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