Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Episode Six

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Finally the Doctor and Greel have a face to face meeting. The Doctor has dealt with Greel’s proxy – Chang – previously, but it’s not until now that Greel and the Doctor have the chance for a chat.

As time went on, Tom’s Doctor became more and more flippant (although to be fair, flippancy was always part of his character). Some dislike his mockery of the villains (maintaining that it diminished them) but I’ve never had a problem with it. Yes, the Doctor gives the impression that he’s not taking Greel seriously (“never trust a man with dirty fingernails”) but there’s still a palpable air of threat and menace from the masked man.

Jago and Litefoot continue their sojourn as prisoners of Greel. This brief dialogue exchange is lovely –

JAGO: Well, I’m not awfully. Well, I’m not so bally brave when it comes to it. I try to be but I’m not.
LITEFOOT: When it comes to it, I don’t suppose anybody is.
JAGO: Well, I thought I ought to tell you anyway, in case I let the side down.
LITEFOOT: You won’t, Henry. I know you won’t.

Jago’s cowardice has been evident right from the start, but the fact that he admits it (and Litefoot doesn’t think any less of him because of it) is nicely done.

If the Doctor was rather playful with Greel at Litefoot’s house, then the mood changes once both are back in Greel’s lair.  Once he discovers that the man masquerading as Weng-Chiang is actually Magnus Greel (“the infamous Minister of Justice. The Butcher of Brisbane”) there’s a definite gear-change.

DOCTOR: I know you’re a wanted criminal and that a hundred thousand deaths can be laid at your door.
WENG: Enemies of the state! They were used in the advancements of science.
DOCTOR: They were slaughtered in your filthy machine.
WENG: So, you are from the future, and I, for all my achievements, are only remembered as a war criminal. Of course, it is the winning side that writes history, Doctor. Remember, you would not be here if it were not for my work.

Both Baker and Michael Spice are sparking here. Spice, hidden behind a mask, has been somewhat hampered throughout the story but his skill as a voice actor means that Greel is still a fully-formed character, despite the fact we never (apart from one glimpse) see his features.

The Doctor is locked up with Jago, Litefoot and two young girls, Greel’s latest victims.  That they’re so very young is the sort of plot-point you probably wouldn’t see today (Holmes did have some dialogue explaining that their age – on the point of puberty – was the reason why Greel had abducted them).  Ah, it was a different time back then.

The Doctor might not carry a weapon, but he’s happy to improvise.  His home-made gas bomb is one such example – and the sort of thing that would vanish from the series once Graham Williams took over.

The final battle is a little anti-climactic (and the less about Tom wrestling with an obvious Mr Sin dummy the better) but it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is Who at its best.  It’s a real regret that they don’t make them like this anymore.

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Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Episode Five

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Amongst Tom Baker’s many skills as the Doctor was his ability to deal with strangest of dialogue.  The Doctor’s description of Mr Sin is a case in point – in a lesser Doctor’s hands it might have come across as a comic moment,  but there’s no such sense with Baker.  “The Peking Homunculus was a toy, a plaything for the Commissioner’s children. It contained a series of magnetic fields operating on a printed circuit and a small computer. It had one organic component. The cerebral cortex of a pig. Anyway, something went wrong. It almost caused World War Six”.

Now that Greel’s finally obtained the time cabinet he’s rather chuffed (“oh, how I have dreamt of this moment. To be free of this putrefying carcass”) but wouldn’t you believe it, he’s lost the key. All these years when he had the key but not the cabinet and now the position is reversed. You have to feel a little sorry for him, master criminal he is not.

But you have to feel sorrier for the unfortunate Ho, who left the bag containing the key behind at the theatre.  He takes the sting of the scorpion and dies horribly as the chuckling Mr Sin looks on. This is another of those nightmarish moments which many argued crossed the boundaries between children’s and adult’s television (although Holmes’ original draft – Greel takes out a revolver and shoots Ho multiple times – was even more uncompromising).

