Confession time – I’ve only seen a handful of serials from the classic series of Doctor Who.
I’ve seen plenty of clips, highlights, scenes, compilations, and even the entirety of Timelash, but I could count the number of stories I’ve seen on both hands and still have fingers left over. I came into Who in 2005, like a lot of other people, with Nine and Rose. Until then, I had seen Ghost Light on PBS right before the show was taken off the air, The War Games while waiting for a RPG session to start (it was a LONG wait, needless to say), Arc of Infinity while drunk off my ass, and Pyramids of Mars as background noise while my then-roommate was watching it.
Oh, and somewhere along the line I managed to watch the classic Vengeance on Varos.
I ended up getting into classic Who in a round-a-bout way, via Big Finish and their audios. It actually eased me into the idea of the classic series, which I always saw as a bit silly. American TV during the 70’s and 80’s was filmed and produced in a much different manner than 70’s and 80’s programs from Britain and the differences in both acting and editing were something my younger brain couldn’t comprehend. When my stepdaughter got into new Who, she dove in headfirst and devoured all of it. ALL of it. But we’ve never been able to get her into the classic stuff (or the audios, but that’s not here nor there), no matter how hard we tried to explain how awesome Sarah Jane Smith is, or how dashing the Third Doctor was, or that the Seventh Doctor could actually juggle and play the spoons. So, I decided that I would put my money where my mouth was and watch some old serials.
The first was Spearhead from Space, which was awesome (and one I’ll probably talk about some other time).
The second was The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which was even more awesome, but…wow. Just a little bit racist.
I think after seeing this serial, I finally GET Tom Baker. I had listened to his new line for Big Finish, the Fourth Doctor Adventures. While they were enjoyable, I just never clicked with the Fourth Doctor. Upon watching his performance in Talons, the wide-eyed grin, the quiet tones as he figures out what’s going on, and just his general sense of “I am so going to screw with people.” His actions during Chang’s magic show – moving the deck of cards right next to his face before Chang shoots them, blatantly walking out of the magic cabinet in the middle of the trick – when people called them “pure Tom Baker,” I now completely understand why. Even an act as simple as walking through the sewers with a humungous elephant gun, your eyes are riveted to him. The way he punctuates lines such as “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he’s a madman” only add to it. I don’t know if I’d pick this serial as one to use to introduce people to Tom Baker, but it would definitely be the second or third serial on his proverbial “mix tape.”
And then, you have the Chinese, and…ok, I get it. It’s 1970’s England, and there’s probably a shortage of quality Oriental actors hanging out around Northampton. And considering it’s 1970’s England, maybe putting a white guy in yellowface to play a Chinese magician wasn’t a big deal. But you could put Sir Laurence Olivier in blackface and have him absolutely kill as Othello with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but it’s still a white guy in blackface and it’s going to be really weird. It doesn’t help that every other Chinese actor in this story is either a hired thug or a coolie and nearly all of them die during the course of the story. It’s one of those things watching almost 40 years later that make a viewer go “um…ok, I guess I’ll just roll with it?” Granted, John Bennett is great as Li’Hsen Chang, managing to be mysterious and devious in the part of the Chinese magician…aw, Christmas, did I just type that…but the dialogue and overtones of the Chinese throughout the story almost, key word ALMOST, takes away from how great the story is. It’s very atmospheric, as Philip Hinchcliffe blew the budget on this one, his last serial as showrunner, with lavish sets and enough outdoor scenes to make his budget manager quit in despair after trying to balance the books!
It’s Victorian London as imagined; foggy, cramped, packed with strumpets. The “chase” through the theater in the second episode is well-shot, mixing darkness with the various ropes and other scenery never glimpsed behind the curtain. The script deals just enough exposition to set the scene without bogging down the story, mentioning World War VI and the Icelandic Alliance without going into any more detail. Baker calling Weng-Chiang “The Butcher of Brisbane” is all Baker needs to say to establish just how awful Weng-Chiang is. Michael Spice is Weng-Chiang…but also Magnus Greel, 51st century despot seeking his time cabinet to restore his body after ruining it in an escape from some Time Agents. He’s a standard character type that the Doctor often runs into, someone claiming to be god-like who turns out to be just another man in need of something to save his life…and the reveal of just what has happened to him is one of the great cliffhangers in Who history.
There’s a mix of tropes throughout this story – you have a bit of My Fair Lady with Leela dressing as a Victorian woman and everyone remarking about how “ a woman shouldn’t be here” even as she’s rescuing street girls from the clutches of Weng-Chiang. Leela shines in this story, both on offense, defense, and running for her life. Her shyness when presenting herself to Litefoot and the Doctor in her evening fare is adorable, and the way she dives for the gun during the climatic fight is badass.
Then, you have the double act of Jago and Litefoot, both who serve as the Watson to the Doctor’s Sherlock. I can see why there was talk of a spin-off with these two, as the chemistry between Trevor Baxter’s soft-spoken Professor Litefoot and the bombastic cowardly Henry Gordon Jago, as played by Christopher Benjamin, is off-the charts. The pair would get their own Big Finish audio line, currently seven series strong, an amazing feat considering the two characters don’t meet up until midway through the fifth episode!
Oh, and I have to mention the giant rat. Again, it’s the 1970’s, and the BBC didn’t want to give the show that much of a budget. But the person I borrowed the DVD from warned me “not to let the giant rat distract you from the story.” A giant rat, hidden in darkness, menacing Leela, and I said to myself “ah, THERE’S the reason I never gave this show a chance.” It was handled about as well as it could of, but it was easily the silliest thing in the entire story, and Talons includes a creepy Chinese doll/midget.
In the end, The Talons of Weng-Chiang truly is one of the best serials, not only for Tom Baker, but for all of Doctor Who. If you can get past the casual racism, it’s well plotted and well paced, with great performances, cracking dialogue, and one of the better plots in the show’s history.