In Praise Of: The Talons of Weng Chiang

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.

Comments 9

  1. A good episode, but of the three not the best (IMHO) and I think for precisely the reasons you’ve given. It is a great detective story, but not a great Who episode. Fang Rock is great because of the suspense and Robots of Death is pure sci-fi. I like Leela and I liked her relationship with the Dr.

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    Oh I don’t for one minute think that there aren’t faults with it… and Fang Rock and Robots of Death are both also excellent, but they’re all different examples of Who stories. Talons, as a piece of drama, is definitely less tight than Robots. And it lacks a large amount of suspense due to the fact that the giant rat is an effect that didn’t quite work. But it’s no less Who than a lot of Pertwee episodes where an alien species is uncovered on earth, in my opinion… and isn’t as stretched out as much as stories like The Silurians, for example.

    I think of Talons as being like a jigsaw of the Mona Lisa with a few bits missing – more of an incomplete masterpiece than something like Robots of Death. The characters like Jago and Litefoot start to add a little more of the humour we now remember fondly from the fourth doctor, but it in no way worked as well as City of Death in that respect. Thing is, it sort of makes me appreciate it more.

  3. I agree about the characterisation, but that is one of the advantages of spreading a story over 4 episodes. I’m not a big fan of much of city of death, it was a case of Paris for Paris’s sake in a lot of the establishing shots. There are some fine extras on some of the Tom Baker DVDs that give a real insight into the constuction and filming of episodes and series. I like the two parters in the reboot but I’m not sure they work as well as the old ones.

  4. I love how “Talons” looks pretty standard, but it throws these wild concepts at you without warning, like the Peking Homunculus story and Time agents from the 51st century, and was that dance hall girl a prostitute as well!?
    so much to love in there.

    Yeah, City of Death. I just watched that again the other day. What a brilliant script, such a shame it was let down by all that gratuitous Paris location footage.
    Funny that they spent all that money going to Paris for the same story with that amazingly cool primordial earth studio set at the end.

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    I agree with both of you about City of Death, although I like the scripts a lot more than you Roger… But that comes from basically swallowing everything Douglas Adams did with gleeful haste… I think we mentioned it at some point during the series, but City of Death has been spoken about by “insiders” as something of a template for the rebooted series – great pacing, great lines and good humour mixed at every turn with something to frighten. What do you think?

    The Paris thing… the location shoot I tend to think of as quirky, at best. I don’t find it all that interesting and at times the dialogue makes me annoyed slightly (the whole “bouquet” bit really annoys me). But the rest of it is great if you ignore that. I’m sure Andy will put me right if I say something out of turn about City of Death…

    The new series 2 parters, I think they work according to who writes them. I’m not sure the 2 by Helen Raynor have quite worked (Evolution of the Daleks and the Sontaran Stratagem), although the Sontarans was better, imo. I have… issues with the Cyberman one, although it’s OK. The Moff’s ones have been great, as was Paul Cornell’s Human Nature. Not sure there’s a real focus on character development these days though. If anything, the characters during RTD’s tenure (especially companions) seemed to regress rather than develop, presumably because they were all so relentlessly and unquestioningly in awe of the Doctor…

  6. @Draculasaurus

    I seem to rcall they did something similar with a Spanish Villa, once hired they effectively wrote the story around it, I have a vague memory of a Sontaran tripping over a sun lounger (though it may have been a different alien)

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    Oh that’s The Two Doctors, although that was because they’d originally planned to film it in the States, I think – and when that fell through they had to rewrite it to be set in Spain…

  8. I haven’t seen the Two Doctors yet.
    I’ve only been a Who fan since 2007, although I’ve plowed into the classic series with gusto, I’m really just now getting around to watching the 6th and 7th Doctors.

    I’ve really liked all the location shooting in the new series. I thought Dubai looked amazing. I know a lot of people thought that they should have just shot it on a British beach somewhere and saved money, but you can’t fake the unique quality that sunlight has at that latitude.
    Vampires of Venice looked incredible as well. Definitely the most convincing foreign historical setting I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who.
    Also special mention to Dreamland. It didn’t look real, or all that great, but they really sold the idea of the setting.
    Although, why the Doctor would go to Nevada to get good chili is a mystery.

  9. …Yup, you are right, Alpha – City of Death is the best. I never thought about the bouquet line before; I really like the word play there! 🙂

    I’ll stop there. Otherwise I could end up quoting whole story…

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