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The Talons Of Weng-Chiang
In Victorian London, girls are being kidnapped off the street, giant rats haunt the sewers, and ghosts have been sighted in the opera house run by impresario Henry Gordon Jago. When a mutilated body turns up in the Thames, the Doctor and Leela find themselves investigating alongside pathologist Dr Litefoot. The clues lead to a sinister mesmerist, Li H'sen Chang, who is assisted by a murderous ventriloquist's dummy called Mr Sin. Chang serves a man he believes is the god Weng-Chiang, and is searching for a time cabinet lost by his master. Their quest leads them to Litefoot -- and puts Leela's life in terrible danger.
Robert Banks Stewart had impressed Doctor Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes with his work on the Season Thirteen serials Terror Of The Zygons and The Seeds Of Doom. The latter, in particular, had been a last-minute commission which Stewart was able to deliver very rapidly, and so the production team wanted to invite him back for Season Fourteen. Stewart was keen to avoid an outer space setting, and instead suggested a narrative which took place in an isolated village, whose residents had come under a malign influence. In particular, he was thinking of movies like the 1960 horror film Village Of The Damned and the 1975 satire The Stepford Wives. It was Holmes who suggested that the villain should be a time traveller from the future.
On May 7th, 1976, Stewart was commissioned to provide a storyline for a six-part serial called “The Foe From The Future”. It was intended to serve as the Season Fourteen finale -- a slot in which, at one stage, it was thought that a new companion for the Doctor might debut. However, the production team was now planning to retain Leela -- introduced two stories earlier, in The Face Of Evil -- through to the end of the season. As such, she was included in Stewart's outline; her presence in the finale was affirmed during the summer.
“The Foe From The Future” was set in Devon, where ghosts seemed to be haunting an estate called the Grange. The Doctor and Leela discovered that the phantoms were actually holograms, designed to keep the villagers away from the Grange's occupant, the masked Jalnik. Jalnik had travelled back in time from the year 4000, but his body was horribly distorted by the process. The Doctor and Leela were sent to the forty-first century, and found that the Earth of that time was overrun by alien locusts called the Pantophagen. There they discovered that Jalnik was planning to enhance his time travel technology to facilitate an invasion of the twentieth century.
Stewart submitted his storyline on June 1st. Having completed work on his own Doctor Who script, The Deadly Assassin, Holmes left on a rare family vacation, comfortable that the rest of the season was now proceeding towards production. Unfortunately, while near Munich en route to Italy, Holmes' wife took ill with a perforated ulcer, forcing an extended stay in Germany. Finally returning to England in August, Holmes discovered that Stewart had left a message for him to explain that he had taken a new position as script editor on a Thames Television programme called Rooms. As a result, he would be unable to write the scripts for “The Foe From The Future”.
With scant time remaining to find a replacement, it was agreed that Holmes would have to write the season finale himself. His formal commission would eventually come on November 12th, under the title “The Talons Of Greel”. With no certainty that either member of the production team would remain on Doctor Who for another year, Hinchcliffe encouraged Holmes to write whatever he wanted. The only idea vetoed by the producer was the suggestion that the villain of the piece might be revealed as the Master. Holmes had just reintroduced the evil Time Lord in The Deadly Assassin, and Hinchcliffe feared that his rapid return would seem too obvious.
With nearly free reign, then, Holmes decided to transplant Stewart's basic ideas to Victorian London. This was a setting he had been keen to use, having considered it as a backdrop for the climactic moments of The Deadly Assassin. Indeed, Holmes' original notion for the new companion had been a Dickensian street urchin whom the Doctor would mentor in the manner of Eliza Doolittle, from George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion and its 1964 film adaptation My Fair Lady. Aspects of this concept were instead applied to Leela, and they were given particular emphasis in “The Talons Of Greel”.
