Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 474: The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Episode Six
There’s an awful lot packed into this final episode, but it doesn’t feel bloated at all. Indeed, there’s just enough to hold the interest right through to the very end, and you come away from the story with a real sense of contentment. It’s possibly the most competent season-ender that we’ve ever had from the programme - it feels (and looks) truly special, and you’re left with the thought that the Doctor and Leela are headed off for adventures new. It’s funny to think that - in the original plan - this could have been Leela’s final story in the programme. I don’t know if the plan was to leave her behind with Professor Litefoot (although that would be fitting, and the idea of him teaching her to become a lady would be great fun), but I’m rather glad they opted for a different route. We’ve only had Louise Jameson in the programme for three stories, but she already feels like part of the furniture. I’m hoping that her strong characterisation and performance continue on into the new season - she’s very quickly becoming one of my favourite companions.
Speaking of which… can I count Jago & Litefoot as companions, too? I suppose that they’re not, in the traditional sense, but thanks to their continued life on audio, they have now experienced a further adventure with the Fourth Doctor, and they’ve even travelled through time and space with the Sixth! No matter what their status, they’ve been truly great value for money throughout this story, and especially so in the last two episodes, when they’ve been brought together. There’s no wonder, watching this, that the BBC considered giving them their own TV spin-off at the time, and I’m not surprised that it’s worked so well for Big Finish on audio. They’ve just recently released the seventh series, with another three already commissioned. See the ‘extra’ section for today’s entry for a bit more on their own adventures.
I’ve really nothing more to add on the subject of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s one of those tricky stories where I’ve simply enjoyed the experience of watching it, and have really very little to comment on. Instead, I’m going to take this opportunity to say farewell to Philip Hinchcliffe, who’s been steering the programme since the Fourth Doctor stepped foot in the TARDIS 75 days ago. For as long as I can remember, people have told me that the Hinchcliffe era of the programme is the strongest that it’s ever been, and I’ve always been sceptical. I love too many other eras, and this isn’t one that I’ve ever really paid that much attention to. I’m surprised to learn, then, that when you take the average ratings of this era into account (including those stories from Season Twelve, which were technically commissioned by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks) it comes out with an average rating of 7.46 - the highest average rating that any producer has achieved up to now. Indeed, it even blasts the previous winner (Innes Lloyd) out of the water, where he’d averaged a 6.90.
I’m genuinely quite shocked by this. I mean… I know I’ve been enjoying the series of late, but you sort of get used to it just bobbing along at a steady level. You forget how this averages out over time to create a very strong period. And yet, despite this, I don’t think this era is lodged as fir my in my mind as some of the others. Maybe it’s because I’m still deep in the thick of it, and there’s a lot more Tom Baker to come, but nothing really stands out from the crowd here in the way that things do from other eras. There’s few stories from the last three seasons that I’m gagging to go back and watch again, in the way that I am with - say - The War Machines, or The Macra Terror, or Inferno.
It’s been a bold period for the show, and probably the most confident that it’s been since those early Hartnell years when the programme wasn’t afraid to go anywhere and try anything. We’ve veered into more violent and graphic territory than ever before, and we’ve got a Doctor who so completely inhabits the part. I’m really interested to see how my feelings develop as we move forward into the Williams era. From where I stand now, at the end of Season Fourteen, I’m simply expecting it to be ‘cheap’. That’s the only thing that I think I really know about the period to come, and after stories like this one and The Robots of Death, that may come as something of a shock to the system…
Day 474 Extra: *Jago & Litefoot: The Final Act*
The Jago & Litefoot series has never been shy of shaking up the format a little bit. After the first two seasons, in which the pair got themselves involved in a few adventures of their own accord, the third series brought Louise Jameson into the cast as Leela, who arrives back in Victorian London and joins in with their exploits. The Fourth Season sees the introduction of the mysterious Claudius Dark, who isn’t quite what he seems, and then the Fifth Season goes for the biggest shake-up yet – depositing our Valiant Victorians in the middle of the Swinging Sixties.
Just the one box-set – four stories – takes place in the 1960s, but there’s a thread running through those adventures which leads up to The Final Act: a sequel to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. When I first heard the story, it didn’t make a great deal of sense to me. There were enough bits and pieces that I could pick up from simply hearing the story, but a lot was lost on me because I’d never watched this Doctor Who tale. As I’ve made my way through over the last week-or-so, I’ve been growing ever more keen to give this adventure another listen, to see how it fares once I know the story it’s following up from. As soon as I’d written up today’s episode, it was straight to the headphones, and singing along with that fab Jago & Litefoot theme tune…
It took me a moment to get back up to speed with events, as this is really the second half of a two-part tale. Once I was ‘back in the room’, though, I found that I simply couldn’t connect with the tale at all. It tries to act as a logical sequel to Talons - a woman has become obsessed with the thought of bringing back Magnus Greel, and it’s an ambition that her family has had for several generations - but it’s very much a love letter to this earlier story, as opposed to standing on its own right.
Almost every event in the story is a call-back to something from Talons, and mostly to things from this final episode. Obviously, some trappings are bound to crop up again, and things like Mr Sin, the Time Cabinet, and the Key are all expected. But then it’s set in the same ‘dragon temple’ as Talons, which means that we get to see the laser-eyed dragon again, and there’s a sequence in which Mr Sin hides inside and uses it to attack our heroes. Jago and Litefoot get to make their way up the Dumbwaiter again, and they even get to make some of the same jokes and comments about it. They call back to lines from the earlier adventure, with reminders that Leela used to call Greel ‘bent-face’, and mentions of things the Doctor had explained before, and we’re told several times that the Doctor had stamped on the key to smash it into thousands of fragments.
I think my big issue is that I’m coming to this story mere minutes after watching The Talons of Weng-Chiang for the first time. Heard thirty-something years on, this would probably serve as a lovely nostalgic follow-up to the tale. Still, having finally caught up with the Doctor and Leela’s excursion to Victorian London, I can at least see why this story is so capable of inspiring love letters!