Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Now this one had, for some reason or other, been sitting on my “to watch” pile for ages – it was one of the three stories in the Revisitations Box Set 1 that I mentioned in October last year, and like Doctor Who – The Movie, it’s a new version of a previously released classic story, with a pile of extra features. And this is classic classic Doctor Who at its finest.

This six-part story was first shown between February and April 1977, and starts Tom Baker as the Doctor, and Louise Jameson as Leela, but you probably knew that already. The Doctor decides that it’s time to try to civilise Leela a bit, and takes her to Victorian England. And in a refreshing change, both of the travellers dress for the location – Leela in moderately respectable clothing, and the Doctor in an only slightly exaggerated version of the outfit that people think Sherlock Holmes wore (cape, deerstalker, that kind of thing).

Bad Things are happening. Young women are disappearing, and people worry that Jack the Ripper may be back at work. And in a quite deliberate nod towards the Fu Manchu books and movies, the centre of the trouble seems to be a very suspicious Chinese stage magician, Li H’sen Chang[1], who’s got some great tricks and a seriously strange ventriloquist’s dummy.

But that would be far too simple. Li H’sen Chang is merely the servant of the real villain of the piece, a masked man in the sewers[2] who claims to be a Chinese god called Weng-Chiang. As it turns out, he’s actually Magnus Griel, a war criminal from the 51st century[3], who’s keeping himself alive by extracting life energy (or some such thing) from young women’s bodies, with generally fatal results. And he’s got some giant rats in the sewers. And that dummy turns out to be an artificial life form with homicidal tendencies.

Weaving in and out of the story are a couple of excellent guest characters – theatrical promoter Henry Gordon Jago and accidental holder of the Time Cabinet that Griel needs, Professor Litefoot. Separately, they’re beautifully realised characters. Together, they’re a sublime double-act of the kind writer Robert Holmes often created[4]. Indeed, they’ve been brought back for a series of original audio plays in the last year or two.

There’s a lot of fun all round, Tom being quite superb, Leela making it quite clear that while she’s not educated, she is still very intelligent, lots of foggy late Victorian atmosphere, and some nice scenery chewing from Michael Spice as Weng-Chiang/Greel, who gets very upset when Leela rips his mask off to reveal his horribly distorted face[5], which was an unfortunate side-effect of his journey through time.

OK, so what we have is as near perfect an example of classic Doctor Who as you’re going to get, but there’s more, much more. There are two DVDs of extras this time, and there are some Good Things to enjoy, quite apart from all the usual bits. First, there’s the DVD that was included with the original release:

  • Whose Doctor Who – A 1977 documentary, presented by Melvyn Bragg, and including some behind the scenes stuff on this story. Interesting stuff, well worth watching
  • Blue Peter Theatre – Seriously, that’s enough bits of Blue Peter for a while. In this series of clips, the presenters make a puppet theatre and add Doctor Who creatures to it. Apparently you can cut out a picture of the Doctor from Radio Times and colour it in…
  • Behind the Scenes – raw video footage of the recording of some bits. Historical interest only, and a wee bit dull..
  • Philip Hinchcliffe Interview – the producer at the time is interviewed on the BBC lunchtime show Pebble Mill at One, with the inevitable bit about the perceived level of violence in the show. Err, Doctor Who, that is, not Pebble Mill.
  • Tardis-Cam No 6 – one of a series of badly dated bits of animation made for the BBC website in 2003
  • Photo Gallery
  • Easter Egg – Press something or other in the right order, and you can see a version of the opening titles…

And that was the state of extras back in 2003. All archive material, nothing specially made for the DVD. So what’s on the new, additional disc, then? Lots:

  • The Last Hurrah – Producer Philip Hinchcliffe pays a visit to Tom Baker for a chat about this, the last story Philip worked on. As with anything involving Tom, it’s a lot of fun, with further contributions from Louise Jameson, Trevor Baxter (Litefoot), Christopher Benjamin (Jago) and others. Nicely entertaining.
  • Moving on – About what Philip Hinchcliffe might have done if he hadn’t been taken off Doctor Who and moved to another show
  • The Foe From the Future – Originally, this slot was going to be filled by a story written by Robert Banks Stewart, which would have been very different from the one Robert Holmes was drafted in to write after Stewart had to drop out. Find out about it here.
  • Now and Then – One of the always worthwhile looks at how locations have changed
  • Look East – the theatre scenes used the Northampton Repertory Theatre, which at the time had most of its original Victorian bits and bobs intact. This is a local news item about the location shooting, with a Tom Baker interview for added fun
  • Victoriana and Chinoiserie – Philip Hinchcliffe and Anne Witchard of the University of Westminster talk about the literary roots of The Talons of Weng-Chiang
  • Music Hall – the past, and quite remarkably, the present of music hall are examined.
  • Limehouse – A Victorian Chinatown – A fascinating documentary on the reality and myths surrounding the area of London involved in the story. Matthew Sweet, who’s been on a few extras lately, is our guide, with other expert contributions.

Now that’s a lot of extras. Quite excellent.

[1] A prime example of a white actor in make up that was mentioned in the Race Against Time documentary on The Mutants. Times have changed…
[2] Remember that. You might see something similar soon…
[3] Continuity nod: that’s where when Captain Jack came from. And reference is made to “time agents”.
[4] Though apparently he didn’t realise he was doing it
[5] Which is oddly like another masked character in a Robert Holmes story which I may mention later