Monday, 13 January 2014

Story 91 - The Talons of Weng-Chiang

In which the Doctor decides to educate Leela in the ways of her ancestors - starting with a trip to the theatre. The TARDIS has materialised in the East End of London, in the late Victorian period. At the Palace Theatre nearby, a cab driver named Buller accuses the stage magician Li H'sen Chang, who tops the bill, of being implicated in the disappearance of his wife. She is not the only young woman who has vanished recently. Buller is later attacked and killed by a group of Chinese men - the event witnessed by the Doctor and Leela, who are on their way to the Palace. Leela kills one of the assailants with a Janis Thorn, and another is captured by her. Buller's body is dragged into the sewers, and is later found floating in the Thames - horribly mutilated. At the police station, the Doctor meets Li H'sen Chang when he is brought in as an interpreter for the man Leela caught. From a tattoo, the Doctor recognises the prisoner as being a member of the Tong of the Black Scorpion. The man dies after Chang slips him a poison capsule. The Doctor and Leela go to the local mortuary where Professor Litefoot is puzzled by the recent corpses. Buller's body is covered in coarse black hairs, and the Doctor suspects these are from a rat. The Tong of the Black Scorpion venerate Weng-Chiang - a Chinese god of abundance.

Litefoot invites the Doctor and Leela to his home for supper, but the Doctor first of all wants to investigate the Palace Theatre, meeting its manager and Master of Ceremonies, Henry Gordon Jago. The theatre is reputed to be haunted. Stage-hand Casey has seen ghostly apparitions and heard strange sounds coming from the cellars. Litefoot has an ornate Chinese cabinet in his home, which no-one has ever been able to open. It was a gift to his mother from the Emperor. Leela and Litefoot are attacked by Tong members, who are accompanied by Li H'sen Chang's animated ventriloquist doll - Mr Sin. This is really a homicidal robot known as the Peking Homunculus. It comes from the future - where its murderous activities almost triggered a terrible war. The Doctor's investigations reveal that Chang is working for Magnus Greel - a war criminal from the 51st Century. He escaped justice by travelling back in time in an experimental time capsule. He was found, dying, by Li H'sen Chang in China. Chang took him to be the god Weng-Chiang. Greel gave him enhanced hypnotic abilities. The capsule was seized by the Emperor and Greel has been hunting for it ever since. It is actually the cabinet in Litefoot's home. Greel's experiment was a failure, and he has been left terribly disfigured. He keeps himself alive by draining the life-force of young women. Chang has been kidnapping them and taking them to a secret chamber beneath the Palace Theatre cellars. Leela substitutes herself for one of the victims and discovers the lair. She fails to kill Greel and escapes into the sewers. The Doctor is investigating these - and is just in time to save her from being devoured by a gigantic rat. Greel's experiments have grown several of these creatures to enormous size, and he now uses them as guards.

Jago and Litefoot join the Doctor and Leela as they attempt to stop Greel from obtaining the cabinet. Were he to use it again, it would destroy half of London. When Chang fails to kill the Doctor during a performance, Greel abandons him - then moves his base to another location. Distraught, Chang allows himself to be attacked by one of the giant rats. The Doctor and Leela later find him in an opium den. He gives them a clue to Greel's new base before dying. Jago and Litefoot have already arrived at the lair (in a Chinese laundry) after following a Tong member. They are captured. The Doctor and Leela break in and free them. They are attacked by Mr Sin, who has control of a laser weapon built into an ornate dragon statue. Greel finds the murderous Homunculus is just as willing to kill him. The Doctor kills Greel when he pushes him into his own energy-draining machine. The Doctor then destroys Mr Sin - tearing out his control circuit. He then ensures that no-one will ever be able to open the cabinet by smashing its crystal key.

This six part adventure was written by Robert Holmes, and broadcast between 26th February and 2nd April, 1977. It is the final story of Season 14 - and marks the end of Philip Hinchcliffe's tenure as producer. Holmes stepped in to write this widely acclaimed tale after a storyline from Robert Banks Stewart (The Foe From The Future) fell through. Stewart was having marital problems at the time. Holmes took a couple of elements from the abandoned storyline (there is a foe from the future after all) , then added a wide range of influences from popular culture. The principal influence would be Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera but also featuring strongly are the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu series, Jack the Ripper, Dracula and even the BBC's popular music hall variety programme The Good Old Days. The Doctor's desire to educate Leela derives from Pygmalion.
The Doctor adopts a deer stalker hat and Inverness cape -  and Litefoot takes on a Dr Watson role. (His housekeeper is also called Mrs Hudson). The villain appears to be a fiendish Oriental mastermind, controlling the Tongs. Women are going missing, and comedic Irish stage-hand Casey refers to Jack - placing this story's setting after late 1889. The Doctor at one point describes Greel as a vampire - feeding on his victims. The music hall sequences are like those seen in the long-running light entertainment programme MC'ed by the astoundingly, astonishingly alliterative Leonard Sachs. (The conductor in these scenes is regular series composer Dudley Simpson in a cameo role).

