In Victorian London the Doctor and Leela discover that a number of young women have been vanishing off the streets and seemingly in to thin air. They discover a connection to a mysterious Chinese criminal organisation known as the Tong of the Black Scorpion and the Chinese God, Weng-Chiang. Not everything is as it seems however and the Doctor discovers a connection to a 51st century war criminal, the repulsive Magnus Greel.
If I am brutally honest that description fails to do this serial justice but there is so much in here to enjoy, it’s difficult to cram it all into a small paragraph! There’s giant rats in the sewers, ghosts in the cellars, walking ventriloquist dummies, villains who hide their grotesque features behind masks and most of the all the Doctor spending the whole story dressed as Sherlock Holmes. This is almost Doctor Who’s love letter to Gothic horror and what a love letter it is. The serial somehow manages to feel like a classic Victorian ‘Penny dreadful’ but at the same time also a Doctor Who story. for example without leaving its Victorian setting the show manages to give us a good picture of the villains past (or future?) in the 51st century through lines like ‘I was with the Filipino Army at the final advance on Reykjavik’. Robert Holmes really knows how to use his audience’s imagination to his advantage, painting a picture in their heads of mythical battles between made up states and governments controlled by fictional Dictators. Holmes is a master though and does not over do this aspect, knowing that TOO much emphasis on Greel's history in the 51st century would take away from the Gothic Victorian atmosphere he wishes to create. I mentioned earlier all the little cliché’s and gothic visions he manages to squeeze in to the tale, one would suspect that the story may have a little too much on its plate, but Holmes expertly balances these elements in his script. For example the Ghost in the Cellar is only featured in episodes 1 and 2, its importance to the plot is perhaps minimal but at this early stage in the story it serves to heighten the mystery surrounding the theatre and imply that there is some alien or future intelligence. For a fan of Gothic Horror and literature like myself part of the joy in this story is seeing all the influences and homage’s. Being a huge fan of the works of Sax Rohmer it’s lovely to see all the Fu Manchu type references and indeed the story itself feels like one of his works.
The production design really does the script justice as well, with a heap of night shoots (a rarity for Doctor Who at this time), fabulous period costumes and some superb sets- particularly the temple of the Dragon featured in the finale! Robert Holmes’s script is so dark and gothic that it would be easy for the production design to go horrifically wrong by too much bright lighting or sets that failed to match the location work. As it is, the location filming and the studio filming sit side by side seamlessly and the lighting is simply perfect. for example Doctor Who has had several stories with scenes set in sewers and it always seems to do them rather well, Talons is no different with the sets for the sewer scenes so good that you can almost believe they really are underneath the streets of Victorian London. Oh and the Theatre! How could I forget the theatre? The chase between the Doctor and Greel, obviously based on Phantom of the Opera, is easily one of the highlights of the entire show and as brief as it is, it looks fantastic!
Talons is also remembered for the fact that it has one of the best supporting casts in any Doctor Who serial, past or present. Before I get on to Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Jago and Litefoot, I would like to first highlight the performances of Michael Spice, Deep Roy and John Bennett as the three villains: Magnus Greel, Mr Sin and Li H’sen Chang. Firstly Michael Spice’s performance has resulted in Greel becoming one of the great Doctor Who villains of all time. It’s an inspired performance creating an utterly depraved and cowardly dictator that has literally no likable traits, sometimes we forget Greel is a man and view him simply as a monster. I especially love the scene when he begs Leela for his life, especially after all the horrific things he has done. Deep Roy as the demented dummy Mr Sin will probably mostly be remembered for giving an entire generation of Children nightmares and it’s no wonder really as he plays the role as creepy as is humanly possible. The moment when he walks out of the fog staring blankly ahead, when he controls the laser Dragon and the laugh! Oh how I try and forget that laugh! It’s a shame that the character was only once brought back on audio (In the Butcher of Brisbane alongside Greel) as he is easily one of the most chilling creatures featured in the show. Finally the third of our ‘Villains’, John Bennett as Li H’sen Chang has probably the most emotional and easily one of my favourite moments in the serial. I am speaking of course about Chang’s death scene, as he tells the Doctor and Leela how he can see his relatives coming to greet him as the life slowly leaves his body in a dingy Opium den. It’s a beautiful moment. Now I did mention Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Jago and Litefoot, these two characters and indeed these two actors performances are perhaps two of the most loved in Doctor Who’s entire past. Considering they only appeared in this one story, I think it’s a testament to these two actors that nearly 33 years after the story they feature in was broadcast they got their own audio series.
I could go on all day praising this story, indeed I feel bad that I haven’t mentioned Tom Bakers performance or indeed Louise Jameson’s! (their amazing that’s all you need to know) but I feel it would get repetitive. Every single moment of Talons of Weng-Chiang is simply amazing. If you fancy checking out some pre-2005 Doctor Who then this is a great place to start, one of the very best.