15 – The Talons of Weng Chiang

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!

talons

You can buy The Talons of Weng-Chiang as part of the Revisitations boxset on Amazon.

Next time: We review the story that made Doctor Who a runaway success, and introduced his oldest enemies

39 – The Face of Evil

This was a story I was itching to get my hands on for a very long time, not least due to the very positive recommendations of others who rated the story very highly. When I eventually did get my hands on the DVD it certainly did not disappoint, and deservedly took a very high slot in my most enjoyed episodes of Doctor Who.

The adventure is noteworthy as the debut episode for Louise Jameson as Leela, and she immediately impresses as the bold and fearless warrior of the Sevateem. Having seen almost all of Leela’s adventures before this one it felt exceedingly strange to finish by watching her first story. It is a testament to how well Jameson played the part that her debut doesn’t disappoint even to one used to Leela’s performances in Doctor Who. It is also a potent reminder that, magisterial though Tom Baker was in many other ways, he definitely needed a wingman to complement him. We can be thankful that the producers won that particular argument and ensured the long term replacement of Liz Sladen with Louise Jameson.

The story itself is wonderfully layered and intriguing, and at no point over the four episodes feels pedestrian. Rather uniquely in the annals of Doctor Who, it doesn’t really have a villain of the piece. While a mad computer called Xoanon has manipulated two sections of colonists (The ‘Sevateem’, originally ‘Survey Team’ and the ‘Tesh’, originally ‘Technicians’) into a constant conflict, the computer is not like the evil BOSS from The Green Death, instead acting as it is because its programme had been unintentionally corrupted – of all people, by the Doctor! The story therefore feels much more like a ‘Howdunnit’ than a ‘Whodunnit’ and is extremely satisfying to watch unfold.

Season 14 is one of the real high points of the history of Doctor Who, with not a single bad story in it. Philip Hinchcliffe was yet to receive his marching orders for the strong Gothic Horror feel of the programme, which means that stories like The Face of Evil were given free reign to tell good robust stories. This adventure combines all of the elements that make for an excellent Doctor Who – great story, great cast, great Doctor and companion, and great little moments to cherish in the dialogue. In that regard, The Face of Evil is definitely a story that fans of the series should strongly consider when choosing a starting point for new fans to discover Doctor Who for the first time!

45 – Image of the Fendahl

This is a very unusual story in terms of my appreciation of it. I had very good memories of watching the VHS (in part I think because my mum wouldn’t let dad show me it, so we had to watch it covertly!) but then re-watched it years later and was a little disappointed. I then bought the DVD not expecting much, and thoroughly enjoyed it. So I will linger a little to explore why I have had such a hot and cold relationship to the story.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, while producer Graham Williams was certainly cleaning up the show’s act in Season 15, Image of the Fendahl would not have been the least out of place during the Philip Hinchcliffe era, and in many ways is just as horrifying as the season opener Horror of Fang Rock. The story centres around a skull that dates back many years before mankind could have existed, with scientists exploring how it could be so old. The skull in fact belongs to a being known as the Fendahl, a  life force draining malevolent being of power rather undermined by manifesting itself later as a rather attractive young lady! The Fendahl is a gestalt entity that influenced the evolution of man to create the carriers (ie. human beings) required to manifest. The chief scientist is in fact being manipulated by his deputy, who heads up a coven believing they can harness the power of the Fendahl to their own ends.

The story is in some ways a darker version (quite literally – most of it is at night-time) than the Pertwee adventure The Daemons – exploring how what appears to be the occult is in fact a form of alien science. It makes for quite a good adventure, and as with many other adventures in this season, it is Baker and Jameson as the TARDIS crew that make the difference – although it has to be said that the supporting cast in this story also acquit themselves very well, not least old Ma Tyler. It is a good watch and a clever story – but perhaps not one you should watch in the middle of the night!

46 – Horror of Fang Rock

Season 14 of Doctor Who pretty much almost got the series banned. Under Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure, the show had a distinct element of gothic horror that had Mary Whitehouse and her associates crying for his blood. While new producer Graham Williams had a strict mandate to tone down the violence, the first story of Season 15 certainly didn’t tone down the horror element.

