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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts five and six)

As if there weren’t enough reasons to love this story, in part five, the two halves of the investigation collide, and Christopher Benjamin’s motormouthed theater owner Henry Gordon Jago calls on Trevor Baxter’s very reserved and correct medical gentleman Professor George Litefoot, and the two do their utmost to steal the show right out from under the star. They are incredibly watchable together, like capturing lightning in a bottle.

There was, briefly, a proposal for the BBC to give Jago and Litefoot their own show, but it came to nothing. It finally fell to the people at Big Finish to give them a long series of audio plays that began in 2010 and only ended last year after the sad death of Trevor Baxter. There are more than fifty hour-long episodes of Jago & Litefoot available on CD and download. In a better world, we’d have had that many TV episodes in the seventies, so damn and blast those stupid people at the BBC for not making them.

I mean honestly, David Maloney went from this story into pre-production of Blake’s 7. That show’s okay, but I would gladly, gladly swap all 52 of those with the parallel universe where Jago & Litefoot was made instead.

Anyway, part five ends with a cliffhanger that had our son leaping out of his skin. Leela pulls the mask of the villain, a war criminal from three thousand years in Earth’s future called Magnus Greel, and reveals a melting, blobby mess, the result of the energy from these failed experiments in time travel causing his cells to break down. He went behind the sofa and waited right there until the recap was over. Overall, the more-complex-than-usual story and shelves full of literary allusions all conspired to make this not one of his favorite stories, but he absolutely loved the climax, and was completely delighted with the Doctor hearing the bells of a street vendor and treating all his friends to some muffins.

And with this, we come to the end of an era. With Philip Hinchcliffe moved off the show, the new producer would be Graham Williams, who will not get to enjoy the stability and continuity of a production team or actors that his predecessor had, and would be putting out fires and managing some pretty cruel budgetary restrictions before his era will come to an ignominious end with a story being canceled midstream. There are still some great stories to come, but there are also going to be far more turkeys than we’ve seen in the previous three seasons. That said, there are three or four stories coming up that I haven’t seen in many years and have mostly forgotten. I enjoyed “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster” far more than conventional wisdom suggests, so we might have some fun to come…

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll start watching season fifteen in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts three and four)

This is so good. There’s an amazing moment in part four where the Doctor attends what turns out to be Li H’sen Chang’s final stage performance. We know that Chang intends to kill the Doctor, and the Doctor’s also got a pretty shrewd idea that’s what he’s planning. Chang brandishes a pistol as part of his stage act. Earlier, we saw him load it. Is he planning to kill the Doctor in an “accident?” Just to press home the point, without blinking, the Doctor moves the target closer to his own face. You can hear a pin drop.

The whole story is just terrific. The direction, the design, and all of the performances are as good as you could get in 1977. It’s even better than I remembered it.

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts one and two)

We’ve come to the completely amazing “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” and it’s not going to be one of our son’s favorite Who stories. We took a short break between episodes to explain the cultural background to the adventure and noticed he was really, really tired. He spent the night with a buddy last night and got maybe six hours of sleep and played hard most of the day. He and I may have to watch these two parts again tomorrow afternoon, and I wouldn’t object if we do.

“Talons” is the farewell outing for director David Maloney, who had helmed many adventures in the seventies and was moving on to other jobs, and for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was being moved to other jobs. A teevee watchdog group had been giving the BBC headaches about the violence of the last season or two, hitting new heights of grievance this year, so Hinchcliffe was told that he’d be producing a new cop show called Target after this story, while the fellow who devised and developed Target, Graham Williams, would get Hinchcliffe’s job.

And so they go out with a bang, overspending massively and visibly on one of Robert Holmes’ very best scripts. “Talons” is a love letter to Victorian fiction and lore. As we explained to our son, this is not quite the real world, it’s the world of Sax Rohmer novels and Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where Jack the Ripper is on everyone’s mind, and that Giant Rat of Sumatra that Dr. Watson never could bring himself to write about is crawling around the London sewers. The Doctor dresses as Holmes and Leela is playing Eliza Doolittle.

We also explained the elephant in the room that troubles everybody who writes about “Talons” in this time: in 1977, there were enough people at the BBC to decide it would be okay for a white actor to get his eyes pulled back and made up to play Li H’Sen Chang. I don’t object to the depiction of all the Chinese characters as just part of a criminal gang; this is a story about archetypes from the idealized world of tawdry literature. Many people may love Doyle, Collins, Reginald Barrett, and all those Rivals that Hugh Greene anthologized, and many others may venerate them, but it’s tawdry literature all the same, and not the real world.

