That is why in all boys’ papers, not only the Gem and Magnet, a Chinese is invariably portrayed with a pigtail. It is the thing you recognize him by, like the Frenchman’s beard or the Italian’s barrel-organ... As a rule it is assumed that foreigners of any one race are all alike and will conform more or less exactly to the following patterns:
FRENCHMAN: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates wildly.
SPANIARD, MEXICAN: Sinister, treacherous.
ARAB, AFGHAN: Sinister, treacherous.
CHINESE: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail.
ITALIAN: Excitable. Grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto.
SWEDE, DANE: Kind-hearted, stupid.
NEGRO: Comic, very faithful.
An evil time traveller has lost the key to his time machine. He is sick and deformed, and subsists by draining the life-energy from human victims. After a long chase, a good time traveller destroys the key, and the bad one falls into his own life-draining machine and is destroyed.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO screamed the President of the DWAS in his infamous review of Deadly Assassin.
As if in answer, Robert Holmes offers us the Talons of Weng-Chiang.
It's the perfect Doctor Who story. It is full of magic; and it has a magician at the centre of it.
In Episode 1 of the previous story, Leela had asked the Doctor to explain how the TARDIS could be bigger on the inside than the outside. The Doctor showed her two boxes, and said that one box is small, and the other box is far away. If something could be both far away and close at the same time, he explained, then big things could fit inside small things.
"That's silly" said Leela.
It's an explanation which fails to explain. It is a piece of sleight of hand. The only possible answer to the question "Why is the TARDIS bigger on the inside than on the outside?" is "Hey -- look the other way!"
That's what happened to the magic of Doctor Who. We spotted how it was done. It was a matter of misdirection.
"Next tlick; velly simple."
1850 In Memorium
1887 A Study in Scarlet
1892 Daisy, Daisy
1892 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
1895 The Time Machine
1895 The Importance of Being Earnest
1902 Down at the Old Bull and Bush
1909 The Phantom of the Opera
1911 The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God
1913 The Mystery of Doctor Fu Manchu
1919 My Old Man Said Follow The Van
1953 The Good Old Days
1963 An Unearthly Child
1977 The Talons of Weng Chiang
If you read a story about a whale, you think of Moby Dick. (Even if you have never read Moby Dick, you still think of it.) You may also think of Jonah, or Pinnocchio, or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. But you can't read a story about a whale without thinking of all the other whale stories.
This is also true of everything else.
When a man in a clerical collar walks onto the stage you know he is going to be a Vicar. But you also know what kind of a Vicar he is going to be. One kind if the play is called Whoops, There Go My Trousers! another kind if it is called My Awful Miserable Irish Catholic Childhood.
Talons of Weng-Chiang is more than usually reliant on cliches and stereotypes. We know what to expect from each character the moment they come on stage. In the first few minutes of the first episode we meet
a stereotypical theatre owner ("so many feats of superlative, supernatural skill!)
a stereotypical Cockney cabbie ("she come in here last night and nobody ain't seen her since")
a stereotypical Irish workman ("hideous it was, hideous")
a stereotypical English peeler ("well, if that don't take the biscuit")
a stereotypical police doctor ("upon my soul!")
and a stereotypical Chinese conjurer ("honoulable master kind to bestow plaise on humble Chang's miserlable, unworthy head.")
To have one stereotype might be regarded as a misfortune. To have six seems like carelessness.
And it isn't only the characters: every setting, every scene, almost every plot beat is weirdly familiar.
Of course, it is foggy. We are in Victorian London: how could it not be? Everyone travels everywhere by hansom cab. The only streets which do not look like sinister rookeries are the ones which look like Baker Street. (There is a bale of hay on Baker Street, reputedly to conceal an inconveniently anachronistic horseless carriage that someone had parked there.) Women keep disappearing: the papers are saying that Jack the Ripper has struck again. There were other Victorian murderers; but Jack the Ripper is the one we have heard of.
The police pull a dead body out of the river. An old woman, credited only as "ghoul" watches the proceedings. "Look, there it is guv....It's a floater, all right..." She is played by Patsy Smith, who specialised in dotty and eccentric older ladies. (She took her dentures out for the part.) She makes us think of the toothless whores in Les Miserables and indeed of the Wise Woman about whom Black Adder knew only two things.