A significant influence on the revised storyline was the legend of Jack the Ripper, the unidentified serial killer also known as Saucy Jack who had terrorised the prostitutes of London's Whitechapel district in 1888. Holmes also made several references to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective Sherlock Holmes, introduced in 1887's A Study In Scarlet. Most notably, both Litefoot and Holmes had housekeepers named Mrs Hudson, while the 1904 short story The Adventure Of The Abbey Grange featured the discovery of an item monogrammed “EB”. 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, such as the masked figure lurking in the bowels of an opera house. Mr Sin was inspired by a segment of the 1945 horror film Dead Of Night. The theft of an artefact by British colonials came from the 1868 mystery novel The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. In addition, Hinchcliffe suggested that Holmes look to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu canon, published from 1912, for the adventure's Far East elements.
During the scripting process, Holmes consulted closely with the director recruited for the serial. This was David Maloney, who had just finished working on The Deadly Assassin, and for whom “The Talons Of Greel” would be his eighth and final Doctor Who serial. The plot was structured so that location filming -- which would be carried out first -- featured more prominently towards the start of the story, enabling Maloney to begin his planning as early as possible.
By the start of November, the BBC had confirmed that Hinchcliffe was being moved off Doctor Who, to be replaced by Graham Williams. Since this meant that he would face few consequences for overspending on “The Talons Of Greel”, Hinchcliffe decided to loosen the programme's purse strings. Consequently, Maloney found himself with a rare allocation for night filming, as well as the use of many different locations, starting with a week in London.
Work on December 13th began at the BBC Television Film Studios in Ealing, for material inside the coaches. That evening, footage of Litefoot's carriage and the Doctor leaving the mortuary was recorded at Skin Market Place in Bankside. Tom Baker was given a new costume for “The Talons Of Greel”, one that intentionally recalled the classic Sherlock Holmes silhouette of deerstalker hat and Inverness cape. More street scenes were recorded in Bankside on December 14th, including Chang's cab at St Mary Overie's Dock, and Litefoot's at Cardinal Cap Alley. Most significantly, Clink Street was where the Doctor and Leela fought the Tong of the Black Scorpion, and Jago and Litefoot spied on the House of the Dragon.
Meanwhile, Williams was gradually taking over the stewardship of Doctor Who. On December 15th, he offered contracts for the entirety of Season Fifteen not just to Baker -- who agreed immediately -- but also to Louise Jameson. This decision ran counter to the assurances Hinchcliffe had given Baker that Jameson would be replaced for the new run of episodes. The series star disliked Leela, objecting to both her violent tendencies and her skin-baring attire; indeed, Baker aspired to carry the programme without a companion at all. Jameson herself was reluctant to remain on Doctor Who, in part due to her frosty relationship with Baker, but also because of the discomfort she experienced wearing contact lenses to turn her blue eyes brown. Williams offered to dispense with the lenses, and Jameson was formally contracted the following day.
The venue for Maloney's team on December 15th was the grounds of the Broad Oak nursery school in East Twickenham, at which the director's children were enrolled. For “The Talons Of Greel”, it served as the exterior of Litefoot's house at the fictitious address of 4 Ranskill Gardens. The primary location on December 16th was Wapping Pier Head in Wapping. The recovery of Buller's corpse from the Thames was recorded there, alongside material outside the mortuary and shots of Chang's carriage. Although area residents had been asked to avoid parking their cars on the street, cast and crew arrived to find a Porsche in full view. Thinking quickly, designer Roger Murray-Leach covered the luxury automobile in a tarpaulin and draped it in hay from the vehicle which had transported the horses pulling the hansom cab. During the shoot, the team was approached by local police officers who asked to borrow Buller's prop corpse in order to prank one of their junior colleagues. Later the same day, Leela killed the coolie at Bridewell Place in Wapping.
Doctor Who's final production day for 1976 was December 17th. Sequences involving the rowboat were captured at St Katharine Docks in Wapping, while action at the sewer entrance was filmed at nearby Ivory House. There was then a three-week break during the Christmas holidays. However, this was only the midway point of location work, as Hinchcliffe had successfully negotiated a week of recording on Outside Broadcast video, in exchange for one of the serial's three studio blocks.
