5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
Want us to let you know when we post a new review? Click here to join our mailing list.
THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG
"Somehow, the pig part took over."
Buy this Dr Who video: US
Wow. It's Holmesian, and in more ways than one.
With a Robert Holmes script, you always expect dazzling dialogue and free plundering from literature's back catalogue, and in Talons Of Weng-Chiang you get them with a vengeance. The story's an astonishing mix of influences, from Pygmalion to Jack the Ripper to the Fu Manchu novels to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with the most thunderously obvious being the Sherlock Holmes stories. From the Doctor's (hideous) deerstalker and cape right through to the the Giant Rat of Sumatra and the name of Professor Litefoot's housekeeper, it's a frenzy of Holmesian Victorian gothic.
And what a brilliant job they do of it. The Daemons is often cited for its atmosphere, but Talons Of Weng-Chiang is at least its equal. With the lavish application of Victorian bric-a-brac and some judicious dollops of darkness, it's Victorian London to the life. Why, it even looks expensive, which is a feat of legerdemain even Chang would be proud of. And it's not just the sense of place that's terrific: the tone's spot on as well, starting off awesomely sinister and, even more impressively, staying that way.
And then there's the (in the main) astonishing characterisation. 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: they're a total delight to watch. Bravo.
And they're not the only ones. 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. Mr Sin, too, is incredibly effective. Although things start to fall apart for him a bit after they drag the pig into it, and there's a disappointing denouement where he starts shooting at his employer for no apparent reason (not to mention an ignominious end as a cloth doll tangoing with Tom Baker), in the early episodes he could give an ice cube goosebumps. And none of the other lesser characters, from the policeman to the distraught husband with the freshly squeezed wife, put a foot wrong either.
Unfortunately, the main villain of the piece lets the side down. Mr Ranty, er, Magnus Greel, is a tedious one-note bad guy with a serious anger management problem. There isn't a line that he doesn't grind out as if he's got a toothache, culminating in the horrendously squirmy "Let the talons of Weng-Chiang rend your fleEesh!". (And why is he calling himself Weng-Chiang at this stage anyway?) Strangely, the more he shouts, the less efficient he seems: we know he's supposed to be an evil war criminal and all, but he's so bad at being bad that we feel a bit sorry for him. Hanging onto the key all that time while looking for the cabinet, then losing the key practically the instant the cabinet's found? What a loser. The other rather sad villain is the giant rat, stuck somewhere on the unfortunate axis between crapness and cuddliness.
Needless to say, it's a blinder for the Doctor and Leela: the Eliza Doolittle thing works brilliantly for them (although it's a bit patronising for the Doctor to say to Leela "Now you're starting to think" when it seems to us she's had no trouble with the thinking bit from the second he's clapped eyes on her). Leela as Eliza with Litefoot also gives rise to some of the best scenes in the story, particularly the gem where they're both munching away on slabs of meat. Leela's wonderful throughout this, resourceful and courageous - at last, we're light years away from the ankle-turning screamers.
The Doctor's relationship with Leela seems to be mellowing a bit here: he's less abrupt with her than he is in The Robots of Death, and although he initially starts to lecture her when she uses the Janus thorn, he soon shuts up when he realises she saved his life. (And considering he arms himself with a gun the size of a cannon, he hardly has room to complain. Not that, as we all know, he ever carries a firearm. Apart from in exceptional circumstances, like when he wants to.)
As for the Doctor, Tom Baker's performances are so uniformly brilliant in this period that it scarcely seems worth mentioning it, but it would be a crime not to point out how effortlessly he dominates every scene he's in here. You can actually see him thinking, and acting doesn't get any better than that.
Pace-wise, it's pretty good for a six-parter: what might be considered padding in other stories here just adds to the atmosphere, and the only place the story briefly drags its feet is where Jago and Litefoot are taken prisoner and dragged into the room with the laser-eyed dragon (just what did he build that for, anyway?).
As for the plot, it takes a back seat to character, with holes you could drive a hackney cab through. Why does Greel need Chang at all? It's not as if Chang has local knowledge which allows him to grab girls who won't be missed or anything: Chang admits he's done a rubbish job of this. And what with Greel being so all-powerful and all, you'd think he could just whisk a few girls off the street himself without involving all those expensive and suspicious henchmen. (Perhaps he got lonely.) And really, Bob, we know you wanted to make the connection with Jack the Ripper, but making Chang take only women, without providing a plausible technobabbly explanation, is a bit pants. (Speaking of which, why do they have to be in their knickers?) Then there's the life essence extractor thingy - when the Doctor performs surgery on it with an axe, it doesn't look at all well, yet it mysteriously regenerates in time to hang Greel out to dry.
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.
MORAL: Donít mess around with technology you donít understand. Itís not big and itís not clever.
As Leela gets into the carriage to go to the theatre, her hat is nearly flipped off her head.
221B (TOM) BAKER STREET
We love the way Jago in discussing the Doctor being an investigator says "Well, he's not going to wear a brown derby and boots, is he?". No, but he will wear a cape and deerstalker...
THE HAND IS QUICKER THAN THE EYE
How does Chang manage to throw a loose pack of cards to the Doctor?
NOT THE SHARPEST KNIFE IN THE DRAWER
Chang fumbles one of the swords as he pulls them out of the cabinet.
THEY ALL SOUND THE SAME
Chang and Chiang? Silly idea.
JUST SAY NO
We're amazed that fantastically dissolute scene of Chang smoking opium got by. Presumably they thought it was safely historical and therefore unlikely to corrupt the kiddies.
SHOWING OUR CLAWS
Why The Talons of Weng-Chiang, exactly? Just what did his talons have to do with it? No wonder they had to shoehorn in that awful flesh-shredding line - otherwise the title would have been even more baffling.
Clearly time, budget or both were running short, because when the Doctor throws an axe at the dragon you neither see nor hear it land. It's just sticking out as if it grew there.
I'LL BE A MONNKEY'S ONCLE
Buy this Dr Who video: US