It is important to the story that a body has been pulled from the river, but a policeman gives the Doctor this crucial piece of information in the very next scene. We didn't need to see it happen. But corpses and barges and rivers and dotty mad ghoulish women who call everyone "gov" are part of the Victorian setting. It may possibly make us think of the opening of Our Mutual Friend.
The scene is not there to advance the plot. The plot, such as it is, is there to provide an excuse or a pretext for the scene.
And that is also true of everything else.
In Episode 3 we see the Sinister Chinese Conjurer perform his act. (The Conjurer is called Chang: his sinister master is called Chiang. There is an old joke about a Chinese telephone book which I am not going to repeat.) Before Chang comes on stage at the Music Hall, we catch the end of the preceding act: a cockney lady singing Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do (I'm half crazy, all for my love of you!) Leela, rather delightfully, thinks they are at some kind of religious ceremony and worries that she does not know the correct responses. A snatch of the song also appeared in the incidental music when the Doctor stepped onto the stage at the end of Episode 2.
There were lots of popular songs in the eighteen-hundreds: but Daisy, Daisy is the one we think of when we think of Music Hall. People still think it is the kind of song which goes down well with the inmates at the local Old Folks Home, even though your average octogenarian is more likely to have grown up with Rock Around The Clock. The song is a signifier of Victorian-ness. It is there to tell us we are in the Olden Days.
And that is also true of everything else.
At the beginning of Episode 2, Chiang tells Chang that he needs a new victim. Chiang is a kind of science-vampire: to stay alive he has to drain life energy from human victims. "You must bring another linnet to my cage", he says. Not a mouse or a rat: a linnet. I am not absolutely sure what a linnet is: but I know Victorians kept them in cages. The captive born of noble rage, the linnet born within the cage. Off went the van with my home packed in it; I walked behind with my old cock linnet. My Old Man Said Follow The Van is the second song you think of when you think of Music Hall. It stands for the Olden Days almost as much as the Bicycle Made For Two does. It wasn't written until 1919; twenty years after the death of Queen Victoria. The Mystery of Fu Manchu came out in 1913. The Olden Days lasted a long time.
In Episode 2, the Doctor tells Professor Litefoot that he found Leela floating down the Amazon in a hatbox. Litefoot incredulously replies "a HAT box?". A trace of a smile goes across the Doctor's face. Either the Doctor, or Tom Baker gets the joke: but Litefoot decidedly doesn't..
Litefoot himself is a bit of a joke. He is, to all intents and purposes, the same character as Doctor Watson. A decent chap, but with all the prejudices and assumptions of his age, and an absolute knack for getting the wrong end of every available stick. After the unfortunate cab-driver has been assassinated by a malevolent ventriloquist's dummy, Litefoot leaps to the conclusion that the cabbie "got stupidly drunk and picked a fight with a dwarf". The Doctor has foregone his floppy hat and scarf, and spends the story dressed in a paisley jacket, tweed trousers, and a deerstalker hat. Theatrical manager Jago goes so far as to say that the Doctor solves most of Scotland Yard's cases and allows them to take the credit; and that the Doctor and Litefoot are the most formidable duo in the annals of criminology. Jago also discovers a masked, deformed murderer living underneath his theatre. The Doctor says that his adversary is like a vampire. He explains that Chiang is looking for a lost Time Machine. No-one seems to have read Oscar Wilde, or Conan Doyle or Gaston Leroux or Bram Stoker or H.G Wells. And certainly not Sax Rohmer.
Talons of Weng-Chiang is a Victorian fiction entirely constructed out of other Victorian fiction: but none of the Victorians have read the books. How could they possibly have done?
"On my oath, gov, you wouldn't want that served with onions" says the madwoman. Considering what the Whitechapel murderer used to do to his victims, this remark is in especially poor taste.
The Doctor arrives in a city where a number of young women have mysteriously disappeared. It turns out that they have been kidnapped by cultists. It turns out that the leader of the cult is a cult-leader and that he is using mind control powers to control their minds. It turns out that the cult leader works for a being he thinks is a god. It turns out that the god feeds by sucking the life energy from the kidnapped women. It turns out that he is searching the city for a valuable artefact. It turns out that the god is really a war-criminal from the far future and the valuable artefact is a time machine. The Doctor beats him in the end.
