I will now ask my eager volunteer kindly to step into the Cabinet of Death!
Take one part Pygmalion, one part The Phantom of the Opera, stir in a healthy dollop of Sherlock Holmes, then rent a fog machine, and you have Robert Holmes’ “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (Story Production Code 4S), the most interesting story of Tom Baker’s run thus far. Though many a threat from the future has found its way to Earth’s past in Doctor Who, the setting in Victorian London feels fresh; there’s no invasion here, no plan to take over the planet, just individual greed, hubris, and tragedy on a smaller stage. Characters grow and change within the span of six episodes, and Holmes (also the series script editor) and veteran director David Maloney deploy the large cast with skill, slowly unveiling new plot dimensions without the audience being cheated or blindsided by sudden revelations. One even feels charitably inclined to overlook the dodgy giant rat. It’s a shame, then, about the blithe portrayal of the Chinese as a stereotyped other behind which a stranded time traveller works his malevolent plans.
The historic verisimilitude of Victorian attitudes towards the Chinese notwithstanding (and, indeed, verisimilitude has often taken a back seat to dramatic necessity on Doctor Who), the overall treatment of the Chinese by the script feels at odds with the ethos of the series; the Silurians, the Ice Warriors, and even the Daleks have come in for more nuanced portrayals than the Chinese in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” with their supposed servility, fanaticism, and lack of individuality serving as plot points. Overbroad pastiches of Victorian England also feature prominently here, but the invocation of Cockney rhyming slang and overwrought fishwives is played for self-knowing humor rather than the slightly meaner presentation of the Chinese. To his credit, Holmes writes the Doctor as being above such beliefs. While not directly countering the prevailing attitudes, the Doctor does display an abiding respect for and interest in Chinese culture and language.
Casting John Bennett as the key character of Li Hsen Chang requires the use of extensive facial prosthetics, to the extent that the actor could not blink for fear of disrupting the heavy makeup; the overall effect is jarring and likely could have been avoided through casting an actor with a Chinese background. The casting seems stranger still given that many of the other Chinese characters are played by actors who seem to have such a background. This is not to take away from Bennett’s performance, which carries some depth of nobility amidst the stereotyped mannerisms and thick prosthetics, but rather to note that the casting, like the incessant stereotyping, creates an unpleasant dissonance in an otherwise engaging tale.
On the positive side, it does prevent one from spending too much time wondering why there’s an entire sub-plot devoted to giant rats in London’s sewers…
The Doctor and Leela arrive in fog-shrouded London right on the heels of a spate of disappearances. Eight women have gone missing near the Palace Theatre, which features the prestidigitator Li Hsen Chang at the top of the bill. The viewer’s suspicions fall immediately on Chang, who is accosted by a cab driver whose vanished wife had been a volunteer in the magic act some nights before. Our time travellers, clad in period-appropriate clothing, encounter the cabbie outside the theatre, right as he is attacked and murdered by a group of Chinese assailants, one of whom Leela manages to capture before the local constabulary intervenes.
Despite the Doctor’s offer to translate for the Chinese man, the police summon Chang from the nearby theatre to help, but the man dies when Chang sits down across from him—after swallowing scorpion venom that Chang gave him surreptitiously. Following the body to the morgue, where the Doctor intends to help with the autopsy, they encounter Professor Litefoot, who has just received a body freshly pulled from the Thames: the cab driver. The body has giant incisor marks in it, leading the Doctor and Leela to the sewers and the giant rat, which guards the underground entrance to Chang’s secret lair below the theatre.
A cat and mouse game (only slight pun intended) begins between Chang and the Doctor and Leela, who eventually trace the missing women back to the Palace Theatre. But just when the viewer thinks that Chang is the villain, Holmes reveals another foe, a masked man lurking in the bowels of the theatre, only daring to come out when the curtain is struck. This wizened figure, revered as the Chinese god Weng-Chiang by Chang and the rest of the Tong of the Black Scorpion, has been draining the life energy out of the kidnapped women as sustenance. It’s an effective shift in focus, sudden but not unearned, and when Weng-Chiang starts talking about his missing “time cabinet” and fearing “time agents,” the mystery deepens.
Unlike the last six part story, “The Seeds of Doom,” which split its plot essentially into a two-part story and a four-part story, here the new layers add to the old, rather than feeling tacked on. One of the reasons the plot twist works in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” is the depth of characterization given to Chang, far more than would be expected for a character who becomes tangential to the story in the final third. His desperation to please Weng-Chiang drives events, particularly when his “god” casts him away for repeated failures, including a magical mishap with the Doctor on stage.
The character’s pathos grows, and when he seemingly commits suicide by locking himself in the sewers with the giant rats as penance for failing Weng-Chiang, the viewer feels, if not sorrow, at least dismay, for this person tricked into believing a madman. His subsequent appearance, and death, in an opium den, when he has realized Weng-Chiang’s betrayal of him, has added weight because of his arc from devoted servant to broken castaway, his final regret being unable to put on a command magical performance for the Queen. This rounded characterization goes at least some way towards making up for the otherwise one-dimensional portrayal of Chinese characters in the story.