And finally … Jago and Litefoot meet. It’s easy to see why Robert Holmes briefly considered spinning these characters off into their own series and even easier to understand why the Big Finish series of audio plays has entertained so many. Benjamin and Baxter make for a wonderful team.

Litefoot, like he was with the Doctor, has to play the straight-man somewhat, but he’s more than simply a foil for Jago’s comic bumbling. Their first scene is a treat – Jago mistaking Litefoot for his own butler and then attempting to back out of a nocturnal adventure due to his weak chest!

Chang’s brief reappearance is something of a surprise, but the sight of him – doped up on opium and missing a leg – provides us with clear evidence that he’s not long for this world. Thanks to Bennett as well as Holmes’ script, Chang is much more than a single-minded villain. His wistful regret that he was shortly due to perform before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace (hopefully he would have kept Mr Sin under control) is a nice touch.

Bennett’s casting will always be a bar to some people, but I don’t find the oft-repeated accusation that Talons painted a strong negative portrait of the Chinese to be correct.

Jago and Litefoot may be many things, but they’re no match for Greel and quickly find themselves locked up. Their abortive escape attempt – via the dumb waiter – doesn’t really go anywhere though. Possibly this was a spot of padding from a now desperate and weary Holmes. Benjamin and Baxter still manage to entertain though.

But things pick up with the cliffhanger, as Leela (and the audience) views the unmasked Greel for the first time ….

Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Part Four

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After being largely absent from the previous episode, Henry Gordon Jago comes roaring back in this one.  Once again, Robert Holmes’ skill at creating vivid characters even extends to the ones we never see.  Jago, once more delightfully teamed up with his factotum Casey (dumb and dumber), clearly has little love for his wardrobe mistress.

JAGO: The woman’s a bloodsucker. She’s trying to ruin me.
CASEY: Well she said.
JAGO: Don’t tell me, Casey. I’m an artiste. Every night at this time, I feel like an old warhorse scenting the smoke of the battlefield. As the house fills, the blood starts tingling through my veins. My public is out there waiting for me. I can’t talk about money at a time like this.
CASEY: But you don’t do anything, Mister Jago.
JAGO: I, I announce the acts, I count the tickets, I smile at people. You’ve no idea of the strain it puts on a fellow. Furthermore, she spend seventeen and threepence on the wardrobe last week.

Another lovely scene for Christopher Benjamin and Chris Gannon.

The moment when Jago and Litefoot will meet is coming closer, but for the moment they’re still apart.  The Doctor, having managed to rescue Leela (well, did you really imagine he wouldn’t?) is preparing for a night at the theatre.  Having decided last episode that the best way to locate Greel’s lair would be by the sewers, he’s clearly now knocked this plan on the head.

This is possibly a consequence of the way Robert Holmes had to cobble the scripts together at high speed, but since the Doctor was already aware that Greel’s bolt-hole was somewhere in the theatre, wouldn’t it have been easier just to walk in through the door?  Especially since he knew that large (albeit cuddly) rats were loose in the sewers?  True, he was on hand to rescue Leela, but that wasn’t the intention (just a fortunate coincidence).

Christopher Benjamin sparkles throughout.  His hero-worship of the Doctor, whom he’s convinced is a top private investigator, is delightful.  A decade or so later Holmes would recreate the character in The Two Doctors, as what is Oscar, if not a Jago clone?

One of my favourite Jago moments occurs when he pays a surreptitious visit to the Doctor and Leela’s box.  As an aside, did the Doctor pay for this first-class treatment, did Jago lay it on or did the Doctor just breeze in?  Anyway, Jago crawls into the box on his hands and knees, proud to be standing by the Doctor during his hour of need.  Alas, his pride gets a bit wobbly once the Doctor informs him that he’s quite alone and the theatre isn’t surrounded by a ring of policemen.  Jago’s plaintive “oh corks” as he shuffles out is wonderful.

