The Season 14 Blu-Ray set has been released, and that means it’s time to review a story from the set! It was close in terms of which ones I hadn’t watched in the longest time, but I decided to go with Talons because… the other was Masque of Mandragora, and while I’m sure my memories of it being dull might not be true, I fancied a nice long evening with a fun six-parter that I surprisingly haven’t watched in nearly a decade. The Doctor, Leela, Jago, Litefoot, Greel, Mr. Sin… it’s full of characters, quotes and moments engraved in your head, so let’s look just how and why it still stands up, despite… “questionable in today’s world” visual effects.
The Fourth Doctor brings Leela to Victorian London to see how her ancestors lived but is rapidly drawn into a fiendish plot involving Chinese Tongs, disappearing women, an Oriental stage magician with uncanny powers, a murderous ventriloquist’s dummy, and giant rats in the sewers.
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
Leela in one of her rare “not wearing somewhat revealing leather” days.
For six parts, this story is perfectly paced. Part 1 just has the “mysterious man from the Orient” Li H’Sen (John Bennett) and his Chinese ninjas and evil puppet that isn’t a puppet Mr. Sin (Deep Roy), Part 2 reveals Magnus Greel (Michael Spice) is the mastermind hiding in the sewers, Part 3 has his goal revealed, Part 4 sees the downfall of Li H’Sen and ends with Greel achieving his goal, Part 5 is “actually his goal hasn’t been achieved, wait, now it possibly has?” and then Part 6 is the big finale. Throw in that you not only have The Doctor and Leela but also have Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) to pair them with, and it never gets boring.
As you know, I love a good cheesy villain, and Magnus Greel is brilliant. Properly over dramatic, actually calls his underlings “bumbling fools!” and generally is good fun to watch every time he’s on screen. He’s a fugitive from the 51st Century that used his “Time Cabinet” to travel to Victorian era China to avoid being punished for his crimes, but the new technology left him scarred and dying. He enlisted the help of poor villager Li H’Sen and gave him powers so he could get him some young women to sacrifice and renew his life force, and so he could find his Cabinet, which went missing. They track it down to Victorian London, and there we have it. A unique backstory, that’s for sure.
H’Sen is working for Jago’s Palace Theatre as a front for his master living under the building, and so he can find and eventually sacrifice some young girls. This puts Jago in contact with The Doctor, who eventually uses his bumbling and misplaced self-confidence to good use and has him both spy on H’Sen and helps him investigate his cellar. Litefoot meanwhile meets the Doctor while he’s looking over a recently deceased member of the public, and the two hit it off, with Litefoot’s house becoming a meeting place for the trio… plus coincidentally it’s where the Time Cabinet is (Litefoot’s dad was stationed in China for a time, apparently.) Jago and Litefoot meet up in Part 5 and immediately have great chemistry as a duo, it’s certainly no wonder they ended up in an extremely long-running audio spin-off series.
“Well, I don’t suppose we’ll ever meet again” “No, that’s not very likely, is it? Haha.”
All of these new characters, but I haven’t actually mentioned The Doctor and Leela much! They’re obviously on fine form, as they were during their couple of Season 14 stories together. There are plenty of funny “Leela doesn’t understand the culture” moments, and also an equal amount of Leela acts like a bad ass moments. A favourite of mine would have to be when she attacks Mr. Sin, finds out he can’t be harmed via conventional means, and so escapes by jumping out of a window to safety, right in front of The Doctor. He asks what happened, and Leela says “Litefoot thought he saw a Chinese man out of the window!”, The Doctor replies with a cheeky grin “So you decided to jump through it?”, Leela smiles and responds “Something like that.” It made me laugh, as did many other similar moments. The duo may be a tad overplayed on Audio in the last decade, but it shows they had great chemistry right from the off.
In the end, Magnus gets what he wants with The Doctor, Jago and Litefoot all captured, and Leela about to be absorbed by him. The Doctor breaks free, saves Leela and then has to dodge weird eye-laser fire from a golden dragon statue, all while Greel grows weaker and weaker, refusing to believe The Doctor’s advice that if he uses the Cabinet again it’ll cause untold damage. The Dragon Statue is disabled via a swung axe and The Doctor pushes Magnus into his own life draining machine, turning him to dust in a rare “Doctor directly kills a human” moment. Mr. Sin, who by the way is a partial-pig machine thing, is then stopped by The Doctor before he and Leela eventually leave. It’s a great and exciting end to a fun two-and-a-half-ish hour story.
