Monday, April 02, 2007


The Talons of Weng-Chiang – The Story

Doctor Who returned to BBC1 in hugely entertaining style at the weekend, along with a noticeably less well-written new Sherlock Holmes outing. Thirty years ago this evening, Doctor Who was doing its own enormously entertaining Sherlock Holmes pastiche in the final episode of Tom Baker’s Victorian adventure The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Enthusing about the DVD a month ago, I talked about the fantastic language, promising to return for a more in-depth examination of the story itself; since then, Russell T Davies has said much the same thing about this very script, telling the Telegraph:
“It’s the best dialogue ever written. It’s up there with Dennis Potter. By a man called Robert Holmes. When the history of television drama comes to be written, Robert Holmes won’t be remembered at all because he only wrote genre stuff. And that, I reckon, is a real tragedy.”
There was, at least, some degree of recognition for the story at the time: the night after the final episode went out, it was lauded by arts documentary Whose Doctor Who, though even in that author / script editor Robert Holmes largely stays in the background while producer Philip Hinchcliffe discusses the show. For me that season of Doctor Who remains the programme’s high point, blending the extraordinary spectacle and horrific themes of the previous couple of years with the wit that was to follow, and this story’s black comedy and sheer visual style make it almost the perfect combination. The Talons of Weng-Chiang was the final story from the firm of Holmes and Hinchcliffe, purveyors of filth to the nation’s delighted youth and the greatest creative team ever to work on Doctor Who – saving your reverence, Mr T Davies – and while cast, costumes and direction all have swagger with glorious fun, the magnificent script is at the heart of it. As I said in my first piece, this both celebrates and lampoons the traditional British feel, and steals from every period cliché in sight to make the most flamboyantly Victorian piece of Victoriana imaginable. People get caught up in the atmosphere of the Victorian fiction, and with such wit and so many horrible fog-shrouded murders, it’s no wonder, but there’s a lot more here than just the embodiment of everything you’d expect. There’s the insight of the culture clashes, and characters evolving from sheer Victorian stereotype into rounded, sympathetic people. There’s the way that the whole of Part Four is one huge piece of misdirection in the fashion of a magic act, and in the process one of the cleverest pieces of writing you’ll ever see. And while you’re caught up in laughing at how over-the-top the ultimate villain is, it’s easy to overlook just how monstrous he is underneath.
“’Pon my Sam. I may have had a bang on the head, but this is a dashed queer story.”
Part of the story’s appeal lies in its astoundingly bad taste, bringing in everything that made the writer laugh and everything that made Mary Whitehouse rage (assuming they weren’t one and the same thing). It has a lot in common with Russell T Davies’ first Doctor Who story, the stunning but ‘controversial’ New Adventures novel Damaged Goods: this is Doctor Who in the inner city, with gangs, guns, stabbings, drugs and prostitution. So why was it that so many fans screamed blue murder at Russell’s first outing, but The Talons of Weng-Chiang is regularly found among the top places in every popularity poll? Well, a lot of people’s views change dramatically if you tell them it’s set a hundred years ago. All the sex, drugs and violence that would be shocking in a modern-day story seem safe in what people think of as the polite rules of ‘the world of Sherlock Holmes’, and because it’s over. We know it stopped, and what could be more reassuring than that? Much less frightening to have opium-eaters than ‘kids on my estate are doing crack’, even if it’s really much the same, and when half of it’s set in a theatre – the opening scene has the curtain rise on the show, to its own applause – there’s an added level at which the story is saying, ‘We all know this isn’t real, so it’s fine for you to be as scared as you like but still enjoy it’. It may be dark, it may be scary, it may feature perhaps the vilest villain in the history of Doctor Who, but this tale of horrible things in the sewers still makes me laugh like a drain.

