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The Talons Of Weng-Chiang
The Doctor and Leela find themselves in Victorian London. Girls are being kidnapped off the street, ghosts have been sighted in the opera house run by Henry Jago, and giant rats haunt the London sewers. At the centre of the chaos is a mysterious Oriental magician named Li H'sen Chang. Chang serves a man he believes is the god Weng-Chiang, and is searching for a cabinet lost by his master. The Doctor uncovers the truth, however -- Weng-Chiang is actually Magnus Greel, a tyrant from the 60th century whose escape back through time has transformed him into a disfigured monster.
By the spring of 1976, script editor Robert Holmes was eager to end Season Fourteen with a story that put a Doctor Who spin on the legend of Jack the Ripper. The unidentified serial killer also known as Saucy Jack had terrorised the prostitutes of London's Whitechapel district in 1888 (and possibly until 1891). Holmes coined the notion that killer could turn out to be a time traveller from the future and suggested this to Robert Banks Stewart, whose last Doctor Who work had been on the previous year's finale, The Seeds Of Doom. A storyline entitled “The Foe From The Future” was commissioned from Stewart on May 7th.
The summer of 1976 was a difficult one for Holmes: having completed work on his own Doctor Who script, The Deadly Assassin, Holmes departed for a rare family vacation to Italy. Near Munich, however, his wife took ill with a perforated ulcer, forcing an extended stay in Germany. Finally returning to the UK in August, Holmes discovered that a message had been left for him from Stewart, who explained that he had taken a new position as script editor on a Thames Television programme called Armchair Thriller, and would therefore be unable to do any work on “The Foe From The Future”. With scant time remaining to find a replacement adventure, it was agreed that Holmes would write the serial himself. This was formally contracted on November 12th, under the title “The Talons Of Greel”.
By the time Holmes started work on Serial 4S, it appeared that Hinchcliffe, and possibly Holmes himself, would be leaving Doctor Who after Season Fourteen. Consequently, Hinchcliffe encouraged Holmes to write whatever he wanted. The only idea nixed by the producer was the suggestion that the villain of the piece might be revealed as the evil Time Lord known as the Master, whom Holmes had just reintroduced in The Deadly Assassin. Hinchcliffe feared that this was too obvious a development.
With nearly free reign, then, Holmes sought inspiration from several sources in addition to the Whitechapel murders. He drew numerous elements from the exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective Sherlock Holmes (introduced in 1887): for instance, Litefoot has a housekeeper named Mrs Hudson, the Doctor misquotes Holmes' ubiquitous “Elementary, my dear Watson”, and the discovery of an item monogrammed “EB” echoes a similar development in the 1904 Holmes short story The Adventure Of The Abbey Grange. Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel Le fantôme de l'opéra (better known to English-speaking audiences as The Phantom Of The Opera) also provided “The Talons Of Greel” with some of its trappings. In addition, Hinchcliffe suggested that Holmes look to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu canon (published from 1912) for the Oriental ingredients of the adventure.
For several months, plans had been afoot to introduce a new, permanent companion in the season finale. Holmes was eager to have the Doctor accompanied by a Victorian street urchin whom he could educate during their travels -- although Hinchcliffe had some reservations about the idea -- and thought that the Jack the Ripper story was the ideal vehicle for her introduction. In the meantime, Leela had been introduced in The Face Of Evil on an interim basis. With changes to the production team imminent, however, it was decided in August that there was no point creating a new companion who might not meet the approval of Hinchcliffe's successor. Consequently, Leela would be retained for “The Talons Of Greel” as well.
During the scripting process, Holmes consulted closely with the director assigned to Serial 4S, David Maloney, who had just finished working on The Deadly Assassin. The plot was structured so that location filming -- which would be carried out first -- was chiefly confined to the early episodes, enabling Maloney to start planning these as early as possible. Now certain that “The Talons Of Greel” would be the final Doctor Who story made under his aegis, Hinchcliffe was much less concerned than usual about hewing to the programme's narrow budget. Amongst the benefits of the producer's loose purse strings were a rare allocation for night filming, and the use of many different locations.
The first of these was Skin Market Place, where street scenes were filmed on December 13th. The same day, material inside the coaches was enacted at the Ealing Television Film Studios. Tom Baker was given a new costume for the serial, one that intentionally recalled the classic Sherlock Holmes silhouette of deerstalker hat and cloak. More street scenes were recorded on the 14th, at Clink Street, St Mary Overy's Wharf and Bankside. The next day, the Broad Oak nursery school served as the exterior of Litefoot's house. December 16th began at Wapping Pier Head, for sequences on the street, beside the Thames, and outside the coroner's. Later that day, mortuary exteriors were captured at Bridewell Place. The first week of filming concluded on the 17th at St Katherine's Docks, dealing with action around the sewer entrance (at Ivory House) as well as the scenes involving the rowboat.
