Featuring a strong sense of atmosphere, well-written characters and excellent performances, The Talons of Weng-Chiang stands out as one of Doctor Who’s greatest stories.
Season 14 ends with the highly-rated (and highly controversial) story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. A serial that has long been popular with fans of the Classic Series, Talons marks the end of an era. While Tom Baker would continue to play the Doctor for four more seasons, this would be Philip Hinchcliffe’s final story as producer, with script editor Robert Holmes leaving at the start of the following season.
It was an extremely strong partnership, one that gave us arguably one of Doctor Who’s most successful and popular eras, one strongly influenced by Gothic horror throughout. So it’s rather fitting that Talons features such a heavy influence from that genre, particularly The Phantom of the Opera.
While Magnus Greel certainly isn’t half as tragic or even sympathetic as Gaston Leroux’s Phantom, there are several clear nods to the original story, particularly with the masked figure occasionally hiding in a theater. (Holmes would eventually use the story as a strong influence again for another huge classic – The Caves of Androzani.)
Humor and horror
However, it’s not what Talons borrows that makes it such a great story. No, what really makes it such a classic is the amount of originality that Holmes includes.
This is especially true of the many rich and fleshed out characters that feature in the story. Jago, Litefoot, Quick, Casey – all of these feel like real, believable people who fit the Victorian period well. And all of them are given such fantastic dialogue. Robert Holmes was always a master of the double act, and he gives us so many in Talons. This leads to many moments that are sure to make you laugh (my favorite is Professor Litefoot’s reaction to Leela and how she eats, which goes from being hilarious to adorable).
But the humor never ruins the macabre horror of the serial. And make no mistake, this is a very macabre story. Whether it’s young women being drained of their life essence by the loathsome Greel, or puppets attacking people with knives, or giant rats feasting on the flesh of the living, this is a story fully immersed in the horror genre. It’s a fantastic example of it, too.
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Leela at her best
What also should be pointed out is how well the regulars are used in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The Fourth Doctor and Leela were a relatively new pairing at this point, and we were still getting to know the companion after her recent introduction in The Face of Evil. There’s the rather interesting idea of the Doctor wanting to educate Leela, particularly about her ancestors. It’s a great idea that sadly wasn’t developed too much in the TV series. (However, some of Big Finish’s Fourth Doctor audios have used and developed the idea considerably well, at least.)
In fact, Leela works extremely well overall in this story. It could have been easy for Holmes to write her as simply a savage who lacks intelligence. But what makes the companion work so well – especially in Talons – is that she’s a very well-rounded character. Yes, she’s aggressive and uncultured at times. But she’s also clearly intelligent, absorbing new concepts and ideas easily when presented to her. She’s handled extremely well by Holmes, and Louise Jameson plays the part brilliantly.
The Doctor as Sherlock
As for the Doctor, he’s naturally cast as something of a sci-fi Sherlock Holmes in this story, complete with deerstalker cap. Seeing him use his knowledge – both of London and of the future – is great to watch. The Talons of Weng-Chiang isn’t exactly a mystery – after all, we know exactly who the villains are and what they went very early on. But it’s still fun to see the Doctor play the role of detective as he tries to track them down.
Over four decades after its broadcast, and The Talons of Weng-Chiang is still a fantastic serial. Its homage to Fu Manchu might make it dated. (Well, let’s be honest, it definitely makes it dated.) But there’s still an excellent story at the heart of it, one that’s brought to life rather brilliantly by strong production values, excellent direction, and a great cast. A wonderful story that rounds off one of Doctor Who‘s greatest seasons, and in fact, greatest eras.
What are your thoughts on The Talons of Weng-Chiang? Is it one of your favorites? Who’s your favorite character? What’s your favorite quote? Let us know in the comments below.