Universally recognised as the story that transformed Doctor Who into a nationwide hit, The Daleks is much, much more than a mere introduction story to the alien race that would go on to become the Doctor’s deadliest enemies. The series’ second story is a fantastic sci-fi adventure that stands up well more than 50 years after its initial broadcast, and is superb television, nevermind superb Doctor Who.
This was among my very first DVD purchases, a story I’d wanted to own on VHS for one simple reason – the Doctor is dressed up like Sherlock Holmes! Set in Victorian London, this atmospheric and creepy adventure is made all the more enjoyable as Tom Baker dons, for one story only, classical Victorian dress, complete with deerstalker: “After all, we don’t want to be conspicious, do we?”
Determining that companion Leela (previously rescued in The Face of Evil) should learn about her human ancestors, the Doctor takes her to experience the entertainments of the Victorian variety theatre. They arrive to discover that a serial killer in the style of Jack the Ripper has been abducting young girls, and that the killer is somehow linked to a Chinese performer named Li H’Sen Chang. Chang turns out to be only the servant of a Phantom of the Opera style villain, who calls himself Weng-Chiang after an ancient Chinese god. Masked, deformed, and living in the dungeons underneath the Palace Theatre, the mysterious Weng-Chiang requires human life-force to sustain his own life, and is seeking after an artefact hidden somewhere in London.
Aided by the theatre’s owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and police pathologist Professor Litefoot, the Doctor learns that Weng-Chiang is in fact a despot from the 51st Century known as Marcus Greel, who escaped from his many war crimes in a Time Cabinet disguised as a Chinese cabinet, presented to Litefoot’s family by Chinese officials. The cabinet relies upon zygma energy to work; the first journey deformed Greel’s own DNA structure, leading to his parasitic reliance on the life of others. A second journey could have much larger ramifications, meaning that the Doctor must track down and stop Greel and his allies, before Greel can track down the cabinet and attempt his escape.
A six part adventure that never once drags, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is simply sensational television. It is astonishing considering the show’s modest production budget how well they transport the viewer to the dim and foggy world of Victorian London. Tom Baker looks born to play the part, and is at the very height of his powers in this adventure. What makes a good story a great story however is the supporting cast – it goes without saying that Louise Jameson puts in another stellar performance as Leela, but it is the one-off duo of Jago and Litefoot that add a whole new level of charm and engagement to the adventure. Indeed, so good was their partnership, it has sparked a whole series of spin-off audio adventures, available to buy through Big Finish.
In acknowledging the superb performance of John Bennett as Li H’Sen Chang, we must also acknowledge the elephant in the room. Certain TV stations will not show this adventure, given that a white actor portrays the leading Chinese character, and that Chinese characters are generally portrayed unfavourably – not least through the opium addicted Tong of the Black Scorpion, who serve Weng-Chiang unquestioningly. Much comment has been given elsewhere to the wrongs of the practice, so I would simply venture that it would be a shame to disregard an excellent piece of television (nevermind Doctor Who) due to a practice that, distasteful it may be today, was not uncommon practice for the time. Should The Crusade get a full DVD release, or Marco Polo be recovered, we are likely to have similar debates – and I think we do more harm trying to pretend we never did anything wrong, rather than having a grown-up discussion about why the practice is wrong.
Which allows me to finish on a positive and uplifting note: The Talons of Weng-Chiang is among the very best Doctor Who you can enjoy. Not only is it good Doctor Who, it is wonderful television, and indeed a wonderful launchpad for exploring the world of Doctor Who. It comes with my very highest recommendation!
Next time: We review the story that made Doctor Who a runaway success, and introduced his oldest enemies
I had joked before disappearing on a (relatively) internet-free holiday that there was bound to be some sort of animation/recovery announcement while I wasn’t around to hear about it. Sure enough, news broke last week that the BBC are preparing a new animated release of the incomplete Tom Baker adventure Shada, the story originally scheduled to conclude Season 17, and cancelled due to industrial action.
Back in 1984, Doctor Who foresaw Twitter. No, seriously.
Without a doubt the highlight of the Colin Baker era, Vengeance on Varos is a wonderful critique on the way media and individuals treat political officials. When the TARDIS runs short of a mineral vital to its function (more on this later) the Doctor and Peri are forced to travel to the planet Varos to procure the mineral, Zeiton-7. A supposedly improvrised planet, the planet is governed by an elite who are content to keep the planet enslaved, in exchange for selling the mineral at a marked down price to the Galatron Mining Corporation, led by the insidious Mentor, Sil. The figurehead of this elite is the Governor, a man who in reality has little power because all inhabitants are required to vote on his performance, and the penalty for his inevitable failure to meet their demands is potentially lethal Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment.