During this time, new producer Graham Williams gradually began to take over stewardship of Doctor Who from Philip Hinchcliffe. His first major decision concerned Leela, and during location filming he asked Louise Jameson to stay with the programme for Season Fifteen. This offer ran counter to a promise Hinchcliffe had made to Tom Baker; the series star disliked Leela, feeling that her violent tendencies were inappropriate for Doctor Who, and indeed aspired to carry the programme without a companion at all. He had been mollified somewhat with the assurance that Leela would be replaced after “The Talons Of Greel”. Jameson herself was reluctant to remain on Doctor Who, both because of her frosty relationship with Baker and the discomfort she experienced wearing contact lenses to turn her blue eyes brown. Williams offered to dispense with the lenses, and on December 15th both Baker and Jameson signed a contract for the entirety of Doctor Who's fifteenth season.
Production on “The Talons Of Greel” resumed in the new year. In exchange for dropping one of the serial's three allocated studio blocks, Hinchcliffe had negotiated for a week of Outside Broadcast recording instead: a rare instance in Doctor Who of location material being captured directly on videotape. The venue for the week was Northampton, beginning at an empty rates office (posing as the police station) on January 8th, 1977. The next four days were spent at the Northampton Repertory Theatre, which was dressed as The Palace. During some of these scenes, the role of the orchestra conductor was played by longtime Doctor Who composer Dudley Simpson. The last day at the Repertory Theatre was January 12th, and part of this day, as well as the entirety of the next, was spent at St Crispin's Hospital for the material in Chang's dressing room and the mortuary.
The first studio block comprised January 24th and 25th and took place in BBC Television Centre Studio 1. On the first day, recording on the sewer set caused inadvertent havoc at the BBC switchboard on the storey below, when imperfect waterproofing resulted in severe leaking through the studio floor. These sequences were also difficult for Louise Jameson, who was suffering from glandular fever. Not only did she have to contend with thrashing about in the water, but she discovered that the undergarments which made up her costume became partly transparent when damp.
Also performed on the first studio day were scenes in Litefoot's dining room (for parts two to four) and his porch (for parts three and four). The proceedings were taped by a crew from the new BBC2 series The Lively Arts, who were making a documentary about Doctor Who -- the first extensive behind-the-scenes chronicle of the programme in its fourteen-year history. Entitled Whose Doctor Who, the episode would air on April 3rd, the day after Doctor Who's season finale. The studio block concluded on January 25th, when recording concentrated on all the scenes in and around Greel's sanctum, as well as the Palace cellar.
The second studio session was a three-day affair, running from February 8th to 10th in TC8. Unfortunately, Hinchcliffe's indifference to the budget on “The Talons Of Greel” had resulted in considerable anxiety for production unit manager Chris D'Oyly-John. To alleviate the pressure on him, D'Oyly-John was replaced for the final leg of the schedule by John Nathan-Turner, who was already slated to take over the position for Season Fifteen.
Maloney chose to record all the remaining scenes for episode five on February 8th, and those for episode six on the 9th. The exceptions were sequences set in the Dragon Room and within the Head of the Dragon, which were reserved for February 10th. Amongst the material completed on this day was Lee's death. As originally scripted, he was to perish under a barrage from Greel's energy weapon, but this was changed to the scorpion sting. With recording on Serial 4S concluded, Doctor Who's fourteenth production block came to an end. By this point, Williams had convinced Holmes to stay on Doctor Who for the first half of the next run, to ease his transition into the producer's chair.
At a very late stage, it was decided to modify the serial's title to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang. Also altered was part five's cliffhanger: originally, this was to be Greel threatening the Doctor with Leela's death at the hands of Mr Sin, but material was shifted to the next episode so that the installment would close on the reveal of the villain's face instead.
The sixth and final episode of The Talons Of Weng-Chiang aired on April 2nd, drawing Season Fourteen to a close. In its wake, particular praise was reserved for the pairing of Henry Jago and Professor Litefoot. Holmes enjoyed writing these kinds of “double acts” -- even though, in this case, the two characters did not meet on-screen until partway through the penultimate installment -- and some discussion ensued about developing a spin-off series in which Jago and Litefoot would investigate mysteries in Victorian London. Meanwhile, in the hiatus between production blocks, Tom Baker suggested that the next season of Doctor Who might be his last. This would become a familiar refrain for several years to follow...
The Talons Of Weng-Chiang brought to an end the Doctor Who careers of two veterans of the programme. David Maloney became a producer, taking the reigns of show such as Blake's 7 and the 1981 version of The Day Of The Triffids. He also continued to direct, earning credits on Blake's 7, Juliet Bravo, Play For Today and others. Maloney died of leukemia on July 18th, 2006.
Philip Hinchcliffe was shifted away from Doctor Who to take the helm of the police drama Target. Thereafter he continued to build an extensive resume of programmes on which he served as either producer or executive producer, including Private Schulz, Nancy Astor and Taggart. He also contributed three entries to Target Books' range of Doctor Who novelisations, and in 1978 submitted an unused storyline to the Doctor Who production office entitled “Valley Of The Lost”. Hinchcliffe now teaches media studies, while making occasional appearances for the line of Doctor Who DVDs.
|Updated 1st January 2013|
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