“You incompetent lice! You crawling, mindless dogs! That bag contained the key to the time cabinet. I must have it, do you understand, if I have to tear this accursed city apart stone by stone!” (a typical outburst from Weng Chiang)
I was seven when I last watched this Doctor Who series, and until that point in my life I’m pretty sure that I’d seen nothing on TV or in a book that had frightened me as much as Mr Sin, the Peking Homunculus. For scale, I was one year older than my daughter is now (I actually wouldn’t let her near this DVD). So I’ve treasured my memory of this story, and it’s had an influence on some of my horror (a few of my earlier short stories and a few novels). Forty years later, I have finally watched it again, and with some trepidation. It was hallowed horror ground for me and you know how disappointing returns to the past can be.
To give more detail on the hideously marvellous creation that is Mr Sin, the homunculus was once the toy of a royal family (“a plaything for the commissioner’s children”). Can you imagine? Part robot, it was made sentient with the cerebral cortex of a pig. And there is a scene that closes one episode, in which Mr Sin walks haltingly into Professor Lightfoot’s dining room, holding a knife before itself; I remember that scene nearly stopped my tiny seven year old heart. Sin had the most horrible face that I had ever seen.
The way in which Sin gets inside Professor Litefoot’s house, as a kind of a Trojan dummy inside a laundry hamper, was solely responsible for creating my enduring unease of wicker baskets (interestingly, a friend once admitted the very same fear after having seen Mr Sin in his basket, and at the same age as me). For years, I could never use a bathroom in comfort if there was a wicker basket present … When characters moved close to Sin’s inert form in the theatre, backstage, I could barely look at the screen for fear that he would move.
Sin’s malignant presence, even when unseen, permeates six episodes. I think an enduring dread is one of the pinnacles of horror, one of its highest achievements, and is rare. Above ground you had Sin, below the streets there was a giant rat. No escape and a most claustrophobic environment is conjured. I still strive for the same effects in what I write.
On balance, I always keep in mind that this show was “made for children”, but through my older eyes I still appreciated the fog-smothered atmosphere and the masterly sense of foreboding that never lets up. A distinguishing feature is its creation of four terrific monsters. They maintain a tone of absolute loathsomeness, and an unremittingly sinister discourse.
As well as Mr Sin, there is Weng Chiang himself (the masked psychopath), and Li H’sen Chang (with that immobile rubbery face so at odds with his immaculate manners), and the giant rat. Oddly, I probably appreciated the rat more this time around; first time, I only feared the grate through which it was fed, and its roar in the sewers. Though I remember real trauma when the rat got hold of Leela’s legs in the sewer; you then had to wait a week to see if she made it. But a very imaginative ensemble of evil characters here, that left a deep groove in my childhood imagination that I still revisit.
As with the ‘Pyramids of Mars’ that I also revisited recently, I remembered a few of my observations at the time, while a mere seven years old; one of which, was to question why the likes of Sutek the Destroyer and Weng Chiang managed to command such loyalty from their acolytes, who would gladly die for these incredibly rude, robed tyrants in their shiny dressing gowns. It was the awe before a god that they experienced before them, and the all consuming terror before the autocrat.
Through adult eyes, I can see that every character is a stereotype (and so heavy on the Sax Rohmer it made me wince at times). Some of the action scenes verge on slapstick, as in anything involving the expendable Peelers. It’s also filled with gags and literary and cinematic references. I can now sense that the actors were having a hoot while making it, their tongues are rarely out of their cheeks. But all of that escaped me, and was of no consequence to me, at the time this show engulfed me with its terrifying magic in 1977.
While watching it again, it also unlocked a couple of memories: the taupe-to-gold upholstery of our living room furniture that I haven’t thought about in decades. And I remember pretending that tic-tacs were the tiny scorpion venom pills that Weng Chiang and Li H’sen Chang administered to their “incompetent lice”. I also recall that the hallway and staircase outside our living room became too forbiddingly dark and fearsome to enter after watching the show … Sin could have been up there, progressing like a toddler through the dark with his grunt-squeal. Would I get round him, as he moved slowly and needed to get in close? Or would I freeze with terror and hope that he dealt swiftly with me in the dark?
I find I’m still in love with The Talons of Weng Chiang, 40 years later. But I was relieved to have not been so frightened this time around.
Mr Sin and Li H’sen Chang
Weng Chiang aka Magnus Greel
Weng Chiang and Sin