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14x6. The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: David Maloney
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Doctor and Leela arrive in Victorian-Era London, where the Chinese stage magician Li-H'Sen Chang is carrying on a double life as the leader of a cult dedicated to the god Weng-Chiang. The cult is responsible for a series of a kidnappings and murders for the purpose of allowing Weng-Chiang -- who is actually a war criminal from the future named Magnus Greel -- to absorb their energy as he prepares to return to the future with his "time cabinet."

Review: "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is a good example of a fairly ordinary story built up by lots of stylistic flourishes. I don't necessarily have a whole lot to say about it as a reviewer, but it kept me interested and it never felt slow or padded despite its six-episode length.

"Talons" is above all Robert Holmes' homage to Sherlock Holmes: in addition to the Victorian setting, the Doctor even wears a deerstalker, and at one point, there's even a line about how he's probably doing most of the police's work for them. The era is reproduced skillfully by the production team, and the sci-fi elements play a relatively minor role so that the script can focus on the characters and the murder mystery (though, one very un-Conan Doyle element is the fact that the culprit is given away before the Doctor unravels it). Li-H'Sen Chang's stage act receives considerable screen time and is plenty entertaining in its own right, and Holmes supplies two engaging guest characters in Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago. The latter in particular works well as the sort of person whose enthusiasm gets the better of him as he eventually finds himself in over his head.

Some have suggested that the serial is somehow racist in its treatment of the Chinese, but I think it's more the guest characters who display racially insensitive attitudes rather than the script or the production itself. While having a Caucasian actor portray Chang is certainly politically incorrect by today's standards, the character, while a villain, does not strike me as particularly stereotypical. If anything, he seems to regard the racism of the society around him with a certain condescension, as seen in his sarcastic "we all look the same" comment and his "one of us is yellow" joke during his stage act (which, of course, is itself an exploitation of the "exotic foreigner" stereotype as cover for his real purposes). Chang's final scene allows him to exit the story with some degree of honor, in that he truly believed he was serving a god in orchestrating the murders and kidnappings, and the entire situation is presented as a form of "blowback" from British imperialism -- the time cabinet that Greel is trying to find was apparently captured in a "Punitive Expedition" to China.

If the story has a weak point, it's probably that Greel just isn't all that interesting an adversary. There are a few references to his background -- the Doctor calls him "the Butcher of Brisbane," for example -- but for the most part he's just a fairly standard alien war criminal of the week. He doesn't bring the sort of depth to the story that other villains this season have displayed -- Eldrad, Goth, and Taren Capel in particular come to mind -- nor does he have the maniacal energy of even comparatively simplistic villains like Solon or Morbius. The idea that he's suffered from a botched attempt at time travel is an okay concept, but the script doesn't do anything particularly creative with it.

I haven't been quite as enamored of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era, of which this serial is the final installment, as some Who fans, but all the same, it's the strongest run for the show since Pertwee's first season, and "Talons" is a fitting bookend for three seasons of skillful balance between relatively macabre material and a rather whimsical and unpredictable Doctor.

Rating: *** (out of four)