16 February 2014

TV: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

The Talons of Weng-Chiang has an incredibly strong reputation within fandom, gaining fourth position in both Doctor Who Magazine's 'Mighty 200' and Doctor Who Online's 50th Anniversary surveys asking fans to rate every story up to that point out of ten. The mighty team of Holmes, Hinchcliffe, Maloney and Murray-Leach that I've been bleating on about since The Deadly Assassin are back together, and it's a glorious reunion. It's sadly also the final story that Philip Hinchcliffe produced, with Graham Williams assuming the position for Series 15. It's a triumphant exit, which came from pressured roots.

This really feels like two stories, so colossal is the shift in tone between Parts Four and Five. For those of you familiar with where Talons came from, I apologise. Many of you may be aware that Roberts Banks Stewart (writer of Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom) was intending to write a tale called The Foe from the Future (recently adapted by John Dorney for Big Finish). This fell through when Verity Lambert offered Banks Stewart a lucrative contract to work with her on Rooms for ITV. Owing to having two young children and a wife to support (not to mention a mortgage), Banks Stewart sensibly accepted the offer and subsequently had to withdraw from writing the concluding serial of Doctor Who Series 14. He had fulfilled the terms of his agreement with the BBC, though, having given them an outline of five episodes of Foe. Given the circumstances, Robert Holmes was to write this story instead. But what he produced was almost completely different from what Banks Stewart had been intending.

The Foe from the Future  was a tale about demons in a nineteenth-century village in Devon. Talons, as you're probably aware, wasn't. In fact, the only two aspects the stories have in common is the time period and the fact that the villain had a leather mask disguising distorted features. For this reason, Talons, and everything that came with it, was more or less Holmes' own creation, proving again what an inventive and able writer he was. I'll return to this point later.

David Maloney marks his territory immediately with extensive night-time shooting at the top of Part One and throughout the story, right to its conclusion. It's something of a common trait if you look critically (and I mean in-depth, rather than seeking to criticise) at his stories. They're all fairly dark (visually), whether interior or exterior, and this adds a real atmosphere to the piece - something Pennant Roberts could have taken note of two stories previous. This doesn't mean this is his only strength, however. The scenes in daylight (most notably to me when Chang goes on the hunt for a girl, observed by Leela) are also well shot, and atmospheric. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented directors to work on the show. The film footage just looks gorgeous too, and I love the sequences with the Doctor and Leela just exploring London, discovering the murderers and Leela contesting the 'blue guards'. The notion of the Doctor educating Leela is first mentioned here, but it's something that fans associate inextricably with Leela's character nowadays like she is unintelligent, despite there being no mention of it in her first eight episodes.

Roger Murray-Leach, in his final of seven contributions to the show, really pulls out all the stops. The sets are all creative, interesting and evocative of the period they're supposed to herald from - a real triumph. He claims a lot of their effectiveness is down to the low lighting, but there's still definitely something special about these. Particularly impressive, amongst the studio sets, are the sewers (when you see the photos of them under construction, it's really quite something) and Greel's 'cave' as Leela so wonderfully puts it. When you think the same man designed these as the Ark (Ark in Space), the Anti-Matter gateway and surrounding jungle (Planet of Evil), the Polar Base (The Seeds of Doom) and the Panopticon and its catacombs (The Deadly Assassin), as well as many, many others, you really begin to appreciate the skill of this man, and his seemingly limitless ability and ambition.

The Palace Theatre is a glorious setting too. The theatre these scenes were shot in is beautiful, with gleaming mahogany and wonderful authentic dressing (which I understand was also down to Murray-Leach). I don't know what inspired Holmes to set his tale in such a venue, but I'm really glad he did. It's just so irregular in Doctor Who, and after watching this story, it seems a mystery why it had taken so long.

The theatre is also of course where we meet Henry Gordon Jago for the first time. He's immediately likable as the bumbling theatre owner, constantly amazed by the world of the Doctor, but trying to hide it. I quite enjoyed Chris Gannon as his assistant Casey too, providing the necessary relationship with Christopher Benjamin to make the period seem alive, aided by Holmes' wonderful script. I'd also forgotten until I rewatched the story this week that Jago believes throughout that the Doctor is a detective drafted in by Scotland Yard for this special case. It's a lovely touch that, along with his amiable affection for alliteration, gives him depth and makes him an interesting character with personality.

