“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” is the last adventure of the fourteenth season of “Doctor Who” classic series, which aired in 1977. It follows “The Robots of Death” and it’s a six parts adventure written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) brings Leela (Louise Jameson) to Victorian London to get her acquainted with the life of her ancestors. On the way to the theatre the two travelers stumble upon a group of Chinese who have just killed a man. They too are attacked but manage to defend themselves and when the whistle of an approaching policeman is heard the Chinese run away, except for one who get caught.
At the police station, Li H’sen Chang, a magician who works in a theatre of the area, comes to act as an interpreter with the captured Chinese but he gives him some poison that kills him instantly. The Doctor tries to discover the secrets of the group of Chinese who belong to the Tong, worshipers of the god Weng-Chiang, together with Professor Litefoot. His investigations lead him to the theatre run by Henry Gordon Jago, which is at the center of strange hidden activities.
The original edition has a good amount of extras while the Special Edition is very rich in extras. In both editions there are typical contents such as production subtitles and a gallery of pictures from this adventure. The Special Edition also contains a second gallery of pictures, the Radio Times Listings and a promo of the “Doctor Who” DVDs to be published soon.
There are various comments in the adventure alternative audio track of both editions by protagonist Louise Jameson, actors John Bennett and Christopher Benjamin, director David Maloney and producer Philip Hinchcliffe.
Whose Doctor Who. A 1977 documentary, lasting nearly an hour, about the history of “Doctor Who” to this adventure. Obviously today it’s outdated but it remains an interesting program for the show’s fans.
Behind the Scenes. About 25 minutes of footage shot in studio during the filming of this adventure. The quality is very low and it’s mostly a filler that still can give you an idea of how “Doctor Who” filming worked.
Blue Peter Theatre. The program “Blue Peter” shows how to build a mini-theatre for the adventures of “Doctor Who” with monsters and audio effects.
Philip Hinchcliffe Interview. A 1977 interview to producer Philip Hinchcliffe mainly focused on the problem of violence in “Doctor Who”.
Trails and Continuities. Some promos and announcements of the time on the original broadcast of this adventure.
TARDIS-Cam No. 6. A short sequence that shows the possibility of CGI use in “Doctor Who”.
The Special Edition also contains:
The Last Hurrah. A documentary about 33 minutes long on the production of this adventure with a special contribution by Tom Baker and Philip Hinchcliffe.
Moving On. Philip Hinchcliffe talks about how the “Doctor Who” fifteenth season if he hadn’t been replaced as a producer.
The Foe From the Future. Robert Banks Stewart’s first idea of for this adventure, subsequently transformed by Robert Holmes to create “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”.
Now and Then. Some places used in the production of this adventure as they are today and as they were at the time.
Look East. News about the shooting in the Northampton Repertory Theatre with a Tom Baker interview broadcast on January 14, 1977.
Victoriana and Chinoiserie. A short documentary on the literature that inspired this adventure.
Music Hall. A documentary more than 20 minutes long about Music Hall.
Limehouse – A Victorian Chinatown. A documentary nearly 20 minutes long that sheds light on the prejudices and the reality about the Chinese community in London.
Both editions also contain an “Easter egg” with a version of the title theme.
Originally, Robert Banks Stewart was supposed to write the last adventure of the season. However, after returning from a vacation, script editor Robert Holmes discovered that Stewart had become script editor of another TV show so he could no longer work for “Doctor Who”.
There was little time to write the script for the season finale so it was decided that Robert Holmes would write it even though he was the show’s script editor and the BBC preferred that the roles were kept separated. In the meantime, producer Philip Hinchcliffe received the news that he’d be replaced at the end of the season and maybe Holmes too. For this reason, Hinchcliffe decided to give Holmes carte blance and the only element he vetoed was to have the Master as the villain.
Robert Holmes took some elements of the idea that he had discussed with Robert Banks Stewart, meaning the adventure set in the Victorian era with a villain from the future and the inspiration to Jack the Ripper’s murders, and added other inspirations from the same period, starting with Sherlock Holmes passing through “The phantom of the Opera” to get to the Fu Manchu series.
Another source of inspiration was Pygmalion for the relationship between the Doctor and Leela. This companion was a recent introduction it hadn’t been decided how much she was supposd to stay in the show. Philip Hinchcliffe decided to keep her and then leave to his successor the possible decision to replace her.
Leela was a savage but the character was well written: it would’ve been easier if they made her stupid, instead since the beginning she proved smart. The Doctor brought her with him to travel around the universe teaching her to be more than she was on her home planet, inspired precisely to Pygmalion.
Tom Baker didn’t like the character of Leela because he found her to be the opposite of the Doctor and his values. After the Sarah Jane Smith’s departure, he wanted the Doctor to travel without companions so initially his relationship with actress Louise Jameson was tense. Luckily, the two of them still managed to work well together in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, helping to create a “Doctor Who” classic.
At the BBC they were very good with costume productions so despite the show’s shoestring budget in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” production values are excellent, including the sets and the atmosphere of Victorian London. All this was well taken advantage by the director to give the audience an adventure very beautiful even from the visual point of view and that didn’t always happened in the classic “Doctor Who” series.
The screenplay is in many ways derivative and some fans don’t like that but Robert Holmes added his brilliant elements, meaning the dialogue and the characters. True, the Chinese are seen in a negative way and this has been a source of controversy over the years. Today it would probably be impossible to have that kind of racial stereotypes in a TV show but at the time it was normal.
Li H’sen Chang is still an excellent character who ends up being a villain more complex and therefore more interesting than Weng-Chiang / Magnus Greel, who is the classic screaming megalomaniac. Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago are two other memorable characters, also for the way they work together. Robert Holmes was certainly very good at creating them but the actors were extraordinary in playing them.
“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” is a long adventure and the pace is inevitably slow but I don’t think there there’s padding as in other cases in the classic “Doctor Who” series. The plot is sophisticated and its development seems well structured so there are slow scenes that however have a function, they aren’t added just to fill some time.
The result is an adventure regularly considered among the best of “Doctor Who” in all the polls. Personally I’m not a big fan of the Victorian setting but I find that “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” is really brilliant, well produced and well played so his reputation is deserved.
In 2012, Big Finish produced an audio adventure called “The Butcher of Brisbane” – available on Amazon UK, Amazon U.S.A. and Amazon Canada – which is both a prequel, from Magnus Greel’s point of view, and a sequel, from the Doctor’s point of view, of “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”.
Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago weren’t the Doctor’s companions yet they were the protagonists of a Big Finish audio adventure part of “The Companion Chronicles” series titled “The Mahogany Murderers”, available on Amazon UK, Amazon U.S.A. and Amazon Canada. Subsequently, a whole spin-off series dedicated to Litefoot & Jago went into production.
In the original edition of “The Talons of Weng-Chiang some material of the time was put in the second DVD as extras obtaining a product all in all good. For the Special Edition they created new extras that are very interesting especially for the people who want to deepen their knowledge of some elements of the Victorian era. The result is a truly extraordinary 3 DVD mini-box set with about four hours of extras that is a must-have for anyone interested in “Doctor Who”.
In Region 2 nations, the Special Edition mini-box set is part of the “Revisitations 1” bigger box set – available on Amazon UK – so a global judgement of that box set must necessarily be given only at the end of the reviews of the adventures it contains.