The Doctor Who Target novelisations hold a very special and specific place in my heart. I’ve long been aware of what they mean to us as a community, especially to the contemporary fans of the classic series for whom they filled in the blanks, either by committing the stories to the memory banks of history or by introducing them to fans who joined the series along the way. For many, without readily available VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray releases, they were in fact the definite article, you might say.
For me as a fan visiting these stories for the first time when delving into the classic series, they were a great written or audio form for me to tuck into, to make sure my long journeys into work weren’t wasted. Later, even more importantly, they’ve been a great aid to go to sleep to (as a scandalous as it may at first sound) in times when that wasn’t (and sometimes isn’t) an easy thing to do when working irregular hours. It’s a habit my partner has developed too and we both owe many hours of rest to Terrance Dicks’ calming prose.
For Terrance Dicks, who is the central subject of the series of reviews the Doctor Who Companion is providing, these books may well be his crowning glory. For the man who wrote and produced many of the Second, Third, and Fourth Doctor’s greatest adventures and even brought us Doctor Who’s glorious multi-Doctor 20th anniversary special, this is saying something. But Dicks’ prolific spell of Target writing projects not only provided these notable long-lasting accounts which mean so much to so many, but, in the process, also introduced many young and previously reluctant fans to reading for the first time and arguably inspired so many of them to go into writing themselves, influencing so much of what the show means right up until the present day.
Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang was written at the peak of this flurry of creativity, with the great man producing multiple year on year at this stage. Based on Dicks’ close friend Robert Holmes’ Season 14 finale, and placed directly within arguably the most successful run of the show’s long history, it can be suggested that Dicks’ didn’t have a too much to do to make this an excellent story in novel form. While it’s true that the dialogue is very similar to what we see on screen and that the plot rarely deviates either, this is no bad thing. The dialogue is exactly what makes that story work best in its original form and to take the view that this is a fault on Uncle Terrance’s part would be terribly unfair. To ignore the importance of Dicks’ deceptively straightforward and incredibly readable prose’s impact on making the story work within the change of medium would also be a huge mistake.
He throws you deep into the story from the off at breakneck pace and highlights every fantastic character, as well as their voices, beautifully and with impeccable ease. Many characters jump to life including Chang, Mr. Sin, Casey, Magnus Greel, PC Quick, and, of course, the real stars of the story, Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot, as fully formed here as they were in the tenth or eleventh series of their successful and prolific spin off. The Doctor and Leela are both keenly realised and written too. You laugh with them, are scared with them, and excited to see what will happen next, as much as you’d ever want from any Doctor Who adventure.
Recent years have led to a reappraisal of this story in some quarters due to perceived stereotyping and for casting a Caucasian in an Asian role. While I don’t want to take the poisoned chalice which comes with this unwinnable debate, I would be remiss to not at least discuss how this may affect the book or perception of it. If you take issue with the serial, you’ll most likely have similar grievances with the book. Written in the same calendar year the serial aired, it is as unaware of the issues raised against it many years later as its source material is. As in the original story, most of the verbal indiscretion comes from the perceptions of the Victorian characters, which Chang sends up similarly dryly. I’ve always had a soft spot for Chang in this story, more sympathetic than I feel he’s been appreciated for and usually the most intelligent person in the room, as well as being one of the most three-dimensional characters of the piece. Unfortunately, the other Asian characters are far less fleshed out and the book doesn’t attempt to rectify this either. A more contemporary adaption may attempt to juxtapose favourable Asian characters into the story for balance which this certainly does not, and some of the prose falls into similar trappings of the time through some outdated language. If you’re looking for antidote to 1970s accepted norms against modern 21st Century values, you won’t find it here, though for obvious reasons ‘yellow face’ at least is not a factor.
On screen The Talons of Weng-Chiang is held by its fans in high regard and the book deserves its place as an equally well-regarded adaption of it. Without needing to improve or adapt the story as dramatically to make the pages turn as he does elsewhere, this was perhaps an easier project for Dicks to complete than one of the less exciting TV adventures but that certainly didn’t stop him providing us with something special here. At 140 pages, there’s more than enough material to hold the interest and keep the story going and he clearly enjoys himself as he does so.
In 2021, this novel has been long out of print in paperback. However, due to numerous historical printings, it is usually fairly readily available on eBay at competitive prices. It was also published as a limited-edition hardcover, reportedly just printing 3,500 copies, though for obvious reasons this will set you back a fair bit more, if you ever in fact find one. It’s been republished as part of a hardcover anthology, The Essential Terrance Dicks: Volume 2, which is certainly more affordable and less limited. It was recorded for audiobook in 2013, read excellently by the excellent Henry Gordon Jago himself, Christopher Benjamin. It’s available in this format on CD or on Audible, both individually and as part of ‘The Second History Collection’, along with similar gems like Doctor Who and the War Games, The Highlanders, Black Orchid, and The Gunfighters.
Entering a new phase of our lives, my partner and I still listen to a good old Target of a night when going to sleep. When pregnant women listen to white noise, classical music, or whale song, it is thought to have positive effects on the infant inside of them. Whether my partner has considered the positive or negative effects of listening to a Target novel on our unborn child as she rests, I’m not sure, but from my perspective, I can only see it as being a very good thing.
Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang is available to read as part of the anthology title, The Essential Terrance Dicks: Volume Two.