Classic Doctor Who: “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (1977)

"The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is one of the best episodes of Doctor Who that doesn’t feature the main villains of the series. It takes place in Victorian London, where the fourth Doctor, dressed throughout in a deerstalker hat reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, and his savage companion Leela, find themselves battling a great conspiracy. At first it looks like the conspiracy is a great cult of worshippers of the old Chinese god Weng-Chiang, but it turns out that the story has a more complicated basis in time travel.
 
With most Baker stories, the fun is as much the process of the plot unfolding as much as it is the plot itself. There’s something about Tom Baker’s personality that can carry even the most dull plots, and coupled with a fun plot, like this one, it really creates magic. There’s a wonderful scene where the Doctor is on stage with the magician Li H’Sen Chang, where the Doctor is sabotaging the magic act in subtle ways. With another actor – Colin Baker, for instance, these scenes could be dull or frustrating. With Tom Baker, though, the scene perfectly fits his arrogant, but fun-loving, personality.
 
There are so many other wonderful scenes in this episode. It’s absolutely charming fun to see Baker parade around London looking like Sherlock Holmes. It’s such a perfect fit for the character for him to be an expert detective, always keeing one step ahead of everyone else. We even see that fact in action when we see the Doctor playing checkers with his companion Leela. Of course he beats her, and he does so in a way that shows his superior intelligence and foresightedness.
 
Leela is wonderful in this story. She’s intended to be a savage warrior that the Doctor has brought from her old tribe and tried to civilize. So we get wonderful scenes where Leela is eating food with her hands and not using knives and forks. And yet, her savagery saves the Doctor on more than one occassion when great fighting force is needed. It was a tradition from when the show started in the ’60s that the Doctor would have a male and a female companion. The first Doctor was an old man, so he needed another virile guy to fight his physical battles. He also needed female companions to whine and yell. With Leela, the Doctor got a female companion who didn’t wine and yell, but would fight his battles. It’s a cool turnaround of tradition, and one of the reasons that Leela was a popular character.
 
Maybe the best indication that this is a superior episode is that the six parts don’t feel overlong and dull. The plot moves along at a nice pace, and never drags or becomes boring.
 
Included with the DVD is a terrific documentary from the 1970s called Whose Doctor Who which is a great view into the series’s popularity in that era. The kids on the show are wonderful, and the clips shown from older episodes are not to be missed.
 
In every way "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is a superior episode of Doctor Who.
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