Sunday, October 23, 2011

DR. SHOCK'S HORROR THEATER HALLOWEEN MOVIE OF THE DAY: DOCTOR WHO: THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG! Not a movie per se but back in the day when PBS used to run DOCTOR WHO on Saturday afternoons they would edit together the entire story into a "movie". Apparently DOCTOR WHO fans prefer the half-hour episode format on DVD (at least that's what BBC Home Video tells us) but I, for one, prefer the story edited into a movie; that way you don't have the constant fast-forwarding and skipping every twenty-some minutes. Be that as it may, the 1977 DOCTOR WHO adventure "THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG" is quite appropriate for Halloween viewing with its seemingly dozens of horror tropes; everything from Sherlock Holmes' "Giant Rat of Sumatra" to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu to the 1945 classic DEAD OF NIGHT are referenced. This was the final series produced by Philip Hinchcliffe; perhaps best known for amping up the gothic horror element in DOCTOR WHO and he certainly went out with a bang (although he apparently didn't know he was going out at the time). The occasion for my rewatch of TALONS is the brand-new special edition DVD just released by BBC Video; it's a whopping 3 DVD package featuring 2 discs of special features and an updated remastering of the series. This special edition DVD might confuse those unaware that THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG was voted by Doctor Who fans in 2003 as the best story ever. I haven't compared the new DVD with the previous release but the print quality certainly looks the best I can remember seeing it.
THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG finds the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion Leela (Louise Jameson) travelling to Victorian London (circa the 1890s) to take in a music hall performance. A series of women have gone missing in the fog-bound streets (shades of Jack the Ripper -- Saucy Jack is actually mentioned on screen). Magician Li H'sen Chang (John Bennett) is performing nightly with his creepy ventriloquist dummy Mr. Sin (Deep Roy) which recalls the Michael Redgrave sequence of the animated doll in DEAD OF NIGHT (1945). There are Chinese tongs roaming London killing with their silver hatchets (evoking Sax Rohmer and countless "yellow peril" pulps). Down in the bowels of the theatre there are ghost sightings (actually holograms) and a mysterious masked figure (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA anyone???). There are also giant rats in the sewers (not necessarily from Sumatra) and bodies pulled from the Thames with grappling hooks. All this combined with the Doctor parading around in Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and you have a cracking Victorian yarn. And we haven't even mentioned the time machine disguised as a Chinese puzzle box bringing a 51st century war criminal named Magnus Greel (Michael Spice) back in time and a huge golden statue that shoots death from its eyes. TALONS has been accused in recent years by PC nitwits with nothing better to do of being "racist"; upon watching the programme these accusations quickly fall apart. The only Chinese character portrayed by an Anglo is Li H'sen Chang by John Bennett who turns in a superb villainous but understated performance as well as a very dignified one. All the other Chinese actors do not cavort about in stereotypical "no tickee no shirtee" portrayals but in fact play it straight as well. The English characters naturally do evince racist attitudes towards the Chinese deliberately because that's how it was back in the late 19th century. To suddenly have police inspectors NOT treat Chinese immigrants condescendingly would be innaccurate and bad storytelling. And even at that, the colonial attitude of the police shown in this serial is still quite mild; no racial epithets stronger than "Chinee" are used as I recall. The direction by David Mahoney of Robert Holmes' script rockets along with suspense and action aplenty. In fact, unlike most six-parters in DOCTOR WHO, TALONS does not suffer from the tradition midway slump found in almost all other DOCTOR WHO stories which last six episodes. The six episodes zip by and before you know it the show is over! Despite budget limitations, the sets and costumes look sumptuous and everything works spectacularly well (with the exception, of course, of the muppet-like giant rats). The cast is also top-notch with splendid performances by all from the biggest role to the smallest. It's hard to single out anyone from the cast because there are so many excellent performances. John Bennett, as stated, is wonderful as Li H'sen Chang with a sly wit and a threatening gravitas. Delightful performances by Christopher Benjamin (as theater boss Henry Gordon Jago) and Trevor Baxter (as Professor Litefoot) turned these two characters into a comedy/adventure team who have gone on to feature in several audio adventures. Deep Roy as the sinister Mr. Sin is wonderfully creepy with odd body movements and an evil voice. Even a one-scene performance by Patsy Smart as a comic crone rubbernecking as the police pull a body from the river is a wonderful performance; Smart actually took her false teeth out right before the cameras rolled and handed them to the director to hold for her. As to the fans who voted TALONS as the best DOCTOR WHO story ever . . . I wouldn't go that far. It's certainly in my top ten, probably, but I think my favourite of all would have to be THE SEEDS OF DOOM. Love me a good Krynoid! +++
The Halloween Comic Book Cover of the Day #23 is BUGS BUNNY'S TRICK 'N' TREAT HALLOWEEN FUN #3 from 1955.

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