Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: David Maloney
Background & Significance: In 1976, as producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes were going to wrap their third season as a team, it became obvious to the two of them that Hinchcliffe was being moved away to a new show and that Robert Holmes would most likely be going with him. Holmes, of course, did end up leaving four stories later (subsequent producer Graham Williams asked him to stay on), but in terms of the geniusness that was Hinchcliffe's oversight, this was it, and when it comes to Holmes, this (in a lot of ways) was it for him for a while.
In a lot of ways, "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is the thesis project for both Hinchcliffe and Holmes and carries all of the trademarks they picked up over the course of their three years running the show. Indeed, Hinchcliffe's first instruction to Holmes was "write anything you want, just don't include The Master" (which Holmes, at one point, wanted to do), giving Robert Holmes free reign to write anything he wanted. This, of course, led to Holmes dialing into the Gothic horror he'd been injecting into the show, only he dialed it up by eleven. He grabbed books and books off the shelf, injecting everything from Phantom of the Opera to Sherlock Holmes to Fu Manchu. He brought in his classic double act, making, perhaps, the most famous double act he ever did (who, by the way, Hinchcliffe seriously considered spinning off into their own series, which would actually happen eventually and to much acclaim), set it in Victorian times (which was the only thing his era was lacking when you really look at it), homaged Jack the Ripper, created a VERY Robert Holmesian villain, and made The Doctor Sherlock Holmes.
War Games", "Genesis of the Daleks", and "Deadly Assassin" fame) for his final ever work on Doctor Who, authorized night shoots, and told everyone to go crazy and make the best show they possibly could.
Also, as a heads up this is probably going to be a love fest. I can already feel it coming, but hey. It's the hundredth story we're reviewing on the blog. I say we do it right.
So let's get to it!
Part of the problem with reviewing or discussing a story like this is not knowing exactly where to start. This story in particular is one that I’ve been rolling around in my head for the better part of a year, knowing it was coming, thinking of where to start or what to discuss, but… never really knowing where. And I haven’t watched this story since initially watching it a year ago. So these thoughts are all thoughts with lots of hindsight and digestion but without the benefit of coming to this story a great many number of times. So… Yeah.
One of the things I love about David Maloney as a director of this is his way of creating a mood and setting a tone and showing off everything there is to show off about the period setting and the location work of all this. Immediately, from shot one (that of an audience applauding) we’re transported into the world of fancy hats and gorgeous suits. The colors all feel desaturated from the typical gaudy you’d expect from the 70s, what with the advent and novelty of shooting everything in color. But the fact that it’s not is so distinctly weird and different and not your usual thing. It’s such a stark visual thing from the rest of it, and the heavy darks and muted colors help make everything look so much more… dirty and grimy and lived in. It’s a wonderful touch.
There’s also the introduction of some major supporting characters: Henry Jago and Dr. Litefoot, both of whom will come into play and merit much discussion in a little while. Same with Mr. Sin, although god damn is he creepy and he’s only just shown up. That thing with him bleeding on his hand is really boundary-pushing if you ask me. It’s at that point that I wonder how much they’re writing to the children. Sure, the kids could enjoy this so far as a rousing adventure, but that skates very close to “the line” for me. Blood in Doctor Who. It’s a line thing.
That’s enough for now. Leela I will discuss later, but it blows me away how completely effortless all of this is and we’re only in episode one. Already you can tell we’re in for something special here. Something that feels unique and cool and not quite like anything else. Lovely lovely. Let’s continue.
One of the things I never mentioned about part one is the way in which Hinchcliffe and Holmes present their principal characters, specifically The Doctor. It’s no secret that The Doctor isn’t wearing his traditional long coat and floppy hat or even his scarf in this story. No, instead they swap it out for a deerstalker hat and a long, matching overcoat, instantly bringing up Sherlock Holmes as an inspiration for all the awesome that’s going down. And as a fan of Holmes (I mean who isn’t? Oh right, more on that in a bit) that makes it one of my favourite things ever.
