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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) review and Blu-ray preview [BFI Event]

The Talons of Weng-Chiang may very well be the crowning achievement of Doctor Who‘s golden age! The closing story of Tom Baker‘s acclaimed third season in the role of the Doctor, the story is the epitome of the early Baker years under producer Phillip Hinchcliffe – a marvellous concoction of gothic horror, science fiction adventure and deft black humour, combined with striking characterisation and production values that defy the show’s measly budget.

There’s frankly no better story from Season 14 to show on the BFI’s big screen to celebrate the impending release of Doctor Who – The Collection: Season 14 on Blu-Ray. Beautifully restored and enhanced with excellent new CGI effects, this latest restoration of this classic six-part serial is the perfect way to showcase it for today’s audiences.

From the get-go, Talons captures the imagination its richly detailed brand of atmosphere-soaked Victorian horror. The witty scripts combine the criminal intrigue of Sherlock Holmes and Fu-Manchu stories with a hefty mix of Chinese mysticism, Jack the Ripper-esque terror and even a pinch of Phantom of the Opera for good measure. A lesser writer would struggle to tie all these elements up into a satisfactory narrative, but writer Robert Holmes (easily Doctor Who‘s greatest scribe) is more than up to the task. The resulting adventure is one that is both slick and detailed, the script practically ringing with sumptuous dialogue and marvellous, bold set pieces.

There’s so many production elements here that work, it’s impossible to list everything. Of particular note are guest stars Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter, each sublime as the unlikely crime-fighting double act Jago and Litefoot, who are gifted throughout with witty dialogue, rich characterisation and sumptuous interplay that simply sparkles. Elsewhere Deep Roy cuts a nightmarish presence as the killer ventriloquist’s dummy Mr. Sin, providing scares that still stand-up today, whilst in-turn, director David Maloney ensures the story’s more horrific elements never lose their edge, despite the limitations of the budget. Dudley Simpson‘s evocative and menacing musical score provides the icing atop an already well-layered and delicious televisual cake!

Most notably though, we have Tom Baker, here at his absolute peak in the role that defined him, and his companion – noble savage Leela – who is bought to stunning life by the superb Louise Jameson. Much praise has rightly been bestowed over the decades upon the inspired Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins style relationship between the two characters, itself a masterstroke of characterisation and plotting, which is enlivened by brilliant performances from Baker and Jameson throughout this serial.

Despite its well earned reputation as one of Doctor Who‘s greatest stories, the serial is incredibly problematic in terms of its depiction of Asian people, especially by today’s standards. Its use of unflattering, oft-harmful stereotypes and the casting of a white actor in yellow-faced make-up are rightly a sour note to an otherwise perfect story, and the depiction remains controversial to this day.

Thankfully, these issues were addressed in a frank but enlightening discussion between BFI hosts Justin Johnson and Dick Fiddey at the screening event, which, with input from screenwriter and BEATS (British East Asians in Screen & Theatre) representative Emma Ko, contextualised the story in terms of the time it was made and how depictions have moved on since.

As is now par for the course at these BFI events, there was also the opportunity to preview some of the exciting new extra features that accompany the episodes of Season 14 on the Blu-Ray boxset, including a preview of a new interview with actor Deep Roy discussing his varied acting career, Tom Baker, Louise Jameson and Phillip Hinchcliffe watching classic clips in more instalments of the ongoing Behind the Sofa series, and a moving feature-length documentary about the much-missed fan favourite Elisabeth Sladen. If previous sets are anything to go by, then this one looks set to be a worthy addition to any self-respecting Whovian’s collections.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang ultimately represents the very best of Doctor Who in every department – from the acting to the writing, the direction to the design elements, the music to the editing. It’s unavoidably problematic in places, which does take the shine off somewhat, but in the context of pure entertainment, there’s no denying how polished, involving and utterly enjoyable the finished product is.

Doctor Who – The Collection: Season 14 is released on Monday 4th May, and is available to pre-order now from Amazon, HMV and Zoom.

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