Let’s not beat about the bush – there are few stories grimmer than this one in Doctor Who’s history – arguably only State of Decay is darker. The story however is also brilliant and superbly realised – arguably the gritty tone is what makes this a triumph, where stories like Timelash and Paradise Towers would fail. While it made the story difficult viewing as a seven year old, ten years later I found myself enthralled by a story I’d completely written off. Had Baker been given more stories of this ilk, we wouldn’t be having conversations about a painfully short tenure as the Doctor; Colin Baker is completely fantastic in this story, displaying a mastery sadly only captured elsewhere in Terror of the Vervoids.
The only reason this story is not higher is precisely because the tone is so grim. I hugely enjoy and respect the story, but I find it difficult to love. The odd comic relief from the two Varosian voters watching proceedings on their television doesn’t really compensate for the continual pessimism and despondency throughout the tale. Unlike some of the other stories at the sharp end of my countdown, I wouldn’t recommend Vengeance on Varos as a good introductory story to classic Doctor Who. But I would absolutely say it is a must watch, and deservedly one of the very best from the original series.
Next Time: Meet one of Doctor Who’s best double acts, Messers Jago & Litefoot …
Ladies and gentleman – a break from my focus on classic (and missing Doctor Who) to comment on the social media breaking news that Broadchurch actor Jodie Whittaker is to become the first female incarnation of Doctor Who.
Quite often in Doctor Who’s history, episodes were used as a launchpad for a new audience; a refresher to what has gone before and an introduction to what is new: typically a new companion – a good example being The Time Meddler. These stories are a fantastic launchpad for fans new to the series – rather than going all the way back to An Unearthly Child (sensational though episode one is) there are several other brilliant entry points. The Time Warrior, the debut story in Jon Pertwee’s final season as the Doctor, very much fits into that mould.
A lot of change was underway in the world of Doctor Who; there was a real sense that the U.N.I.T. family was being broken up. The Doctor had been freed to travel all of space and time in The Three Doctors; and in The Green Death long-term companion Jo Grant had left the series. The latter should not be underestimated – not since Frazer Hines three season stint as Jamie McCrimmon had one companion been on the show for so long. Rather more sadly, Roger Delgado, who had very much been the Moriarty to Pertwee’s Holmes, lost his life in a car accident while shooting location footage overseas. Change was afoot.
Fortuitously for the show, Pertwee was still up for one last hurrah, and long-term Doctor Who contributor Robert Holmes delivered up a sizzler of a script; one that would not only feature the debut of the infamous Sontarans, but also the introduction of the companion would who define what it meant to be a companion for generations to come: Sarah Jane Smith. The Time Warrior then, is what you get when you have a perfect collision of ingredients: great plot, great cast, great production, and some absolutely iconic moments.
Reason one for this story’s strength is the simplicity of the plot: the Doctor is summoned by the Brigadier after a series of high profile scientists disappear. Pursuing the latest kidnapped scientist to the medieval era, he discovers that a Sontaran commander, Linx, has crash-landed there, and is reliant upon the stolen scientists to help rebuild his spacecraft. In exchange for being sheltered, Linx is preparing ballistic weapons for the thuggish Irongron, a criminal who has seized a castle and now plans to conquer neighbouring lands. The Doctor’s seemingly simple mission is to rescue the scientists and stop Linx.
Reason two for the story’s strength is Sarah Jane Smith. Lis Sladen is utterly wonderful in the role; a confident journalist, unafraid to stand up to convention, she casually impersonates her aunt to gain entry to the compound of scientists, sneaks into the TARDIS to follow the Doctor, and proactively seeks to overcome anyone she believes guilty of harm or wrongdoing – even the Doctor himself! Beyond any doubt, Sarah’s debut is the best introduction story for any companion in the entire 50 plus year history of Doctor Who.
Finally, the story itself is a pleasure to watch. Linx makes for a wonderful villain; the revelation of his nature as a Sontaran warrior at the climax of episode one is one of Doctor Who’s most iconic cliffhangers. Pertwee displays all of the charm, ingenuity, and bravado that served him so well in his first four seasons, playing off wonderfully with every member of the cast. And the guest cast do not disappoint – Irongron is very much a pantomime bully, but you get caught up in it; and Professor Rubish provides some wonderful comic relief in the midst of proceedings, as the short-sighted and absent minded captured scientist who aides the Doctor.
If the story had a flaw, it would be that it is almost too simple. I prefer to see the simplicity of this tale not as a vice, but a shining virtue. This was one of the episodes that warmed me to Doctor Who in my very young years, sitting on the sofa while my dad was recording it on UK Gold. I have absolutely no doubt that it will continue to enchant many more generations for decades to come!
Next time: Back in 1984, the BBC foresaw how social media would impact politics, in Colin Baker’s finest hour.
We have covered in other reviews the stories that comprised Doctor Who’s 20th season. Resolved to celebrate the series’ history, producer John Nathan Turner brought back a returning nemesis for each adventure. In the middle of the season was a loosely linked trilogy featuring the Black Guardian, last seen swearing painful death to the Doctor in The Armageddon Factor. This powerful being, the embodiment of darkness, chaos, and destruction, finally succeeded in tracking the Doctor down, and decided to enlist a helper to aid his cause.