Monday, 3 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Part One

“You’ve been drinking.”

“Not a drop, sir.”

“Then it’s time you started.”

An unusual way of starting a story, straight into the backstage area of a Victorian theatre, but effective, and a brilliant setting from the outset. The constant stream, of great Robert Holmes starts as soon as Henry Gordon Jago starts talking (“I’d have propelled him on to the pavement with a punt up the posterior”), not to let up for six whole episodes. We’re also presented with mysterious and disturbing goings-on from the start, with a missing woman and a ventriloquist’s dummy able to move on its own.

The Doctor and Leela arrive, both in Victorian clothing and the Doctor in a deerstalker. The Doctor wants to show Leela how her “ancestors” enjoyed themselves (she’s human, then) but they’re caught up in trouble very quickly and asked to return to the police station. The Doctor’s gradual shift from suspect to taking charge is expertly and amusingly done.

Aside from the clothes and the general surroundings, a reference to “Jolly Jack” implies that the Whitechapel murders must be fairly recent, giving us a rough idea of when we are. Some of the characters are heard to express a few less than enlightened attitudes to Chinese people, however. To an extent this can be said to simply reflect the time depicted and there’s certainly no indication of any overtly racist intent in the script- Chang’s line “I understand we all look the same” actually undercuts the policeman’s attitudes quite nicely, even if said to the Doctor. But some of the story’s dialogue as presented would probably make the story unbroadcastable today, which is unfortunate but understandable- next episode Litefoot will refer to an “inscrutable chink”. A shame, as a simple ironic comment from the Doctor upon hearing some of these comments, something analogous to the line “It’s political correctness gone mad” from The Shakespeare Code, would probably have done the trick. But let’s not get started on John Bennett’s face make-up!

Oh dear, it’s a giant rat. Moving swiftly on…

Part Two

“A hat box?”

We get some answers here- Chang has a boss with a hidden face, who lives in an underground lair which, this being the Hinchcliffe era, is full of bottles containing bubbling, brightly coloured liquids. He speaks of “Time Agents”. Hmm. No doubt a one-off throwaway line. I’m sure we’ll hear no more of this.

There’s a lot of fun in this episode- I love the Doctor’s magic tricks and Jago’s exasperation, and Litefoot’s reaction to Leela’s eating habits are a joy. It’s only the second episode and already it’s clear that both Litefoot and Jago are more than ordinary supporting characters, both being exceptionally well written and played.

Part Three

“Explode? Unthinkable! It was made in Birmingham.”

Only Robert Holmes could satisfactorily resolve a proper get-out-of-that cliffhanger by having Leela distract the Doctor by jumping out of a window, for entirely valid reasons. This story is great! The Doctor’s fab in this episode, from “Sleep is for tortoises” to the map on Litefoot’s tablecloth to the quoted line. Apparently the Doctor once fished in the Fleet with the Venerable Bede, who’d come down south for some reason.

But there’s lots more good stuff- I particularly enjoy Jago’s “explaining” what’s happening to Casey. Plus Leela continues to be great, sneaking into Weng-Chiang’s lair and escaping again. Only the giant rat is in any way disappointing, and that we shall not speak of.

Part Four

“He’s gone to join his ancestors.”

We start with more amusing dialogue between Jago and Casey, and the episode centres around a performance by Chang in front of the watching Doctor. The moment where Chang points a gun at the Doctor only to shoot the cards is gripping stuff, but ironically Chang has been sacked by his master and has no agenda here but to entertain. So it’s shocking to him as well as Jago and the Doctor when Casey’s corpse is made to appear on stage- a turning point in the story.

It’s partly as though the initial four-parter is concluded, as we end with Weng-Chiang in possession of the time cabinet, waiting for the final two-parter to begin…

Part Five

“I may have had a bang on the head but this is a dashed queer story.”

We start to get some real explanations here: Mr Sin is in fact the “Peking Homonculus from the year 5000, where there is apparently an Ice Age. He has the cerebral cortex of a pig and almost started World War VI- some pleasingly random world-building there. And we get some ratcheting up of the villainy from Weng-Chiang, with the traditional scene of an underling being forced to commit suicide for the crime of failure.

I love the way Litefoot describes the area the Doctor and Leela as being full of “scenes of vice and squalor”, but, this being a tea-time show, we see nothing but the underside of a trap door! Meanwhile, Jago and Litefoot finally meet, and about time too. Jago’s dismissal of the police is classic Holmes: “we all know they’re solid, sterling fellows, but their buttons are the brightest thing about them”- shades of authorial voice from our ex-copper scribe here?

I love Leela’s attitude, deciding with real anger in her voice, to set up an ambush for Weng-Chiang. Louise Jameson is great.

Part Six

“Let the talons of Weng-Chiang rend your flesh!”

A superb finale. It’s pretty much all go from the off, but we also get room for a nice character moment as Jago confesses his cowardice to Litefoot- it’s nice that he gets a chance to be brave later on, distracting Greel while Leela reaches for the gun. There’s also more backstory- the Filipino army, a final advance on Reykjavik, Greel as the “butcher of Brisbane”. We also get a hint of just how nasty a dictator he was: “At my camps, the extraction process was considered the most painful of all.”

But of course he is defeated, and we finish with one of the best final scenes ever, from Litefoot’s attempts at Eliza Doolittling Leela to the contrasting reactions of Jago and Litefoot to the dematerialising TARDIS.

A magnificent story, not quite as good as its reputation but easily a high 5/5.

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