I wish that they had not cast John Bennett as Chang, just as I wish they had not cast Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in those movies he made. But they did, and the world at the time found it acceptable, and I’m not going to condemn them for it from a position of We Know Better These Days. We told our son that We Do, in fact, Know Better These Days, as we often do, and he gets that this is old TV and that a program made today would find a Chinese actor for a role like this.

Other than this disagreeable casting, the production is excellent. Leela has a lot to do and she’s incredibly amusing dropped into polite Victorian society. Christopher Benjamin is all kinds of fun as the theater owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and there’s a living ventriloquist doll who stalks around the foggy streets of London with a knife. There’s just so much to love in this story.

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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (part four)

I’m glad to report that our son mostly came around in the end. He gave this one what you might call a “nearly thumbs up.” It might have helped that the Wirrn are stomping around in their full wasp form in this episode instead of being either a blobby, single-eyed horror behind glass or a big carpet roll of bubble wrap. Not that the full insect form is all that impressive a costume – are they supposed to be sliding along on their stingers or something? – but it looks like a proper monster and it sounds like a proper monster instead of the actor slowly being transformed, horrifically, into a hideous green thing. The almost existential, “creepy” terror of the previous episodes gives way to more conventional heroes versus monsters in the final part, which is better for a six year-old to understand.

Interestingly, this is one of the few Doctor Who adventures to unfold in nearly real time. It all takes place over about a couple of hours, with only a few narrative jumps to cover walking down corridors. It also leads directly into the next adventure, with the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah taking a transmat down to Earth to make sure the connection will work for all the planet’s sleepers on the Ark. I really like the way the first six of this Doctor’s adventures all lead directly into each other.

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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (parts two and three)

Our son is at the perfect age for most classic Doctor Who. As we noted just a couple of months ago, he’s not too old to see the sorry little puppets in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” as anything other than gigantic and terrifying reptiles. But the transmutation of Noah, criticized by absolutely everybody as an actor struggling against a hopelessly dopey visual effect, failed with even this six year-old critic. “That actually looks like green bubble wrap,” he pronounced.

But his disbelief was not completely shattered. Even though he, like everybody on Earth older than six, saw right through Noah’s glove, the incredibly bleak and doom-laden tone of this story weighed very heavily on him. After a run of Who adventures that he has really enjoyed, this one is “too creepy and too scary.” That doesn’t really bode well for some of what’s to come, does it?

An interesting tidbit about “The Ark in Space” is that the tone is so incredibly different to what we saw over the last five years that something curious happened after part one was shown. The first episode got a little over nine million viewers, which was about what the show had been getting for several years. Apparently they all told their friends that Who was doing something very strange and different in this story. The ratings shot up for part two to almost 14 million, dropping back down to just below 12 for the next two parts. I’m no ratings expert, but a jump of nearly 50% in one week sounds pretty unique to me.

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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (part one)

I’ve met a good few Doctor Who fans over the years whose favorite era starts with this story. It’s the sixteen stories, over three seasons, produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes. These first four all have their earliest germination in the previous team’s days, but it’s still a pretty compelling argument. Even the weakest Hinchcliffe-Holmes story is more entertaining than many, many others.

“The Ark in Space” starts off magnificently. It’s a slow exploration of an unknown environment, with no guest actors. They’re all still in suspended animation. This is set thousands of years in the future, after some disaster has befallen the planet Earth. Our son was intrigued if not thrilled, and that’s fine. This isn’t meant to be a thriller yet. It’s a detective story at this point.

The story was originally commissioned from a veteran TV writer, John Lucarotti, who had written three serials for William Hartnell’s Doctor, as well as six episodes of The Avengers: five from the videotape era and one, “Castle De’ath,” for the Mrs. Peel years. Lucarotti got back in contact with the Doctor Who team when Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks hired him to write two of the six episodes of their ill-fated series Moonbase 3. Unfortunately, Robert Holmes was not satisfied with the way this story was going, so he stepped in and rewrote the adventure from the ground up. This features the fabulous scene where the Doctor, alien but admiring, steps away from the ears of his companions and enjoys a nice monologue praising the human race.

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