First off: awesome. That’s super badass, and it shows. The Doctor is in full on sleuthing mode and the story suddenly kicks into high gear the second he lifts himself out of the manhole and escapes from the giant rat, now wondering what to do and where to go next. It’s inspired and suddenly we’re thrown in on the case, only we get to see different angles. We already know about the murders and we learn about Magnus Greel in this episode, more than you’d think we should…
This, of course, leads to The Doctor going to Jago’s theater and investigating both Jago and the aforementioned theater. It culminates, of course, in a wonderful, exciting, thrilling chase sequence as The Doctor chases after the newly returned Magnus Greel through the empty theater. It’s fantastic, glorious, and exquisitely directed to capture both claustrophobia and acrophobia through a careful use of the space available. It’s a high point for the story (and we’re still in episode two) and is the sorta thing that doesn’t ever feel like filler (even though it really is). Fantastic stuff.
We also have the progression of Litefoot and Leela, in which Litefoot begins to teach The Doctor’s Companion how to eat with some manners and turn her into a proper lady. I must say I’m a sucker for this, especially because it’s such a wonderful story idea and rife with humour and potential, especially the bit where Leela picks up a giant slab of ribs and just starts eating and then Litefoot joins her. Fantastic. And it puts Leela right at the center of the action, especially when Litefoot is taken out and oh my god here comes Mr. Sin. But Leela was just taught to be a lady. WHAT WILL HAPPEN.
Speaking of Mr. Sin, dear god what a terrifying character. Absolutely terrifying. No one wants that little puppet dude coming at them with a knife outstretched. I’m not one for peril cliffhangers because they almost never work, but this works from a purely horror context. It’s freaky and terrifying and the episode’s over before you even know it.
Damn. Just. Damn.
Whenever anyone ever discusses this story, there’s always an inevitable mention of the inherent racism up on display all over the screen. It’s inevitable, I suppose. The BBC back in the day was never the most “enlightened” of places when it came to racial diversity. Look at Toberman in “Tomb of the Cybermen” or even the fact that there was hardly ever a multi-racial cast on display. It’s always white people white people, and even here it’s still white people white people. One of the lead villains of the story, Chang, is played by John Bennett, a white guy whom you might remember from “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”, where he played General Finch (the a-hole). He is, of course, “yellowed up” to look like Chang, a Chinese man despite the fact that he is in fact white.
THAT SAID, I would like to point out that I think Bennett does a fantastic job as Chang and is a seriously great piece of casting. Maybe it’s the accent or the makeup, but I can’t even see anyone in there, and certainly not General Finch from the aforementioned “Dinosaurs”. He plays a particularly sinister character (and yes, that’s bad in the way that Birth of a Nation is bad), but he does do a great performance. And when it comes to the “Chinese are bad guys” thing, I must admit it is, at the very least, quite interesting (to me anyways). I've always had a fascination with mobs and gangs and mafias, especially as they relate to cultures and such.
One of the things I love about Leela (especially here) is that she’s a terribly smart companion when she’s written well, and she’s as unique a companion as you can get. Sure she does a lot with knives and can tend to be The Doctor’s own personal body guard when push comes to shove, but in this we also see that she’s terribly reliant when left to her own devices. For this entire episode Leela is acting and behaving on her own, sharing only one scene with The Doctor in the whole thing. It’s she who gets close to the abductions of the girls and it’s she who saves one of the girls from the evil soul-sucking machine of Magnus Greel. It’s a lot of go-getting that I very much approve of and it treats her as very smart and competent.
We also get the deepening of the plot with what it is Greel wants. I especially love the sequences between him and Chang, and watching as Chang loses his master's favour, which is something he doesn’t ever want. Greel himself is a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard and not someone to be trifled with. Is he careless? Sure. But in his defense he has a giant rat, a laser pistol, and it’s the 19th Century. No one’s gonna fuck with him, are they? And I love that it puts him in direct conflict with everyone and everything.
Speaking of, in terms of pseudo-historical it really doesn’t get much better than this. Excitement, action, laser pistols, historical accuracy… My god this is fantastic. The Doctor even carries an elephant gun. And who doesn’t love elephant guns?
Honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen before now, but there’s something that just works in this part that makes it sing even more than the other parts. It might just be the fact that by this point in the story we’re humming along, perfectly on groove with what it’s doing and where it’s going. We’re right in the middle now (but also right there at the end, I’ll explain how in a little bit) and this story just sings to me. Every minute, every second of it is so perfect, so thoroughly enjoyable, such a damn excellent time that I literally feel my brain just switching off as I let it wash over me.
One of the things I love most about this story is this cliffhanger here, at part four. The past three cliffhangers have all been rather forgettable, if you ask me, and they all involve some form of peril for our heroes. Part one was the giant rat, part three was Leela getting attacked by the giant rat (nothing super memorable there to be perfectly frank). part two featured Mr. Sin with a knife closing in on a defenseless Leela. That’s scary and good but still a bit perily. But here it’s different. Here we have Magnus Greel escaping with The Time Cabinet, which The Doctor has just told us is the worst thing that can possibly happen.
One of the things that I always appreciate about Robert Holmes is the way he navigates a Doctor Who story. Given his body of work, it’s no surprise that he knows how to structure and pace a story (look at all his great stories; it’s masterful, it is) and during his tenure as script editor, he found himself forced to do six parters to fill the extra two episodes of a season that wouldn’t fit in the rigid four part structure that Doctor Who so best adhered to. To help make the six parters work better, he created a structure in which he broke a six part story into a four part story with a two parter tacked on the end. This structure was repeated in “The Invasion of Time” (Vardan invasion for the first four parts, Sontaran invasion for the last two) and employed it in “proof-of-concept” terms for “The Ark in Space” and “The Sontaran Experiment” (in which the latter was a sort of sequel to the former) and released the structure fully in “The Seeds of Doom” (in which the first two episodes function as a prelude in the Antarctic base to set up the Krynoid invasion of the next four episodes).
See, the first four episodes are all about Chang and they set him up as the bad guy, but this ends up being a misdirect much in the same way Ibrahim Nahim was a misdirect in the first episode of “Pyramids of Mars”. Chang was just there to distract from the real threat, to provide a source of drama and tension until the real, true threat turned up. In this case, Magnus Greel is the bad guy, the Big Bad if you will, not Chang and the ending of this episode solidifies that. Chang is betrayed by his master, eviscerated by a giant rat, and Greel goes free, suddenly the coolest guy in the room because he now has the cabinet.
It’s brilliant and well done, is what I’m saying.
But honestly, at the end of this episode, I don’t know who’s more the star of the show at the moment, The Doctor or Greel? I suppose I lean towards Greel only because between the writing of the last part and the watching and writing of this one (#behindthecurtain), I had a discussion with a close friend about bad guys in the various shows we watch and he bemoaned the way that villains are redeemed when they perhaps shouldn’t be (we were talking about Spider-man 3, I believe. And Spider-man 2 for that matter) and when I started watching this episode I came to a great realization.
Now I’m all for moral ambiguity and shades of gray and darkness mixed with the light so we have a moral gray area, but sometimes I just want a cold-hearted bastard. I want a real villain who will never reform and who is completely driven by his own malignance. Magnus Greel is very much that guy, much in the same way the rest of Holmes’s greatest villains are. Everyone in "Caves" is an asshole. All of them. Sutekh is a giant douche. Solon is completely amoral and one hundred percent reprehensible. The Master under Holmes is evil fueled by unmitigated hatred. There’s no turning back for these people. They just are this way and nothing’s ever going to change that.
Magnus Greel is a dick. Born and true. He has a guy (Chang) who works for him, serves him loyally, who helped him in his hour of greatest need, who put his neck out for him and stole many many girls, killed many many people, and all because he believed Greel to be the god Weng-Chiang. And what does Greel do when Chang messes up for what is (ostensibly) the first time? He casts him aside like he’s worthless, like he’s garbage. He exiles him from his graces. But that’s not enough for Magnus Greel. No. Magnus Greel is a cold-hearted bastard. Magnus Greel kills a man in cold blood and then sets Chang up for the murder, framing him for a crime he didn’t commit.
