Doctor Who episode 448: The Talons of Weng-Chiang – Part One (26/2/1977)
This opens on stage, and having established it, never shakes a sense of theatricality, melodrama and grand guignol. I think this strong stylistic sense is a massive strength of the story: one of the reasons why it remains in most top tens of Classic Doctor Who. The script is gleefully over the top, packed with florid dialogue, and David Maloney’s direction brilliantly exploits this. The scenes set on the theatre stage are shot exactly like you’d expect from a teal televised stage show: lots of wide shots to show the audience or whole stage, with some close ups of specific action. As soon as the camera goes backstage though it’s suddenly cramped, up close and handheld, verité rather than deliberate artifice of the stage scenes.
That’s also reflected in Chang himself: on stage, dressed in cliched Mandarin robes, as soon as he gets offstage he’s in everyday Victorian dress. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Leela are in on the act as well, dressed as Sherlock Holmes and a street urchin. When the three meet, the Doctor recognises Chang as a stage magician, and initially assumes the Tong Prisoner’s dramatic death is a trick. This is all immense fun.
That’s necessary, because the storyline skirts with ideas quite unsuitable for a child audience: Jack the Ripper is explicitly mentioned; women are going missing (presumably to be murdered); a horribly mutilated corpse is found floating in the Thames (‘Make a ‘norse sick’), and the atmosphere is generally more miasmic and grisly even than The Brain of Morbius. Plus hints of that late-in-the-day Hammer Horror The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires which combines Eastern mysticism and kung-fu with British imperialism.
There are also callbacks to the last two stories: a Janis thorn from The Face of Evil, and Mr Sin’s left hand dripping with blood in the same way as a Voc robot’s in The Robots of Death. This perhaps gives more sense of connection across Leela’s first three stories than exists in reality: this tends to make Leela seem more primitive than she did on the Sandminer, and the Doctor’s attitude is more obviously Henry Higginsish than previously.
Next episode: The Talons of Weng-Chiang – Part Two