“Do you not trust me because I’m Chinese?” “No, I don’t trust you because you’re blatantly NOT Chinese…” “Oh, that’s fair enough then.”
I’ll mention here that, yes, John Bennett is wearing yellow-face and doing a dodgy Asian accent, no if this were done in the last few decades it would’ve been frowned upon, or outright (and rightfully) ripped apart for. BUT it was an acceptable part of TV still at the time, and because of that we have to view it through the lens of when it was released. Sure, the Blu-Ray transfer only makes it more obvious and occasionally cringey, but hey-ho, it honestly doesn’t ruin the story, or even the character. There are the odd racial slur or stereotypical stuff, but because it’s set in Victorian times, that’s fine.
Only two small real complaints come to mind. Greel has used his technology to create giant rats, one of which attacks Leela and The Doctor on a few occasions and Li H’Sen in another, and it’s just a big stuffed toy with silly teeth. Now, I never let bad effects ruin my enjoyment and indeed didn’t here, but it does have to be pointed out. I think shadows and screams would’ve done a better job. With this Blu-Ray release there is an option CG effect that replaces the giant rat puppet/toy with a CG one, if that’s your bag. To me seeing modern CGI in an old show takes me out of what I’m watching because I know it shouldn’t be there, so I didn’t bother, but it is a potential solution if it really annoys you.
The only other bit was when Jago and Litefoot were held captive, they eventually escape via a dumbwaiter, then remark that they’re “not in the dining room” and then get recaptured. The next scene with them talking in the cell has the dumbwaiter padlocked. While it was sort of funny, it was the only example in the story of padding for paddings sake, but it was a particularly obvious one.
The Peking Homunculus, a.k.a. Mr. Sin (because that has a much better ring to it, let’s be fair…)
With a story this popular, it won’t surprise you to hear that it has a lot of continuity links, retroactively.
Magnus Greel’s backstory, as well as The Doctor mentioning he was present in the 51st century, and even the Time Agent Greel mentions, are all explored in detail in the Fifth Doctor audio story “The Butcher of Brisbane”. The Fifth Doctor ends up pretending to be a Time Agent and so becomes the Agent Greel mentions funnily enough, and the story ends with the villain escaping in the Time Cabinet, so it’s a direct prequel.
In between that and the main story itself is “The Talents of Greel” a Diaries of River Song story where she uses her knowledge of Greel’s location to try and steel some technology, and ends up auditioning with Jago’s Palace Theatre; and The Tenth Doctor comic story “The Time Machination”, which ends right as the Fourth Doctor and Leela arrive at the start of this story, though is otherwise not directly connected.
Obviously the biggest thing to spin off from this story is the massively popular and extremely long Jago and Litefoot audio series. It started with a “pilot” Companion Chronicles story called “The Mahogany Murderers” and ended with a special set called “Jago and Litefoot Forever” released after Series THIRTEEN. Jago and Litefoot also appeared in audio dramas with the Fourth Doctor in “The Justice of Jalxar” and “The Beast of Kravenos”, and the Sixth in “Voyage to Venus” and “Voyage to the New World”. They also appeared with the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors in the Short Trips audio reading series, with a story titled “The Jago and Litefoot Revival”.
That’s it, beyond a few off-hand mentions of past adventures and Leela’s origin, including her using a Janis Thorn she’d kept from her home seen in “The Face of Evil”.
“I once fought Yeti in this underground section here.” “Silence! I’ve had enough of your nonsense prattle. I would’ve heard of such a incident in the future!” “You’d think…”
The Talons of Weng-Chiang has a heavy reputation as an all-time great, and sometimes they don’t live up to the hype. The couple of times I watched it in the 2000s I really enjoyed it, and sure enough, watching it again now I also really enjoyed it! Full of really fun characters, both good and bad, both regular and new, and a plot that manages to justify its six-episode length, it’s a story that deserves every bit of the attention it receives. No matter how you slice it, it’s a stone-cold classic.