Shiny Shelf


Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang DVD

By Jim Smith on 26 November 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

1977’s ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ is one of the most memorable of all ‘Doctor Who’ serials. The six-episode screenplay, by the series most frequent and beloved writer, Robert Holmes, is an accomplished and darkly witty patiche of Sherlock Holmes stories, filtered through the Christopher Lee Fun Manchu films and Hammer Horror. It places Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, (accompanied by leggy, knife-wielding savage Leela) into a beautifully realised, if generic, Victorian setting and pits them against an evil Chinese illusionist, a time-travelling war criminal and a murderous ventriloquist’s dummy.

It’s enormous fun all round. Fast-paced, glorious rollicking melodrama jollyed along by the kind of production values usually present in 70s BBC period drama but which you don’t normally associate with ‘Doctor Who’. There’s a fair amount of night filming in a variety of locations (including in an actual period theatre) and the sets are large and detailed. On the whole this looks like a far more prestigious BBC production of the time, resembling something involving Jonathan Miller or the Louis Jourdan ‘Dracula’ to a far greater extent than it does the meat-and-potatoes drama potboilers of the era, things like ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’ or ‘Target’. The only real production downside is a criminally unconvincing giant rat, which moves achingly slowly and has vast furry flanks. Everything else on screen is rather sumptuous, far more so than you expect when you put the disc in the player.

There are numerous fine performances in this too, with such reliably BBC actors as Christopher Benjamin, John Bennet and Trevor Baxter present. All of these gentlemen know exactly what they’re appearing in and place their tongues firmly, but never visibly, in their cheeks for the duration. Tom Baker is here, truly extraordinary in the title role; boggle-eyed, manic and charming, playing determinedly against the sense of his lines as often as he goes along with what he’s been given to say. You can see why the role made him the highest paid actor on television. Louise Jameson’s Leela is excellent too, far from the stereotype of a ‘Doctor Who’ girl she kicks-ass, she fights, she shouts and she never screams. Equally, the strength of Jameson’s performance is a very clear indication of why she went on to be so successful once she got sick of being a tea-time sex symbol.

The re-mastering the serial has undergone renders the picture crisp and clear, despite the vast number of reds and browns onscreen. If this disc seems a little less sharp than other ‘Doctor Who’ releases (such as the eyeball-searingly clear ‘The Seeds of Death’) then it’s because of the dark and murky way this particular Hammer pastiche was shot. To increase light levels artificially here would spoil the atmosphere entirely.

The BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’ discs are always value for money, and this one is no exception (there are though, some shocking typos in the internal leaflet, including the misspelling of the title on the discs). Alongside another of the BBC website’s excellent CGI ‘Doctor Who’ mini-features (which all of us at Shiny Shelf love to bits) are a 1977 vintage ‘Pebble Mill’ interview with then ‘Doctor Who’ producer Philip Hinchcliffe, a nice stills gallery and a load of contemporary TV material such as the BBC’s original trailers for the serial.

The primary special feature though, is an interesting example of archive television in its own right. It’s a 1977 documentary entitled ‘Whose Doctor Who’ presented by now Lord (then Melvyn) Bragg, which both looks at the of this serial and looks back across the series then-perceived-as-mammoth thirteen year run. This provides much fascinating behind-the-scenes footage, clips from the series and also contains a lengthy interview with Tom Baker. This Tom Baker is a figure almost unrecognisable as the man who occasionally surfaces on nostalgia-programming today. This is an alarmingly thin, forty-something actor bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, both of which he is capable of communicating. This is what Tom Baker was like before he went mad and became obsessed with his own legend.

One problem with the documentary however, and indeed a problem with Bragg related programming per se, is its desperate need to find ‘worth’ in things. Thus we constantly cut to psychologists and doctors who try to find ‘reasons’ for the series then-popularity. This all wastes screen-time when further contributions from Baker, producer Hinchcliffe, writer Holmes and director Maloney would be far more in appropriate and more behind-the-scenes footage would be of more value. What moments from the production there are are fascinating. Special effects people carving a huge dragon out of a polystyrene block with wires, for example or Deep Roy (the aforementioned vent’s doll) being fitted with his uniquely porcine mask.

Where we do get more input from these gentlemen mentioned above, is on the commentary track. Maloney and Hinchcliffe team up with actors Bennett, Jameson and Benjamin to natter – in various combinations – over the serial’s near three hours of running time. All have interesting information to impart, and all seem pleased with something they worked on so very long.

One curio is a collection of clips from 70s ‘Blue Peter’ episodes which dealt with the series. After a genuinely interesting introduction in which we see the ‘Blue Peter’ gang present an entirely un-connected-to-the-series edition of their programme from the set of the ‘Doctor Who’ serial ‘Robot’ (their own sets were unavailable due to strike action, hence the odd substitution) the feature quickly loses its appeal to all but die-hard 70s nostalgics. We get to see Lesley Judd and John Noakes building a ‘Doctor Who’ puppet theatre over the course of nearly twenty five very slow minutes. Not terribly enjoyable in their own right, these clips say far more than Melvyn Bragg’s entire documentary manages to about the series pre-eminence as a pop culture artefact. There’s a lesson there, I think, though to be honest I’m not entirely sure what is.


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