Browse Classic Who reviews
Browse Classic Who reviews

It’s Sherlock Holmes meets Dr Fu Manchu, and one of the most controversial Classic Doctor Who stories ever

The Fourth Doctor brings his companion Leela to Victorian London to give her a taste of who her human ancestors once were. It’s foggy in the almost perpetual night of Londontown and they wish to blend in, so Doc dons his finest Holmesian getup, while his ex-warrior accomplice for once sheds her leather thong in favour of a less revealing, more contemporary, outfit herself.

Women have been going missing in London, however, and at least one of them was a volunteer participant in the performance of one stage magician, Li H’sen Chang. Soon our protagonists are embroiled in a mystery involving a maniacal ventriloquist’s dummy, a time cabinet, a giant rat, two of the very best co-companions ever, and lots and lots of (not so) casual racism.

 

While you’re at it, don’t forget to read this amazing article by Richard Tarrant on the Who Back When blog:
The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Racism in Classic Doctor Who

Here's what we think of C091 The Talons of Weng-Chiang

We rate Doctor Who stories on a scale from 0.0 to 5.0. For context, very few are excellent enough to merit a 5.0 in our minds, and we'd take a 0.0 Doctor Who story over a lot of other, non-Whovian stuff out there.

Leon | @ponken

4.0

Jim | @jimmythewho

3.6

Here's what we think of C091 The Talons of Weng-Chiang

We rate Doctor Who stories on a scale from 0.0 to 5.0. For context, very few are excellent enough to merit a 5.0 in our minds, and we'd take a 0.0 Doctor Who story over a lot of other, non-Whovian stuff out there.

Leon | @ponken

4.0

Jim | @jimmythewho

3.6

Here's what you think 11 Responses to “C091 The Talons of Weng-Chiang”
  1. Paul Fauber | @wordsmithpaul

    Victorian London is a mysterious setting where Sherlock Holmes and exotic criminals like Doctor Fu Manchu operated. Producer Philip Hinchliffe’s era of DOCTOR WHO concluded as Script Editor Robert Holmes let the Doctor exchange his scarf for a deerstalker cap, assuming the role of the Great Detective, and Leela shed her skimpy skins in favor of period dresses.

    The Tong of the Black Scorpion filled in for Doctor Fu Manchu’s dacoits, attacking the Doctor and Leela on their way to the theater. At police headquarters, they encountered Professor Lightfoot, who took on the role of Watson to the point of having a housekeeper named Mrs. Hudson.

    Holmes’ script paired Lightfoot with theater owner Henry Gordon Jago, who was extremely impressed with the Doctor as an investigator and employed magician Li H’sen Chang, the tong leader. Chang gave a captured underling a dose of lethal scorpion venom and used strange, hypnotic powers to kidnap women, a la Jack the Ripper, for the mysterious phantom based in the theater’s cellar.

    The Doctor, Lightfoot, Jago, and Leela discovered the phantom was a future foe, Magnus Greel, who had come to the past with a living ventriloquist dummy as a henchman to seek a time cabinet at Lightfoot’s house. As the Doctor unraveled this bizarre mystery, Jago provided comic relief and Leela handled the action.

    Like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, the fact Chang was played by English actor John Bennett has earned the serial a racist label, though in London there were few Asian actors in the 1970s for the BBC to cast. Despite modern perceptions, this story is an intriguing, period mystery involving time travel and future science to make it worthy of DOCTOR WHO.

  2. Kristaps Paddock | @PaddockND

    This episode, guys, is the single best episode of Classic Who, at least since the last time I called something the single best episode of Classic Who. Seriously, though, this is brilliant, the Jago and Lightfoot double act is fantastic, the sets (especially the climactic set) are gorgeous, and The Doctor as Sherlock Holmes will never get old. This gets a solid Five Point …

    No, no, no it doesn’t.

