One evening while channel surfing in the early 1980s (which, back then, involved standing next to the TV and manually turning the mechanical tuner knob to cycle through less then a dozen stations...) I happened upon some show I had never seen before but immediately captured my attention, a spooky mystery set in the dark, fog-draped streets of Victorian London.
Mauled bodies were turning up in the Thames...
...and young girls were disappearing off the streets.
But this wasn't the work of Jack the Ripper. Rather, the mysterious goings-on seem to revolve around the Palace Theater.
There, the popular magician and hypnotist from the Far East, Li H'sen Chang, appears nightly, astounding audiences with an act which includes mesmerizing and levitating a member of the audience.
He is joined on stage by Mr. Sin, a creepy ventriloquist dummy that provides comic relief during the show.
But as entertaining as Chang's stage show is, the real interesting stuff is occurring backstage. Strange noises have been heard coming from under the theater after hours, and one stagehand claims to have seen a ghost.
There's also more to Chang than meets the eye. His powers of hypnosis go beyond those of a typical stage magician, and he can command people to do his bidding with an almost otherworldly persuasiveness.
We soon learn Chang has been using that power to command women to follow him down this hidden backstage trapdoor...
...into the subterranean lair of Weng-Chiang, a mysterious masked figure living in the sewers beneath the theater.
Weng-Chiang has a degenerative condition, requiring a constant diet of young victims to stave off death. He extracts their life essence with this distillation chamber, a high-tech contraption that leaves its victims' bodies shriveled and brittle like dried leaves.
That horrific process may postpone death, but it can't keep the disease from rendering Chiang's face a deformed nightmare behind his mask!
As if he didn't already have enough on his plate, Weng-Chiang has also taken time to populate the adjoining sewer tunnels with giant rats, genetically enlarged to the size of a bear. He feeds them with the bodies of whoever is unfortunate enough to get in his way (or failing that, a nice hunk of butcher's meat laid out on the sewer grate).
When one of the missing girls is traced back to the theater, it attracts the attention of a special investigation team from Scotland Yard.
Known only as "The Doctor", and looking and acting very much like Sherlock Holmes, The Doctor and his assistant Leela, soon learn that Chang's on-stage assistant, Mr. Sin, is no mere ventriloquist dummy, when he (it?) appears in their doorway one evening, brandishing a knife.
Even after Leela, a trained fighter, quickly plunges a knife into the thing's neck, Mr. Sin continues to march forward undaunted, like some murderous automaton.
Of course by now you may have figured out that the program I happened upon was an episode of Dr. Who. I had never heard of the show prior to stumbling upon this rerun of 1977s The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but quickly became a big fan, and when it started airing in the afternoons, I would rush home after school to catch every cliff-hanging minute.
Anyone familiar with the show knows that Dr. Who is a human-looking alien time-traveler, always appearing in different time-periods and on different planets, getting involved with aliens, robots, and monsters. Which makes The Talons of Weng-Chiang a rather unusual first episode for the uninitiated. The Doctor spends the entire 6-episode series in Victorian London, pretending to be a Scotland Yard detective, and there's little to suggest he's anything but that for those not already in the know.
Incidentally, that creepy ventriloquist dummy Mr. Sin is portrayed by none other than cult character actor Deep Roy (Star Trek, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc.)
The Talons of Weng-Chiang is available on DVD here (although it's apparently gone out of print as of this writing and is going for some outrageous prices on the second-hand market).
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