“Have I ever in my thirty years in the halls seen such a dazzling display of lustrous legerdemain?” – Jago
Watching this again I am reminded why it is consistently considered one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. Robert Holmes outdoes himself with an engaging storyline and high quality dialogue with a unique setting and atmosphere, wonderful development of Leela, strong supporting characters, and great sci-fi concepts to boot. It’s star has faded a bit over the years because of it reinforcing stereotypes of Chinese culture in 19th century Britain, but while it doesn’t break down any barriers, there are at least a few lines that undercut them a bit (like the obvious withering sarcasm when Chang tells the Doctor: “I understand we all look the same.” )
The storyline itself is quite well done. We open in the midst of an 1800’s music hall, a startling change after many stories set on future alien planets. Using tons of fog and darkness, the show creates wonderful atmosphere that we associate with London and Jack the Ripper. This sets the perfect mood for a story of kidnapped girls, magic and hypnotism, underground sewers, secret gangs, and such. As a kid, the other things that stood out to me most in the story were the sci-fi concepts of the future—that a dictator of the 51st century escapes defeat in a World War battle where the Doctor rode “with the Filipino army at the final advance on Reykjavik” and using an imperfect attempt at time travel arrives in Old World China like a god but left horribly disfigured. A time cabinet of failed zigma energy experiment only accessible by a trionic lattice key with the right molecular crystallization. These points are incidental to the larger plot but made all the difference to me as a kid. The Peking Homunculus was particularly thrilling (and chilling).
In terms of writing, the arc of Li H’sen Chang is especially well done. He could have been just a defeated villain in the end, but instead they play up his rise and fall well. When Greel cruelly shames him by casually killing the stage hand (we hardly see it as such but to Chen it’s a clear message of rejection by his god), he runs away and we think is clearly killed in an attack of giant rats. When the Doctor later discovers him twisted and dying in the opium den instead, it sets the stage for a wonderful and pitiful scene of him relating his life story and motivations. You feel sorry for him, especially as he stares in the distance murmuring to himself that “next month the Great Chang would have performed before the Queen Empress at Buckingham Palace, I, the son of a peasant…”
The characters of Jago and Litefoot are considered as one of the highlights of the story by most. This pair of strong and unique personalities are individually great but even better when they are finally brought together as a duo. Even when they bumble a bit and the Doctor has to rescue them, they are never portrayed as less than heroic. It’s no wonder they went on to become a fixture in the side literature of the show.
Much is also made of the Doctor and Leela’s relationship here. The Doctor plays a bit of Sherlock Holmes (even in dress) which fits his character perfectly. He is also trying to teach Leela a bit of life outside the jungle. She shows increasing reason and respect for the Doctor’s habit of thinking through problems rather than using brute force, yet it’s still Leela’s savage knowledge and instinct that often saves the day. Never did a companion get so much action, taking down Tong guards in the shadows with her dagger or—upon intuiting the danger of the homunculus—prudently bounding across the table and bursting out the window. (It’s no wonder she is one of my favorites. Sarah Jane never would have done that!)
Most notable are her scenes with Professor Litefoot that evoke the Eliza Doolittle aspect of her character arc. I like how he doggedly tries to reconcile his image of genteel ladyhood with her enthusiastic questioning about knife thrusts to the heart. It’s quite funny as she unwittingly embarrasses him with her frankness and he politely tries to not make her feel awkward by eating great hunks of meat with his hands as she does– while also showing things like the use of a napkin. Even when she is sure she is going to die, Leela is a spitfire, telling Greel: “I shall not plead, but I promise you this. When we are both in the great hereafter, I shall hunt you down, Bent Face, and put you through my agony a thousand times!”
These and many other little nuances and lines throughout make this a great story.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
Where to begin? I guess the Peking Homonculus—we think it’s a dummy until it starts to move which is creepy enough but then it turns out to be as uncontrollable and bloodthirsty as a wild pig and it’s absolutely frightening. (It’s not stated but I always imagined since it was a “plaything for the Commissioner’s children” that went “wrong” and almost caused World War Six that the thing must have slaughtered the children it had been given to, a though which freaked me out as a child.) While the reveal of Greel’s distorted face is another key moment, it’s more exceedingly gruesome to me when we see the giant rats tearing into Cheng.
- The Doctor mentions his role in a future earth battle
- Musical performance within the show
- Mention of Time Agents
- Drug use (opium den)
Having an Asian character played by a white actor is totally unacceptable now so it’s hard for many modern viewers to overlook this misstep. It’s a shame they couldn’t have realized that at the time so that the great story itself would be what stands out.
Of course, some people also can’t overlook the rather poor effect of the giant rats. (Though I would argue it’s not entirely ineffective—there are moments, like when grabbing Leela’s leg in the shadows, where they are kind of frightening.) Though it drives the plot, it’s almost unbelievable that one of the characters simply forgets the bag with the hugely important time key in it.