I must confess that I did not enjoy this story when I first saw it on VHS – there was a slight element of it being too dark for my tastes. By the time I purchased the DVD however, this had very firmly shifted to an appreciation of just how good and how clever the story is – to the point indeed that earlier I blogged that I would love to see the Rhutans, the villains of this particular story, make a comeback in modern Doctor Who. Worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as other base-under-seige style stories, Horror of Fang Rock is a fine illustration of how the BBC allied economy of means to richness of result.

The story sees Louise Jameson’s first full season as Leela alongside the fourth Doctor, and they land not in Brighton (as promised) but at Fang Rock lighthouse, where they discover that the group in the lighthouse (to whit – the crew, plus a passengers of a wrecked yacht) are at threat from an unknown alien intelligence. The alien transpires to be a Rhutan – the oft mentioned but until then unseen foe of the Sontaran empire. His purpose is to scout the planet Earth as a potential base for the next attack on the Sontarans, and he is cheerfully wiping out any being that gets in his way. The Doctor’s task is made all the more difficult by the Rhutan’s capacity to change form – so for most of the story he appears in the form of one of the main characters, leading to the startling and dramatic cliffhanger in episode 3, when the Doctor realises: “I’ve made the most terrible mistake. I thought I had locked the alien threat outside … but I’ve locked it in here … with us!”

I make no apologies for my appreciation of Tom Baker as the Doctor, and he is just as stellar in this story as in any other story in his first six seasons. As with quite a number of stories in the top 50, I enjoy them largely because of his singular and unique ability to lift an entire scene through the force of his character. Horror of Fang Rock is a very good example of that, and well worth enjoying.

53 – The Invasion of Time

I was horrified to see that it’s been more than two months since my last review in the episode countdown! And so I resume with a story that is definitely going to raise eyebrows. For a variety of reasons this story is not well perceived in Doctor Who fandom. Several factors are given, whether it’s the low-grade special effects, the buffoonery of the Timelords, the evident sense that the budget had run out, or indeed the sneaking suspicion that there wasn’t quite enough material to stretch across six episodes.

I think that the criticism is a tad unfair, and really enjoyed discovering the serial on VHS. In truth, this adventure is best understood as a two part story, in which the Doctor faces off against one alien threat in the first four episodes, and a second alien threat in the final two. Tom Baker is simply sensational throughout, as he gives the appearance of co-operating with a race known as the Vardans to effect an invasion of his home planet, Gallifrey. He begins by seizing the role of Lord President of the High Council of Timelords – having conveniently put himself up for election last time he was on Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin.

It is not until after part 3, by which time the Vardans have invaded Gallifrey, that we discover that the Doctor is secretly trying to identify their home planet and put it into a time loop. As the Vardans are capable of travelling on any wavelength, including thought, they are able to read people’s minds, and appear next to people instantly – hence the Doctor is required to resort to subterfuge to achieve his aims. Thwarting the Vardans is only the beginning however – to win their trust, he is forced to lower the shields of Gallifrey, which allows a Sontaran battle fleet to enter the Capitol. The Doctor then spends the last two episodes ensuring that the Sontarans do not get their hands on the Timelords’ ultimate weapon – the Demat gun.

It has to be said – I think The Invasion of Time is a thoroughly enjoyable and non-demanding adventure. Yes, one must look past the occasionally laughable special effects (especially the cellophane Vardans), and it does stretch a little at six episodes – but it never feels pedestrian, and even the minor roles of Andred, captain of the Chancellery Guards, and Rodan the technician add distinct flavour to the story. We also get to see more of Gallifrey than at any point until then in the show’s history – including the wilderness outside the Capitol. And the episode four cliffhanger, the dramatic revelation of the Sontarans after you believe the Doctor has won the day, has to go down as one of the greatest and best executed cliffhangers in Doctor Who history.