Like the Fu Manchu novels which influence it, this story has lost some favour in recent years due to its stereotypical representation of Victorian London's Chinese population, and the use of white actors in ethnic roles. Whilst unacceptable today, it should be viewed in the context of the 1970's television landscape.
These issues aside, it is a near flawless story. The one big problem is the realisation of the giant rats. The New Avengers story "Gnaws" was far more successful - keeping the giant rat to just shadows and a prosthetic tail. Talons' rat is too obviously a man in a furry costume (that man being stunt performer Stuart Fell).
Some superb guest performances on show. Litefoot is Trevor Baxter, and Jago is Christopher Benjamin (previously seen in Inferno and who will return in the new series' The Unicorn and the Wasp). They are indubitably one of the best of the Holmes double acts, and it is no wonder that their Big Finish audio spin-off series continues to go from strength to strength.
Magnus Greel is played by Michael Spice - who previously voiced The Brain of Morbius. Mr Sin is Deep Roy.
John Bennett, who had appeared as General Finch in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, gives a brilliant performance as Li H'sen Chang. You actually feel sorry for him when he is abandoned by his "god". There are very few Doctor Who villains who elicit such sympathy.
Episode endings are:

  1. The Doctor and Leela are exploring the sewers when they see a gigantic rat...
  2. Litefoot goes to investigate a prowler outside his home. He is knocked out, and Leela is confronted by the knife-wielding Mr Sin...
  3. As Leela flees through the sewers, she falls and her leg is seized by one of the giant rats...
  4. Greel has got his cabinet back at last. He howls maniacally as his coach drives away from Litefoot's house, bearing his prize...
  5. Greel emerges from behind a curtain and tries to chloroform Leela. She breaks free and tears his mask off - to reveal his misshapen features...
  6. Jago and Litefoot are left highly impressed by the Police's new vanishing boxes...

Overall, if you can get past the stereotyping, and that bloody awful rat, an excellent story. Adult, horrific, atmospheric. Lovely period detail and location work. Great performances and some wonderful cliffhangers. Greel's mad howl at the end of Part 4 is one of my favourite moments.
Things you might like to know:

  • This was the final story to be directed by the late David Maloney. One of the programme's finest directors in my view. He left to work on Blake's 7 - directing and then producing.
  • Born in Kenya as Mohinder Purba, Deep Roy has had a prolific acting career - a lot of it Sci-Fi related. As well as Doctor Who he has appeared in Star Trek (the recent reboots of the franchise), Star Wars, The X-Files, The New Avengers, Flash Gordon (the 1980 movie), Planet of the Apes (the Tim Burton one) and Transformers. In Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake, Roy played all of the Oompa-Lompas (all 165 of them). He made one further Doctor Who appearance - as the Possican delegate (in a reused Terileptil mask) in Mindwarp / Trial of a Time Lord Parts 5 - 8.
  • There were two main filming locations - London's Bankside and other river areas, and Northampton. The latter provided the theatre as well as some street scenes. Famously, someone failed to remove their car prior to filming a night sequence, and the crew had to disguise it under a huge pile of straw. Once you know the scene in question, you can't help notice it.
  • These days it is quite common for the Doctor to paint a wider picture of events with a throwaway line - referring to unseen adventures and events. Indeed, the Time War was only known about in this way. The First and Third Doctors were terrible name-droppers - usually historical figures like Napoleon, Nelson, Henry the Eighth and (erm) the Mountain Mauler of Montana... In this story, more than any other up to this point, we get a vivid picture of unseen events - Filipino armies in Iceland in the 51st Century and so forth. It's part of Bob Holmes' genius.
  • The final recording session was fraught due to a special effects problem. The table under which everyone hides to avoid the dragon-laser was set to split in two. However, it was given a late respray, and the paint prevented it breaking on cue as designed.
  • Nunchuka weapons were banned for a long time in the UK - and so certain cuts had to be made to a fight sequence when this story was first released on VHS.
  • A couple of unintended anachronisms to look out for - power points in Litefoot's lab covered with masking tape, and a copy of The Sun newspaper in his laundry basket.

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