Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Tom Baker and Trevor Baxter

What can you say when you watch a story which fulfills all your hopes and expectations and leaves you thinking ‘wow’? Well, that’s my response to ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’, written by Robert Holmes to fill a gap when Robert Stuart Banks was unable to complete work on a different story called ‘The Foe from the Future’. Incidentally, I had an adventure called ‘Future Foe’, I wonder if the ideas were the same. In my first incarnation I met Peter O’Feild, who already knew me, but I was meeting for the first time. If only I had known what a scoundrel and nasty pasty he was!
Chang and Mr Sin.
Victorian England was the perfect setting for a Doctor Who story, the Doctor often comes across as a Sherlock-Holmes type and with references to Jack the Ripper, a wonderful set of costumes to call on and one of the best and tightest Who directors in David Maloney, what could go wrong? Well, only the giant rat which did indeed look too cuddly, as producer Phillip Hinchcliffe remarked on the DVD. But we can forgive them that, otherwise it is a seamless piece of vibrant, exciting, at times dark, at times funny, television.
Before singing its praises any more though, one piece of conjecture marks this story, the casting of John Bennet as Li’sen Chang, a Chinese performer  of magic and key to the story. The make-up was very well done to make him look Chinese, but today you simply couldn’t get away with casting a white man in a different part. I’d like to say it’s all a part of acting, but is it? I mean an actor is ACTING, stretching their range to play a different race or culture, is it wrong? I can see arguments on both sides, and Doctor Who is littered with examples – Kevin Stoney in ‘The Dalek’s Masterplan’, Various characters in ‘The Crusade’, Patrick Troughton as Mexican Salamander in ‘The Enemy of the World’. All had a bit of cosmetics to make them look different.
The Doctor, Jago and Leela in Weng Chiang's lair.

Around the time of this series, ‘Gangsters’, a progressive and different series penned by Philip Martin, was also going to air in the UK. It featured a swagger of Indian and Asian actors who struggled with the parts they had save a couple of standout performances. They were the basis of the series, they had been searched for. David Maloney needed actors for six episodes at short notice, and at the time it could be argued that there simply wasn’t the depth of non-white actors that there is today in the UK. Nevertheless it’s not a great look for the programme, despite John Bennet giving a great performance.
Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter
John Bennet in the Opium den as Chang
Along with the Doctor and Leela – and in no story has the Eliza Doolittle/Professor Higgins relationship been stronger and more apparent – Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter step into the fray as Jago and Litefoot. The former runs a theatre, the other is a pathologist. Both are somewhat timeless characters, with their own range of Audio Adventures out there produced by Big Finish. A wonderful double act, and both great characters in their own right. Michael Spice, who provided the voice of Morbius, dons a mask and prosthestiques to portray the mastermind behind it all, Weng Chiang – properly known as Magnus Greel. The use of Deep Roy as Mr Sin, a creature from the far future created from the cerebral cortex of a pig, is also chilling and well done.
Shot in part in a theatre, in part at night of the streets of London, and of course in the studio, this story moves well, with parts five and six a little separate from the first four. Lovely touches of the period throughout, costuming is excellent, it’s a thing of beauty really. Interactions between Litefoot and Leela also very very amusing at times as she ducks into a roast with her hands! All in all, about as good as it gets.


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