The Talons of Weng-Chiang - DVD Special

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: David Maloney
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1977
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is, to say the least, a hugely-rated story, with even the normally objective DVD booklet blurb waxing lyrical and calling it an "all-time classic". Yet ironically for such a phenomenally popular story, it's also possibly the most padded Doctor Who serial ever made.

Here's the plot: villain from the future wants to recover his time cabinet. Doctor tries to stop him. Villain gets cabinet back, but when he does so he dies before he can use it. The end. And that's it. Everything else is superfluous and padding. Ah, but what padding, eh? What wonderful padding! And therein lies the beauty of The Talons of Weng-Chiang: every episode is all about character, wit and style. Never mind that it's timefilling and doesn't really have any bearing on the narrative, look out for the period costume, or the paraphrasing of Wilde. Superb stuff, with real atmosphere and great location work.

Here's where I stick my heretic's neck on the line, however: I've never been overfond of Jago. He's the sort of character that fans think could have come from the pen of Pinter, yet is further evidence of Holmes's overrated reputation. For while Talons is the best story of season fourteen, in terms of script then it's not the equal of his earlier The Deadly Assassin. A pastiche of Victorian and literary clichés, most of the time it's witty and inspired, yet often it's also indulgent and lazy. And as a final word on Jago, then it's often less to do with the written word, more to do with Christopher Benjamin's self-conscious, over whimsical performance.

Yet the limitations of Holmes's script (and don't get me wrong, it's still 90% brilliant) are a small matter, because the whole mixture is one magnificent concoction. With only The Power of the Daleksas a serious rival, this is possibly the best six-parter in the history of the series. The best story ever? Well, maybe it lacks the genuine literacy of a Lucarotti script, or the ingenuity of City of Death. (Ironically, the first story after Talons where Tom recovers his muse - considering Tom's at the peak of his powers in Talons he falls flat very quickly afterwards).

Interestingly for the character of the Doctor, he seems to know what's going on and takes advantage of events in much the same way that fans complained about when it happened in the McCoy years. Also a nicely disturbing touch is his "well in that case you'd better come along" to Leela after she murders his would-be assassin for him. This is a solidly made, well-produced first episode, with even the rat looking worthwhile in the shadows here. It is weird seeing John Bennett made up to be Chinese, and on repeated viewings (this is my third in as many years) it does become obvious that there's precious little substance here, but a strong start.
* * * *

Talons has the wonderful ability to drag you into its own mythical world, unquestioning of its fabricated origins. I mean, doesn't Weng-Chiang's sewer hideout actually look like a sewer? We all like to claim we don't mind our Doctor Who cheap, yet if we're being honest it's preferable to see one that doesn't embarrass. This is one such story, with lovely night filming in a period setting and well above average sets. Even Dudley Simpson is on form, his music, while still OTT, a league ahead of his Pertwee stuff.

Back with the Doctor, his extraordinary leaps of deduction are again akin to the season 26 McCoy model. Just how does he guess Jago was hypnotised? It just goes to show that well performed and engaging storytelling can persuade any viewing public. As for Tom, he's oddly aloof and inscrutable here, as if he wants to be somewhere else, though in an angry way.

The companion eating scene would be unbearable filler in any other era, but it's charming here with Leela. That said, this is the very first time I've seen Talons in its episodic format, and I think in many ways it actually works better as a "movie". Seeing it in bits makes you scrutinise each chunk too closely and realise that, despite the surprising pace, not all that much happens each time.
* * * *

Leela runs away from a fight at the start of this one, which seems oddly out of character. Anyway, one thing that's always struck me as odd is the production team admitting they were patronising the Chinese and being borderline racist. I don't think they were. Lines like the Doctor's "well, they were Chinese ruffians" is a perfect send-up of bigoted mentalities.

I hadn't realised before seeing it episodically just how often the rat appears. Altogether the cute puppet makes a show in each of the first four episodes. He's actually okay in the first two, bathed in shadows and shown fleetingly. A slight appearance is effective, though here he's a bit crap. It doesn't spoil it for me though.

Talons is, of course, Doctor Who pushing its luck. The first episode featured (previously deleted on releases) nun chuks, while episode five sees a character actually smoking drugs on screen. This one has a clear reference to prostitution, quite refreshing stuff for what would always be, to most, a glorified kid's show. Does being daring in itself make it worthwhile though? No, but this is a damn fine episode, with some lovely dialogue.
* * * * ½

You know, the rat doesn't look at all bad in this episode either. It's only the close-up when it gnaws the bars in episode three that embarrasses, though never as much as is made out.

Back to the Doctor, and I know I keep banging on about him this story, but it really is a strange, aloof take, much less human than his Williams incarnation. With this story in isolation, just how likeable is the fourth Doctor? Not to watch, but to travel with. Always ready to bite your head off with little provocation, this is the least predictable Doctor ever.

Anyway, another cracking episode, if the perfect exponent of the padding theory. All the theatre stuff, "Daisy Daisy", magic tricks, etc., are all story highlights, but narratively superfluous. A strange contradiction, but then Holmes always did like playing with expectations. And I take all back about the rat - the reprise where he attacks Li H'Sen Chiang is abysmal.
* * * * ½

The contemporary broadsheet reviews that talked about Who entering its own private cult were spot on with this one. It's extraordinary the amount of imaginative stretches Tom takes us on in this instalment, from World War VI and Zigma Energy to molecular locks and the cerebral cortex of a pig. In another era it wouldn't quite wash, but here it adds reams of fanciful detail to a nice tale.

