Sunday, February 17, 2013

Doctor Who #453: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Part 4

"Please to keep very quiet. Chang shoot fifteen peasants learning this trick."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Mar.19 1977.

IN THIS ONE... A night at the theater, but the Doctor isn't the most cooperative of magician's assistants.

REVIEW: I haven't mentioned in the atmosphere much since Part 1, so I want to begin this review by redressing that omission. Talons has to be Who's darkest, murkiest story, but the noirish use of light and shadow is well used, mysterious and oppressive. I was also surprised to see the cold on people's breaths at the theater entrance, which I'd taken for the studio. And after spending a lot of time at Litefoot's house, we leave him to doze off, no doubt with dreams of Leela in a dress, until he can be waylaid by Mr. Sin's Trojan laundry, and give the theater a good, strong episode. I love Casey's reaction to Jago's contention that he is an artiste ("But Mr. Jago, you don't do anything!"), followed by the list of his relatively slim contributions to the spectacle. Halfway between Kermit and Fozzy Bear, Jago is just as deluded about his role in the Doctor's investigation, quick to invent details to make himself look more important than he is, and quickly falling prey to cowardice when it turns out he actually has a greater part to play than simply boasting about that role.

Leela was promised a night at the theater, and she gets one. The song (when I watched this with a group, their love of 2001: A Space Odyssey made them gladly sing along to "Daisy") would be padding if it didn't add to the atmosphere and strong sense of place, and if Leela didn't chirp in a reaction. The main event, however, is Li H'sen Chang's magic act. Though he's been rejected by his "god", he hasn't lost his spirit quite yet and hopes to regain favor. What follows is one of Who's greatest and most unusual confrontations as the Doctor becomes Chang's stage assistant, not so randomly picked from the crowd. The tricks are all dangerous and potentially lethal, and the Doctor seems to dare him to actually commit murder on stage. There's the magic bullet trick, in which the Doctor brings the pack of cards closer and closer to his face while Chang takes aim. There's the cabinet of death, from which the Doctor comically escapes right in front of the audience, leading to one of Li H'sen Chang's trademark witty self-deprecations ("One of us is yellow"), using the era's casual racism to entertain his audience.

But Chang doesn't realize how far he's fallen from Weng-Chiang's grace, and the masked villain actively trolls him by sticking the body of poor Casey up into the box. What a jerk move! Chang's faith is so shaken that he tries to commit suicide, but the Doctor slaps his scorpion venom pill away, and still he runs into the sewers to fall prey to giant rats. At least we get to hear his story of a celestial box coming from the sky, and of his tending to a sick god before he goes. Notably, while the Doctor does allow himself a kind of Bondian "death pun" ("You'll have to book another act"), the delivery is joyless. The Doctor has a lot of wit, but doesn't actually make light of a man's death. Weng-Chiang, too, has flown the coop (so of course Jago starts dreaming of charging money for people to visit the girl snatcher's lair), and in the closing moments of the episode, is bizarrely howling at his recapture of the time cabinet from Litefoot's estate. It's an odd choice, even for a character described as having distorted DNA (is he turning into a werewolf now?). Maybe it's the sound of the water coming out of the pierced bag, as Leela also very strangely puts it.

REWATCHABILITY: High - The Doctor-Chang duel alone is worth the price of admission, but our ticket also gets us a number of side-acts, like charming Litefoot, amusing Jago, and Leela thinking nothing of disrobing in front of middle-aged men.

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