Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang
(6 episodes, s14e21-e26, 1977)
It’s a story that, in the modern era, is both entertaining and cringe-worthy, but for completely different reasons.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about racism. Doctor Who is no stranger to yellowface, which is using makeup to disguise non-Asian actors in Asian-based roles. The franchise has offended many times (Marco Polo, The Abominable Snowmen, The Daleks’ Master Plan, and Planet of the Spiders), and has subverted or avoided the trope many times as well (The Mind of Evil, The Celestial Toymaker, and Planet of Evil).
The Celestial Toymaker used Asian trappings for the villain, but didn’t go all the way with it. The Mind of Evil used Chinese actors instead of yellowface, but (as the story goes) only because the director thought it didn’t look right aesthetically. Planet of Evil was supposedly going to feature the ship’s captain in yellowface, but the makeup didn’t work quite right.
This story is unique because it does both. It is an offender by placing English actor John Bennett in yellowface, and it adds the extra layer of the Yellow Peril trope. But it also shines a spotlight on these tropes and brings them to the table for discussion.
There are many reasons that this practice was used in the past, and much like the sexism in Star Trek, it is indicative of the era in which these serials were made. That doesn’t excuse the practice, but it provides much needed context for its use.
I wish I could say that we’ve learned from our history, but we haven’t. The practice carries on to this day in many productions across film and television.
Anyway, on with this show.
We start with Magician Li H’sen Chang as he wraps up a performance with his ventriloquist dummy Mr. Sin. He consults with the theater manager, Jago, when he is confronted by a man named Buller who accuses Chang of causing his wife to disappear. When Buller leaves, apparently on his way to talk to the police, Chang and Sin exchange knowing glances. The dummy is alive, and later kills Buller with a knife.
The TARDIS arrives with the Doctor and Leela in Victorian period clothes. Leela hates her costume, but the Doctor wants to show her how her ancestors lived. They stumble into the murder scene where several Chinese men are trying to move the body, and the travelers defend themselves until the police arrive. While the boys in blue admire Leela’s skills, the constables ask them to come to the police station for questioning. Later on, the police find a badly mauled body floating in the river and take it to the coroner for analysis.
While Chang performs the second half of his show (in really bad Chinese speaking imitation) Jago witnesses blood running down Sin’s arm. He files that away for later. After the performance, Mr. Chang arrives at the police station to attend to the Chinese man. There’s a nice callout to subvert the tropes here: “I understand we all look the same.” Chang slips the prisoner a poison pill, which the Doctor determines is highly concentrated scorpion venom, a trademark of the Tong of the Black Scorpion. The Doctor takes charge of the investigation at this point.
In a brief kiss with history, London is being plagued by a series of missing women. The police theorize that it’s Jack the Ripper. Our villain is as good an explanation as any for that series of unsolved murders.
Follwing his instincts about the blood on Mr. Sin’s arm, Jago investigates the dummy and confirms his observation. In a meta moment, he remarks that to his doorman Casey that he was checking to see if the dummy was really a “midget in a suit”; Mr. Sin was played by Deep Roy. After that, he and his doorman Casey go to inspect the theater’s supposedly haunted cellar.
The Doctor and Leela go to the mortuary and talk to Professor Litefoot. The professor is analyzing the body from the river, which turns out to be Buller, and the maulings are indicative of a large rodent.The Doctor, recalling that the Tong’s patron Weng-Chiang is the god of abundance and growth, pursues his hunch to the sewers. He is interrupted by a Chinese man who tries to kill him, but Leela’s janis thorns are faster. They continue to the sewers and attacked by a humongous rat. They escape after using their oil lantern as a pyrotechnic distraction.
Down in the cellar, Jago disproves Casey’s fears of haunting, and discovers a lady’s glove with the monogram EB. After Casey departs for the night, Chang escorts Jago to his dressing room and hypnotizes him, forcing him to forget the night’s events. Afterward, he descends through a secret passage to talk with his master – not the Master, though it should have been – who needs to find the Time Cabinet to stay alive. The missing women have been fueling this shadowy figure, and this entity has powered Chang with telepathy (hence the hypnotism skill). Chang notes that, despite his new powers, he cannot read the Doctor’s mind.
The travelers return to the mortuary. They receive some information about Buller’s activities and agree to join Litefoot for dinner, but the group stops by the theater first. The Doctor stops off, agreeing to meet them later, and talks with Jago. The Doctor hypnotizes Jago, causing his to remember everything he was ordered to forget. They reason out the night’s events, and they determine that glove belonged to Emma Buller, the dead man’s wife. They investigate the cellar and discover a hologram of a skull, which causes Jago to faint.
Litefoot and Leela share dinner, the latter displaying her impeccable table manners. Nearby, Chang, Sin, and their master seek the Time Cabinet. They track it to Litefoot’s home, and Chang sends his master back to the theater to rest. When the shadowy man arrives at the theater, he is spotted by the Doctor. The Time Lord pursues and is nearly killed as the man escapes.
Professor Litefoot investigates the strangers outside his home but is taken down. Leela goes after him, but finds a knife-wielding Mr. Sin. She chucks a knife at the dummy, but it doesn’t stop approaching, so she jumps through a window and pursues Chang’s departing carriage. The breaking glass causes the approaching Doctor to duck, barely dodging a gunshot from Chang. As Leela gives chase, the Doctor tends to Litefoot and they discuss the cryptic Time Cabinet.
Chang spends the night feeding the giant rats and being chewed out by his mysterious master, and the Doctor maps out the sewers and the Fleet River to pursue the missing women and chase the mystery. The Doctor takes an elephant gun as a precaution and enters the sewers. I wonder what he’s going to use that for.
