Doctor Who has returned to both British and American television screens. As of this writing, oddly enough we are talking about two different actors, but American will catch up next year. Never a Doctor Who fan growing up, I only watched the show because my wife was a fanatic.
But that’s all I’m going to reveal about that.
My favorite episode was The Talons of Weng Chiang. This Doctor Who episode plays out like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, set in England during roughly the same period. The Doctor’s companion is Leela, the wild native girl who wears more clothing in this episode than most others. As a present for my wife, I bought the deluxe two disc DVD version and I must say it was worth the price.
For those who are completely ignorant of Doctor Who, he is a Time Lord who travels willy-nilly through space and time. The show was the longest-running series in British history. That sounds pretty impressive, but you must remember that the second longest running series only has six episodes. (A Simpsons joke, yes, but almost accurate). Over the course of the decades during which this show aired, several different actors played the doctor, none of them bearing any resemblance to one another. This is because Time Lords must periodically regenerate, transforming their looks and personalities.
The most popular of the actors to play the Doctor was Tom Baker, who also played him for the longest time, during the height of the show’s popularity in the 70s. The Talons of Weng Chiang is one of those episodes; indeed, it was voted the best Doctor Who story ever in honor of the 40th anniversary of the show. It’s easy to see why. It features fascinating characters, a Jack the Ripper type plot, and a giant sewer rat. In addition, there is also an early appearance by the diminutive actor Deep Roy, who recent gained fame playing the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Here he plays a ventriloquist dummy who is also an assassin.
The story is chock full of memorable moments. My favorite involves a magic act in which the Doctor disappears and the Chinese magician exclaims: “The bird has flown. One of us is yellow.” Racist? Yeah, maybe slightly, but not in any mean way and, besides, it’s funny. My wife really enjoys the “diversion” created during the climax with the giant dragon and Deep Roy’s ray gun. This diversion is guaranteed to capture the attention of someone trying to kill you; try it yourself.
Equally entertaining are the scenes in the sewer with the enormous rat. It is this kind of special effect that earned the show it’s heartfelt appreciation by fans. And as cheesy as it may be, it’s still more believable than the dinosaurs in the recent King Kong remake. The scene where Leela makes her escape through the window is another high point.
Originally aired as half hour episodes, there is a cliffhanger ending very twenty-five minutes or so. The best way to watch this is by re-enacting how it was originally presented. Watch an episode and then come back to it the next night. Of course, you can watch it straight through but you don’t get the chance to build up the suspense by doing that.
Getting back to the concerns about racism: John Bennett, an Englishman, plays the magician Li H’sen Chang under heavy Chinese makeup. Would it have been better to have cast an actual Chinese actor? Perhaps, but Bennett is so incredibly good, I can’t imagine anyone doing better, Chinese or not. His Chang is by turns frightening, funny, and pathetic. Equally terrific are the comedic relief provided by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin. Playing, respectively, the manager of the theater where Chang performs his magic act and a professor who get involved in helping out the Doctor as he uncovers the real evil behind Chang. Baxter and Benjamin were so good together, despite not actually appearing onscreen together until the story was well over half over, that there was some talk of spinning them off into their own series. It’s unfortunate this never came to fruition, though as Fonzie and Urkel proved, sometimes leaving the audience wanting more is the wiser path.
As for the plot itself, it is far too complicated and open to spoilers to get into here. It is a very long adventure, taking up six episodes. In addition to Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, the story also pays homage to Phantom of the Opera, Fu Manchu and Pygmalion. (My Fair Lady without the songs). The show also gives an uneasy indication of the influence of the Chinese mafia know as the Tong that gained a foothold in the London underworld as a result of the popularity of opium dens in the city in the 1800s.
Tom Baker is, for most fans, the quintessential Doctor Who. He was the first to play up the humor of the character, something that subsequent actors have all capitalized on to some degree. His goofy smile, wild hair and crazed eyes all contribute to defining the character of Doctor Who that no successors have quite been able to top. Playing the Doctor as half Sherlock Holmes in this episode, he simply has a field day, which is good since the supporting cast is all top notch as well. My wife prefers the Doctor’s previous companion, Sarah, but I enjoy the amoral savagery of Leela. She has trouble comprehending why she can’t resort to murder whenever the need arises; fortunately, the Doctor is slightly more pacific in nature, though hardly another Gandhi himself.
This DVD, as well as all the best Doctor Who adventures, is proof positive that a great story beats expensive special effects every time. Yes, the effect of Chang’s eyes glowing with hypnotic power is barely more impressive than something you can do on with a $90 video editing software program today, but I’d rather watch The Talons of Weng Chiang ten times in a row than have to sit through the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the first hour and a half of Jackson’s King Kong.
So much for the show, what about the special features? Leading the way is a documentary called Whose Doctor Who that is almost an hour long and features interesting snippets of Doctor Who episodes featuring the actors who preceded Tom Baker, including a scene from the very first Doctor adventure ever, in glorious black and white. Extensive sections of the documentary features behind the scenes footage of the making of Weng Chiang. It s really interesting to see the magnificent dragon that is the centerpiece of the climax of the story in its unpainted, barely sculpted form. The infamous giant rat, the subject of much mockery, also gets a great deal of screen time showing its development. The image of the human rehearsing in a rat costume is priceless. Of special interest is a scene showing Deep Roy trying on his mask.
There are some very funny interviews, circa mid-70s it would seem, with British children-VERY British children-discussing the frightening aspects of the show; these interviews are punctuated by interviews with psychologists and educationalists-and maybe some day someone will tell me just the hell an educationalist is-providing insight into the deeper meanings of the impact of scary images on children.
Another feature Who fans might find very cool shows how to make a puppet theater specifically for recreating a Doctor Who story. There’s also an interesting interview with Philip Hinchcliffe, the producer. The commentary unfortunately doesn’t include Baker, but does get provide some interesting information from the actress who plays Leela, Louise Jameson, as well as Hinchcliffe, Bennett and Benjamin. One of the hallmarks of the Doctor Who DVDS are production notes, a kind of pop-up video type thing that provides further background information as you watch the show. In addition to being interesting, they are also quite cleverly written.
The Talons of Weng Chiang is a must-have DVD for any fan of Doctor Who, but is also worth taking a look even if you know nothing about this show. Not just for science fiction fans, it’s a terrific adventure that produces laughs and chills.