Monday, February 26, 2007


The Talons of Weng-Chiang – The DVD

Thirty years ago this evening and four times as long ago in spirit, the BBC began broadcasting one of the richest slices of entertainment ever made for television. The Talons of Weng-Chiang brought Doctor Who to the Victorian era, with values very different to those of Mrs Mary Whitehouse. This eclectic extravaganza of efflorescent ectoplasm makes probably the all-round best Doctor Who DVD released so far, and certainly the one I’m most likely to pop on just to cheer myself up. So let me entice you through the fog alongside Tom Baker and Leela to see why it’s so special…

Just for once, you can read this whole thing without fearing the spoilers that in-depth analysis brings – I’ll save that for a later article. I’ve always been enthralled by stories that both celebrate and lampoon the traditional British Victorian feel, and this is about the most Victorian piece of Victoriana you’ll ever see. It’s very funny, too. Well, not Carry On Up the Khyber funny; more ‘character-based wordplay’ and ‘horrible black humour’ funny, but it makes me laugh. Long before Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill devised The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this was mixing in and sending up every Victorian cliché imaginable: fog, muffins, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, music hall, Jack the Ripper, opium, hansom cabs, gin, Cockneys, Dracula, Leonard Sachs in The Good Old Days, Oscar Wilde, advanced scientific machinery made out of brass, monsters in the sewers… And, well, if some of those subjects don’t sound fitting subjects to be plundered for entertainment, Mary Whitehouse didn’t think so either, but it’s strangely irresistible, despite frequently being in terribly bad taste. It delights in the atmosphere of the period – not the real period, but a distillation of every film, every melodrama, every ripping yarn in which stiff-upper-lipped gents discover appalling things by gaslight.

It’s all helped by the most gorgeous, syllable-rolling dialogue from a writer with an enormous love of language, and a stunning Doctor and companion team who both undermine every Victorian affectation. Tom Baker’s Doctor dresses like a cartoon Sherlock Holmes and trades wicked put-downs; Louise Jameson’s Leela is highly intelligent, but with no ‘manners’ and absolutely no desire to learn them. Even if, just this once, she’s wearing a succession of outfits that cover her up a bit (with one very noticeable exception), having been told “You can’t go around in skins in Victorian London, you’d frighten the horses.” She still has her knife, though… Oh, and the look of it is fabulous, too; if there’s one thing the BBC has always been able to stage well, it’s a Victorian melodrama.
“Have I ever, in my thirty years in the halls, seen such a dazzling display of lustrous legerdemain? So many feats of superlative supernatural skill? The answer must be never, sir, never!”
I can remember a little from the first episode, first time round; these days we live in East London and can see the dark, sinister Thames from the window as I type – thankfully clear of any ostentatiously floating bodies – but I was very ill thirty years ago tonight, and saw it on my own individual telly in my own individual room in, er, the hospital isolation ward. Look, I wasn’t complaining – I didn’t have to go to school, and we only had a black and white set at home (I suspect my parents were more perturbed). With such delight in the dialogue, it’s no surprise to find the story opening in a theatre as the curtain falls, introducing us to the urbane stage magician and the ebullient proprietor scattering words like he’s being paid by the letter, rudely interrupted by a cabbie bursting in on them. Could the magician and his ventriloquist’s dummy have anything to do with the mysterious disappearance of the cabbie’s wife? What do you reckon?

Yes, if it’s all coming back to you now, it is indeed the case of the walking ventriloquist’s dummy, and very menacing it is, too (unlike the giant rats in the sewers, which are endearingly plush but not in the least scary). Appropriately for the year of the pig, the killer mannequin is both of vaguely Chinese design and – it later transpires – has the brain of a pig. It’s not just something to give you nightmares, though; the stage act with the dummy is great, and some of the magic tricks are ‘real’ (that is, done properly on stage and not just by camera edits). I’d pay to see more of the marvellously theatrical fun that’s the magic act, all the theatre manager’s preposterous dialogue is a joy to listen to, and the Doctor, after speaking few words of Chinese in Limehouse nick, even turns as if looking for applause. Then the whole thing is boosted by some lovely design and great location shooting: the old theatre really is an old theatre, the dark and sinister Thames at night really is the dark and sinister Thames at night, though it’s to be hoped the body the police drag out of it with a boathook at the insistence of a bloodthirsty crone was really just something faked up by the BBC designers:
“It’s a floater, all right… You seem to have got it, guv! ’Pon my oath, you wouldn’t want that served with onions – never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oooh! Make an ’orse sick, that would. Oh…”
No in-depth themes this week, but trivia from famous guides: according to everyone, it’s the only Tom Baker story in which he doesn’t wear his trademark scarf; according to About Time 4, the site of the House of the Dragon is probably below Westferry DLR station; and according to The Discontinuity Guide, “There’s a possible oblique reference to Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England,” but I suspect they made that up. And, all right, I admit I’ve never had the faintest desire to trawl through a pile of Engels to find out. Rather disappointingly, About Time 4 – which often includes ‘Other Sources’ – says nothing about Whose Doctor Who (below), nor the original author’s story and why Robert Holmes had to write it instead, nor the theory about the Master being in it, nor the way the book turns an obvious prostitute into a “waitress at a late-night gambling club”, nor even its co-author’s own audio play The Year of the Cat, featuring Mr Sin’s mannequin brethren. With all that missing, I can’t imagine why they do choose to mention the thoroughly uninspiring spin-off novel The Bodysnatchers.

