I’ve got my talons in you.
Doctor Who does Sherlock Holmes. No, really. That’s what you’re getting with The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which originally aired in six parts in April 1977. Not only does The Doctor wear Holmes’s iconic deerstalker hat and coat, but he’s running around London with a murder mystery to solve, says “Elementary,” and there’s even a reference to a Mrs. Hudson. Nonetheless, it’s still Doctor Who, so there’s also aliens, time travel, and a hilariously, wonderfully low-budget giant monster.
Previously released as an extras-packed DVD in 2003, this Special Edition trumps the earlier disc with a whopping three discs of material related to one storyline.
To teach his companion, primitive cavegirl Leela (Louise Jameson, Doc Martin), about culture, The Doctor (Tom Baker, Dungeons And Dragons) arrives in Victorian England to enjoy a night at the theatre. That, of course, doesn’t go as planned, as the pair immediately gets involved in a mystery involving young women turning up missing and horribly mutated bodies found floating in the Thames River.
At the heart of the case is a visiting Chinese circus, led by the secretive Li H’sen Chang (John Bennett, Minority Report) and his eerie ventriloquist dummy, Mr. Sin (Deep Roy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Chang is working for someone else, though, a masked figure named Weng-Chiang, hiding in an underground chamber beneath a theater. Can the Doctor and Leela figure out what’s going on, or will the murders continue?
You have to love how a Victorian England setting lends itself so well to rich storytelling. Class struggles mean we get everything from high society balls to child pickpockets and brutally violent street thugs. Mystery, crime, and conspiracies run rampant, just as new technologies are developed and art/music hit new heights. Black-garbed strangers lurk in shadowed alleyways ,while stuffy upperclassmen sip tea and say things like, “What’s all this, then?” An interest in mysticism during the era lends itself to fantasy and horror fiction, giving us imaginative tales fraught with ghosts, vampires, and more. The Doctor Who creators must have shared this same excitement for the period, because they’ve loaded The Talons of Weng-Chiang with as many Victorian tropes as they could think of.
Among those tropes is the visiting Chinese circus, with exotic acrobat and magic acts. Many adventure tales of era took advantage of London’s growing multiculturalism. (Note: The 2010 BBC series Sherlock, which takes place in the modern day, also did a Chinese circus episode, so everything old is new again.) Sadly, the depiction of the Chinese in The Talons of Weng-Chiang has been criticized many times over the years, and for good reason. The sinister Chang is played by a white guy under a ton of makeup to make him look Chinese, and he speaks in heavily-accented broken English. If you can somehow get your mind around the gross stereotyping, you might see that Bennett is doing a lot of other interesting things with the character. In Chang’s final moments, even in his defeat, he is reverently loyal to his master, giving the character some dignity in the midst of his madness. Plus, the makeup looks so stiff and plastic-like it gives him an otherworldly appearance, kind of like those “Rebel Flesh” people from the eleventh Doctor’s run. But, hey, why take my word for any of this when you could check out the featurette on this set, “Limehouse: The Victorian Chinatown.” This and other bonus features deal with the controversial issues head on, putting them in context.
Getting back to the episode, there’s a lot more to enjoy about The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The Doctor has a gleeful sense of enthusiasm throughout the story, as if he’s enjoying solving the mystery and chasing down the bad guys, even though lives are at stake (or, perhaps, because of it). This is because The Doctor is in his element. Tom Baker’s performance solidifies this, with an overall sense of “Oh boy, we’re off on an adventure!” Sadly, Leela trades her famous leather bikini for period clothing, but Louise Jameson plays up the character’s fish out of water aspect for all it’s worth. Christopher Benjamin hams it up delightfully in a comic relief role (theatre owner Henry Gordon Jago), and Deep Roy adds to the creep factor in the otherwise thankless role of an unnaturally mobile ventriloquist’s dummy. The titular Weng-Chiang (Michael Spice) is another great villain, kind of a cross between Darth Vader and the Phantom of the Opera, proving to be quite a match for The Doctor.
Presented in vintage ’70s 1.33:1 full frame, the picture quality is mostly good. This is a darker episode, with a lot of shadows and moody, dimly-lit scenes, so the blacks are deep and rich. It’s when the action moves outdoors for location shooting that the video is hurting, with a ton of grain and haziness. This is a flaw of many TV series from that era and not with the DVD transfer. The Dolby 1.0 Mono audio lacks punch, but the dialogue and classic theme music both come through clean and clear.
Although The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a more elaborate episode than most, with generous location shooting and beautiful sets and costumes, the show’s infamous low budget can be seen in the monster-of-the-week: a giant rat. In the bonus features, the producers say they were trying to move away from the “rubber monster” gimmick and do more intelligent science fiction, and the rat was only thrown in to satisfy the network’s demand for monsters. Either way, the rat is unintentionally cheesy and not all that important to the plot. Our villains, Weng Chiang, Chang, and Mr. Sin, are plenty monstrous and scary on their own.
As noted above, this three-disc set overflows with bonus material. There’s a commentary with actors Louise Jameson, John Bennett, and Christopher Benjamin, joined by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and director David Maloney. In addition to the “Limehouse” featurette mentioned above, there are a number of others. “The Last Hurrah” featurette includes interviews with Hinchcliffe and Tom Baker. In “Moving On,” Hinchcliffe discusses what he would have done with the show had he stayed on for another season. “The Foe From the Future” looks at the unmade story that later became The Talons of Weng Chiang. “Now and Then” takes a look at the filming locations today. “Look East” is an archive of original news stories about the episode. “Victoriana and Chinoiserie” looks at classic literature that inspired the script. “Music Hall” is an exploration of classic British theater as it pertains to the episode. From there, we get a trivia text commentary, a photo gallery, and Radio Times listings on DVD-ROM. The rest of the extras have been ported over from the 2003 DVD: An hour-long “Whose Doctor Who” special, more Doctor Who-related footage from the British children’s show Blue Peter, another Philip Hinchcliffe interview, additional behind-the-scenes footage, trailers, and a cheesy “TARDIS-cam” featurette.
This episode is controversial for many reasons, but it’s also a fan favorite. I’m willing to take the bad along with the good and enjoy Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang for the fun mystery/adventure it is.