The Curtain Rises

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is brimming with vivid characters: effusive theatre owner Henry Gordon Jago; crusty pathologist Professor Litefoot; sinister stage magician Li H’Sen Chang; desperate war criminal and self-styled god Magnus Greel; and, of course, the Doctor and his companion Leela. One of the reasons this story is so quotable is that it has the room to pair these characters in so many combinations; when Jago and Litefoot team up towards the end, they make such an entertaining double-act that many people wanted their own series, but the Doctor and Litefoot are splendid discussing bodies, the Doctor sending up Jago is endlessly enjoyable, Greel snarling at Chang is startling and horrible, and the contrast of Leela’s wild practicality and Litefoot’s Victorian manners is a scream. The Doctor and Leela themselves are one of the series’ most memorable teams, and both Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are marvellous on screen together (even if the actors were reputed not to be the best of friends).

Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor here is both witty and authoritative, dressing in cape and deerstalker like a cartoon Sherlock Holmes, appropriately for a story that pastiches every foggy Holmes film without trying to go anywhere near the original stories. There are even scenes that send up the “A fleck of mud here, a speck of paint there” style of deduction, as Jago persistently fantasises that the Doctor is a brilliant detective who solves all the police’s cases for them – the theatre manager believing, with his audience, in the fiction of Sherlock Holmes – but, when presented with a clue about a boot, the Doctor is baffled and only gets the answer as the dastardly actually Greel stalks in on him and makes it redundant. It’s a great moment, as Tom alternates between being dangerously controlled and using flippancy to wind the villain up (turning out his pockets, naturally he discovers and consumes a jelly baby), though after he deduces his opponent’s real identity, all playfulness vanishes. With the friendly Jago as puffed-up and theatrical in his own way as the appalling Greel, the Doctor deflates the theatre manager wonderfully, too; there’s an hysterical scene as Jago volunteers to help the Doctor, secure in the belief that the place will be crawling with police. Instead, Tom accepts the offer of solo assistance with barely concealed mirth:
“When the moment comes, Mr Jago, you and I will face our destiny shoulder to shoulder.”
“Oh corks!”
Some of the Doctor’s companions have been from our own present, asking the same questions we would; some from the past, mystified by modern technology; some from the future, able to talk to the Doctor on his own level. Leela is unique. One of a tribe descended from lost Earth colonists, she’s both ‘futuristic’ and ‘primitive’ at the same time, and – having joined the Doctor because she was her tribe’s leading free-thinker – is highly intelligent, but completely uneducated. As a result, she’s perfect to question the absurdities of Victorian society. It’s great to see her at her best here, using her brain, learning things for herself as well as being taught by the Doctor, as after this the new producer and less sympathetic writers fail to see her keen adaptability and caricature her as a ‘stupid savage’. In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, she wears a succession of different outfits as the situation demands, though back in her home jungle, all her tribe wore skimpy leathers; yes, she is the one everyone remembers always wearing the leather bikini and waving a knife (which she gets to throw impressively here). Disappointingly, instead of carrying on dressing for the environment she’s in, in later stories her clothes are removed along with her brain and she shows off her flesh whatever the weather. Hmm, could it be that audience figures were based more on her figure than the scripts? I always enjoy, though, that when she emerges from the TARDIS here she’s wearing just the same brown check with red piping as the Doctor. She looks like his apprentice, and of course she is. In fact, Litefoot’s dressing gown has the same colour scheme later on – it’s almost like a uniform for the ‘heroes’ (I love the idea of an elderly professor’s dressing gown as a superhero outfit, I really do. It’s so BBC). She loses that first set of clothes while stalking Greel and, drenched in her underthings, famously looks even more revealing than in her skimpier leathers. Don’t object to her screaming at that point, though; Leela screams considerably less often than the Doctor, and only does so here because a giant rat is biting into her leg. Because she never screams, that moment comes across as such strong stuff that it’s the only point the all-too-cuddly rat ever seems a threat. There’s a suggestion the production team are still a little ashamed of having stripped her, though, as for the rest of the story she’s wrapped in ever-greater heaps of clothing, and when Litefoot’s housekeeper helps her dress as a Victorian lady, it’s the most nakedly obvious reference to her character’s roots in Pygmalion.

Other performances will follow…

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