When I was at school, Doctor Who was cancelled. I tried to replace it for a while – I desperately wanted something to plug that gap. Several things nearly did – cricket only lasted through the summer months though, and “Escape To Victory” was only ever on at Easter. It was hopeless.
For a while, the discovery that my local library stocked a small clutch of Target novelisations and a couple of battered Make-Your-Own-Adventure books with Colin Baker’s permed noodle on the front cover had kept me going. But they soon ran out. I did read the Target novel of The Awakening four or five times though. Each time, absolutely transfixed.
Then, one afternoon, I walked into a tiny (and otherwise pretty rubbish) bookshop near where I was living then, and I spotted the words Doctor Who printed on a thin-ish navy blue spine of a book on the top shelf. I pulled over the little steps that were in the shop for customers, and clambered up to reach it. It was, apparently, the first in a new series of Classic Script books. The Talons of Weng Chiang.
I’d seen Talons before – one summer, my best friend at the time had broken his leg playing football, and spent the summer holidays inside with his leg up, watching endless videos of Doctor Who. Partly to keep him company, and partly to see a lot of Who I’d never seen, I spent a lot of my time there. That’s when I saw Talons. And Pyramids of Mars. And The Hand of Fear. Three of my favourite stories to this day.
Anyway, back to the bookshop. I bought the script and took it home, thinking it would keep me going for a couple of weeks. Maybe by then the BBC would have resurrected the show. Well, they didn’t… and I finished the book in less than two days. By the end of those two weeks, I’d read it three times in all. Not very long after that, I found myself sketching out small scenes from the start of my own story in script form. That’s where it all started for me.
But Talons is still a story I go back to time and again. Reading the script definitely helped me through the first viewing, although like Andy’s view of the audio taped episodes, reading the script left the worlds completely to my imagination without limitations of budget or film cameras. So nothing prepared me for the close-up footage of a rat…
The story fed my other interests too, which helps. Sherlock Holmes was one of the things that did manage to fill the gap between Who stopping and returning (and if you’re interested, you can find my views on Moffatt and Gatiss’ “Sherlock” over on my own personal blog here). London and its history (and mysteries) has always been a place that fills me with wonder.
This period (I think) is the zenith of Robert Holmes’ time as script editor. Don’t forget, this story came hot on the heels of the absolutely brilliant Robots of Death, and was followed by the wonderful Horror of Fang Rock. I sort of think of them as a mini detective trilogy, although it doesn’t take too much of stretch to make a case for most Who adventures to be thought of as detective stories, at least on a very basic level.
And this starts a bit like a faithful reassembling of the elements to be found in many a Holmes story, I think – enigmatic foreign hypnotist showmen, Chinese heavies murdering strangers in back streets, horrific giant rodents stalking the sewers… And then, Robert Holmes throws in a 51st Century despot, who arrived on earth in a Time Cabinet that was then taken away by the Chinese Imperial Army who is draining the life-force from people to keep alive. If that isn’t genius…
There are a number of Sherlock Holmes connections, aside from the deerstalker that the Doctor wears. The Giant Rat of Sumatra is one of those cases that Watson famously mentions but never expands on, like The Abergavenny Murder and the Camberwell Poisoning. Even Leela is a sort-of connection… (was going to say semi, but that would have led to all sorts of unintended embarrassment) – “savages” aren’t all that rare in Conan Doyle’s originals… in The Sign of the Four, for example.
The characters in Talons are full, rounded and colourful – it’s a masterclass in character writing. Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot are lovely (and gloriously brought back to life by Big Finish this year) – but Li’Hsen Chang is creepy and Magnus Greel himself is hideous… and a distant ancestor to the Moff’s stories, maybe, Mr Sin is absolutely terrifying.
There are lots of longer stories in the classic series which drag their feet and look obviously spun out to fill more screen time, but in my opinion this one doesn’t. It’s marvellous, and not just to the sentimental fool in me. Go back and watch it again, you’ll not be disappointed.