(Classic) Doctor Who Historical Costumes: The Talons of Weng-Chiang


Set the story in Victorian London, give it a Sherlock Holmes rip-off, add a dash of misogyny, top it off with a lot of yellowface racism, and throw in a giant rat! What do you get? Doctor Who’s season 14 finale The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). At least the costumes are by John Bloomfield, who had previously designed the costumes for miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) and the 1972 movie version, plus the first season of the original Poldark (1975-1976). This was one of the most expensive serials produced by Doctor Who during the ’70s, and it mostly shows on screen, making it worth a review for the costumes alone.

Because, whoa, this was hard to rewatch for the story. I’ll summarize: The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his newest companion, Leela (Louise Jameson) arrive in London in the 1890s, where they get caught up in the mysterious disappearance / murder of several women. Leela, btw, is a “savage” who usually wears a skimpy outfit of animal skins and tends to solve most problems with violence first.

Doctor Who (1977)

Leela of the Sevateem, in her usual garb. And you thought ‘jiggle TV’ was restricted to America in the 1970s!

She was intended to be an “Eliza Doolittle” character for the Doctor to “educate,” and this episode goes OTT with that conceit. The good thing for Frock Flicks, at least, is that means she’s made to wear historical garb the whole time. She complains about it, but she does it, down to her undies … which she runs around in due to, um, plot reasons :-/

However, the costume is proper Victorian garb with correct hairstyling, which is pretty damn amazing! When she and the Doctor arrive, she’s wearing an adorable knickers suit, rather like what a woman of the period would wear to ride a bicycle. The jacket has huge leg-o-mutton sleeves and is piped all over along the seams, she’s wearing a high-collared blouse with a tie, and you can just barely see gaiters on her legs below the knickers.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Note the dot patterns on her shirt & tie. Also, her hair is curled in an appropriate Victorian fashion & tucked up under the cap.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Excellent 1890s silhouette.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

The knickers look more like men’s (or boy’s?) styles of the period than women’s, which would be fuller. But it works for her character.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Here she’s showing her “barbarian” table manners…

However, Leela swaps places with one of the unfortunate victims, changing into that woman’s clothes. And for some reason, she has to remove the borrowed clothes and ends up running around in her underwear in the sewers. At least this shows that she’s wearing Victorian undies (though no corset). This is also the only time her hair is down.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Maybe the belt is supposed to represent a corset?

When the Doctor and Leela attend the theater to get more info on the perpetrator behind this mystery, Leela is persuaded to wear a full ladies gown. +1 for the period hairstyle, -1 for obviously not wearing a corset.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Sorry, Amazon/BritBox has a crappy version so my screencaps suck.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

This promo pic shoes details better, including the wrinkles from not wearing a corset. Otherwise, this is a nice representation of the period.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

No obvious zipper, so that’s a win.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)
Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

For going out to the theater, she wears this full-length coat with tons of embellishment.

The Doctor also wears Victorian costume in this episode — in fact, it’s the only serial in his entire run that the Fourth Doctor doesn’t wear his trademark long scarf! Instead, he wears a Sherlock Holmes inspired costume that John Bloomfield specially created for Tom Baker.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

He has the classic caped Inverness coat, in a flashy plaid.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

There’s that Deerstalker cap. Plus note all the patterns that really evoke the Victorian style — the coat is lined in paisley, the jacket has a dotted texture, and the tie has another pattern.

Doctor Who, Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Under his coat, the Doctor wears a velvet patterned jacket and a print waistcoat with tweed trousers.


Do you remember this Doctor Who episode?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Facebook Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

13 Responses

  1. Roxana

    Hey no dissing one of my favorite episodes! I’m sure it’s all kinds of problematic by modern standards but I don’t care!
    The great thing about Leela is she’s not having any of this Eliza Doolittle crap. She will wear period clothes when necessary but she is a Warrior of the Sevateem and doesn’t care who knows it.

    • MoHub

      This is one of my all-time favorite episodes, and while it’s problematic, I think you have to see it as a satire of the penny dreadful gothic novels of the period. In reality, it should make the viewer uncomfortable, but it doesn’t reflect the views of the period in which it was made.

  2. thedementedfairy

    I was a great doctor who fan…but I left home in ’77 so don’t remember this one [too busy with being grown up I suppose lol]
    Sounds DIRE, but hey ho Leela’s lack of clothing was very popular at the time I recall

  3. SarahV

    Wow, that knickers suit is unparalleled in its hideousness!~ I can only imagine that actress recoiling in horror when presented with it.

    That last shot with the patterned velvet coat and waistcoat is pretty snazzy, though.

  4. Roxana

    Actually it looks pretty cute on her. The pictures are not the best.

  5. mmcquown

    Leela’s native costume is a great example of making you think you’re seeing more than you really are.

    • Roxana

      True. The coverage is at least as good as a standard one piece bathing suit or a leotard. Lots of arm and leg but little else.
      Also can you imagine Leela agreeing to wear a corset? I’m surprised she agreed to wear combinations!

  6. MrsC (Maryanne)

    I met Tom Baker on the street in Rye, which is a town close to the village he lives in. Our BnB landlady told us we might see him. I had just got a tattoo and was full of beans but we were both too shy to go and say hello, he is a formidable presence!

    • Roxana

      A fellow actor described Ton Baker as having eyes that fo right through you. And oh, that beautiful voice!

  7. Justme

    Eek, this storyline sounds like the worst! I’ve gone back and forth on whether i should bother watching the old dr. Who episodes, and so far the needle points to “no”

    • MoHub

      If you’re familiar with the sensational material publish in the penny-dreadful novels of the late Victorian era, you’ll see this as the satire it was meant to be. This is one of the best Tom Baker stories, but you need to know its roots. Think source material in the realm of Sweeney Todd and Fu Manchu, and you’ll be in the right frame of mind.

  8. crypticmirror

    There is also the two-parter “Black Orchid” where the Doctor and crew have an Agatha Christie style costume ball, which is kinda cool. And the later serial “Ghostlight” which is all about the Victorian costumes (and some crossdressing by the companion, Ace, sparking a mini sexual revolution).

  9. Sam

    It’s rather fitting that John Bloomfield was the costume designer on this, as he was also CD on 1980’s ‘The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu’ a few years later, and then 1986’s ‘Tai-Pan’. I’m assuming he was chosen for his skill in doing ‘Eastern’ garb, but a shame that in both ‘Talons in Weng Chiang’ and ‘Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu’ his rather lovely designs are worn by actors in racist makeup.

    This wouldnt be the last time the original Doctor Who would have varying iffy racist Asian stereotypes – the appalling ‘Time Flight’ a few years later would have Anthony Ainley as ‘Kalid’, sporting a rather lovely gown designed by Amy Roberts…but sadly worn with some really racist makeup (look it up, it makes the makeup here look take)