Talons of Weng-Chiang
As many of you are aware, I've been really active online - from being named co-host of Zone 4 to frequent guest postings on the Job Stalker and Baker Street Blog as well as my own blog. So much so that, on top of my work on Comic Related and other blogging efforts, I have a greater amount of access to news. So I was delighted to read that my favorite Doctor Who story of all time is being re-released as a "Special Edition" in October. Thanks to some very well-placed sources, I was able to get a view of the material included....and this month's TV Party is, well, it's an "unofficial" crossover with the Baker Street Blog, that fine blog that covers everything Sherlock Holmes.
Back in February, I talked about the BBC's Revisitations boxed sets with the release of the 1996 TV Movie. Although it was originally released on DVD years ago, Talons of Weng-Chiang: the Special Edition is notable for several things, not the least of which is its supporting material - in short, this 3 DVD set not only demonstrates why this story is held in such high regard (basically, it's a crackling good story), but also contains enough background material to satisfy history buffs, Doctor Who fans, and Sherlockians - in short, this is probably the closest we will ever come to a "Doctor Who/Sherlock Holmes crossover."
Written by Robert Holmes (no relation to the Great Detective), Talons revolves around the mysterious disappearances of various women in Victorian-era London, involving a theater featuring the famous Asian magician Li Hsien Chang. The Doctor and his companion, Leela, find themselves involved in the investigation, coming into the circle of noted pathologist Professor Litefoot, and a vivacious veteran of vaudevillian verve, theater owner Henry Gordon Jago. But beneath the surface of this obvious threat, there is a deeper threat, a threat that transcends time and that is exploiting darker sciences and which threatens both the past and the future...
Much of the reason why I love Talons of Weng-Chiang is that, in many ways, it evokes the atmosphere of Victorian London - and Sherlock Holmes - in extremely clever ways. This was the "last hurrah" for producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and designer Roger Murray-Leach - no expense was spared to make this a lavish production (and the video, with further remastering, is simply gorgeous). In addition, the spirit of Holmes is channeled in numerous ways - not just Tom Baker's Doctor in Holmesian garb (dialogue in the episode hints at this, and Baker would later work with former Who producer Barry Letts on a 1982 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles).
But it's the Robert Holmesian double act of Professor Litefoot (played by Trevor Baxter) and Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) that gives this story a proper Sherlock Holmes-style "feeling". Admittedly, Benjamin was a late addition to the cast (his accent wavers throughout the story), but the two characters - one a shy, reserved scientist, the other a theater own filled with bluster - have such a unique chemistry that it manages to evoke the Holmes/Watson relationship without ever slavishly imitating or plagiarizing Conan Doyle's original work. (It's no surprise that Big Finish has done some spot-on audio dramas based on the two characters, with two "seasons" completed and three planned or in production).
However, what makes this special edition truly special for both Sherlockians and Doctor Who fans are the bonus disc of featurettes (the original release was two DVDs; this special expanded edition is three DVDs). The initial release contained both the 1977 Whose Doctor Who documentary (which focused on how the episodes were produced) and a great interview with Phillip Hinchcliffe: the Special Edition contains that and more, including on a third disc:
The Last Hurrah and Moving On - an up-to-date examination on the production of this classic story, as well as a recent interview with Phillip Hinchcliffe looking at his plans for his "next season" (and speculation as to why he was let go as producer)
The Foe From the Future - This was an "unmade" story that was written for this season, but was scrapped (according to fan rumor) due to the writer taking on another assignment. For the first time, some information about the story which became Talons, and the truth behind the rumor is provided in this short feature.
Victoriana and Chinoiserie - a ten minute featurette that discusses some of the literary influences on this story, including (no surprise) Sherlock Holmes. Well worth visiting.
Music Hall - Music hall was as much a part of Victorian life as, say, movie theaters and coffee houses are part of our modern experiences. Both Sherlock Holmes-devotees and fans of British drama will find this extremely fascinating, as it looks at how this form of entertainment was shaped, and how it evolved. It provides some really fascinating historical perspectives, and is easily worth the price of the disc.
Limehouse - A Victorian Chinatown - One of the key criticisms of Talons has been its rather stereotypical portrayal of Asians - it was done at a time when there were fewer Asian actors available, and unfortunately, connotes too much of a Yellow Peril/Fu Manchu vibe. This brief documentary - again, of interest to both Sherlockians and Who fans - takes a more accurate look at these myths, and makes this disc a must-own.
Thankfully, BBC Video has been doing a great job in restoring and revamping its home video line - the fact that it is making its Restoration boxed sets available to North American audiences (even in Special Edition form) shows the care it is taking in providing classic Doctor Who to fans of the new and classic series. I have always loved Talons of Weng-Chiang for that story's uncanny ability to straddle multiple genres, its heady Victorian-era atmosphere, the strength of its writing, acting, and serves as a document of a television production team at the height of their creative powers.
Watching the Special Edition, I've fallen in love with the story all over again.
The set comes out in October. Make sure you buy it. It's a must-own.
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And as always, keep watching!
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general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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