Victorian London. Women are disappearing. Has Jack the Ripper returned? Why is Roland Rat lurking in the sewers? Will any of these questions be answered?
First of all, this is a wonderfully realisedadventure. Everything is as you might expect it to be. It probably more Victorian than the Victorian Age ever was. This is to be expected since the BBC, at the time were red-hot on historical dramas. Not to say that they aren’t good nowadays but how many times have we seen the vapour trails of a plane in a drama set in the 17th century?
Robert Holmes’ dialogue is probably not genuine Victorian. I am sure the slang is all correct but would they have spoken it like this? It feels if Holmes was vomiting a book of Victorian slang. But it sounds great, so what the hell, eh?
It is six episodes in length but right up to episode four, the story feels like a four-parter. Does that make any sense?
There are three villains in this story. Magnus ‘Butcher of Brisbane’ Greel, Li H’sen Chang and Mr Sin.
Greel is masquerading as the Chinese godWeng-Chiang. He is neither Australian or Chinese but is played by an English actor. Apparently he is a war criminal from the 51st century who has had it away on his toes in a time-travelling lacquered cabinet. The zygma beams (or rays or whatever) which allowed him to abscond have also scrambled his face and DNA. So, quite naturally, he commands Chang and Sin to kidnap girls so that he siphon off their life essence. He doesn’t say why only young women can be used. Why not men? Is Greel a sexist 51st century melty-faced chauvinistic pig?
Li H’sen Chang is Chinese but is played by an English actor. He sounds like every stereotypical Chinese Fu Manchu wannabe fromevery second-rate xenophobic Yellow Peril melodrama that you have ever read/watched. If you check Wikipedia’s article about stereotypes, you will see a picture of John Bennett as Chang looking adoringly at Greel with the quote, “Me love you long time, Weng-Chiang” underneath. Well, not quite that bad but it is still astonishingly bad though. The production team slapped a pair of fake slanted eyes onto Bennett and thought that was acceptable? You have to excuse them because there were no Oriental actors in England at the time… Oh, wait! I tell a lie, there were loads! At least three or four in this one story alone. Surely they could have used an actual Chinese actor? The cost of making Chinese prosthetic eyes was more expensive than casting an Chinese actor. The production team on Doctor Who are usually brilliant but, in this case, I’d happily slap them all upside the head and ask, “What the hell were you boneheads thinking?”
Fan theory time. If you are not a die-hard Whovian, you might want to leave the room for a few minutes.
How do we know that LI H’sen Chang is Chinese? If Greel can super-size rats, time travel and give people mental powers, then why can’t he surgically alter the appearance of some English patsy and fool him into thinking he is a Chinese peasant? This would explain Chang’s eyes and unconvincing accent.
I’m reaching, aren’t I? Sorry, just trying to redeem this otherwise excellent adventure. All those that left the room can come back in now…
Anyway… Chang is a magician. He uses mental powers, given to him by Greel, to hypnotise prostitutes and other lonely women back to his lair. If you can ignore the dodgy stereotyping, then you will see that Bennett is very good in this role. As a villain, he is superb. Plus he gets gnawed upon by a giant rat. What can be better than that?
Mr Sin is neither Chinese or human but is played by an Indian actor called Deep Roy (you may know him better as the Oompah-Loompahs in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). He is a murderous little dwarf with a pig cortex. Such fun!
Greel: (In bowler hat and a pinstriped suit) I look down on him (Indicates Chang) because I am the ancient god, Weng-Chiang, or at least that is what he thinks.
Chang: (Pork-pie hat and raincoat) I look up to him (Greel) because he is the ancient god, Weng-Chiang, who gave me mental powers; but I look down on him (Mr Sin) because he has the cerebral cortex of a pig.
Mr Sin: (Cloth cap and muffler) I know my place. I look up to them both. But I don’t look up to him (Chang) as much as I look up to him (Greel), because he is the one what has the most power.
Greel: I have got the most power despite looking like I have left my face too close to a candle, but I have not got any life force. So sometimes I look up (bends knees, does so) to him (Chang) who brings me pretty young ladies of the night so that I can suck them dry of their life essence.
Chang: I still look up to him (Greel) because although I have the ability to procure Victorian girls and walk around without people screaming in fright, I am a racist stereotype. But I am not quite as racially stereotypical as him (Mr Sin) so I still look down on him (Mr Sin).
Mr Sin: I know my place. I look up to them both; but while I have the cerebral cortex of a pig, I am devious, dagger-proof and at least I don’t get gnawed by a giant rat. Had I the inclination, I could look down on them and shoot at them with dragon-eye laser beams. But I don’t.
Chang: We all know our place, but what do we get out of it?
Greel: I get a feeling of superiority over them.
Chang: I get a feeling of inferiority from him, (Greel), but a feeling of superiority over him (Mr Sin).
Mr Sin: (fingers dagger in neck) I get a pain in the back of my neck.
Besides the three Big Bads, we also have the giant rat. The huge, cuddly Roland Rat lookalike. There are some very effective shots of a real rat in a small model of the sewer set. This is utterly convincing. Then we see the big fake rat on the actual sewer set. This is as convincing as a picture of a cow in a field. But at least it isn’t the worse monster in the entire history of Doctor Who (I am looking at you, fish people).
In one of the scenes, we see a Victorian street at night. With a massive bale of hay by the side of the road. If I remember my Whovian Padawan training, the bale of hay is covering a car whose owner hadn’t moved it for the night shoot.
Tom Baker is still very much the Doctor. His performance is captivating. In every scene, you watch him carefully so that you don’t miss any nuance in his performance. He is more Sherlock than even Holmes himself.
Louise Jameson as Leela arguably plays the character with one of her best performances here. She nails it absolutely. She seems more unearthly than the Doctor and given that we are talking about Tom Baker, this is saying something.
You can make any excuse for the racism but it doesn’t make the story any less racist. It is something you can either accept or not. If you don’t, then I respect your right to do so. If you can accept it, then you will really enjoy this adventure.
I have missed out on some of the wonderful scenes and quotes of this story but you know what? Watch it for yourself. Talons of Weng-Chiang is a wonderful serial and should not be missed.
I am almost jealous of Whovians who will get to see Jago and LItefoot, Leela and her janis thorn and, yes, even that bloody rat for the first time. You guys are in for a hell of a ride