Talons of Weng Chiang does not have a plot. It has a series of links, of stitches, pathways which get us from one trope to the next. The links are intricate; the story is brilliantly constructed; a perfectly oiled narrative machine. But the paths lead nowhere. The story is bound together by nonsense.
If you are a Doctor Who fan, you have seen Talons of Weng Chiang a hundred times. But I wonder if you could write a coherent summary: draw a map of which McGuffin propels which character to which location in which episode? One link leads to another, but there is Nothing At The End of the Chain.
Leela is menaced by a giant rat in the sewer. She is in the sewer because she and the Doctor witnessed a murder and believe that is where the body must have been thrown. They believe the body must have been thrown into the sewer because the sewer flows into the river and that's where the body was found. The man was murdered because he came to the theater to ask the conjuror about the whereabouts of his wife. The conjuror abducted his wife because he is the servant of a Chinese God called Weng-Chiang. Weng-Chiang needs victims because he drains their life energy. Chang is posing as a conjuror because this provides a stream of female victims. They have to be female victims because... because... because...
The endless chain of arbitrary links makes Talons of Weng-Chiang more than usually re-watchable. We forget the details; so we are surprised every time we watch the story. We enjoy saying "Aha!" every time Jago finds the glove bearing the monogram of the wife of the cab driver who was found dead in the river in the cellar of the theatre...
Robert Holmes' script may sometimes do a little too much showing and not quite enough telling. In Episode 4 Leela sees Chang kidnapping a woman, and follows them back to his lair. Leela sees the captive woman: Leela sees a wardrobe. We see Chang take the woman to Chiang. And then we see the the woman is in the wardrobe. We have to infer that Leela has switched clothes with the woman: and Holmes doesn't give us much time to do so. But this tends to make the story even more memorable. We have to give it our full attention. The viewer collaborates with the writer.
There are several moments in the story when I think -- "Hang on: what is Leela doing in Chiang's lair" and "Wait a minute, why is the Doctor back in the theatre?" In each case, I went back a few moves and found that there was, in fact, a decent reason. Only the meaning of Chang's "Chinese puzzle" clue to the whereabouts of Chiang's lair in Episode 6 leaves me baffled after multiple rewatches.
Some of it is contrived. The Doctor makes friends with Prof. Litefoot; Prof. Litefoot is conducting an autopsy on the body recovered from the river. (The body of the cab driver who came to the theatre to ask the Chinese conjurer if he knew what happened to his wife...) We know that the man was murdered by the Chinese martial arts ninja; we know that the the Chinese martial arts ninja are connected to the Chinese conjuror; and we know that the Chinese conjuror is looking for a Chinese McGuffin which is located somewhere in London. And suddenly, out of the blue Litefoot remembers that he just happens to have been brought up in China, and he just happens to have in his possession a mysterious Chinese cabinet that just happens to have been gifted to his late father by the Emperor himself... But this kind of contrivance is itself a Victorian cliche: the implausible plot developments make the story even more like itself.
"Aha!" we all say.
The McGuffins bring the characters together and separate them. The Doctor and Leela. Leela and Litefoot, the Doctor and Jago. Litefoot and the Doctor. And finally, inevitably, Litefoot and Jago. It is fun to watch Litefoot being the perfect Victorian gentleman while Leela eats whole joints of meat with her fingers. It is fun to watch him playing Watson to the Doctor's Holmes. And it is fun to watch blustering braggart Jago admitting that he is a coward and silly old fashioned Litefoot telling him that’s okay. Of course they don’t move the story forward. They get captured, they try to escape, they get captured again, and they get rescued by the Doctor. But Jago and Litefoot aren’t there to advance the plot. If anything they are the to slow it down. The plot exists in order to force Jago and Litefoot to spend some time together.
Five thousand years in the future, the earth is experiencing a new ice-age and the human race is dabbling with dangerous new technology. Chinese scientists create a cyborg with the brain of a pig: they give it to the children of the Icelandic Commissioner as a toy, as you would; but it turns out to be so malevolent that it causes a war between Iceland and South East Asia; with the Doctor fighting on the Philippine side.
