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!

41 – The Masque of Mandragora

While we await the thrilling results of my missing episodes fan survey, I return to my count-down through the classic run of Doctor Who. I have to remind myself after recent longish posts that this was originally meant to be 10 minutes of writing every day … (ooops!)

The Masque of Mandragora was rather high on my list of stories I wanted to watch, mostly as the story in which the wooden ‘secondary’ TARDIS console room was introduced. Maybe it’s just me … but I quite liked this console, which only appeared in Tom Baker’s third season after the wood warped in storage between seasons, leading Leela to observe in The Invisible Enemy that ‘it had changed.’

The story therefore begins with the Doctor and Sarah discovering the second console room while having an explore around the TARDIS, only to be pulled off course by a mysterious energy source known as the Mandragora Helix, which draws them to Renaissance Italy. Mandragora purposes to use a local black magic coven to dominate the Earth as a new religion, using its power to overcome opposition. All of which leaves some wonderful ingredients for a classic Doctor Who adventure – the wonderful juxtaposition of what appears to be magic, which is in fact superior science; and some wonderful period drama in that evocative and dangerous transition era between the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment.

I confess to being a little downhearted when I first watched the serial on youtube (note the recurring theme of enjoyment being shaped by expectations!), but was pleasantly surprised when I came fresh to the serial on DVD. I think the highest compliment I can pay The Masque of Mandragora is that my wife enjoyed watching it – and she famously does not enjoy classic Doctor Who! All of which shows that this story enjoys both complexity of detail and engagement, and also a simple narrative that draws the viewer in. The characters are also extremely enjoyable to watch – Baker and Sladen are deservedly one of the best TARDIS teams ever, and fully on song in this adventure, but the supporting cast are an equal delight – whether the villainous and Machiavellian Count Federico; his double-crossing astrologer Hieronymous, to the scientifically minded Giuliano and his friend Marco.

This adventure would not be at all out of place in the modern era, and strongly influenced stories like The Vampires of Venice. It would be an excellent starting point for any fan of Nu Who seeking to acquaint themselves with the classic era.

55 – The Hand of Fear

As with all fans, for me this story will forever be the one in which Sarah Jane Smith left the TARDIS. I don’t think it is the least exaggeration to say that Sarah was to classic Doctor Who what Rose is to Nu Who – the bright and bold companion that everyone fell a little bit in love with, and such a perfect foil to the Doctor that one never wanted her to leave (that said, I still think she was at her best when they had Lieutenant Sullivan in the crew as well)

So watching this story for the first time on VHS provoked similar emotions to when I watched Logopolis and hoped that perhaps Tom Baker wouldn’t actually regenerate if I hoped hard enough. It couldn’t be that Sarah would leave, could it? Sadly, no matter how much one wishes, Tom Baker’s fourth doctor receives fateful summons to Gallifrey, and leaves Sarah back on earth (though not, as it turns out, in her home of Croydon!)

Before we get to the drama of Lis Sladen’s departure however, there is a story to be told that on occasion is quite literally gripping. After materialising in a quarry (provoking a mild breaking of the fourth-wall as the Doctor notes the ‘irony’, given the series’ fondness for using quarries as the scenes for alien planets) Sarah is trapped beneath a rockfall, and found clutching a calcified hand. The hand turns out to be the last and living remains of an alien named Eldrad, who possesses Sarah, and uses her to take his hand to a nearby nuclear reactor, where the energy of the reactor can be used to recreate his body.

A well-told and elegantly paced adventure, the tension builds as one tries to determine if Eldrad is merely unfortunately placed and victimised, or is in fact an arch-villain, climaxing in the thrilling denouement on his home planet Kastria. You would never guess that Sladen was acting in her final story as a regular cast member, so accomplished is her performance, while Baker is of course at the very height of his powers in the role. The Hand of Fear is a hugely entertaining adventure that has aged very well. Even the sad departure of Sarah Jane cannot ruin it – rather it makes it memorable for all of the right reasons, and is a pointer to modern showrunners in how to handle a farewell for companions.