It’s easy to see how The Good Old Days influenced this part of the story (a reference which wouldn’t have been lost on the contemporary audience and – thanks to the recent repeats – possibly not on a section of today’s viewership).

With Greel having tired of Chang’s bungling, Chang is now on his own.  Some might have attempted to flee, but he carries on his twice-nightly magic act.  What a trouper.  It’s a fascinating touch that Greel doesn’t kill him – instead he sabotages his act (something which no doubt would have hurt him more).

John Bennett’s been excellent throughout, but never better than when a defeated Chang tells the Doctor about how he, just a humble peasant to begin with, helped Greel.  Unless Greel was a student of Chinese folklore (slightly difficult to believe, but not impossible) then possibly Chang was the one who dubbed him Weng-Chiang.  But however it came about, Chang on one level does seem to believe that Greel is a reincarnation of his god.

With Chang defeated, it looks as if the story is coming to an end – but Holmes still has two episodes to fill so from the next episode he’ll spin events off into a different direction ….

Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Part Three

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It’s fair to say that by Talons, Tom Baker’s Doctor has become something of a tyrant. Breezing through the story with an air of disdain, the Doctor might interact with the likes of Leela, Jago and Litefoot, but it’s rare that he ever seems interested in their opinions – this is a Doctor who always knows best.

How much of this was due to the scripting and how much was Tom Baker’s own input is a moot point. His dislike of Leela’s character is well-known (his personal relationship with Louise Jameson was also strained at the time) so it seems possible that some off-screen antipathy was bleeding onto the screen. But since the S14 Doctor is still far less objectionable than the breaktakingly rude Pertwee model from S8 it’s never been too much of an issue for me.

The attack on Litefoot’s house (an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the Time Cabinet) has two consequences – it takes Leela away from the Doctor’s side and puts her on a collision course with Greel as well as teaming the Doctor and Litefoot up as they attempt to locate Greel’s lair.

Since the Doctor’s dressed as Sherlock Holmes, it’s hardly surprising that he’s now been given his Watson subsistute in Litefoot. I surely can’t be the only person to wish that when Tom tackled Sherlock Holmes a few years later in the Classic Serial adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Trevor Baxter had been cast as his Watson.  A missed opportunity alas.

Holmes (Robert, rather than Sherlock) always delighted in expressive language, as can be seen several times across this episode.  The Doctor clearly has a low opinion of Greel and tells Litefoot why.  “Some slavering gangrenous vampire comes out of a sewer and stalks this city at night, he’s a blackguard. I’ve got to find his lair and I haven’t got an hour to lose”.

Many were of the opinion that this era of Who wasn’t really suitable for children and when Chang abducts a prostitute (the latest intended victim for his master) you have to admit that they might have had a point. Once again, Holmes delights in a spot of ripe dialogue as Teresa tells Chang that her plans don’t include him. “As far as I’m concerned all I want is a pair of smoked kippers, a cup of rosie and put me plates up for a few hours”.  Cor blimey guv’nor!

Although David Maloney was always a more than capable director – next to Douglas Camfield, he was probably the series’ best – the fight between Leela and Greel doesn’t quite convince. Possibly the studio clock was ticking, but Louise Jameson rather daintily steps around Greel’s lair (there’s little sense of a savage warrior here).  In story terms, it’s also not quite clear why she heads out into the sewer – true, Greel did have a gun, but Leela’s the type likely to have pressed her attack on regardless.

Ah, the sewers.  That means that giant rat is due to make another appearance.  Poor Leela – reduced to her underwear, soaking wet and gnawed by a rat, so not her best day ever.  And since Louise Jameson was suffering from glandular fever at the time it probably wasn’t one of her favourite days either.

At this point in the series’ history, it’s not a surprise that even the capable warrior Leela needs to be rescued.  The Doctor’s on hand, with a Chinese fowling piece (made in Birmingham), but how good a shot is he?

Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Episode Two

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Although we learnt in episode one that the Tong of the Black Scorpion (“fanatical followers of an ancient Chinese god called Weng-Chiang”) seem to be involved in this devilish business, it now becomes clear that Chang is merely a subordinate character and his master – Weng-Chiang (or at least someone masquerading as him) – is the one directing events.

Weng-Chiang, or Magnus Greel to give him his real name, lives beneath the Palace Theatre.  Why he should do this – unless he’s a devotee of The Phantom of the Opera – is never made clear.  But since Chang is performing at the theatre it makes some sort of sense that Greel is close at hand – especially since Chang has been abducting girls off the street for him.

The science-fiction elements of the story now begin be pulled together as we learn that Greel is a refugee, afraid of the intervention of time-agents.  Why he wants the girls is also explained (“the disease grows worse. Each distillation lasts less than the time before”) and that until he recovers the Time Cabinet he’ll never be whole again.

It’s a remarkable coincidence that the Time Cabinet is in Lifefoot’s possession.  He’s unaware of its significance, regarding it as little more than a Chinese curio, although we’ll learn more about this in episode three.

For those who worry about such things, then the timeline of this story is very odd.  If Litefoot’s had the cabinet for decades, what has Greel been doing all this time?  We see that his body is in collapse, with only the life-essence from young female donors keeping him alive, so how has be survived during this period?  He can’t have been in London for more than a few weeks (based on the number of girls abducted) so are we really supposed to believe he’s only just decided that reclaiming the Time Cabinet might be a good idea?  And since Litefoot’s father was a notable member of the British government in China, surely it wouldn’t have been too difficult to work out that his family was the one gifted the Time Cabinet ….

Episode two sees the Doctor encounter Jago for the first time.  There’s a characteristic gear-change from the Doctor – to begin with he’s jovial – pretending to be a music-hall act ( “dramatic recitations, singing, tap-dancing. I can play the Trumpet Voluntary in a bowl of live goldfish”) – but in a double-heartbeat he turns serious.  As touched upon before, Tom could do this better than anyone and both he and Benjamin make these scenes – largely expository ones – sparkle.

Another signature moment occurs when Leela and Litefoot enjoy a bite to eat, with Leela’s table-manners being somewhat lacking.  Litefoot, the perfect host, elects to copy his guest in order not to make her feel awkward, which gives Trevor Baxter another nice character moment.

Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Episode One

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Following the recent death of Trevor Baxter, I pulled Talons off the shelf for another rewatch.  For me, it remains the ultimate Who experience, Robert Holmes blending together a mix of literary sources in order to serve up a potent brew of Victoriania  menace.

It has its critics though, most of whom find John Bennett’s performance as Li H’sen Chang distasteful.  I think Bennett is wonderful, but the fact that he’s a British actor made up to appear Chinese is a stumbling point for many.  This was a common practice during this era of television though – the pool of ethnic actors in the UK being somewhat limited – and the fact that Timothy Coombe struggled to find good Chinese actors for relatively small parts in The Mind of Evil suggests that the problem had been a long-term one.

Had Bennett’s performance been a caricature (“me velly solly”) then it would be easier to side with the critics.  But Chang is a sharply-drawn, multi-faceted character who’s much more than just an Oriental heavy.  Throughout the story Bennett is able to give Chang considerable light and shade, meaning that by the end it’s possible to believe he was just as much a victim of Greel as everyone else was.

I’ve often wondered if Bennett’s casting was, in part, something of a sly joke.  The most famous Chinese magician on the early 20th Century British stage was probably Chung Ling Soo, remembered mainly for his dramatic on-stage death.  The fact that Chung Ling Soo was actually an American (William Ellsworth Robinson) makes it possible that the audience at home were being invited to wonder whether Chang was also pretending to be Chinese.  I may be over-thinking this though ….

