The Fourth Doctor brings Leela to Victorian London to see how her ancestors lived but is rapidly drawn into a fiendish plot involving Chinese Tongs, disappearing women, an Oriental stage magician with uncanny powers, a murderous ventriloquist’s dummy, and giant rats in the sewers.
I think it’s probably safe to say that The Talons of Weng-Chiang is possibly one of the greatest stories in the Doctor Who canon. It is also probably one of the most controversial by modern standards, featuring a villain wearing yellow face and several slurs levelled at the Chinese antagonists.
The elephant in the room regarding The Talons of Weng-Chiang is, of course, the racism and cultural insensitivity towards the Chinese, which would not fly at the time of writing. Of course, this story is, sadly, not unique in Doctor Who, or indeed television of its era and is symptomatic of a wider problem than a family’s teatime serial. Whilst it could be argued that Holmes was attempting to make the story authentic to the attitudes of people in the Victorian era in which it is set, it is perhaps notable that the Doctor, our hero and moral waypoint, seems to agree with the British characters’ views on the Chinese characters, and in fact, the Chinese in general, which just feels wrong. In stories like Rosa, there are examples of racism in the story, but the Doctor and their companions are figures who the writer has used as a narrative shorthand to oppose these views. Here, it is noticeably and awkwardly absent. Of course, the programme has a long and difficult problem with its depiction of race, something which explored really well in an article on Who Back When written by Richard Tarrant – there is a link to their review page, which in turn has a link to the article, at the bottom of this page. The thing is that John Bennett puts in a surprisingly three-dimensional performance as Chang and is unquestionably a great actor, but he definitively should not be in yellowface makeup, something that feels especially glaring considering the fact that the show had gone to such efforts to cast Asian actors in The Mind of Evil. No matter how much dignity Bennett brings to the character of the Chinese magician, there is no escaping that this is a white man in makeup to appear Chinese.
Looked at in hindsight, Talons is possibly the ultimate culmination of the Philip Hinchcliffe-Robert Holmes era, and even if their card hadn’t been marked since the reaction to stories like The Deadly Assassin, it is hard to see what more either could have done if they had done Season 15. The story drips with gothic horror, skulking around Victorian London with a real sense of threat and menace, and that’s before we see the face of the true villain of the piece. We also have the ultimate Robert Holmes double act in the form of the well-meaning but bumbling Henry Gordon Jago and the pompous Professor Litefoot, who would go on to star in their own Big Finish audio spin-off adventures. The story leans into the gothic roots with elements like Li H’sen Chang having one of his legs bitten off by (an admittedly sorry-looking) giant rat offscreen, only to be found doped up on opium to dull the pain. It certainly feels like a story that has had a lot of money spent on it, which led to Hinchcliffe’s successor Graham Williams having little money to produce Season 15. Holmes has created a six-part story that feels very lean and there is only one section that felt like padding, where Jago and Litefoot escape through the dumb waiter, only to be found and recaptured again. David Maloney directs with great economy and proves that he is one of the best and solidly consistent directors that the show has ever had, given the advantage of expensive night shoots to create a creepy, gas-lit Victorian London.
Eventually, the central villain is revealed to be a criminal from the future, rather than the Chinese God he is portraying, Magnus Greel. Greel borrows heavily from other literary sources like The Phantom of the Opera as he skulks around Jago’s Palace Theatre, murdering indiscriminately as he goes, and even from real Victorian London criminals. It can be no mistake that Holmes has Greel use young women to attempt to restore himself to health, in what is surely a nod to Jack the Ripper. It’s an interesting idea for the main villain to be a time traveller, and indeed, Big Finish would go on to make a prequel/sequel to this story in The Butcher of Brisbane starring Peter Davison, where the Fifth Doctor would pose as a Time Agent so as not to interfere with the events of this story. Michael Spice gives Greel a spectacular sense of menace, complete with his deformed face and snarls, right down to the final showdown in that fantastic set, complete with laser beam firing dragon. The Peking Homunculus, also known as Mr. Sin, is another example of the story’s attitude towards the Chinese, and just put me in mind of the Auton doll in Terror of the Autons, given an expanded role. It’s a pretty thankless task for Deep Roy.
Jago and Litefoot are an example of one of the best parts of the story, with sterling performances from Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter. Holmes introduces us to both of these characters separately, only bringing them together in Part 4, giving us time to get used to both characters. Jago starts off as the more abrasive and, it could be said, unlikable of the pair, being rather pompous and obnoxious, but develops as the story progresses into being someone who is being all bluster and is able to be brave despite how scared he is. By the time that he is finding opportunities Professor Litefoot, on the other hands, is almost immediately more likable, even not being instantly appalled by Leela’s lack of table manners and adopting them himself. By the time they are united, the origins of their investigative partnership are formed quickly, almost forming a Holmes-Watson style partnership, but I think that parts of both of Doyle’s creations are split between both Jago and Litefoot. The fact that Benjamin and Baxter are so iconic and memorable greatly helps this story, and it is easy to see why Big Finish decided to bring them back.
