and clinging onto his belief in, to him, a real God and the visons of his family beckoning over a bridge to a jade palace in heaven. The fact he gives his last breath to providing the Doctor with a clue to the Tong of the Black Scorpion bestows him with true redemption, and one that we acknowledge and share as the final frames of the story are dedicated to his image and memory.
34) The golf club.
Leela holds, and weighs up, a golf club as a potential weapon. This is true savage resourcefulness and one that foreshadows another link to the McCoy era where an everyday, mundane baseball bat become imbued with real attacking power.
35) The gun.
In Talons, the Doctor fires a gun. Despite the many years of protestation that the Doctor is a hero who never fires a gun, he does here. And In Attack of the Cybermen. Oh, and in Hell Bent. So, beware Davros and all those other enemies, and allies, who believe he never would. He actually could – and has. Whether that’s a good thing or not is open to conjecture.
36) Emma Buller.
She never makes a living on screen appearance and yet she has a presence that even RTD, the master of making one scene characters have a full bodied history, would be proud – and jealous – of. She instigates part of the intrigue and drama by simply not being there and disappearing before the story commences. It’s also strange to note two things about her: as the wife of a cockney cab driver, she appears to have enough disposable income to have her initials embroidered on her handkerchiefs and, considering who Greel goes after, was she a theatre cleaner or a lady of the night? If the latter, must be the ‘fluence that made her lose her reason! #BlameChang
37) The Doctor’s disregard of property.
With his mind racing, the Doctor needs to draw a map and, instead of asking for a pen and paper, desecrates Litefoot’s table cloth. It’s Litefoot’s gentlemanly reaction to this that carries the scene.
38) Whose Doctor Who?
Talons has the distinction of being the focus of the first ever documentary focusing on the production of Doctor Who. Broadcast under the Lively Arts banner on Sunday, 3 April 1977, we were given unprecedented access to behind the scenes footage, Tom Baker delivered his famous “light bulb” quote about Jon Pertwee and we were able to get up close and personal with the rat. Oh, yeah! There’s a rat!
39) The rat. Yes, the rat.
Although ultimately, and unfortunately, rather cute in realisation, the concept of the giant rat is terrifying – and, as Who fans, we are, or at least should be, well versed in overlooking the sometimes obvious shortcomings incurred by budget or time, and focussing on the idea we are being asked to consider instead.
40) The original book cover.
Jeff Cummins’ artwork is a thing of beauty.
Oh, let’s face it, you could all carry on, couldn’t you? Then please do so. Post your additional reasons to love Talons below this update. They will probably be better than mine!
❉ ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ was originally broadcast on BBC One from 26 February – 2 April 1977 and is available from BBC Store: https://store.bbc.com/doctor-who/the-talons-of-weng-chiang