Chang hypnotizes another female victim, which Leela witnesses and pursues to the theater. Chang also snags one of the theater’s cleaning crew, and takes the pair below to his master. Unbeknownst to the magician, Leela has changed places with the woman from the street. The shadowy master places the cleaning woman in a “distillation chamber” and activates it, but Leela interrupts the process by attacking him. She escapes into the sewers, unable to save the drained woman, and the master summons the large rat to pursue her. The master dismisses Chang for his failure to kill the Doctor and for allowing Leela to disrupt the operation.
Two Chinese men, supposedly from the laundry service, exchange boxes at Litefoot’s house. He should have locked his door. Meanwhile, the woman whom Leela replaced wakes up and blames Chang for her predicament. A perplexed Casey watches her leave, and Jago informs him that Scotland Yard has hired Jago as a consultant. Close enough, I guess.
Leela runs from the rat, leading the beast to the Doctor. He kills it with the massive rifle, saving his companion, who is ashamed for not killing the shadowy man. They retreat at the sound of another rat since it will take half an hour to reload the gun. They return to Litefoot’s house where Leela changes clothes and the Doctor identifies the shadowy master as Weng-Chiang.
Leela does look amazing in that dress.
The travelers depart for the theater to confront Weng-Chiang, where they are met by Jago. During the show, Weng-Chiang emerges from his lair and kills Casey, and Chang enlists the Doctor’s help as an audience volunteer. During the Cabinet of Death trick, the Doctor humorously leaves the stage – I’m not sure to think of Chang’s line “The bird has flown. One of us is yellow!” It’s cringe-worthy, but subversive at the same time – so Chang’s assistant takes his place. As the trick wraps up, the show is stopped as Casey’s dead body falls out of the cabinet. Chang flees to Weng-Chiang’s lair, now realizing that his god is not really true, and tells his story to the Doctor and Leela. When Jago enters the lair, Chang runs to the sewers and is eaten by the rats. Weng-Chiang, however, has fled from the theater. The Time Cabinet is responsible for the Weng-Chiang’s deformed condition, which worsens each time he absorbs life energy.
The Chinese “laundrymen” return, aided by Mr. Sin, who arrived in the earlier box exchange. They kill a policeman, knock out Litefoot, and leave with the Time Cabinet. The Doctor and Leela return and see to the professor, and the Doctor deduces that Mr. Sin is the Peking Homonculus, a cyborg from the future that loves carnage. They decide to follow the “laundrymen” to the address on the baskets.
The Time Cabinet arrives at Weng-Chiang’s new hideout, but the key was left behind in the theater. Weng-Chiang forces the man responsible for the oversight to commit suicide.
At the theater, Jago discovers the carpetbag containing the key, and he drops it off at Litefoot’s house for the Doctor. They both return to the theater to keep watch. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Leela infiltrate the Chinese laundry and discover a mauled Chang, waiting for his death and easing his pain with opium. He dies after giving the Doctor to clues: A touch on the shoe and the message to “beware the eyes of the dragon”.
Jago and Litefoot follow some of the Chinese men to Weng-Chiang’s hideout, and they are soon captured. He interrogates them about the key, and after they reveal its location, they are locked away with two women who are to serve as the master’s next meals. They almost escape through a connected dumbwaiter, but are soon recaptured.
The Doctor and Leela return to Litefoot’s home and discover the Cabinet’s key. The Doctor observes that Litefoot has been away for some time, and Leela suggests that they set up an ambush and wait for Weng-Chiang to come searching for the key. He soon arrives and attacks Leela, and is unmasked in the struggle. Weng-Chiang recovers as the Doctor comes into the room, and the masked man offers to trade Leela for the key. Failure will result in her death. The Doctor counters that he will give Weng-Chiang the key in exchange for Jago and Litefoot, and only in Weng-Chiang’s lair. Everyone but Leela heads out, but she ends up following anyway.
At the Tong headquarters, Mr. Sin climbs into the dragon statue and activates a laser cannon, and Weng-Chiang reveals that he is Magnus Greel, a war criminal from the future known as the Butcher of Brisbane. As the prisoners are freed, Mr. Sin opens fire, and the Doctor falls. Chang’s final clues are finally clear: The tongue – Tong headquarters – of his shoe and the eyes – hidden laser cannon – of the dragon. The Doctor, Jago, and Litefoot are locked away as Greel activates the key.
Leela infiltrates the headquarters and attacks Greel, but she is captured by his foot soldiers and placed in the distillation chamber. In the locked room, the Doctor sets a trap for the guards, and when it explodes everyone runs for safety. The Doctor returns to the throne room and stops the distillation machine, saving Leela. Mr. Sin opens fire on everyone in the room. The Doctor tries to convince Greel to abandon the Time Cabinet since it will cause a massive implosion, but he refuses. Mr. Sin turns the laser on Greel, providing a distraction for Leela who disables the cannon with a handgun. Greel attacks Leela, and the Doctor tosses him into the distillation machine, killing him. Mr. Sin jumps onto Leela, but the Doctor throws the cyborg to the floor and disables it. He then ends the threat by destroying the Cabinet’s key, ending the Zygma Experiment once and for all.
Jago and Litefoot accompany the Doctor and Leela back to the TARDIS, and the travelers depart for their next adventure.
Jago and Litefoot are a hilarious odd couple. I know that there’s a Big Finish series with them, and I may check it out at some point. I’ve already covered the social problems in this serial, but in the One Last Note Department, I’m just glad they didn’t try to incorporate any other parts of the kung-fu cinema era into this story.
Overall, this was entertaining and very thought-provoking.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Fourteenth Series Summary