After our jaunt to the 51st century we now travel back to Victorian London to follow a refugee from that time zone in ‘The Talons of Weng-Chang’. Written by Robert Holmes it is a good illustration of changing the format of Doctor Who to fit a specific genre, in this case Victorian adventure.
This is one of the rare occasions where the Doctor and his companion change their clothes to match the era. In a series where the time travellers speak with alien races with ease the first episode language is a plot point, the Doctor interrogating a prisoner in his native language. Even the Doctor’s attitude seems slightly changed, referring to the Chinese assassins as ‘little men’ and barely batting an eye when Leela uses a Janus thorn to murder one.
If it fits the story the normal conventions can be momentarily suspended. The time travellers fit into the genre that it barely matters they’re from different worlds and centuries. The Doctor is the knowledgeable detective assisted by a savage companion, characters that wouldn’t have been out of place in the actual literature of the time.
I should just say that while the Doctor’s regard of the agents of Weng-Chang isn’t exactly politically correct in todays climate I don’t think the character is racist. Indeed, upon being introduced to Li h’sen Chang he has to ask if he is Chinese. He honestly has difficultly identifying appearance, just as he says to Countess Scarlioni in ‘City of Death’ that she is a beautiful woman, probably.
The Doctor is an alien time traveller, his perception of people is different from ours. This can illustrate how an eccentric character can appear rude and even offensive when really they just relate to people differently.
The story isn’t afraid to revel in other elements of Victorian drama. In the first episode alone we have foggy streets, cobbled streets, handsome cabs, music halls, mysterious oriental gentlemen, bumbling police officers and educated coroners.
Focus can help communicate to the player character just what kind of adventure they are in and help them get in the mood. Anyone encountering these aspects will know that they are in a ‘Holmesian’ mystery and behaviour accordingly.
The Doctor and Leela have barely stepped out of the TARDIS when they are thrust into the plot. They witness the apparent murder of a man on the street, immediately beginning a combat situation.
Both time travellers are more than able to handle one or two of the attackers but both are overcome by the superior numbers. This can be a good technique to inform the player characters about the power level of the opponents they face. They will now know that they can defeat small numbers of these opponents but shouldn’t attack a large number, encouraging stealth to prevent summoning more opponents in later encounters.
Once they’ve got involved the time travellers are now committed to this story. The involvement of the police establishes that there is a criminal investigation and having prevented the death and seen their attackers escape the Doctor demonstrates that he should be the one to carry it out.
At this point the Doctor doesn’t know that anything is out of the ordinary. So far there is nothing to suggest alien influence or change to time. They know who carried out the murder, the only mystery is why.
In these early scenes note how many of the important characters are introduced, both Li H’shen Chang and then Professor Litefoot are. Establishing characters early on will give the player characters a grip of who is important to the adventure, even if they don’t initially know what role they play.
Inevitably characters reach dead ends, or their inspiration dries up. In these situations they need to know characters that they can investigate or go to for help. This gives them a sense of direction, rather than stumbling around in the fog.
Your plot will also look much more natural if you aren’t introducing characters at the last minute. The identity of the villain isn’t going to have much of an impact if they’ve only met them in the last 10 minutes of the game and it’ll feel like you’re bailing them out if a new character appears to get them out of a tight spot.
Even characters who aren’t introduced early on can justify later introduction if they have ties to earlier characters. In this case the theatre owner Jago isn’t met by the Doctor in the first episode but as the employer of Li H’shen Chang his existence is at least hinted at. After all, someone must have given Chang the job.
Unusually for a villain Li H’shen Chang is presented as subservient and overly polite. We also see that he is intelligent, and as we are supposed to think he is actually providing the voice for Mr Sin, actually has a good sense of humour. Only his veiled threat and the implication that he is involved in the disappearance of woman in London suggests his true nature.
A polite villain can provide a good foil for characters with high Ingenuity and Presence attributes. Their conflicts are not of physical violence but a battle of wits, each one trying to hide their agenda and force their opponent to reveal theirs.
The advantage of these type of encounters is that they can be done in a variety of surroundings, witnessed by others. The more people in proximity to the combatants the greater the safeguard that things won’t get violent and the higher the stakes should they let slip something they shouldn’t.
Not that Li H’shen Chang isn’t opposed to violence. If anyone gets to close to what he is doing they are soon paid a visit by his thugs. Not only does this provide an exciting combat encounter it also lets the player characters they are on the right track.
This type of villain is appropriate in any time zone. You can see examples of the polite villain in the detective novels of the 1940s, often in the form of crime lords or corrupt officials right up to the corporate fat cats of the action films of the 1980s and 90s.
It is satisfying for the player characters to crack the facade and expose the villains true face to society. Humiliating them is often just as rewarding as seeing them brought to justice.