Doctor Who since being rebooted in 2005 has benefited from advances in digital effects, customing, green screen shooting, makeup, and, oh just about everything else we take for granted in watching a sf television program these days. Back when this particular show was done, none of that was something that was all that common. And the show was shot back in the mid Seventies with apparently a budget to give it the best possible look.
The Talons of Weng Chiang featured Tom Baker, one of the most liked of all the actors who’ve played The Doctor, and Leela, the archetypal savage that British Empire both adored and despised, played by Louise Jameson. That it is set during the Victorian Era is something that British have been fond of setting dramas in, well, since a few years after the era ended. Doctor Who has had stories set in this era myriad times.
The Talons of Weng Chiang is an excellent example that though it’s considered a science fiction, it’s not. Almost all science fiction is fantasy as the writer envisions something, say a technology or a social condition, that doesn’t exist now. Doctor Who was, and is still, a fantasy. The Talons of Weng Chiang with great enthusiasm crafted a Hammer Films worthy horror monster who like a lot like Fu Manchu with a sf trope of the Evil Warlord fleeing justice by time traveling back to an era where he could muster his forces for another attempt at total domination.
The story itself is far less entertaining that watching nearly everyone here chew the scenery in grand fashion. Not that that’s a bad thing as it makes the story entertaining. And watching Tom Baker playing The Doctor who in turn is channeling Sherlock Holmes and playing simultaneously playing Professor Higgins to Lousie Jameson playing barbarian Leela who’s very obviously supposed to be Eliza Doolittle even to the extent of her being dressed up, though in men’s dress.
Another pair of characters here are Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjimin), a down on his heels theatre manager, and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) , a pathologist, who are such fascinating characters that Big Finish which has the rights to all of the Doctor Who characters and situations to make audio drams of gave them them own series!
The last two important characters are our villain as played by Michael Spice who is a war criminal by the name of Magnus Greel, also called the Butcher of Brisbane in the 51st Century who fled to Victorian England to hide from those hunting him. He spends most of the show in an iron mask limiting him to using his voice and body language to establish his evilness.
Our other villain, Weng Chiang as played by Jeff Bennett looks like the period illustrations of Fu Manchu, the character Sax Rohmer created in 1911. If you’re sensitive about racial stereotypes, you’d give this a pass to this production as he’s quite one. And his pig assistant, a homunculi, is yet another Chinese racial stereotype. I’ll give the writers a pass on this as I’m not sure anyone was intending them that way. He’s a stage magician in the employ of Magnus Greele who’s murdering girls to provide Greel with needed energy.
Ok, setting aside the stereotyping of the villains, this is a great story that’s full of thrills and even a mild bit horror, very mild as Doctor Who at that point in its history was a lot less dark than the new incarnation is. That said, it holds up remarkably well given how awful much of the show was in that period. The setting is accurate looking, the costuming is well-crafted, the script is exceptionally superb, and the actors are up to task of saying dialogue that in the wrong hands be dreadful. Highly recommended!
I’ve not gotten the DVD as I bought the series off of iTunes but I did notice that it does have a making of feature, commentary by many of those involved, and some other cool stuff.
(BBC, 1977; BBC DVD, 2003)