The Talons of Weng-Chiang
is a serial
in the British science fiction television
series Doctor Who
, which was first broadcast in six weekly parts from February 26
to April 2
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, a murderous ventriloquist's
dummy and giant rats in the sewers.
The Doctor and Leela arrive in London so that Leela can learn about the customs of her ancestors, specifically the musical theatre of Victorian England. Performing at the Palace Theatre
on an extended run is the stage magician Li H'sen Chang
, although the Doctor did hope to catch Little Tich
. On their way to the Palace Theatre, the Doctor and Leela encounter a group of Chinese men who have apparently killed a cab driver. They attempt to silence the Doctor and Leela but are frightened away by the distant whistle of an approaching peeler
. All but one escape, and he and the Doctor and Leela are taken to the local police station.
At the station, Li H'sen Chang is called in to act as an interpreter, but unbeknownst to everyone else he is the leader of the group and he secretly gives the captive henchman a pill of concentrated scorpion venom which the henchman takes immediately and dies. The Doctor, upon a brief examination of the body finds a scorpion tattoo – the symbol of the Tong of the Black Scorpion, devout followers of an ancient god Weng-Chiang.
The body is taken to the local mortuary, along with the body of the cabbie which had just been found floating in the river. There they meet Professor Litefoot, who is performing the autopsies. The cabbie is Joseph Buller, who had been looking for his wife Emma, the latest in a string of missing women in the area. Buller had gone down to the Palace Theatre where he had confronted Chang about his wife's disappearance, threatening to report Chang to the police if she was not returned to him. Chang, fearful of discovery, had sent his men, including the diminutive Mr Sin, to kill Buller. Chang is in the service of Magnus Greel, a despot from the 51st century who had fled from the authorities in a time cabinet. The technology of the cabinet is based on "zygma energy," which is unstable and has disrupted Greel's own DNA. This forces him to drain the life essences from young women to keep himself alive. At the same time, Greel is in search of his cabinet, taken from him by Chinese Imperial soldiers, and which in turn had been given by the Imperial Court to Professor Litefoot's parents as a gift. Mr Sin is also from the future but is a robotic toy constructed with the cerebral cortex of a pig. It is better known as the Peking Homunculus, a vile thing that almost caused World War Six when its organic pig part took over the toy's functions.
Greel tracks down the time cabinet and steals it, whilst concurrently the Doctor tracks Greel to the sewers underneath the Palace Theatre, aided (rather clumsily) by the theatre's owner, Henry Gordon Jago. However, Greel has already fled his lair, abandoning Chang to the police. Chang escapes but only to be mauled by one of the giant rats – products of Greel's experiments which were then used to guard his sewer hideout.
While the Doctor and Leela try to find Greel's new hideout, Jago comes across a bag of future technological artefacts, among which is the key to the time cabinet. He takes it to Professor Litefoot's house, and there, after leaving the artefacts and a note for the Doctor, the Professor and Jago set out to follow anyone coming around the Palace Theatre in search of the bag. However, they are captured for their efforts. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Leela happen upon Chang in an opium den; there, he tells them that Greel can be found in the House of the Dragon but dies before telling them its exact location.
The Doctor and Leela return to Professor Litefoot's house. There they find the note and the key to the time cabinet. They decide to wait for Greel and his henchmen. When they arrive, the Doctor uses the key, a fragile crystal known as a Trionic Lattice, as a bargaining chip. He asks to be taken to the House of the Dragon, offering the key in exchange for Lightfoot's and Jago's release. Instead, Greel overpowers the Doctor and locks him in with the two amateur sleuths.
Leela, who had been left at Litefoot's house at the Doctor's behest, has followed them and confronts Greel. She is captured and set in his life-essence extraction machine, a catalytic extraction chamber, but before her life essence is drained in order to feed Greel, the Doctor, Jago and Litefoot escape and rescue her. In a final confrontation, Mr Sin turns on Greel as the Doctor convinces it that Greel escaping in his time cabinet will create a catastrophic implosion. The Doctor defeats Greel by forcibly pushing him into his own catalytic extraction chamber, thus damaging it and causing it to overload. Having fallen victim to his own machine, Greel suffers Cellular Collapse and disintegrates. The Doctor defeats the Peking Homunculus by ripping its cerebral cortex from its toy-body before bringing the Zygma Experiment to a permanent end by destroying the lattice, just in time for the coming dawn and the muffin man.
