Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Talons of Weng- Chiang written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney

This story in a nutshell: A ghoulish, disfigured monster stalking the sewers of London, preying on young girls to feed upon...

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor has rarely been this commanding, stalking through the story in a Holmesian costume like he owns the genre. Indeed the image of his wading through the sewers in a deerstalker with a rifle in his hand is burned in my memory, the fourth Doctor at his all time best. He gets tonsof fantastic lines, loaded with humour and drama and works when paired up with any of the characters, be it Leela, Jago or Litefoot. The four of them are bloody good friends by the end of the story and an atmosphere of friendship triumphs. What really impressed me (aside from the insultingly rude way he dismissed certain characters, 'It was nothing complimentary!','Well you had a few drinks with Mrs Gusset...' 'Savage, found floating down the Amazon in a hat box!') was the intenseness that Tom Baker brought to the role at the climax when the Doctor is trying convince Greel to halt his experiment. After all his flippancy he turns on a sixpence and drives home the real urgency of the conclusion. I was riveted. It reminded me of the Doctor of the latter Graeme Williams era, who could spend much of the story appearing not to take much of what is going on seriously only to really capture your attention when it counts. The fourth Doctor rarely comes across this seriously and it works really well here, reaching out to the audience with how catastrophic this could turn out.

Noble Savage: 'When we are both in the great here after I shall hunt you down bent face and put you through my agonies a thousand times!' screams Leela, close to death. It's her best story by miles and in Holmes safe hands she thrives in Victorian London, slaughtering Chinese henchmen, hunted by giant rats, trying out sophisticated clothes and going to the theatre. Never before has she seemed so alien and so human, highlighting her against so many characters draws magnificent attention to her lack of social graces and vicious killing streak. And yet in later episodes when Litefoot and Jago are in trouble she is clearly frightened for their safety and tries to convince the Doctor to save them with the beautiful retort' they are our friends, we must help them.' She's his conscience in that moment. The so-called padding from the early episodes, which set up these relationships, are satisfyingly paid off. Louise Jameson was always a little too good for Doctor Who (like Caroline John before her she deserves to spearhead a show rather than providing support for the star) but when she is spoilt with material like this it's difficult to argue against Leela's place in the show. She's works awesomely when paired with the Doctor (it's one of the few occasions where it seems that Baker and Jameson are drunk on each others company) but strikes out on her own often enough to prove that a Leela headed show could be made to work. I'm reluctant at any point of this review to dismiss Robert Holmes' part in making every aspect work and it's worth noting his part in Leela's finest story.

Peerless Professor & Grotesque Theatre Proprietor: A pair of characters so strong that they have generated their own audio spin off series that has been a massive hit. Performed by two charming character actors at the height of their powers, you've got a ready made argument for the gift of sparking characterisation in classic Who. 'I would have propelled him onto the pavement with a punt up the posterior!' scoffs Henry Jago, the most colourful and verbose of Holmes' many creations. Brought to life by the ruddy and charming Christopher Benjamin, Jago lights up the screen. Every line he utters is instantly quotable, a tongue twisting delight that will leave viewers breathless just trying to get their head around it. 'By dash me optics, I should have realised! That brow! Those hands! England's peerless premiere professor of pathology!' and later 'The most formidable combination in the annals of criminology! It is my pleasure and privilege to be working with you on this devilish affair!' Despite his complex linguistics, Jago never seems truly grotesque because he is imbued with natural characteristics that keep him grounded, such as inherent cowardice and unconvincing bravado. He loves getting embroiled in the investigation with the missing girls and beams with delight when Chang is uncovered and he will get the chance to set up a tour of the lair of the phantom, bob a nob. His scenes with Litefoot are such a delight because they are such different people; one calm and collected, the other bluster and bravado and Jago's quiet admission that he is 'not so bally brave when it comes down to it' is very sweet indeed. A lot of people pinpoint the Binro/Unstoffe scenes as the zenith of Holmes' characterisation that prickles at the eyes but I think these scenes qualify too because they are such a contrast the earlier colour. Litefoot shares more scenes with the Doctor but it's his scenes with Leela where he truly shines, respecting her lack of manners rather than condemning her and joining in with her culinary eccentricities to make her feel more at home. If you had any doubt whether he was a gentleman beforehand, this seals the deal. 'They wont catch George Litefoot napping a second time!' he cries. Like Watson to the Doctor's Holmes Litefoot proves an valuable ally for the Doctor and Leela, his connections and home are somewhat abused throughout the story but he takes it all with a stiff upper lip and a confused frown. His boggled reaction to so much of the Doctor's scientific gobble-degookis wonderful, no amount of bashes on the head he receives helps him to comprehend the ridiculous babble the Time Lord spouts.

