Chapter 37. Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang (1977)

Synopsis: A London music hall in the late 19th Century is the setting for murder. Its proprietor, Mr Henry Gordon Jago, has just secured the services of a master magician of Chinese origin while a mortician called Litefoot examines a body fished from the Thames and covered in huge bite marks. The Doctor and Leela follow the clues that lead them into the lair of a Chinese God…

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Terror in the Fog
  • 2. The Horror in the River
  • 3. Death of a Prisoner
  • 4. The Monster in the Tunnel
  • 5. The Quest of Greel
  • 6. The Tong Attacks
  • 7. The Lair of Weng-Chiang
  • 8. The Sacrifice
  • 9. In the Jaws of the Rat
  • 10. A Plan to Kill the Doctor
  • 11. Death on Stage
  • 12. The Hunt for Greel
  • 13. The House of the Dragon
  • 14. The Prisoners of Greel
  • 15. The Firebomb

Background: Terrance Dicks adapts the 1977 scripts by Robert Holmes, just seven months after they were broadcast.

Notes: The ghoulish woman on the dockside who (on telly) discovers the body of the cabby, Alf Buller, becomes an old man who wants his reward – until he sees the state of the mutilated body. The young woman who Leela saves from becoming a victim of Magnus Greel is named Teresa Hart and Dicks explains that she’s up in the small hours of the morning because she’s employed as a waitress in a gambling club across London in Mayfair – just in case there’s any possibility of some other reason why a woman might be walking the streets alone at that time of night.

As he did with the cuddly Yeti in The Abominable Snowmen, Dicks also solves the basic failure of the giant rat on TV, too clean and plodding in its original form, but now ‘huge and savage’ with red eyes’, a ‘trumpeting scream’ and ‘yellow fangs bared in fury’. 

The Doctor taunts Greel by offering him a jelly baby (although North American editions change this for a jelly bean – utter sacrilege!). On TV, the Doctor recalls that Mr Sin – aka ‘the Peking Homunculus’ – was given to the Icelandic Commissioner’s children as a toy, but ‘something went wrong’ and the thing was ‘almost’ the cause of World War Six, but here there’s a little more more detail: the homunculus was really a programmed assassin, which ‘massacred the Commissioner and all his family’, which then ‘set off’ the World War. We later learn that Magnus Greel was the inventor of Mr Sin and that he triggered the war intentionally. As part of a ‘Supreme Alliance’ of dictators, he was defeated at the Battle of Reykjavik and, branded a war criminal, used the time cabinet to flee with Mr Sin to 19th-Century China.

There’s a slight addition to the last scene, as Jago invites Litefoot to a ‘little tavern’ for a ‘celebratory libation’. And it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Cover: Jeff Cummins provides a wonderful composition of the Doctor in his Holmesian gear, holding a shotgun, while behind him are Mr Sin, a giant rat and a circular design evoking the sewer. This is his first cover for Target, even though The Mutants was published earlier – and apparently it was later stolen from his portfolio, never to return. The 1994 reprint boasted Alister Pearson’s final reprint cover (as this was also the final release of the original Target books run), featuring the Doctor, Greel, Mr Sin and the head of the ornate dragon-shaped ray gun.

Final Analysis: Recently, this story has come under attack for the unsettling undertones inherent in the very racist genre it takes its inspiration from. While much of the problems are still here – an assumption that all the Chinese population of Limehouse are opium addicts, Irish Casey having ‘a weakness for the bottle’ as well as the general racism of characters from the time – there’s one section that suggests Dicks was at least aware of certain ironies; as Jago appraises the great magician Chang, Dicks makes a dig at the casting in the TV serial:

Perhaps he really was from China as he claimed. After all he really was Chinese, unlike most Oriental magicians who were usually English enough once the makeup was off. 

But Dicks also spells out that Chang’s own stage persona, speaking in pidgin English, is an artifice he employs solely to appease his English audience’s expectations; in this version, it’s the audience who are very much at fault. 

The opening chapter feels like Malcolm Hulke has stepped in to provide some social context by focusing on the different strata within the audience of the Palace Theatre:

The body of the theatre and the Grand Circle above were filled with local people, tradesmen and their wives and families, bank clerks and shop assistants. High above in the top-most balcony, known as the ‘Gods,’ the poorer people were crowded onto hard wooden benches. Labourers, dock workers, soldiers and sailors, even some of the half starved unemployed – they’d all managed to scrape together a few coppers for the big night of the week.

It’s an atypical observation for Dicks, but there’s plenty of social commentary throughout the story. Professor Litefoot is from a ‘wealthy upper-class family’ and his ‘aristocratic relations’ have ceased trying to get him to relinquish his calling to do proper work in the East End, instead of pampering ‘silly women’ in Harley Street. Chang considers the workers of London as ‘peasants’ – but presumably this is a description that places himself on an equal level to them – all subjects to higher powers.

One thought on “Chapter 37. Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang (1977)

  1. Always assumed Dicks line about Chang’s authenticity was a pop at famous “oriental magician” Chung Ling Soo aka William Campbell (who died by his own failed bullet catch trick) but I much prefer it being a pop at the casting! One of the first five targets I bought and read, and one of the few i had no recollection of catching on tv at the time (ITV must have had a tempting alternative offer these weeks…..)

    Liked by 1 person

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