As the Doctor prepares the TARDIS, Litefoot attempts to explain tea to Leela, only to baffle her further. The Doctor and Leela bid farewell to Jago and Litefoot as they enter the TARDIS. Confused by the police box, Litefoot is astonished by its dematerialisation, a stunt which Jago remarks that even Li H'san Chang could have appreciated.
- Deep Roy, who played Mr. Sin, had an uncredited role as an unnamed alien trade delegate in The Trial of a Time Lord: Mindwarp.
- Dudley Simpson, who composed much of the music for Doctor Who in the 60s and 70s, has a cameo as the conductor of Jago's threatre orchestra.
- Michael Spice appears in this story as the main villain, Magnus Greel. He also provided the voice of Morbius in the previous season's The Brain of Morbius.
- John Bennet had previously appeared in Doctor Who as General Finch in Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
- Chrisopher Benjamin had previously appeared in Inferno as Sir Keith Gold and would return to play Colonel Hugh in "The Unicorn and the Wasp".
- Working titles for this story included The Talons of Greel.
- This was the final Doctor Who story produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, who went on to further television successes. Hinchcliffe was succeeded by Graham Williams as the series producer, who sat in on this story's production.
- This story featured the first Doctor Who work by John Nathan-Turner as series production unit manager. Nathan-Turner would eventually succeed Williams as the show's producer from 1980 to 1989.
- A large pile of straw seen in one scene was placed there to cover a modern car that had not been moved off the street.
- The production team briefly considered giving Jago and Litefoot their own spin-off series.
- There are a number of references to the Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. The Doctor is dressed in a similar way as the stereotype Sherlock Holmes caricature (although the Holmes of Doyle's stories would never have worn a deerstalker and Inverness cape in town) and uses sayings and mannerisms similar to Holmes'. The era and location which the episode is set is late Victorian London. Professor Litefoot is a similar character to Sherlock Holmes' colleague Dr Watson and he has a housekeeper called Mrs Hudson (who is the housekeeper at 221b Baker Street in the Sherlock Holmes novels). At one point the Doctor says to him "...elementary my dear Litefoot".
- When Chang calls the Doctor to the stage, there is a short musical excerpt from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.
- The story is referenced in the first issue of the comic book Albion. In the flashback to Janus Stark's capture, part of a poster for Li H'Sen Chang's stage show is visible beneath one for Stark's own.
Criticism and praise
- This story has aroused some controversy because of its alleged racism. Some of the English characters display racist attitudes towards the Chinese characters, while the Chinese immigrants themselves are portrayed in a stereotypical fashion — other than Li H'sen Chang (a major villain who is himself akin to Fu Manchu, but portrayed by a white actor (another source of criticism)), all of the Chinese characters are coolies or members of Tong gangs. As a result of a complaint to TVOntario following the initial broadcast of the story the Canadian channel chose not to rebroadcast it when that year's season was rerun. A number of other stations across North America refused to screen the serial.
- This story was voted the best Doctor Who story ever in the 2003 Outpost Gallifrey poll to mark the series' 40th anniversary.
- Russell T. Davies, writer/producer for Doctor Who's 21st-century revival, praised this serial, saying "Take The Talons of Weng Chiang, for example. Watch episode one. It's the best dialogue ever written. It's up there with Dennis Potter. By a man called Robert Holmes. When the history of television drama comes to be written, Robert Holmes won't be remembered at all because he only wrote genre stuff. And that, I reckon, is a real tragedy.
- A novelisation of this serial, written by Terrance Dicks, was published by Target Books in November 1977, entitled Doctor Who and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
- The story was published into a script, written by John McElroy, was published by Titan Books in November 1989, entitled "Doctor Who The Scripts The Talons of Weng-Chiang".
Broadcast, VHS and DVD and releases
- The serial was released as a compilation on VHS in the UK in 1988. In order to obtain a "PG" rating from the BBFC, shots involving the use of nunchukas – which were then classed as illegal weapons and unable to be shown on-screen – were removed from the fight scene involving the Doctor and the Tong of the Black Scorpion. (Over the next decade and a half the BBFC's guidelines were relaxed).
- This story was one of three stories released on VHS as a compilation that never had an episodic VHS re-release. (The other two being The Seeds of Death and The Time Warrior).
- The story was released complete and unedited on DVD in April 2003 in a two-disc set as part of the Doctor Who 40th Anniversary Celebration releases, representing the Tom Baker years.
- On September 2, 2008, this serial was released for sale on iTunes.