The Good Stuff:
* Move aside Hartnell historicals... I have never seen a programme, which has been built up so expertly by its dialogue. Robert Holmes is well known for turning in a memorable phrase or two but his script for Talons is a delight, imbued with a colourful sense of fantasy that is lacking from so many of his sterner tales. Whilst the distinctive location work and detailed sets help to create the images of Victorian London it is Holmes' dialogue that transplants you so effortlessly one hundred odd years back in time. His steals scream out at you as you are watching but it doesn't matter one jot, the echoes of Jack the Ripper ('Could be Jolly Jack at work again!'), Pygmalion ('I'm trying to teach you Leela'), Phantom of the Opera (the disfigured and masked Greel), Sherlock Holmes (Professor Litefoot has a housekeeper called Mrs Hudson) help to suck you deeper into the story, a joyous exploitation of one of the most interesting periods of British history. It's not a pastiche because it incorporates these elements so successfully into the story Holmes is telling without being overly intrusive. You can nod your head at these charming influences whilst still being caught up in the unique narrative. His dialogue stretches further than just conjuring up years past however, managing to paint memorable images in the viewers mind without the events even taking place. Chang's dying speech is hauntingly beautiful, the servants from the Palace of Jade coming towards him with baskets of fruit and flowers. The future is bleakly portrayed without ever being seen; The Butcher of Brisbane leaving behind a trail of dead girls, the Peking Homunculus almost causing World War Six, the Doctor standing with the Icelandic Alliance... I love how Holmes adds such depth to his tale with references like these, other writers are content to limit themselves to the story they are telling but Holmes was very fond of branching out like this and adding plenty of background colour.
* Chang and Greel make a real sinister pair; clip clopping through the streets of London in a carriage every night to seek out the Time Cabinet. The closest moment the story comes to reality sees Chang accosting a prostitute to take back to his master to feed on, the Ripper-esque horror of these scenes chills me to the bone. Like most of Holmes' villainous character this pair are both rather pathetic, Chang because he dotes so desperately on Greel under the impression he is a God and Greel because he is slowly dying and refusing to admit his Zygma experiments were little more than a footnote in history. Greel is more frightening because he is clearly desperate to fight back his death and slaughter his way through countless innocent women to achieve that. He's hysterical to the point of utter insanity and will murder anybody who gets in his way. Some of his lines ('I shall not keep you waiting long' he says to Leela who is waiting to have her energy sucked from her body, 'Now for my two partridges!') are sick and sinister. Once his mask is ripped away and we see how disfigured he truly is the tension steps up a mark. Now we know he cannot survive how far will this madman go to achieve his freedom?

* I have always been a huge fan of David Maloney's direction and agree with Philip Hinchcliffe one hundred percent when he says he was the best director on the payroll. Which Doctor Who stories stand out from each era? The Mind Robber? Maloney. Genesis of the Daleks? Maloney again. The Deadly Assassin? Oh yes. His work here is extraordinary, pulling together this mammoth tale with an eye for visuals and a talent for sheer entertainment. Go stick the DVD on and watch any five minutes and you will stumble across a moment that makes you gasp with delight. The body dragged up at the key side. Leela's reaction to Litefoot's pipe. 'Were you trying to get my attention?' The chase through the theatre. Mr Sin at the door and Leela jumping through the window. Chang and the prostitute. Leela screaming as she is gnawed away at by the giant rat. Casey found dead in the Cabinet of Death. 'Take the sting of the scorpion!' The dumb-waiter. Greel's melted face. 'I'll give you three seconds Doctor then Mr Sin will kill the girl!' Leela with the pistol. 'GREEL LISTEN!' The hypocrisy of making tea. The story is just one quality scene after another with everybody in tune with each other. Maloney's stylish direction is the icing on the cake; he chose the right actors, the right locations and the right pace for the story. The results speak for themselves.

The Bad Stuff: The rat is an obvious flaw but it's the only flaw in an otherwise stunning production. It's almost refreshing to be reminded that this is still Doctor Who.

Result: 'Sleep is for tortoises!' A great plump rich Christmas pudding of a story, that has been set aflame and contains a treasury of coinage within. Rarely have we been treated to such a luxurious story, one that takes the time to flesh out of all of its characters, tell an atmospheric and gripping tale and one that frequently dazzles with its colourful dialogue and is wrapped up in a budget-bursting production that manages to make the smallest of scenes totally believable. Add to this mix the Doctor at the height of his powers, accompanied by a companion who enriches the tale, a splendid Dudley Simpson score and a fascinating and expensive look at the Victorian era (which at this point in the series had not been explored to death) all told in six beautiful episodes that ensure nothing is rushed or underdeveloped. Whilst Robots of Death, Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin are also excellent examples of how much talent was lavished on the show during the Hinchcliffe years I feel Talons is his ultimate gift to the series, the story is attention-grabbing but it's married to a dazzling production that leaves these others in its shadow. In our reality-TV driven society of razor sharp pace and instant gratification we don't see television of Talons' standard anymore and that is such a shame. Television that is content to be beautiful and characterful, to where its influences on its sleeve and dazzle with them, television that paces itself to tell a fulsome story that leaves you sated with gourmet standard quality by its climax. Halfway through the series' first run, Doctor Who climaxed its season fourteen with the best story of its entire run. Flawlessly written, wonderfully acted and featuring some of the best direction of the time, Like reaching a fantastic orgasm for six long episodes without all the embarrassment that comes afterwards. Glorious: 10/10


Tango said...

A great end to a great era, I knew that you would give 10/10. I wonder what you think of The Butcher of Brisbane, the Big Finish sequel? For me it might be a good story if it were not for the nonsense subplot of Nyssa falling in love with Magnus Greel.

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David Pirtle said...
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Guy Grist said...

I was rewatching it earlier today it's simply wounderful. I keep finding that Tom's run has almost become my tv default setting.