Meanwhile an Australian politician, Magnus Greel -- becomes involved in an experiment, created by one Prof Findicker, to create a working Time Machine. This Time Machine uses zigma energy; human DNA; and psychic power: many thousands of humans are sacrificed to make it work. Greel is branded a war criminal, and uses the experimental time machine to escape. He takes the psychotic Chinese pig-doll with him. For some reason.
He arrives in China sometime after 1861, during the reign of emperor Tong Chi. Tong Chi's soldiers take the Time Machine from him, leaving him trapped in the nineteenth century. The zigma energy or possibly something else has effected his body, causing him to become horribly deformed. A Chinese peasant forms the impression that he is the deity Weng-Chiang. Greel gives the peasant powerful mind control powers, because he can, for some reason. The peasant becomes the leader of a cult of kung-fu ninja who worship Weng-Chiang.
In 1860, Brigadier General Litefoot travels to China to put down a rebellion during the opium wars. After the war, he remains as a British representative in the Imperial court, and has a child, George. The Brigadier dies prior to 1875, and his wife returns to England with their son. The emperor gives them the Time Machine (not knowing its significance) as a gift.
Over the next decade and a half, Greel, the Peasant and the Mannequin try to track the Time Cabinet down, eventually tracing it to London some time after 1888.
Greel constructs a device which sucks the life energy from human females (to sustain him, as he still hasn't recovered from travelling through time). The process of building the device causes rats and spiders to grow to enormous size. For some reason. He trains them to respond to a Chinese gong and uses them to guard his lair. The Peasant pretends to be a stage conjuror and the killer mannequin pretends to be a ventriloquist’s dummy. He uses his mind control powers to hypnotise pretty ladies as part of his act and brings them down to Greel's lair afterwards, so Greel can feed on them. The energy draining machine only works on pretty ladies. For some reason. Eventually, he works out that the cabinet is still in the possession of Brigadier Litefoot's son, now a police doctor, who, by a staggering coincidence, is investigating murders committed by Greel's cultists and the dummy.
He tries to get it back and go back to the future but the Doctor stops him.
On the surface, Talons of Weng-Chiang is a Victorian melodrama about Fu Manchu and Jack the Ripper and the Phantom of the Opera. But beneath the surface, it is "really" about a war criminal from the future and a murderous toy and a failed experiment in time travel.
Many Doctor Who stories work along these lines. Pyramids of Mars is a spooky story about an Egyptian curse in an Edwardian country house; but the Egyptian god is "really" an evil alien. Brain of Morbius is a loving pastiche of a Hammer Frankenstien movie; but it is "really" the story of an evil Time Lord and a failed revolution. The story of the Osirans is part of our enjoyment of Pyramids of Mars; and the story of Gallifrey and the Sisterhood of Kahn is a big part of our enjoyment of Brain of Morbius. But Magnus Greel, the Peking Homunculus and the Fifth, or possibly Sixth, World War have almost zero contribution to our enjoyment of Talons of Weng-Chiang. They don't amount to a back-story; they are just a hand-wave. They aren't even pseudo-science, they are just noise.
"Look -- over there!"
There are giant rats. The murder victim has bite wounds and preternaturally long rat hairs on his body. So there must be giant rats.
The Chinese Ninja belong to a Tong which worships Weng Chiang: and the Doctor notes that Weng Chiang is legendarily a god of abundance. So that explains why there are giant rats.
Leela describes the police officers as "blue guards" and it occurs to the Doctor that the giant rats must have been put in the sewers as guards. So that explains why there are giant rats.
The masked phantom living in the sewers beneath the cellar of the theatre is guarded by giant sewer rats. Of course he is. What else would he be guarded by? One of the untold tales of Sherlock Holmes involved a giant rat. Sumatra is a long way from Iceland, but not too far from the Philippines.
Doctor Who often seems to be driven by brain-storming: by an association of images. If the story is set in Italy then there will be intrigue, and torture, and astrology, and sword fights, and an evil Duke, and Leonardo Da Vinci, and salami. Scotland suggests bagpipes, moors, oil rigs, lairds, haggis, and lake monsters. So if this is the nineteenth century, of course there is a phantom underneath the theatre, and of course he is ugly, and of course he has a hat and a mask and of course he is guarded by rats.