I’m also going to mention The Doctor, because man is Tom Baker crushing it at every turn. He’s dashing and funny and an absolute joy to watch. I love the bit where he brings the cards closer to his face, tempting Chang to shoot him in the face. Or even the moment where he pretends to assist Chang, when he’s all goofy smiles and absolutely delighted to be helping out in this hour of need. It’s a brilliant performance and one that makes me love his Doctor all the more. He knows what’s up and he knows what he’s doing despite acting like he doesn’t. He’s just waiting for his Columbo moment. So awesome.
I’m honestly sad he’s gone from the story (OR IS HE?) because he was such a great driving force for the plot, etc. I’m excited for Greel, but man did I love Chang a lot. Man oh man.
Holmes marks this transition with a number of new and revelatory developments that completely retcon (in a way) the story as we’ve understood it thus far and change the style and scope of the story being told. The most obvious of these is the final meetup/teamup of the story’s famous double act: Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot. Of course, if you knew of these two as an entity before watching the story, it’s just a matter of waiting for the inevitable. If you had no idea where Holmes was going with it, it turns out to be one of the most delightful surprises and yet so impossibly inevitable you might feel like a fool for not seeing it earlier.
Again, one of the things that Robert Holmes so very famously did was have a recurring style of villain or villain team up. His villain would usually be a physically deformed, sinister, amoral individual who was (in some way, usually physically) removed from the society in which they resided. He would double act this main villain with an avatar, usually a human through whom the main villain would act out their will, using this avatar as an extension of their influence. We see this in “Pyramids of Mars” (Sutekh is the main villain, Marcus Scarman is his avatar), “Brain of Morbius” (Morbius is the main villain, Solon is his avatar), “The Deadly Assassin” (The Master is the main villain, Goth is his avatar), “The Time Warrior” (Linx is the main villain, Irongron is his avatar), “The Mysterious Planet” (Drathro is the main villain, the twins are his avatar), and even “The Caves of Androzani” (which has two: Sharez Jek and Morgus are the main villains, the androids and Stotz are the avatars, respectively).
When you compare Chang to Greel it’s obvious that Greel is far more amoral and sadistic than Chang ever was. Sure, Chang gave the gang member the scorpion poison pill in episode one, but in this episode Greel does THE SAME EXACT THING, except he forces the gang member in question (the one who lost the key to the Time Cabinet) to eat the pill by making him take it. Chang, at the very least, offered the gang member the choice. Greel does not and thereby proves himself far more evil than Chang ever was. In the stated relationship, this makes perfect sense: the main villain is always more evil than his avatar.
So does that mean that Greel has become something greater? Is he now a go-getter in the same way Count Grendel was? “If you want to do something right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”? The answer is no. Greel has been demoted from main villain to avatar. Y’see, there’s one person in this story who is more deformed and more evil and more removed from society and all its ways than even Greel is. As with the almost reset button retcon this story gets now that we’re in the final two-parter, the truth of the story crystalizes further and suddenly it becomes obvious:
None of this is possible without the tremendous world-building and exposition Holmes lays out for The Doctor to give at the top of the episode. It’s a flurry of tremendous mythology sketched out through fiction-babble (it’s like techno-babble but it describes fiction rather than technology) and it reveals that Mr. Sin is actually a “Peking Homonculus”, which is essentially a cyborg, a very small computer that contains the single organic component: the cerebral cortex of a pig. As such, Mr. Sin is far more horrific and terrifying than Greel ever could be (even though Greel has melty face) as he is an absolute perversion of what life could ever possibly be. And immediately following this moment (in which the Doctor talks about the assassination of the commissioner of the Icelandic Alliance and how this Peking Homonculus was entirely responsible for World War VI), David Maloney (who gets it) cuts away to possibly the most sinister shot in the entire story (that’s saying something) as Mr. Sin casts a knowing glance at Greel that all but gives away a pivotal moment in the next episode. The subject of the shot is not Greel. It’s Mr. Sin, who sits on a throne while Greel bats and swats and screams away at everyone else.
It is a bracing finale, and a wonderful climax/payoff to five wonderful episodes of buildup. It’s action packed, daring, bold, and with tense moments of excitement and danger. Leela and The Doctor both shine brightly and we get to see The Doctor do my all-time favourite thing he could ever do when confronting a villain. No, I don’t mean that bit where he shoves Greel into the life-drain-ulator (which is questionable, if you ask me. I hate when The Doctor kills anything). I mean the bit where he spends the entire first half of the episode talking to Magnus Greel.