As such, when Maloney's team reassembled in 1977, it was in Northampton, Northamptonshire. Work there began on January 8th, at an empty rates office which posed as the police station. The next four days -- January 9th to 12th -- were spent at the Royal Theatre, the home of the Northampton Repertory Players. Having originally opened in 1884, the Royal was a suitable venue to be dressed as the Palace. During some of these scenes, the role of the orchestra conductor was played by longtime Doctor Who composer Dudley Simpson. Once taping at the Royal was concluded on January 12th, the remainder of the day saw material in Chang's dressing room recorded at St Crispin's Hospital. This work continued to the 13th, when the same location also hosted sequences in the mortuary.
By the time recording moved to the studio, the serial had been renamed The Talons Of Weng-Chiang. The change was necessitated by Hinchcliffe's concerns that the revelation of Greel's true identity came too late in the narrative to support the original title. The production was now being followed by a crew from the new BBC2 series The Lively Arts, with footage being captured for a documentary about Doctor Who. Entitled Whose Doctor Who, it would be the first extensive behind-the-scenes chronicle of the programme to be broadcast in its fourteen-year history.
The initial studio block comprised January 24th and 25th, and took place at BBC Television Centre Studio 1 in White City, London. Recording on the first day began with scenes in Litefoot's dining room, plus those in his porch for Episodes Three and Four. The rest of the day was spent on the sewer set. Unfortunately, imperfect waterproofing resulted in a severe leak, which threatened to seep 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; as such, Maloney had to exercise caution when editing the material. Work on the second day concentrated on the scenes in and around Greel's sanctum, as well as in the Palace cellar.
The second studio session spanned February 8th to 10th, and was held in TC8. Unfortunately, Hinchcliffe's indifference to the budget on The Talons Of Weng-Chiang had resulted in considerable anxiety for production unit manager Chris D'Oyly-John. To alleviate the pressure he was under, 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 most of 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 the 10th. As such, one of the sets in use on the first day was a small section of the road outside the Dragon House, for the sequences of Jago and Litefoot spying on Greel's confederates. Maloney opted to re-record the arrival and departure of the TARDIS on this set, replacing footage which had been captured on location in December.
With The Talons Of Weng-Chiang completed, Doctor Who's fourteenth production block came to an end and, with it, Hinchcliffe's tenure on the programme. Holmes, however, would remain on Doctor Who for the first half of Season Fifteen, in order to help Williams with his transition into the producer's chair. In editing, Episode Five was found to be over-running and so its cliffhanger was repositioned. Originally, this was to be the sequence of Greel threatening the Doctor with Leela's death at the hands of Mr Sin, but the installment would now close on the reveal of the villain's mutilated face.
For The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, Doctor Who's timeslot was pushed back by an additional ten minutes, to 6.30pm (or 6.35pm, in the case of Episode Two). It still preceded Saturday Night At The Movies, but its lead-in changed over the first half of the serial. Jim'll Fix It concluded its season immediately before Episode One aired on February 26th and, the following week, it was replaced by The Fantastic Journey. The Wonderful World Of Disney then took over the timeslot for its new run on March 12th.
The Talons Of Weng-Chiang Episode Six concluded Doctor Who's fourteenth season on April 2nd; Whose Doctor Who was broadcast the following day. In its wake, particular praise was reserved for the pairing of Jago and 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 Episode Five -- and some discussion ensued about developing a spin-off series in which Jago and Litefoot would solve mysteries in Victorian London. This would not come to fruition but, in 2010, Big Finish Productions started releasing Jago & Litefoot audio dramas, with Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter reprising their roles. A total of fourteen seasons were issued, ultimately curtailed by Baxter's death in 2017. Meanwhile, during the hiatus between recording blocks, Tom Baker suggested that the next season of Doctor Who might be his last. This would become a familiar refrain in the years to come...
|Updated 17th January 2021|
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