But Weng-Chiang isn't really a Chinese god. He's a war criminal from three thousand years in the future with a broken time machine. This piece of information should make everything else -- the mask, the rats, the hypnotism, the vampirism, the evil Chinese martial arts ninja -- fall into place. There should come a moment in the story when we can say "There was a perfectly sensible reason why all the science fiction things this Time Travelling Australian Butcher was doing would just happen to look like a Bram Stoker / Sax Rohmer / Conan Doyle mash up. Aha!"
But this moment entirely fails to come. It pointedly fails. Holmes' solution doesn't merely fail to make sense: it jumps up and down, waving its hands in the air, singing "Sense oh sense, oh sense, sense is what I do not make!"
The Doctor says that Weng-Chiang -- Magnus Greel -- is deformed because "with his DNA helixes split open, the more cells he absorbs into himself, the more deformed he becomes.”
"And the rats?" asks Leela
"Just an experiment. He had to gauge the strength of the psionic amplification field. The rats were handy. After that, they were useful as sewer guards"
Leela doesn't reply "That's silly" but I rather wish she had.
What is a psionic amplification field? "Psionic" normally refers to mind powers, and Chiang has given Chang "mental powers undreamt of in this century": but why would that make rats grow, particularly? Chiang's deformity has something to do with the way in which he is preying on human females. But it also has something to do with his use of the Time Cabinet. And if he mends the Time Cabinet, something called Zigma energy will destroy London. Because of elastic.
The evil ventriloquist's dummy is a decent enough idea. The puppet seems to move of its own volition; Jago finds blood on its hands. It helps to kill the cabbie in part 1 and tries to kill Leela in part 2 and Litefoot in part 3. A lot of people find dummies -- like clowns -- creepy and uncanny: inert caricatures of a human that seem to be alive but isn’t. But there is nothing particularly creepy or uncanny about a robot with a pig's brain. We have met artificial humans before. Last week there was a Sand Miner full of them. There aren't a lot of obvious Victorian precursors to Mr Sin: perhaps Victorian dolls weren't lifelike enough to be spooky. Holmes seems to flirt with the idea that Mr Sin is the instigator of the plot: the idea of a puppet that controls its master has obvious horror potential. We are told that the dummy is in reality "The Peking Homunculus"; that it is notoriously evil; that it almost started a war. It looks like a doll because it was constructed as a toy: it turned evil because it has a pig's brain. "It has a pig's brain" is a non-explanation, on a level with "that box is small and that box is far away." We don't generally think of pigs as especially psychotic animals. And it isn't quite clear that having a pig's brain would make a wooden robot grunt. Mr Sin seemed spooky and uncanny, but he is really only a small wooden psychopath.
Tom Baker once said that the role of the Doctor required him to speak complete nonsense with total conviction -- something which his Catholic background and flirtation with the priesthood gave him ample practice in. Neither part of that statement is completely fair. But I think it is true that we remember lines like "I was with the Filipino army at the final advance on Reykjavik" because of Tom Baker's starry-eyed delivery. It is a good line. I think Russell T Davies went a bit overboard in saying it was as good as anything Dennis Potter ever wrote, but it is a good line nonetheless. If it had been given to Jon Pertwee or Peter Davison we wouldn't remember it.
How does an army get from South East Asia to Scandinavia? Has "Reykjavik" come in simply because of the reference to the New Ice Age in episode 5? If Greel is the Butcher of Brisbane, does that mean he is an Australian? Or is he a Philippine who committed an atrocity against the Australians? So why does he have a posh English accent? And why does his Time Machine have nineteenth century Chinese styling?
There are fan fiction explanations. There are novels and audio plays. But in the original TV context the lines don’t make sense and deliberately don't make sense. Holmes has written "I was the butcher of .... the least plausible city you could think of... I was with the army of...somewhere incredibly unlikely....in the last advance on...somewhere even more incredibly unlikely..." He is signalling to the audience, as clearly as he possibly can, that these lines don’t really refer to anything at all.
Doctor Who deals in pseudo-science all the time. But pseudo-science is different from nonsense. We don't know how the TARDIS works, or what a fluid link is, but we understand perfectly well that he needs some mercury to make the TARDIS fly. We don't know how the Sash of Rassilon works, but we understand that someone wearing it can get close to the Eye of Harmony, which would otherwise kill them.
But this is not pseudo-science. It is nonsense. Misdirection. Don't think about this. If you think about this the magic will go away.
