THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
NOVELS "MATCH OF
THE DAY" AND "EYE
THE FOE FROM THE
FUTURE & THE TALONS
'REVISITATIONS 1' DVD
BOX SET (BBCDVD2806)
RELEASED IN OCTOBER
DEATH STALKS THE
FOGBOUND STREETS OF
YOUNG WOMEN ARE
ARE FOUND FLOATING
IN THE THAMES. AND
GANGS TERRORISE THE
AT THE HEART OF THIS
TANGLED WEB SITS THE
MYSTERIOUS LI H'SEN
CHANG, SORCERER AND
HYPNOTIST, AND HIS
GROTESQUE SIDEKICK -
THE ALL-TOO LIFELIKE
DUMMY, MISTER SIN.
THE DOCTOR DONS
CAPE TO SEEK OUT
THE SINISTER FORCE
IN THE SHADOWS OF
THE METROPOLIS. FOR
THE TALONS OF WENG-
CHIANG ARE REACHING
OUT TO SHRED THE
26th february 1977 - 2nd april 1977
A decade or so ago, when the BBC started to release Doctor Who on DVD, I was
far more concerned with owning all my favourite serials on shiny discs than I was bemoaning their lack of substantive bonus material. Since then, however, the release of a classic serial on DVD has become something of an event. Instead of a ‘mere’ selection of spring-cleaned episodes and a few treats from the archive, we have come to expect opulent documentaries, satirical featurettes, and a completist’s wet dream’s worth of ancient titbits. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that 2 Entertain have begun to revisit the earliest BBC DVD releases and bring them up to scratch. Until this month, only The Five Doctors and Remembrance of the Daleks had been given the ‘revisitation’ treatment, but the Revisitations 1 box set heralds their arrival en masse, beginning with a selection of stories that constitutes as appealing a sample of classic Who as you’re likely to find bundled together anywhere.
The earliest story that Revisitations 1 revisits is 1977’s Talons of Weng-Chiang – a fan favourite that wasn’t really done justice by its anniversary release seven years ago. As the original release boasted two discs, the second of which was already crammed with bonus material, Talons might not have seemed like a prime candidate for a revisitation, however its shortcomings can be summed up in three words: cut and paste. With the exception of its commentary track, the original release did not boast any purpose-made documentaries or featurettes, which is quite shameful really, given Talons’ repute. Happily, the disc that now finds itself wedged between the original two remedies the situation.
Above: Philip Hinchcliffe and Tom Baker recall their Last Hurrah!
The Last Hurrah! is the new second disc’s main showpiece. It sees former producer Philip Hinchcliffe call in at Tom Baker’s palace to discuss their respective memories of their final outing together. Hinchcliffe’s visit forms the backbone of the documentary, but his chat with Baker is deftly woven between the recollections of other cast and crew members with the DVD producers’ usual panache. 4:3 clips of the serial are framed beautifully by a gaudily redolent theatre stage and curtains, and extracts from the original score do a wonderful job of pressing together then and now. My only complaint would be that at just half an hour, the feature feels a little condensed, and unnecessarily so. The even more fleeting Foe from the Future featurette would have been better incorporated into the main body of the programme, as would the four-minute Moving On, which looks at what Season 15 might have been like had Hinchcliffe’s stewardship of the series not been cut short. There would have been two less features to promote, of course, but a hell of a lot of time saved button-pressing.
The remainder of the special features on what is now Talons’ second disc are, for the most part, a selection of space-fillers. The Now & Then instalment feels lifeless, and – ironically – overlong, whilst the Music Hall and Limehouse featurettes have only tenuous links to Talons and Doctor Who. I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy a Doctor Who DVD to watch lengthy documentaries about Victorian Chinatowns and weekend entertainment in the 19th century – I’ll stick with weekend entertainment in the late 20th century, thank you very much. Fortunately Victoriana and Chinoiserie ties its exploration of classic literature to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and does so with both style and erudition. Had Music Hall and Limehouse taken a similar approach, then I dare say I’d be singing their praises too.
Above: Robert Banks Stewart explains how he didn’t come up with the idea for Talons, but wishes he had
In addition to the above, the re-release incorporates all the bonus material found in the 2003 release. The commentary is a lively, if a little discordant, affair as Louise Jameson (Leela), John Bennett (Li H’sen Chang), Christopher Benjamin (Henry Jago), Philip Hinchcliffe and director David Maloney carve up the six episodes between them. The incessant chopping and changing of contributors can be very distracting, but especially if enjoyed in conjunction with the production subtitles one can at least glean a hell of a lot of amusing anecdotes and trivia. Inevitably Tom Baker is missed, although now he’s got in his two penneth in The Last Hurrah!, his absence isn’t felt quite as keenly.
