Thursday, September 27, 2018

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney

Fourth Doctor Tom Baker travels to Victorian England with companion Leela, who has to wear modest Victorian dress rather than her primitive leather skins. The Doctor himself dons a deerstalker hat and cape (a nod to Sherlock Holmes) as they investigate a series of disappearances of young women. They work a bit with the police but mostly with the coroner. They aren't up against Jack the Ripper--instead they face the minions of Weng-Chiang, a Chinese god. To be honest, he isn't much of a god. His lair is in the sewers underneath a theater. At the theater, Li H'Sen Chang (John Bennett) performs a magic act with his creepy dummy Mister Sin. Chiang has been given magic powers by Weng-Chiang and the doll is really a homunculus. The two serve the so-called god, who is looking for a lost cabinet that will restore his power. The cabinet is actually at the coroner's home.

The story has a lot going for it. The plot moves along at a good pace and information is dealt out episode by episode. The sets are great. The theater is an actual theater; the sewers look like sewers and not a stage-set; the coroner's home is full of knickknacks and detail. The actors are very good, especially the coroner (Trevor Baxter) who is the classic English Victorian gentleman and the theater owner (Christopher Benjamin) who is a P.T. Barnum-esque delight. Leela's primitive instincts make for great comic relief and good action.

The only drawbacks are two. First, the sewers are guarded by a giant rat, which is fairly unconvincing-looking. It's a big suit where just the mouth moves--the classic rubbishy Doctor Who baddie. Second, John Bennett gives a good performance as Li H'sen Chang, but to contemporary eyes the make-up looks too much like a white guy made Chinese. And his dialogue and accent sound like those old Charlie Chan movies. It didn't bother me that much since I understand that's the way things were done back then but more sensitive viewers may take offense.


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