Onto his famous ally, Professor George Litefoot. Although we're introduced to him as England's peerless premier professor of pathology pretty soon after Jago, it's not until Part Five that they first meet, and subsequently join forces. I think Trevor Baxter gives a wonderful turn in this, and forgive me for blaspheming by having a favourite of the pair, but in Talons at least, I enjoyed Litefoot's company more than Jago's. Sorry. He is a key ingredient to the story, having grown up in China (with mentions of 'mama', and his father being a Brigadier-General) and brought back with him the Time Cabinet - which he refers to as a Chinese Puzzle Box, which made me chuckle. The dining scene with Litefoot and Leela is one of my favourites; it's so well acted by both Baxter and Jameson.

Another moment of note is when Jago and Litefoot are being held prisoner by Greel at the House of the Dragon and the former admits his cowardice. This is a really touching moment, and one I've remembered since I first witnessed it about seven or eight years ago (quite a significant portion of my life, alright). In particular, two lines stand out: "I'm not so bally brave when it comes down to it." / "When it comes down to it, I'm not sure any of us are." Two simple lines that speak volumes and cement Litefoot and Jago as 'real' people. They're so down to Earth, it's wonderful. This is the kind of development the JNT and Moffat era supporting cast can only dream of (mostly). I also believe this is the scene where they forge their formidable reputation, and the whole of Big Finish's highly extensive Jago & Litefoot spin-off series stems from this moment of bonding.

I don't want to repeat myself too much from previous reviews, but Louise Jameson as Leela is just phenomenal again in this. For an acting masterclass, just watch her face as she reacts and interacts with the world she is visiting - let alone the rest of her performance. Once again, she's a real highlight of this story. It's difficult to chose one single such position because the calibre of everyone's dedication is taken up a notch, similarly to Maloney's previous story (The Deadly Assassin). I don't know if it's the way he treats the actors or his approach in general, but David Maloney-directed serials were always of such high quality, in terms of shooting, acting, music and design. It's a great shame this is was also his last work on the programme. To think what he could have done with later stories, even within Baker's reign. 

Tom Baker is also brilliant. He looks great for starters, thanks to John Bloomfield, and he seems to revel in the period. Although this wasn't his first historical story (Pyramids of Mars, The Masque of Mandragora), he seems revitalised with a new energy here that he was lacking in the first two. Throughout, he's witty, commanding (once more), emotive and just a joy to be around - unless you listen to some recollections from filming, but that's a different matter altogether. Baker undeniably owns the part by this point, and this is possibly his strongest performance of the series, which is really saying something following The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death

Whilst we're on Holmes' previous story, I feel it's a good time to make the, perhaps obvious, comparison between Jago and Litefoot and Engin and Spandrell. Robert Holmes is of course famed for his double-acts, with other notable examples being Glitz and Dibber, and Linx and Irongron. But I feel there's more of a similarity between these two partnerships than others - possibly due to the proximity of their creation. Both their meetings are a result of the Doctor's presence, and have a similar, lovable rapport (though this is true of all Holmes' protagonists) but I feel the best specific example to compare them on are the last moments of their respective stories. In both cases, the TARDIS fades from view as they remark upon this remarkable occasion (in the first instance that it still works at all; in the second that it must be some sort of conjuring trick). I know it might seem small, and although Jago and Litefoot and head-and-shoulders above Engin and Spandrell, I still feel there's a worthy comparison to be made - which I'm ambling towards, but not making very convincingly.

Now to return to the story of Talons' origins. As the story had to be written relatively close to filming, Maloney and Murray-Leach told Holmes that as long as they had the scripts for the opening four episodes and a list of sets for the remaining two (Holmes was such a disciplined writer that he usually planned such things in advance anyway, if only to himself), then he should take his time writing the concluding episodes - to enjoy himself. This did mean that they would be studio-bound episodes though. And here's where my controversial opinion begins: I think this was to the detriment of the story.

The House of the Dragon is not even mentioned until Part Five. The scenes set there seem to me to be desperately wishing they were set at the theatre, and it's a crying shame that we don't get any proper scenes here in these final two installments. I understand that it would be odd setting the conclusion in Greel's lair without seeing the main stage and the area behind it, but it's sad that events conspired against this. Even the distillation machine is moved to the main chamber. This all leads me on to my next point, which may ruffle a few feathers.