DVD Non-Speaking Artistes

The DVD has rather a fine set of extras. The commentary may not be the best they’ve done but is still informative and entertaining, featuring three of the actors (Louise Jameson is particularly lively), the director and the producer. It’s difficult not to feel a little sad listening to it today – since the DVD came out in 2003, both John Bennett and David Maloney have died – but then someone’ll cheerily point out the giant pile of hay where a resident left his Porsche while they were filming on an otherwise impeccably antique street, or talk about how they filched the cigars their characters had (“Not a bad part, there was a practical cigar in the third act”), or remember of writer Bob Holmes that:
“His whole approach to the show was, ‘Let’s scare the little bleeders to death’.”
I was one of those little bleeders, and I loved being scared by it. This DVD’s from back when they still bothered doing subtitles for the commentary, too, and it was the first to have what are called ‘Production Subtitles’ – little factoids coming up on the screen – written by one Martin Wiggins. They’d had them before, but they’d always been rather dry; Mr Wiggins, fortunately, is much more readable, and as well as explaining how things work or what else people have done, he tends to bring in little bits that were cut from the script. I’m much more interested in that than the name, time and measurements of the studio in which it was all recorded (the typical subtitles from the other chap). So, thanks to this I know which scene was meant to be a cliffhanger but got moved – and the one that ended up on screen is a much better shock ending – as well as that Wen Ch’ang is the old Chinese god of literature (one of the script’s more obscure gags).

There’s also a second disc made up of solid extras. There are trailers, a photo gallery, some rather blurry behind the scenes footage that’s not really my cup of tea but might be yours, a whole 26 minutes of Blue Peter teaching you how to make a model theatre with Lesley Judd – gosh, I remember that, and her – and other offerings, but the one that I really enjoy is Melvyn Bragg’s The Lively Arts documentary Whose Doctor Who? It’s the ancestor of Doctor Who Confidential, but twice the length and with no pop soundtrack. I was too young to be allowed to stay up past 8 o’clock and watch it the first time round, so it’s nice to have a copy to hand now. There are interviews with an exciting array of middle-class professionals, with an incredibly po-faced group of students, and with an assortment of children, a couple of whom aren’t exceedingly posh. It’s a little time capsule into when the BBC took their programmes (far too) seriously, and it doesn’t have Stuart Maconie anywhere near it. There’s a sizeable ‘making of’ feature for The Talons of Weng-Chiang from the time, too. The bits that I still can’t help but feel excited by, though, even though I could now watch the complete stories just by taking them down from the shelf, are all the clips from old Doctor Who. Some of them are quite sizeable scenes, and they include some of the best or scariest the series has ever offered:
The Doctor scorns the first people who burst into his TARDIS
(An Unearthly Child)
Shop window dummies come to life and attack the high street
(Spearhead From Space)
The Doctor confronts a megalomaniac giant spider
(Planet of the Spiders)
The Doctor and Davros debate the morality of life and death
(Genesis of the Daleks)
The nasty villain we’ve all been worried about is horribly killed by an even nastier villain at the cliffhanger
(Pyramids of Mars)
The Doctor fights a mental duel with a monster made from spare parts
(The Brain of Morbius)
The fossilised hand comes to life and starts moving on its own at the cliffhanger
(The Hand of Fear)…
They’re worth fast-forwarding through a clinical psychologist for any day.

Even the mistakes aren’t too annoying: spotting the misprinted title isn’t hard, but really there are hours of fun for a pedant in finding just how badly the subtitler was defeated by the dialogue. Usually it’s funny bits that subtitles make a mess of – they tend to paraphrase lines to make them shorter, which may rob drama of a little of its poetry but which often ruins a joke completely – but here, whoever wrote the subtitles clearly didn’t have a script to hand and just couldn’t make head nor tail of all the choice Victorian phrases. The one that leapt out at us was when the theatre owner is trying to dismiss the sighting of a spook, betting “All Lombard Street to ninepence that’s what you saw.” Should I ever go deaf, I’ll make sure to remember it, rather than be stuck with reading “Old lumber sheet and ninepins, that’s what you saw.” Until that day, the rich language on this DVD will remain an enormous pleasure.

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30 years ago?!

I feel old!
Oh, I know!

And today Genesis of the Daleks is thirty-two. At least I can console myself that that’s a very dim and early memory for me…

I’m hoping to move on to a Troughton, soon; something safely ‘before I was born so it doesn’t matter how old it gets’ ;-)
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