    The racism issues here are so heinous that it makes the serial difficult to watch at points. It’s the “yellow face” make-up, the accents, the Chinese laundry, the opium smoking, the pig tails, Li Hsen being called a “Celestial,” and countless other minor and major problems. Maybe, maybe, you could argue this is playing on the much more racist attitudes of an earlier era, but the racism isn’t parody or a tool for moral instruction, it’s just casual 1970s racism.

    If you divorce this from the problematic racism, it’s solidly in the upper fours, but it gets a big fat goose egg for sensitivity, and I give it a 2.0. I’m so sorry.

  3. Peter Zunitch

    The most difficult part of reviewing this story is deciding which element is most responsible for it’s success. Writing to lighting there’s just too many elements that are nothing short of superb.

    A retro re-write here? Only that Jago and Litefoot meet so late in the production. They are wonderful together, it’s no surprise they got their own Big Finish audio line. Chang similarly steals every scene he’s in. This guy needs no special powers to be memorizing. Greel trends a bit too wimpy wumpus at times, to the extent that it subtracts from his intimidation factor. Yet in his weakend state I guess I’d mope too. And let’s not forget Deep Roy, who even this early in his career manages to emote like no other and instil great fear, all while confined to a mask and minimal dialog. Speaking of dialog, it’s flawless. Tom Baker’s performance is dead-on enthralling and enhances the simplest scenes with extreme nuance and subtlety. Likewise, Leela’s charm continues to grow with a mix of wonder, humility and child-like interpretative misunderstanding.

    The second half’s studio-bound location dips slightly to the authenticity of the first half, but it’s still lovely. In the end though, it’s got to be the directing that makes “Talons” such an icon. Everything comes together so perfectly. It’s obvious cast and crew felt inspired when making this. They gave it their best and it shows. This story has no puppet rats in its sewer, and thus earns a surprise in your laundry basket, 4.8

  4. Nick aka The Doctor

    Last week Agatha Christie, this week Conan Doyle. Besides the racism (which I’m sure you’ll cover – Chang is played by John David Bennett by the way). I think this is an iconic serial evocative of peak-Baker times. For me this run of serials from season 12-14 is basically peak Classic or actually peak Who overall.

    It captures the atmosphere of the Victorian era (as I remember it). It seems like there were lots of locations, mainly dark ones, which really added to the suspense. At times it was so dark I thought there was a problem with my monitor.

    Your man, Chang, comes across as very sinister but then switches to being a downtrodden fool who gets constant grief from Greel after around episode 2. After this the Doc piles on the misery by ridiculing him in the show and finally he gets killed. Poor guy. He then survives and becomes a junkie.

    At this point Greel becomes more interesting. It would be great to see more of him – I think there are audios. Jago and Lightfoot were great. They’re in books and I think there is a spin-off series. There was good interplay between Jago and Doc, particularly, and Leela and Doc’s chemistry is getting better and better.

    The plot itself. OK. I thought the time cabinet was the TARDIS for some of the time, but it gets explained well towards the end and actually the pacing and action scenes make this a fully enjoyable watch.

    4.2 from me.

  5. Michael Ridgway | @Bad_Movie_Club

    Things I liked:

    – The giant rat! Leela’s in need of some hardcore anti-plague shots.
    – Sherlock Holmes Doctor.
    – Atmospheric smoggy Victorian streets.
    – The dribbling hag who finds the body.
    – Leela and Litefoot eating super.
    – Murderous Mr Sin.

    Beefs:

    – Oh Dear Oh Dear. There’s a good article by Kate Orman on Talons in a book called ‘Doctor Who and Race’ (2013) which savages this story’s racial stereotypes. The Doctor’s failings to challenge the casual racism of supporting characters, and making derogatory remarks himself, feels as uncomfortable as the awful production decisions.
    – Derogatory depictions of the Chinese community as a criminal underclass haven’t improved much over the years. Chinese Triads in the Doctor Who TV movie shoot the Seventh Doctor to death!

    Summary: this was a childhood favourite and it has some wonderful moments. But I’d have to hold my nose to racism to like it now. I’m afraid I cannot.