I get the same feeling thing here. The Doctor uses his very slight upper hand to his fullest advantage. He has the key to the Time Cabinet, which is what Greel needs to activate it. The Doctor plays for time, but not really. He just talks to Greel. And even now, in this moment of complete and total danger when he’s up against a murderous psychopath and a genocidal pig-cyborg he still has time to have a conversation with someone, even if it is all about learning what it is that happened.
Now, I know they did it this way because they could never afford a trip to the 51st Century or to show off World War VI, and besides what in the world could The Doctor do? That’s like him traveling to and fighting in World War I (or II for that matter). It’s not only not cost effective for the show, but it’s not his fight. The Time War at least makes sense because he has a stake in that. But for The Doctor to get into a war situation is preposterous. But here we have something that’s even better. We have The Doctor dealing with the aftermath of World War VI and cleaning up the unresolved mess of Magnus Greel and the Peking Homunculus.
Professor Zaroff, who wants to destroy the world simply because he can. Mr. Sin wants a similar goal: he’s genocidal and wants to kill all the humans and given an opportunity he will, but his motivation is driven by the fact that he’s a cyborg gone horribly horribly wrong. Whoever thought it was a good idea to graft the cerebral cortex of a pig onto the wires and machinery of a cyborg… well… they had it coming, I guess. And Holmes’s use of pig here is ingenious. Like with the Autons, he has turned something that is (generally speaking) mostly harmless if not a bit gross into something that could not possibly be more sinister. Just thinking about the use of the word “pig” here makes me shiver.
Greel giving that evil cyber-pig command of a powerful laser cannon… well… he should have seen it coming.
Yesterday, Phillip over at TARDIS Eruditorum did a terrific writeup about Mary Whitehouse and how she brought down the most successful era in Doctor Who history and how unfair and insane that whole ordeal was. As someone who's interested in the way people use subjectively moral justifications to bring down art, the whole thing is a must read as far as I'm concerned. It reminds me a lot of Laura Mallory or just about anything that attempts to censor art because it doesn't jive with what they want or understand. Phillip, in his piece, argues that Whitehouse bullied the BBC into removing Hinchcliffe (and Holmes by proxy) and how this was something of an endorsement for Whitehouse and her puritanical ways.
This story is violent. It is dark. It is scary. It's rich with amorality (the Doctor murders Greel, Mr. Sin is a psychopath, Chang loves hisself some opium), and it features a man-villain who is so concerned with self-preservation that he ruins all of the lives he touches (even his own). He kills young women by the dozen and ruins the life of his most loyal servant purely out of spite. There's horrific blood imagery. Leela (and some Chinese) kill people with sharp objects like axes and knives (remember that part where she jabbed a knife into Mr. Sin's throat?). People die by eating poison. Someone is eviscerated and de-legged by giant rat. Oh and god is nowhere to be seen in any of this story.
But even with all of those awesome things going for it, Robert Holmes ends up turning in the absolute epitome of how god damn fucking good Doctor Who can be. And he does so by taking his tried and true style and completely subverting it in places to make this, in a way, The Ultimate Robert Holmes story. It represents every single thing that Holmes loves, countless references to older works, Holmesian villains, magical, breathtaking dialogue, chilling, terrifying horror, delicious characters, and a mother frakking awesome story. It's a great use of Tom Baker and one of the best uses of Leela I've ever seen in any medium. He completely subverts expectations by playing with his own pet concepts. His villains and double acts are both subversions and twists and you can tell he's pushing the boundaries of how he can tell a Robert Holmes story.
The Wedding of River Song" on the podcast, I was quick to point out that so much of what is in that story were all things I'd seen him do before in his other stories. And it's sad to think that writers get complacent like that, but they do.
The Ultimate Foe". You can tell that this is a Holmes who wants to go out on top, who's really pushing the limits of what he can get done on this show. And it's.... God it pays off. It just does.
Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Trojans! A giant wooden horse! A Companion departure! And some historical inaccuracies! Join us next week as Cassandra steps in to blog "The Myth Makers!" Coming Next Tuesday!