Why are there giant rats? Because.
Why is Greel deformed? Science.
Why is Mr Sin? Because science.
Why is the Time Cabinet? Science.
What is Greel trying to do? Science. DNA. Zigma energy. Psionic amplificiation. Pig's brains. This box is big, and that box is far away.
Next tlick: velly simple.
At the end of Episode 5, Leela pulls off Chiang's mask and reveals the deformed face...of the Master. He was last seen escaping from Gallifrey in a grandfather clock three stories ago.
And in this single image, everything in the story makes sense. The innocent victims (the Master has run out of regenerations); the Time Cabinet (the Master's TARDIS has a chameleon circuit); Chiang's powers of hypnosis (he's the Master) and his general malevolence (he's the Master).
Once you know this, it is impossible to unknow it.
Of course Greel was originally meant to be the Master. Look at Chang kneeling to Chiang in Episode 2, very much as Goth knelt to the Master in Deadly Assassin. Think how much more sense it would make if Chiang had said "a Time Lord would not ask questions" rather than "a Time Agent would not ask questions". (Time Agents are not mentioned again, in this story, or in any other story. They indirectly cause Torchwood in the New Era.) And listen to Chang describing one of his victims as "a morsel that will feed my regeneration".
"Because Chiang is the Master" is a very good answer to the question "Why are there giant rats in the sewers?” The Master is a villain by profession, so of course he is doing the kinds of things a villain would do. Very probably he is the archetype on whom the legends of Dracula and Jack the Ripper were based; just as surely as the Doctor and Litefoot gave rise to the legend of Holmes and Watson.
But Hinchcliff vetoed the Master. He didn't want to use the same villain twice in one season. (Tell that to Barry Letts and John Nathan-Turner.) So "The Master, who has run out of regenerations is searching for his TARDIS" had to become "Just Some Villain, who is deformed, for some reason, is searching for some kind of time machine".
The Master himself is only a plot device. He is a useful tool for explaining why there are demons in English country churches and killer plastic daffodils on the high street. He is a baddie because he is a baddie and we accept that he is a baddie and skip over the explanations. Holmes did not replace an established villain with a new one. He replaced a well established plot device with a hastily improvised one.
The producer said "I think we are making too much use of the sonic screwdriver".
"Very well," replied the script writer. "In this story the Doctor will open a locked door with his luminous door opening courgette."
Feb 1972: First season of Kung Fu begins on ITV
Dec 1973: First issue of Marvel Comics Master of Kung Fu
5 Mar 1975: Vengeance of Fu Manchu starring Christopher Lee shown on BBC 1
24 Apr 1976: New season of the Black and White Minstrel Show begins on BBC 1
4 Sep 1976: Two Ronnies Season 5 begins on BBC 1
4 Sep 1976: Season 15 of Doctor Who begins on BBC 1
5 Sep 1976: First Season of The Muppet Show begins on ITV
23 Oct 1976: Two Ronnies Season 5 ends
11 Feb 1977: Woman murdered by serial killer in Leeds
12 Feb 1977: First season of The Muppet Show ends
24 Feb 1977: Larry Grayson and Hinge and Bracket star in the Good Old Days on BBC 1
26 Feb 1977: Talons of Weng Chiang begins
10 Mar 1977: Arthur Askey and Josef Lock star in the Good Old Days on BBC 1
2 Apr 1977: Talons of Weng Chiang ends
23 Apr 1977: Woman murdered by serial killer in Leeds.
13 Jun 1977: Two Ronnies Season 5 repeated
12 Jul 1977: New series of the Black and White Minstrel Show begins on BBC 1
16 Jun 1978: Final series of the Black and White Minstrel show begins on BBC 1
22 May 1981: Peter Sutcliffe sentenced to life in prison for the murders of at least thirteen women in and around Leeds.
30 Sep 1983: Vengeance of Fu Manchu starring Christopher Lee shown on BBC 1
25 Mar 1987: Vengeance of Fu Manchu starring Christopher Lee shown on BBC 1
18 May 1989: Vengeance of Fu Manchu starring Christopher Lee shown on BBC 1
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Talons of Weng-Chiang does not begin with sinister Chinese conjurors or psychopathic mannequins: and it very emphatically does not beging with the assassination of the president of Iceland. It begins with a theatre audience The theatre audience is applauding wildly. One of the ladies is wearing a flowery straw hat, tied under the chin. One of the men has a pipe in the corner of his mouth; another is smoking one of those curly calabash pipes we associate with detectives. And there is a younger fellow in a red uniform: he could be a soldier, a bell-boy or a character from a box of Quality Street.