    Rating: zero/5 excuses. What were you thinking!

  6. Hey caught up with the podcast and wanted to get involved.

    This is one of my favourite stories, I know that it’s not racially sensitive today but feel that I am always defending its faults.

    It is a symptom of its own time and let’s face it, Hollywood is still white washing most films so it’s not gone away.

    MINI REVIEW

    “it’s a floater, alright”

    What’s not to love about Mr Sin, Jago and Lightfoot (love their big finish audio stories), Leela’s dining habits.

    It’s got great sets and locations, good pacing, a giant rat that looks like something Blue Peter made and a laser shooting dragon.

    The really bad thing is the casting of Li Chang who would be a Chinese actor today.

    4.2 Holmes out of 5 (Sherlock that is)

    Keep up the great work.

  7. Trenton Bless | @trentonbless

    With a Robert Holmes script, you always expect dazzling dialogue and free plundering from literature’s back catalogue, and in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang you get them with a vengeance.

    The obvious biggest influence is Sherlock Holmes. I mean, the Doctor is in full Sherlock garb. Other influences here include Pygmalion, Jack the Ripper, the Fu Manchu novels and even The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It’s a frenzy of Holmesian Victorian gothic.

    There are no better secondary characters in all of Who than Jago and Litefoot. Their dialogue’s sublime – witty and literate, with each character having his own distinctive speech pattern. Jago’s dialogue in particular, reflecting as it does the patter of the music hall, is a complete triumph. And Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin’s performances wring every ounce of gorgeousness from the script.

    Chang is a fantastic character, played by John Bennett with total authority. As a villain, he leaves Magnus Greel in the dust. He’s genuinely menacing, he’s believably slimy, and he invests the opium scenes with real pathos. And what a makeup job. Stunning stuff. I will say, that Mr. Ranty… I mean, Magnus Greel, was a bit of a letdown. He is just so shouty and it really detracts from his menace.

    It doesn’t have the all-round glossy perfection of The Robots of Death – the villain’s too crap and there are too many plot holes for that. But for the sheer enjoyability of most of the characters, the stunning atmosphere and the superbness of the dialogue, you just can’t touch it. 4.0/5

    With Hinchcliffe being forced into another program, and Robert Holmes soon to leave the script editor role, one could consider this the last full hurrah for Doctor Who’s Golden Age.

  8. Daniel aka Doctor in Waiting

    The talons of weng-chiang or “talons of when change” as auto correct seems want to do. A fan favourite, consistently voted as one of the best doctor who stories ever in any poll you care to read.

    Setting aside the piss poor giant rat (shame on you BBC costume department for being talked into that farce) and the egregious ‘yellowface’ Mr Chang this is a great adventure for the Doctor.

    The doctor and his assistant often assume the unspoken roles of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The Doctor has a firm grip on the situation and has all the facts whilst the companion is given the role of asking the Doctor to explain all.

    Tom Bakers portrayal of the Doctor is more fitting to the Sherlock Holmes role than any other. The story is fast paced and has a plethora of great supporting actors especially Lightfoot and Jago who dialogue is a joy to watch.

    The lighting is spot on with everything grim and dark adding drama to every scene. Something that the 7th Doctors production team would seem to forget.

    The villain Magnus Greek has a very interesting if brief back story, while Mr Sin is a truly creepy little fellow if only his mask had been blended into the actors eyes rather than clearly sitting on top as shown by several close up shots throughout the serial.

    A minor disappointment is the blandness of the key to the time cabinet which looks as if it were an afterthought, as if in urgent need of a prop they removed a coaster from under the directors chair.

    Also no so sure about showing opiate use by Chang on a children’s program.

    Hey ho a great story and a true classic.

    4.6 cute rat costumes out of five.

  9. Jim The Fish

    Talons was the final story of The First Golden Age of Doctor Who and the last story featuring Philip Hinchcliffe as Producer.

    Nevermind the fact that Marco Polo, the Abominable Snowmen also have yellow-face: this story is the only one to be racist because of it…

    I don’t see the point in trying to compare something that happened 40 years ago with more modern sensibilities.