This story certainly feels like a high point in the relationship between both the Doctor and Leela, and Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. The two actors seem to bounce off each other with great rapport, bolstered by the Victorian influences of Pygmalion, with the Doctor giving himself the task of civilising his ‘savage’ companion, Leela, doubling for Eliza Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s novel. Whilst Baker appears to be having a complete ball in this adventure, Jameson gets to enjoy some development and some great action scenes, like when she jumps out of the window of Litefoot’s house. Jameson is a great actor and possibly too good for the treatment the show gave her in her early adventures. Here, she swaps her skins for more civilised dresses, where her more uncivilised attitudes bring her into conflict with both the Doctor and people like Litefoot, but none of them would be able to survive this story without her. This is possibly one of the most serious performances we get on television from Tom Baker and he does this so well, which, in turn, means that the stakes feel real for the audience. The fact that he’s not in his traditional attire doesn’t feel jarring and the deerstalker really suits him – Baker would go on to play Sherlock Holmes after leaving the role of the Doctor – and images of the Fourth Doctor walking around the gas-lit streets of Victorian London and exploring its sewers are definitely amongst the most iconic in the classic run’s history.
A janis thorn.
I thought I told you not to carry any more–
He was trying to kill you!
Oh. Oh. Well, in that case, you’d better come with me.The Fourth Doctor and Leela
Verdict: Whilst the well-documented problems with the story’s racism and depiction of Chinese characters is extremely problematic when viewed from a modern perspective, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is the culmination of three seasons of Hinchcliffe and Holmes taking inspiration from gothic fiction and works perfectly. 10/10
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Michael Spice (Weng-Chiang), John Bennett (Li H’sen Chang), Deep Roy (Mr Sin), Christopher Benjamin (Jago), Trevor Baxter (Professor Litefoot), David McKail (Sergeant Kyle), Alan Butler (Buller), Chris Gannon (Casey), Conrad Asquith (PC Quick), Patsy Smart (Ghoul), Tony Then (Lee), John Wu (Coolie), Judith Lloyd (Teresa), Vaune Craig-Raymond (Cleaning Woman), Penny Lister (Singer) & Vincent Wong (Ho).
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: David Maloney
Original Broadcast Dates: 26 February – 2 April 1977
Behind the Scenes
- The story had the working titles of The Foe from the Future and The Talons of Greel.
- This is one of the most beloved serials of the Classic run, whilst being criticised for its portrayal of Chinese characters.
- The foe of this story was originally intended to be the Decayed Master from The Deadly Assassin, however, Philip Hinchcliffe changed this as he did not want the Master to be the secret foe in two stories in the same season.
- This is the only serial in the Tom Baker era not to see him wear the iconic scarf, due to his Sherlock Holmes-esque costume worn in this serial.
- When Robert Holmes began writing this story, it was evident that producer Philip Hinchcliffe and likely Holmes, would be leaving the show after production of this serial had been completed. It was, therefore, decided that they would throw caution to the wind and spent a lot of money on production, including using numerous locations and featuring expensive night shoots.
- The last Doctor Who story directed by David Maloney, who would go on to become a producer on Blake’s 7.
- Hinchcliffe’s successor as producer, Graham Williams, was gradually taking over the role during production of this story, and approached Louise Jameson with an offer to stay on for Season 15, something that was at odds with a promise that Hinchcliffe had made to Tom Baker that Leela would be written out of the show at the end of Season 14. Baker did not like the character, believing her to be too violent, and Jameson was reluctant to stay on due to her difficult relationship with the lead actor as well as not liking the brown contact lenses she had to wear in the role. Williams offered that, if Jameson continued, the need for the contact lenses would cease. Jameson accepted, and the conclusion of Horror of Fang Rock would see Leela’s eye pigmentation return to the actor’s natural eye colour (blue).
- This is one of the serials Christopher Eccleston watched to prepare for the role of the Ninth Doctor.
- This is the first serial to feature future producer John Nathan Turner working as series production unit manager.
- This is Louise Jameson’s second favourite serial, after The Sunmakers, despite the fact she had glandular fever during filming of the sewer scenes.
- In the scene where Weng Chiang searches for the time cabinet, there is a large pile of straw placed in the middle of the road. This was to cover up a car which had been left in the street, despite requests from the production team to local residents.
- Michael Spice provided the voice of Morbius in The Brain of Morbius, and was also considered for the role of the decayed Master which ultimately went to Peter Pratt.
- John Bennett had previously appeared in the Third Doctor serial Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
- Christopher Benjamin had previously played Sir Keith Gold opposite Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor in Inferno and would go on to play Colonel Hugh in The Unicorn and the Wasp. Benjamin and Trevor Baxter would reprise their roles as Jago and Litefoot for the Big Finish audio series of the same name, alongside Conrad Asquith, who reprised his role of PC Quick, with the character being promoted to Sergeant and later Inspector.
The Doctor interfering with Chang’s attempts to dispose of him within the show, only to escape from the cabinet and hand him swords from the side of the stage is delightful.
Sleep is for tortoises!The Fourth Doctor
Previous Fourth Doctor review: The Robots of Death
Richard Tarrant’s article on Who Back When – a further link to which can be found just below the gallery on their review page.