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Doctor Who:
The Talons Of Weng-Chiang
cast: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, John Bennett, Michael Spice and Christopher Benjamin

director: David Maloney

142 minutes (PG) 1977
BBC DVD Region 2 + 4 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Tom Matic
The obvious choice for a BBC Doctor Who DVD release in the programme's 40th anniversary year, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang showcases the series magpie approach to established genre classics (in this case Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu and The Phantom Of The Opera). Not only this, but Doctor Who fans like their DVDs chock full of extra features, and this is no exception. The main extra feature on this release is Melvyn Bragg's Lively Arts documentary, Whose Doctor Who, which dovetails perfectly with Talons..., because of its behind-the-scenes footage of the making of that story. Together Talons and the Lively Arts documentary have become synonymous with what Doctor Who fans see as the 'golden age' of the show, when relatively high production values, ratings success and artistic credibility enabled it to transcend its status as a cheesy kids' monster show. At this time the show achieved a skilful blend of science fiction and horror, often by landing the TARDIS in Earth's past, where the Doctor discovers an intruder from another world (or in this case, another time) threatening to pervert the course of history; and Talons exemplifies this perfectly. Whose Doctor Who has cemented Talons reputation as the jewel in the crown of the mid-1970s' dream team of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. But does Talons live up to its reputation?
   Out of the genre classics gleefully plundered by Robert Holmes' script, perhaps the Fu Manchu one works the least well for a 21st century audience. The 'yellow peril' theme might have been acceptable in the era of Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour, but all the stuff about 'inscrutable chinks' is quite problematic now. A fan showing The Talons Of Weng-Chiang to non-fans might cringe more at this than at the Finger Mouse style giant rats in this, or the bubble wrap monster in The Ark In Space. John Bennett's portrayal of the 'Celestial Chang' is not ultimately quite sympathetic within the stereotype; but unlike most of his army of pigtailed Triad-style retainers, he is clearly a European in makeup. However, while Sax Rohmer's oriental supervillain, behind Li H'sen Chang's public face of cold inscrutability lies a more pathetic figure, as the "master of magic and mesmerism" is revealed to be the mere stooge of a mad scientist from the future. In fact, the sadomasochistic narrative of films like The Mask Of Fu Manchu is turned on its head, with the mandarin-like figure of Chang reduced to grovelling before his sinister master. The real villain, with his leather gimp mask concealing grotesque deformities and delirious ravings about "shredding flesh" anticipates Hellraiser, but his roots are in The Phantom Of The Opera.
   This is where Robert Holmes comes into his own, in reworking The Phantom in an East End music hall setting (complete with a serial killer mystery evoking Jack the Ripper). The science fiction twist on Gaston Leroux's gothic romance has the Phantom's disfigurement caused by a botched time travel experiment (rather than etching fluid, torture or a record press - as in previous screen variations on the theme). The Victorian setting enables the story to take advantage of the BBC drama department's skill in mounting costume drama. The Chinese theme, for all its faults, provides visual colour and the genuinely creepy, knife-throwing, animated ventriloquist's doll, which more than makes up for the shortcomings of the giant rats. All this and the over-the-top, grotesque pantomime villainy of Michael Spice in the title role; Dudley Simpson's quietly, menacing organ score as the lair of the Phantom is revealed in the dark recesses of the music hall; a Robert Holmes script that effortlessly mixes comedy and suspense; Leela calling the villain "Bent Face" ... The list is endless!
   DVD extras: audio commentary from actors Louise Jameson, John Bennett and Christopher Benjamin, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and director David Maloney, Whose Doctor Who (1977), documentary including behind-the-scenes footage from Talons, Blue Peter footage on constructing a Doctor Who 'theatre', Philip Hinchcliffe interviewed on Pebble Mill, 25 minutes of b/w footage from the studio recordings, continuity announcements and trailers, production notes, and photo gallery.
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