    None of the yellow- face or related issues are there to mock or parody the Chinese. It is an attempt to tell a dramatic story with the resources they had to hand, like lack of experienced Chinese actors, in the way they knew how. I suppose you could point to lines from the police about the Chinese in the story but I’d be dumbfounded if they weren’t in keeping with the prevailing attitudes of the late 19th century, and especially among the London police, dealing with criminals every day. In other words, the attitude and the lines are faithful to what they represent. Even then Li H’sen Chang actually uses the racist attitudes to his advantage.

    I’m fearful of a world where, if a drama is written about a period where distasteful things happened, that it gets sanitised so people can feel good about it in the present and not have to write blog posts about it… even though it presents a completely wrong and skewed version of what actually happened in that period.

    Steven Moffat talking take note!

    Overall it’s a great period thriller.

    4.2/5

  10. Kirstin Dougherty

    The Talons of Weng-Chiang is just brilliant!

    So here are my Pros and Cons of this story:

    Just a few Pros as there are so many:

    -Peking Homunculus: Come on now! Did Robert Holmes just try to make up words that no one but Tom Baker could pronounce? Something about the words Peking Homunculus and the way Tom Baker says them is just hysterical.
    -The Doctor speaking Chinese.
    -The Doctor acting and dressing as Sherlock Holmes.
    -Lightfoot and Jago.
    -Some great lines:
    the Doctor ” Were you trying to attract my attention?” (after a dude threw an axe at him)
    the Doctor (talking about Leela) “Savage. Found floating down the Amazon in a hat box.”
    Leela: “Now put our prisoner to the torture!”

    Cons:

    -The obvious one: a white man playing a Chinese man. I get it was 1977 and the BBC apparently didn’t have many Chinese actors in their actors union.
    -The chick singing “Daisy Bell” Sorry but it always hit the mute button when she appears on the screen.
    -Leela’s clothes. Didn’t the Doctor have a more attractive outfit for a female in the Victorian times in the TARDIS? I understand they wanted her in pants so the stuntman could jump from the table out on the window, but, ugh!
    -Some horrible lines:
    Chang- “I understand we all look the same” Even Tom Baker has a “WTF did you just say” look after Chang said that.
    Chang- “The bird has flown. One of us is yellow” Ok I get the bird has flown part as the Doctor walked out of the magic show, but what is the “One of us is yellow” line have to do with anything?

    Sorry I tried to make it a mini review, but it’s kinda hard with a brilliant six parter. I can’t wait to hear your podcast of it. You guys always make me laugh with your Classic podcasts mainly because you same some of the same shit that I do Keep it up!

  11. Paul Waring | @pwaring

    The Talons of Weng-Chiang is another great story, though sadly the last of the Hincliffe/Holmes era. I love the Litefoot and Jago double-act – their escapades add a touch of comedy to what is otherwise a dark and horrific story by Classic Who standards. Leela’s temporary outfit also looks great, and it’s a shame they didn’t keep it for future stories.

    The Giant Rat is cringeworthy, but if you get too hung up on poor effects you won’t enjoy much of Classic Who. I don’t think anyone could have done a better job given the limited budgets they had to work with.

    The only thing that really lets this story down are the xenophobic references to Chinese characters and culture. It’s particularly disappointing when the remarks come from the Doctor, who is usually positive towards all races, and makes a strong contrast to stories such as Claws of Axos, where he picks people up for making comments such as ‘England for the English’. For this reason I wouldn’t show it to someone new to Who.

    Overall, this is a great story, and were it not for the treatment of Chinese characters it would probably get full marks from me. As it is, it still gets a respectable 4.5/5.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If you haven't already... Subscribe now!

Subscribe to us on iTunes now! We're dropping a new episode every week (pretty much), reviewing Classic Who, New Who and all kinds of bonus stuff from spin-offs and conventions to Doctor Who comic books.

We last reviewed...

C095 The Sun Makers