It is 1977. We know where we are. Not in the Nineteenth Century. Not in Victorian Times. Not in Dickensian London.
In the good old days.
Come, come, come and make eyes at me
Down at the Old Bull and Bush...
Doctor Who began in 1963. The BBC had already been broadcasting a show called The Good Old Days for a decade. It eventually clocked up thirty seasons: the Doctor only managed twenty seven.
Some people say that the age of music hall ended with the death of Max Miller. He died the same year Doctor Who started. Many people who watched An Unearthly Child would have had memories of seeing Marie Lloyd sing My Old Man Said Follow the Van live. The good old days were not that long ago.
Victorian music halls were rough, boozy places and the jokes were dirty by the standards of the day; the Good Old Days was a very sanitised exercise in nostalgia. A resident dance troupe performed elaborately choreographed song and dance routines incorporating medleys of the old songs, but big name contemporary performers like Roy Castle and Ken Dodd did roughly the same turn they would have done in any other revue. It wasn't glitzy: for that you went to Sunday Night at the London Palladium on the other side. But it was popular and well-loved and an institution in its own right. The audience were encouraged to dress up in Victorian clothes: there was a long waiting list for tickets.
The show was chaired by Leonard Sachs (latterly Borusa in Arc of Infinity) who gave absurdly wordy, alliterative introductions often translating them back into plain English for the benefit of an imaginary ignoramus in the audience. "An exuberantly extrovert extravaganza of uninhibited hilarity and equilibristic acumen....funny acrobatics!"
Jago is the first (and indeed last) person to speak in Talons of Weng Chiang. His dialogue is pure Sachs. "I shall doubtless descry those lugubrious liniments at the crepuscular hour". When we first saw Talons of Weng-Chiang, we felt that we were watching the Phantom of the Leeds Variety Theatre; seeing unconvincing rats menace the Good Old Days; watching the host of our favourite light entertainment show trying to escape from the Tong by means of a dumb waiter.
It is worth noting that the day after Season 14 of Doctor Who began, ITV launched the most sensational inspirational, celebrational Muppet Show -- which also involved an old-fashioned theatre, views of an enthusiastic audience, back stage action, and an unthreatening puppet rat. Variety was very much in the air.
Come, come, drink some port wine with me
Down at the old Bull and Bush
Almost as popular as the Good Old Days, and very nearly as old fashioned was the Two Ronnies. Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker weren't quite a double act, and their show doesn’t quite have the cachet of Morecambe and Wise. But their weekly confection of sketches, monologues and silly songs, are very fondly remembered.
The show included a weekly serial, usually a parody, in a different comedic style from the rest of the programme. They haven't worn very well: The Worm That Turned was a pitch-perfect skit on BBC dystopian fiction based on the terrifying premise that, er, feminists have taken over the world. (There was also a cod police drama called Death Can Be Fatal.) Season 5's serial (September/October 1976) was a Victorian melodrama, written by the great Spike Milligan. The Ronnies normally dealt in puns and mild innuendo but this was much more in the surreal vein of Milligan's Goon Show.
It runs through all the expected Victorian cliches: dense police officers, Queens who are not amused, and a shoe-maker who just happens to have royal connections. (There is a sign outside his shop reading "Cobblers to the Queen".) There is a lot of fog. A figure in absurd traditional Chinese dress appears alongside a Scotsman in a kilt, a vicar with a dog collar, and a man in an old fashioned swim-suit at a police identity parade. "It's so hard to choose..." says the eye witness "They all look so alike!"
Now, in Episode 3 of Talons of Weng-Chiang, there is a brief cameo appearance by a young woman named Teresa. (She's the one who Leela cleverly switches clothes with.) It is mildly insinuated that she is a prostitute: but most of us would have associated her with Eliza in My Fair Lady. (You can't help hearing Audrey Hepburn's voice when she protests "I'm a lady!") East End rhyming slang is a real thing but when someone says "all I want is a pair of smoked kippers, a cup of rosie and put me plates up for a few hours, savvy" we understand that we are in the presence of a Stage Cockney.