The story also marks the farewell for Leela, and the original K9 prop. While I enjoyed Leela as a companion, she never really had the opportunity to develop as a character as the producers had originally intended. When the Doctor says fondly “I’ll miss you too, savage,” it rather captures the contrast between Leela, still instinctive and violent by the end of her travels, and Jamie MacCrimmon, who had changed substantively by the time of The War Games. I’m sorry to say I don’t feel sad when Leela stays behind on Gallifrey; although that could be because the lovely Mary Tamm is only five minutes away in the next episode …

59 – The Sun Makers

We return to Season 15 today, to another story that I didn’t fully appreciate in my youth and grew to love when I bought the DVD. At the outset I should observe that this story is definitely not for kids – not because of ‘orrible monsters (which, as we all know, is a sure fire way to children’s hearts and attention) but because the story is a thinly veiled critique of the strongly socialist taxation that Britain was living under at that point – hence one corridor being referred to as ‘P45.’ While the references were toned done, and the colonists subject to a corporation rather than a government, the inference would not have been missed by the viewer.

It means that while most of the references go over the head of a child, who will appropriately ask why there are no monsters, it makes it huge fun for a grown-up. The Doctor and Leela arrive on Pluto to discover that the construction of artificial suns has enabled colonisation of the planet (as it then was) – the people however have been subjected to the company that owns the planet through extraordinarily heavy taxation, and by the company secretly using PCM gas to cause depression in the planet’s inhabitants. As is often the case, the independently minded Doctor encourages the colonists to overthrow the Collector (again – a thinly veiled reference to tax collectors) and free the planet from the company.

Not only does The Sun Makers explore serious themes and deliver a compelling storyline, but the regular cast of Baker and Jameson shine in their roles, and after being sidelined in the preceding Image of the Fendahl, K9 makes his first proper appearance after his debut in The Invisible Enemy with considerable aplomb. Combined to a stellar supporting cast, and this has all the hallmarks of a vintage Tom Baker adventure. Perhaps one however that you wouldn’t want to start the kids on …

60 – The Invisible Enemy

If ever there was an instance of a reversal in fortunes, this story from Season 15 surely qualifies. I couldn’t enjoy the VHS release at all as a teenager (though it is perhaps fairer to say that I wasn’t willing to give it a chance), and when the BBC in their wisdom decided to release the adventure on DVD alongside the sole episode of 1980s spin-off K9 and Company I spent as long as I could deferring buying the story.

That turned out to be a mistake. Not only was K9 and Company surprisingly enjoyable (while obviously nowhere near as good as Doctor Who!) but The Invisible Enemy itself is a gem of a story. The story explores an inter-spatial virus that travels through energy exchange (basically, lightning) who has planted the host virus inside the Doctor, and infected a number of human researchers on a outpost in the solar system, intending in due course to take advantage of human colonists spreading throughout space to in turn spread itself through the universe.

The story introduced a number of novelties, of which the greatest is K9, the dog-shaped computer belonging to the character of Professor Marius (“He knows everything I do!” “Yes master … and more.”) – so popular would the character be with the viewing audience, that the final scene was rewritten so that the robotic canine could join the TARDIS crew. He certainly gets off to a lightning start, and is justifiably the brightest spark in a very good story. While it is perhaps true that the producers came to rely on him too much in future, I rather enjoyed K9 being part of the TARDIS crew.

The show also features some excellent touches – Leela’s natural immunity to the virus gives her a chance to shine; while the Doctor’s ingenious suggestion to create temporary minaturised clones of himself and Leela to investigate his own neural pathways (dodgy science aside) make for unusual but excellent television. Yes … there is the elephant in the room of the akwardly imagined virus (accidentally increased to human size by the end of episode 3) – but the story is nevertheless a superb and creative imagining, not least as the Doctor changes his approach between a virus that has the right to live, and the monster that plans cosmic destruction.

While you undoubtedly need to suspend your disbelief, The Invisible Enemy is a fine example of this period of Doctor Who, and worth watching just for the scenes featuring K9. I was glad to have the chance to reappraise it!