Through a stroke of narrative luck, Weng-Chiang’s “time cabinet” resides in the home of Professor Litefoot, who has teamed up with the Doctor and Leela to investigate the giant rats. The Professor takes a keen interest in Leela’s lack of manners, attempting his best Henry Higgins impersonation while simultaneously being charmed by her unselfconscious behavior, even going so far as to chew meat off the bone alongside her. He’s smitten, frankly, and it must be said that Louise Jameson plays Leela’s savage naiveté with a charmingly lethal edge; there’s just the right mixture of unabashed curiosity and proud protectiveness in Jameson’s delivery.
The Doctor comes to realize, as he often does, that the cabinet is an artifact of the 51st Century, part of a dangerous experiment in time travel that has caused Weng-Chiang’s metabolism to unravel. The cabinet came into Litefoot’s possession in 1873, a gift from the Chinese Emperor for his father’s service in the court. Almost as worrisome as the cabinet, the Doctor identifies Chang’s ventriloquist dummy as the Peking Homunculus, a cyborg animated by a pig’s cerebral cortex and, though intended as a toy, infamous for having developed an abiding hatred for humanity that nearly led to World War VI. In other hands, such world-building might come off poorly, and it nearly does so here through the weight of concepts introduced in a brief speech, but Holmes, who brought us the Krotons, the Autons, and the Sontarans, has a knack for creating a whole world from a few details. (OK, maybe the Krotons are a poor example…)
Weng-Chiang (Michael Spice), as it turns out, is none other than Magnus Greel, Minister of Justice for the Icelandic Alliance and a wanted war criminal from the 51st Century who fled to the past using the time cabinet to avoid his enemies. The cabinet, powered by zygma energy and using technology abandoned shortly after Greel disappeared, disastrously altered his DNA in the process, causing his body to deteriorate. Were he to use the cabinet again to return to his own time, the Doctor fears it would explode; thankfully (for everyone but Greel), the Homunculus goes on a rampage because Greel denied it the pleasure of killing Leela, attacking Greel as he attempts to enter the cabinet. Greel falls into the device he uses to drain the life force out of his victims to repair his degeneration, and is killed by it in an all-too-tidy resolution.
Actually, Greel does not fall into the device so much as he is pushed by the Doctor. There’s an odd willingness on the Doctor’s part in this story to engage in, or at least countenance, violence. He borrows a giant rifle from Professor Litefoot for an excursion into the sewers—the better to bag giant rats with—and his reaction to Leela killing an attacker with a Janus thorn boils down to a shrug. Granted, the attacker would have killed the Doctor but for Leela’s intervention, yet the response feels out of character.
If the story carries a somewhat dark tone, it also comes across as visually shrouded. A good portion of the story takes place at night, in dark sewers and cellars, and on shadowed stages. The overall effect adds to the sense of gaslit horror and eerie foreboding, but it also makes viewing difficult, and leads one to wonder how many Victorian period details, lovingly re-created by the set dressers, go unseen because of the overall foggy gloom.
The best period dressing of all, though, comes in the form of Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) and Palace Theatre impresario Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin). Their unlikely partnership provides a pleasant palate cleanser amidst the horror, with Litefoot the living embodiment of the stiff upper lip, a Victorian gentleman through and though, and Jago countering with a boisterous self-regard that wilts even as he fears “letting the side down.” Their characterizations, like Chang’s, are sufficiently strong to enable them to carry sequences without the Doctor or Leela present. Perhaps their independent stake-out of Weng-Chiang’s House of the Dragon acts as padding in the fifth episode, but it’s sufficiently entertaining to watch them play off each other that one indulges it.
Louise Jameson, as mentioned, plays Leela to perfection here, with a visible lack of self-consciousness in her performance as a proud yet unmannered warrior, whether she’s weighing the use of a golf club as an impromptu missile, planning an ambush with cricket bats, or discussing the finer points of tea time. Holmes manages to capture the nuances of Leela’s character, as being both honor-driven and keenly inquisitive, with Jameson well up to the task. The Doctor initially tries to leave her behind, but once she disobeys, saving his life in the process, he equivocates, saying, “Oh, well in that case, you better come along.” She’s also finally given the title “companion” in this story:
Jago: Pleasure to welcome you, sir, and your charming companion.
Leela certainly earns the title, and Jameson’s presence has enlivened the three stories Leela has featured in so far.
Tom Baker pulls off the Fourth Doctor’s turn as Sherlock Holmes with some skill, and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” points out the similarities between the two characters: insightful, observant, and all too often in possession of facts the audience could never know. Leela calls the Doctor out on his manner of disquisition, proclaiming, “You ask me so that you can tell me,” and the Doctor does not demur. Still, the know-it-all approach actually works here, with the Doctor’s factoids adding flavor but not substance; Holmes and Maloney allow the events on screen, what the audience sees, to guide the plot. Only the berserk intervention of the Homunculus feels narratively unearned, a failing that doesn’t manage to detract from the overall success of the story.
And “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” must be considered a success. It certainly contains its share of flaws, most notably the regrettably facile presentation of the treatment of the Chinese in Victorian England. But the story triumphs through the overall strength of the large cast, and, combined with pacing that seldom bogs down despite its six-episode length, delivers an entertaining and cohesive romp through varied and believable settings, leveraging the series’ unique ability to blend past with future. If the tales about outgoing producer Philip Hinchcliffe telling Maloney and Holmes to blow the budget on this season-ending story are true, the results certainly show on screen—giant rat excepted.
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Post 94 of the Doctor Who Project