This is also the episode where Jago and Litefoot meet. Their rumoured spin-off series is probably the first thing people say about this story (alright, second after the rat), but I personally don't care for it. Trevor Baxter is excellent as Litefoot, but Benjamin's overacting and agonisingly annoying alliteration make it a double act less Morecambe and Wise, more Hale and Pace.
* * * * ½

You know, maybe I've seen this story too many times. Doctor Who was only intended to be seen once, maybe a repeat if you were lucky. But this is the fourth time I've seen it altogether and it doesn't quite hold up to repeated viewings.

Don't get me wrong - it's brilliant, and with any other story I'd be praising it to the skies. But this is reputed to be the best ever Doctor Who story (top three on an off day) and so it must be judged on such a level. While I enjoy it, watching it this time it became even more lacking in sincerity and substance. It used to rank up with City as a Tom story of all-conquering might. While I regarded Assassin and Robots also as classics, this was the pinnacle of season fourteen for me. Yet both stories have more originality and textual depth than this one, and do more interesting things with science fiction. The period setting is tremendous, but just window dressing for what is a story constructed of nothing more concrete than style.

I'm disappointed that not a single episode here has achieved a five-star rating, and I suspect many fans, mildly let down upon seeing it again, took to picking apart the DVD as a result. I maybe detected a slight distortion around the end of episode five where Jago and Litefoot use a dumb waiter in darkness, but I could find no other sign of poor sound or image that some have complained of. Though as I know bugger all about DVD conversions and I was watching it via a mono telly then maybe you should discount my opinion there.

The finale is drawn out a little, while the scene with Tom and the empty dummy was far more damning to me than any fake rodent. One interesting parallel is Chang, (now revealed as the superbly named Magnus Greel) who must regenerate before returning to his time cabinet. It all ends, and ends well, leaving behind an entertained viewer with just a slight hollow feeling inside…
* * * * ½

A classic? Yes, just about. Best ever? No. I think this one does - and probably deserves to - make fandom's collective top ten more than most other stories. As a result it often hits the top spot in polls via an across-the-board appeal. An outstanding story, definitely, and don't be too hard on it. It may be ultimately shallow, but its only real crime is in failing to live up to its reputation...
* * * * *


Commentary/Info Text: While it may be too informal at times, this release contains the most detailed information text I've seen to date. The commentary track is nice, too, (albeit an inessential listen), combining the producer, director, Louise Jameson, Christopher Benjamin and John Bennett in various permutations. Although Bennett is promised for the final instalment, it's only the fifth where all five appear together. Hinchcliffe has been accused of being dull in some quarters, but I always find what he has to say of interest and insight, even if he doesn't hold a great rapport with his co-speakers. The other four are likeably bubbly and enthusiastic, making it one of the better commentaries I've heard.

One inexplicable whinge about this DVD (tempers frayed by a rumoured delayed release which never eventually happened, perhaps?) is that it doesn't have many extras. Okay, there are two discs, but with over two hours of additional material this is the most packed release I've personally seen. In order of appearance, they are:

Whose Doctor Who (58'42m): I'd never seen this documentary before and I expected a laugh at the dated fashions and speech. While brown tank tops and "dolly birds" do put in appearances, I found myself so interested in the content it didn't seem to matter. There are posh kids in suits and cockney sparrers who inexplicably remind you of Björk, but the psychological aspect makes it highly watchable. Clips-wise, you get over twenty-five stories being represented, as well as a chunk of behind-the-scenes material, making it a highly commendable extra. Funniest quote from the kids interviewed? "If there's nothing good on I'll watch it."

Behind the Scenes (23'59m): Specified as not broadcast footage, this is low quality black and white stock that gives an interesting insight into how the story was set up. Particularly interesting to see all the cast ordered about by that bossy cow who does all the talking.

Blue Peter Theatre (25'58m): Just how big are Peter Purves's flares? How camp a cat is Jason? Who was Leslie Judd? Why does Peter not admit to having been in the series? And we all remember John Noakes crying over Shep, don't we? They all show us how to construct a Doctor Who story out of cardboard, tinfoil and felt. When Barry Letts first saw it he tried to sue for unauthorised use of his material. Were they really "ones they'd made earlier"? I bet they got a dogsbody to do it for them while they all sat around smoking crack. Allegedly, obviously.

Philip Hinchcliffe Interview (11'29m): From Pebble Mill, this is much more amateurish and patronising than Whose Doctor Who (or even Blue Peter come to that) but is well worth watching, regardless of seemingly endless microphone feedback. (And is it just me or is the deleted Deadly Assassin clip here better quality than the one spliced into the VHS release? Couldn't they use this, cleaned up, for a DVD release of that story*?)
* The Restoration Team have since told me that there is no reason why the complete Deadly Assassin couldn't be released onto DVD.

Trailers and Continuity (2'29m): No, the "continuity" doesn't refer to a timeline map or anything like that, as I foolishly thought, but it's some nice-to-have continuity announcements both for the story and the Whose Doctor Who documentary.

Tardis Cam 6 (1'40m): The last of the Tardis Cams, the booklet tells us. Shame! I've seen three of these made-for-BBCi-but-bunged-on-the-DVDs-anyway "extras" and frankly they're about as appealing as having your genitals massaged with a cheese grater. This one is the worst I've seen and looks like it was made with felt tip. Cack!

Photo Gallery (3'22m):Another mobile gallery, and always a nice extra. Probably the last thing you'd look at (as the vast majority are from the story, why not just use your pause button?) but decent all the same.

Easter Egg (Spoiler!!, 0.40m): Despite rumours, there's just the one on the discs, and again it's a titles-free credits sequence. I know it's impolite to bitch about what is a hidden, unannounced extra, but this is becoming a little unimaginative. But who cares, the DVD double set is a great package.

* * * * *