I think Talons should have been designed as a four-parter from the beginning. I think this could have been quite easily achieved by cutting Magnus Greel out of the equation all together. John Bennett plays Li H'Sen Chang with intense presence - he really feels dangerous in the scenes where he is alone with another character. On first viewing of this story, I thought Chang was the villain right up until our introduction to Greel (or Weng-Chiang, as he claims) in Part Two. And it feels a bit disappointing that he isn't when I watch the story, even now. It showcases Bennett's abilities very well, as he suddenly goes from the master - being in a position of power over everyone else - to the servant. How good would it be if Chang was behind it all, being all creepy. He'd assume the 'foe from the future' role, of course. With this change implemented, I think the story could be condensed into a tight, atmospheric four-parter. In the exisiting version, Parts Five and Six are effectively padding (albeit hugely enjoyable), given that Greel obtains the Time Cabinet at the end of Part Four (and what an awesome, awesome cliffhanger that is; the direction, the laugh, everything - BIG love for that). This could become the new ending to Part Three. Anyway, I could speculate all day, rewrite transcripts (now there's an idea!) etc, but I'll conclude the review first - probably in my usual, long-winded fashion.

In summary, a glorious story from arguably one of the best teams in the show's history (Holmes, Hinchcliffe, Maloney, Murray-Leach, Baker, Jameson, Benjamin, Baxter, Simpson and Bennett are all worthy of high praise). I love this from start to finish, with a slight dip in affection at the point the theatre leaves the action. A consequence of the director and designer being so good are their jobs is that you really wish the Doctor and Leela had stayed in this time for a story or two longer. A story looking this good would be rare nowadays, let alone back then. An intelligent concept from Robert Holmes lends itself to his setting very aptly, and makes it an integral part of the tale rather than being superfluous (as it could in less capable hands). It does feel like a sadly missed opportunity that it wasn't condensed (to me at least) and if the sets had to be used in the final two episodes, couldn't we have had a second story in the period, with Jago and Litefoot along for the ride? Enough of my speculating. There's many great elements at work here that I haven't even mentioned such as Mr Sin, the entire backstory of Greel and the Time Agents, the rats (a neat idea), Conrad Asquith as PC Quick, the old croan, dumping bodies in the Thames (hello The Dalek Invasion of Earth) and the Life Essence Distillation Chamber (doesn't Greel's requirement for women increase very quickly over the story, considering how long he's been on Earth?).

With just a few minor flaws (some shots of the audience in the theatre go on for ages), Talons could be near perfect. Another small point I want to raise is why does the Doctor feel it necessary take a boat and walk down the sewers when he's already found a perfectly good manhole that leads him to exactly the same place at the end of Part One? The shots do look good, but it seems to be more padding. 

I can't wrap this up without mentioning the notorious 'racist' aspects of this story. Within the story itself, I certainly acknowledge them - with perhaps the most overt example being Chang's "one of us is yellow" - but I don't feel they're in any way, shape or form the views of the Production Team. The values and opinions of the era are being dutifully recreated, yes, but I think that's a different matter to the producers having some sort of agenda, as I've read some people believe on certain websites, a few years ago. The casting of John Bennett (seen previously as General Finch in Invasion of the Dinosaurs) is potentially dubious. I don't want to unsettle or upset anyone but I found his performance, perhaps aside from the slightly overdone accent (which seems to be mostly for the benefit of the theatre audience in the story; it is significantly less prominent in the scenes between Chang and Weng-Chiang) was convincing. The makeup department also do a good job in impressing Chang's origins upon Bennett's features. I've tried to be sensitive here, but if you have any comments to make on this matter please, as always, add them below.

I don't believe Talons deserves a reputation quite as high as it receives, but getting on that way. For the opening four parts, it's a 10/10, but for the overall story (those four being so strong makes up for what I believe was a bit of a misstep in Parts Five and Six, certainly in terms of the Greel storyline (which just doesn't grab me as much as Chang's)):

You can buy The Talons of Weng-Chiang from Amazon here, and Joe from Doc Oho hasn't reviewed it yet. You can enjoy Big Finish's prequel/sequel story The Butcher of Brisbane, featuring Magnus Greel and the Season 20 TARDIS crew here, or revel in the extended adventures of Jago and Litefoot in the company's series here (at time of writing, they're approaching Series 7 rapidly).

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