Having been rescued by Leela, Teresa notices the poster of Chang on the theatre wall, realises he is the person who kidnapped her, and exclaims "It's him! It's him!".
And along with two thirds of the audience, I instantly interpolated the voice of Ronnie Barker into the soundtrack:
"It's....the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town!"
Milligan's Raspberry Blower, who wanders the fog-shrouded streets of London, surprising women and sticking his tongue out at them, is a burlesque version of the Whitechapel Murderer. When Casey, Jago's painfully Irish factotum, hears that a woman has been kidnapped from the theatre, he wonders whether Jack the Ripper has struck again.
A few weeks before the BBC showed Talons of Weng-Chiang, a woman named Irene Richardson was murdered in Leeds, Yorkshire. A few weeks afterwards, a woman named Patricia Atkinson was similarly murdered in Bradford. The press took to referring to the killer as the Yorkshire Ripper: the police received a tape recorded message, purporting to come from the murderer, who referred to himself as Jack.
The Phantom of the Opera. The Yorkshire Ripper. The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town. The Good Old Days. My Fair Lady. The Muppet Show.
Everything is intertextual. Nothing happens in a vacuum. A whale is never just a whale.
Do, do, come and have a drink or two
Down at the old bull and bush, bush, bush
C.S Lewis didn't like the Three Musketeers very much. He said that it didn't have any atmosphere: it was just a sequence of thrilling adventures, without any sense of place. On the other hand he enjoyed stories like Last of the Mohicans because they conveyed the atmosphere of the mythical American wilderness -- what he unfortunately described as "Redskinnery". Wagner is full of "northernness" and Squirrel Nutkin contains "the idea of autumn". Hamlet is a collection of images which cumulatively convey the atmosphere of death. Real places have atmosphere too: we can speak of the Londonness of London and the Donegality of Donegal.
In his silly book about astrological symbolism, Michael Ward tries to get us to adopt the term Donegality as meaning "atmosphere-in-Lewis's-sense".
When the first generation of fans lamented the passing away of "magic" from Doctor Who, I don't think that they were merely looking at their childhoods round the telly through rose tinted spectacles, though doubtless that was part of it. I think they were talking about Donegality. Very Old Who can be boring, sexist, repetitive and silly. But it had a sense of place which the more sophisticated stories didn't do nearly so well. When I watch Season 1 I do feel a sense of the Skaro-ness of Skaro, the Stone-Age-ness of the Stone Age -- and, crucially, the TARDISness of the TARDIS. It is hard to point to Season 14 and say that you have experienced the Sand-Miner-ness of the Sand Miner or the Kastianess of Kastia.
In the aftermath of Deadly Assassin, the stories which were most frequently said to have restored the old "magic" to the show were precisely the ones with a strong sense of place -- for example Ribos Operation and Keeper of Traken.
Doctor Who is about Time Travel. The TARDIS is a magic box. We don't want historical fiction. We don't want a plot that makes sense. We don't necessarily want a good story. What we want is to feel that the time cabinet has taken us back to the good old days.
Talons of Weng-Chiang gives us that feeling. A feeling of time and place. The cumulative effect of tropes, cliches, stereotypes. Atmosphere. Donegality. Magic. The Victorianness of Victorian times.
Next season, the show's penultimate producer will take over. It will become the show I remember best; the show I fell in love with: Tom Baker will become truly “my Doctor”. There will be weird aliens, cosmic plots, a robot dog and jelly babies. It will drink at the same well as Douglas Adams and George Lucas. But it will also become increasingly low budget and silly. And then, in the final years, it will turn from self-parody to fan-fiction, intelligible only to devotees.
Talons of Weng-Chiang is the perfect Doctor Who story. Talons of Weng-Chiang is the final example of Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who was created to do. Talons of Weng-Chiang is the fulfilment of the promise of An Unearthly Child. Talons of Weng-Chiang may not have been the greatest Doctor Who story. It was certainly not the last good Doctor Who story. But Talons of Weng-Chiang was the last Doctor Who story I felt I didn't need to apologise for.
It is also incredibly racist.
If I get another fiver in my patron I'll have a listen to the Big Finish Jago/Litefoot spin off audio.