As before, The Lively Arts
documentary Whose Doctor
Who from 1977 is presented
in full. Nothing dates the show
as badly as a contemporaneous
telly tie-in, and Whose Doctor
Who is no exception to this rule
– it has 1970s painted all over
it. It makes for amusing viewing
though – not only are the people
that populate it 70s stereotypes
of the most patent kind, but the
children interviewed are frighteningly astute and well-heeled, and the adults almost comically severe. It’s also quite a valuable programme from a more serious standpoint as it contains some priceless rehearsal footage from Talons, which shows Tom Baker being unusually biddable, as well as rare glimpses inside the producer’s office and even the Radiophonic Workshop.
Above: Whose Doctor Who? Robert Holmes’, in this case.
The Blue Peter Theatre clips have aged every bit as terribly
as Whose Doctor Who, and unless you were a youngster in the 1970s – which I wasn’t – I would imagine that they are unlikely
to appeal to you. The masses of Behind the Scenes material
is similarly difficult to sit through, not only due to its poor quality technically but also due to its repetitive nature. It’s worth having
on the disc, however, as like Whose Doctor Who it offers rare insight into an era that was devoid of Confidential’s probing cameras.
Both Philip Hinchcliffe’s interview at Pebble Mill and Tom Baker’s
with Look East are also worthwhile little titbits. Neither offers us
anything new or all that interesting, but both really made me smile,
particularly Baker’s response to the question about what attracted
him to the role of the Doctor: “it was the wages. I was out of work.” It’s funny because it’s true. The final disc is then filled up with some
trailers and continuity announcements, together with the standard
photo gallery and a TARDIS-Cam. The latter feels preposterously
incongruent in 2010, as it harks back to days when we could only
fantasise about what a new CG-fuelled series might be like. Still,
I’d have been cross had it been omitted.
The real beauty of The Talons of Weng-Chiang revisitation though is The Talons of Weng-Chiang itself. With all the alluring accoutrements that we’ve come to expect from our Doctor Who DVDs, it’s easy to neglect a release’s main feature, and in this case it’s arguably the finest work of the classic series’ most popular Doctor, its most popular producer, and one
of its most popular writers. Robert Holmes’ Victorian masterpiece takes a strong Doctor Who narrative and couches in loving literary homage, incorporating shades of everything from Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu to The Phantom of the Opera and Pygmalion.
Loosely based on a Robert Stewart-Banks submission that would have seen the Doctor
and Leela battle a leather-masked foe from the future, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the most frightening and atmospheric Doctor Who stories ever produced. The fogbound streets of Victorian London are teeming with Chinese Tongs, oriental magicians, giant rats and even a murderous ventriloquist’s dummy, and beneath them lurks a 51st century war criminal who’s literally sucking the energy out of young girls in order to survive.
To this day I am absolutely terrified of Mister Sin, “the Peking Homunculus”, who must have sent many a child scurrying for the back of the sofa back in the day. Their dads weren’t left out of the loop though – Leela lives up to her saucy reputation at the beginning of the third episode, wearing nowt but soaked Victorian undies.
What really gives Talons its
enduring appeal though is its
colourful cast. Tom Baker and
Louise Jameson are both at the
top of their game, as Baker’s
Doctor runs about sporting a
deerstalker cap and misquoting
Sherlock Holmes whilst trying to
teach Leela how to be a proper
lady… largely by foisting her upon the genteel Professor Litefoot. The kindly professor is
then complemented by his perfect foil in bombastic theatre promoter Henry Gordon Jago,
and together they lend this story not only its humour but its charm. It’s a testament to their
characters’ popularity that Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin would both reprise their
roles over thirty years later for the Big Finish audio book The Mahogany Murderers, before
going on to star in their very own spin-off series of audio dramas, which is presently enjoying
a successful second season.
Above: Would-be investigators of infernal incidents: Jago & Litefoot...
If any serial encapsulates the renowned Hinchcliffe / Holmes era of Doctor Who, then it is certainly The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Even those who don’t consider it to be the classic series’ greatest triumph will invariably concede that it is there or thereabouts, and now, at last, its DVD release is equal to it, combining a veritable Aladdin’s cave’s worth of visual bric-a-brac with some lovingly-produced documentaries and features that offer a little of something for every taste.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006, 2010
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