Chang might have a heavy Chinese accent when performing on stage, but off-stage he’s quite different.  It’s never emphasised throughout the story, but there’s something of an irony in the fact that Chang – imbued with great powers by his master, Greel – can only utilise them on the music hall stage.  The fact that he’s a Chinaman in London means that any other doors (business, polite society) are barred to him.

Talons was written to a strict deadline, which might explain why Holmes was content to borrow so heavily from existing texts (especially The Phantom of the Opera and the tales of Fu Manchu).  But even given the pressure he was under, Holmes didn’t skimp on the dialogue, with the result that Talons is an actors gift – with Christopher Benjamin (as Henry Gordon Jago) the prime recipient.

Holmes liked to pair characters off and we can see this with Jago, as throughout the story he teams up with – in order – Casey (Chris Gannon), the Doctor and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter).  With Casey, Jago is dominant (as befits his status as Casey’s employer), like everybody he’s immediately subordinate to the Doctor (Jago’s hero-worship of him is a delight).  He also defers to Litefoot to begin with (a question of social standing presumably) but the pair quickly forge a more equal relationship in the heat of adversity.

In this story, even the minor characters are vividly sketched.  Patsy Smart’s dribbling crone, on hand to watch the police fished a badly mutilated body out of the river, is a case in point.  “On my oath, you wouldn’t want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oh, make an ‘orse sick, that would”.

Earlier, the Doctor and Leela had stumbled across a Chinese gang carrying this body (cab-driver Joseph Buller).  Buller might not have been on-screen for long, but the scene immediately prior to his death – stalked by Chang’s knife-welding ventriloquist dummy Mr Sin (Deep Roy) – is a memorable one.

Tom Baker’s Doctor is treading a fine balance here.  When one of the Chinese gang dies a horrible death in front of his eyes (via a poison capsule surreptitiously supplied by Chang) his first reaction is to laugh uncontrollably.  The Doctor quickly becomes business-like, but it’s a jarring moment that possibly only Baker could have pulled off.

An interesting point about this episode is that there’s no tangible science fiction elements.  The giant rat (not terribly good, but I think we can take that as a given) might be the first indication that there’s more to this story than just a mysterious murder, but we’ll have to wait until part two before things become clearer.

Pondering about Pyramids of Mars

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Rewatching Pyramids of Mars for the umpteenth time, a couple of things worried me in episode three.  Of course, given that Robert Holmes had to cobble the story together at very short notice (and had clearly run out of steam by episode four) it isn’t too surprising that the odd plothole remained ….

After Sarah and the Doctor discover Lawrence Scarman’s body, Sarah is perturbed that the Doctor seems unmoved by Lawrece’s violent death.  He responds that Lawrence isn’t Sutekh’s only victim, counting out the others. “Four men, Sarah. Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself.”

Hmm, okay.  Lawrence, Doctor Warlock, Ernie Clements (“murdering swine!”), Namin and Collins make five, six if you include Professor Scarman.  My first thought was that the Doctor was unaware of one of their deaths, or maybe he didn’t count Namin since he was a baddy?

And why did Marcus Scarman, after murdering his brother, gently prop him up into the rocking chair with such obvious care and attention?  It creates a shock moment but doesn’t make much sense.

Just how many service robots were there? In actuality there were three, so if that was also the true figure why didn’t Professor Scarman immediately twig that that the faux-Mummy (containing a grumpy Tom Baker) was an imposter? Two robots had been guarding the pyramid and Scarman had seen a disassembled third just before killing Marcus.

And I’m not even going to ponder exactly when Sarah became so efficient with a rifle.

Not that any of this matters as Pyramids of Mars is still great (if rather nasty) fun. Can it really be nearly thirty years since I bought it on sell-through VHS? And a mere twenty three years since I taped the episodic repeat from BBC2, enabling me to see the scenes snipped from the official release for the first time. Time passages ….