Injury, insult and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

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It’s never mentioned very loudly, but Philip Hinchcliffe is the only producer to have been quietly moved on from Doctor Who. Not sacked, mind – you don’t get sacked for delivering the kind of ratings the first three Tom Baker seasons garnered. But if your work causes the sort of public outcry which creates headaches for BBC hierarchy, then you might be gently moved sideways.

This is what happened to Hinchcliffe after the broadcast of The Deadly Assassin, with its graphic end to Part Three where the Doctor was strangled underwater. Never has a cliffhanger had such an impact; the subsequent complaints from Mary Whitehouse and her band of moral crusaders sealed the producer’s fate. But to me, the tea-time terror Hinchcliffe presided over is nowhere near as objectionable as the casual racism which peppers his last story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Yet it’s the violence which cost Hinchcliffe his job. Seems you can offend as many Chinese people as you like, but you get those white Christians angry at your peril.

Despite its racism, Talons is a towering classic of Doctor Who. It’s a paradox which speaks to how much this story is loved; we know it’s racist, but look – written by Robert Holmes! Victorian London! A murderous ventriloquist’s doll! But because of this paradox, it’s increasingly difficult to watch with any degree of comfort. I note that it has slipped down a few notches in DWM’s 50th Anniversary poll (oh yes, you know I love that thing!) and I predict that slide’s going to continue. It will always be somewhere near the top because it’s full of engaging characters, witty dialogue, suspenseful direction and the sort of flagrant budgetary extravagance you engage in when you’ve just been told to move on from your job. It’s a great story in many ways, but enjoying it involves either consciously excusing some offensive production choices or enduring a Whoish form of white man’s guilt.

(Incidentally, Talons is so ethnically dodgy that Canadian broadcaster CBC refused to screen it. In his book From A-Z, Gary Gillatt notes that the story was never repeated by the BBC. No such qualms in Australia. We screened it over and over again and were the first country to give it a VHS release. Meanwhile, in echoes of the Whitehouse effect, The Deadly Assassin wasn’t screened until 1987 because it was too violent. Violence again trumps racism as the more serious offence.)

As is well documented elsewhere on the interwebs, Talons is racially insensitive in many ways, but it is at least the last Doctor Who story to engage in yellowface, the practice of using make up to make a Caucasian actor appear Asian. Here second tier villain Li H’sen Chang is played by the very white John Bennett (you can see just how white he is in Invasion of the Dinosaurs where he plays a very British general), He sports heavy make up and a general Asian accent. (Even the DVD’s subtitles pick this up, talking about the conjurer’s ‘tlicks’.) Bennett, a skilled actor, does well, but it’s hard to believe there was no genuinely Asian actor who could have taken this role.

Doctor Who has a track record here. The Daleks’ Master Plan‘s bad guy was Mavic Chen, a yellowfaced Kevin Stoney. Sans accent, but with inappropriate Asian make up. And as noted before, there’s another Chang in The Wheel in Space who sounds highly suspect. Then there’s a whole cast of people in the lost Marco Polo, a story we all long to be recovered, but I wonder how we’d feel about it if we could see it. And although these are stories from the distant past, this problem still lingers. US director Cameron Crowe was recently criticized for casting Emma Stone as a half Hawaiian in his feature film Aloha. No, I haven’t seen it either.

Li H’sen Chang as played by Bennett may be an unfortunately cliched character unfortunately cast, but he has a line in self referential commentary which might suggest a critical subtext. Although he speaks in cod Chinese English (“Budding lotus of the dawn, despicable Chang has other ideas.”) he has a few barbed retorts which could also convince a viewer that Holmes is making some social commentary. When the Doctor (Tom Baker, at the height of his powers) thinks he recognises Chang, the magician says “I understand we all look the same”. Later when the Doctor playfully absconds from the magician’s cabinet, he tells a knowing audience “one of us is yellow”. Could it be that Holmes is seeking to give his character some satirical bite?

Well, if Chang’s too self knowing a character to offend, there are couple of other ways this story might oblige. What about its treatment of women? True, in companion Leela (Louise Jameson) we have a brave, smart and proactive female character. Just her though. The story’s other women are helpless victims and one old ghoul. And here Leela is a stand in for Pygmalion‘s Eliza Doolittle, an uncultured waif being ‘educated’ by her male seniors; hardly the most empowering of archetypes. And even though Leela is a strong, resourceful character she still ends up in her underwear, being attacked by a bug eyed monster. That’s never happened to the Doctor.

Then there’s the unfortunate habit Holmes has of equating physical deformity with evil. His villain here, foe from the future Magnus Greel (Michael Spice), hides behind a mask. In Who, no-one wears a mask unless their face his terribly mangled (well, almost no-one), and so it is with Greel, whose facial contortions get their own cliffhanger. It’s the same with other Holmes creation Sharaz Jek in The Caves of Androzani, and not that different from Holmes’ hideously disfigured Master, seen just three stories before this one. So you see, Talons offers insult to all sorts of people.

And even just as TV drama, it’s not without its faults. Two episodes end with attacks by the giant rat. Two others end with attacks on Leela in Litefoot’s home. Part Five features a long sequence of padding where Jago and Litefoot escape and get recaptured. Chang’s dying clue to Greel’s whereabouts is left unexplained. And the plot hangs off the villain finding a cupboard, which just happens to be in Litefoot’s house, only to forget the key and thus have to kick start the plot.

I think this is going to be Talons‘ curse. Once you start falling out of love with it, you just can’t seem to stop.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Bit of a nightmare, actually. ‘Smoking pipe of poppy’ becomes ‘slugging type of toddy’. ‘Lombard St’ becomes ‘Lumber St’. ‘Time agent’ becomes ‘Time ancient’.

LINK TO The Rescue. Masked villains terrorising young girls.

NEXT TIME. It’s Destiny of the Daleks. So spack off!

 

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6 thoughts on “Injury, insult and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)”

  1. I think you’re falling into the trap that more and more people are falling into these days, ie: looking at something from decades ago and judging it by today’s standards. TV of that era was marked by a ton of stuff which, by today’s standards, is stuff that wouldn’t fly on TV today. But does that make it wrong? On balance, I’d say no. It might well put a guy in yellowface but in no way, shape or form is it done as parody, or to laugh at the character… they simply hired a character actor who is portraying someone of a different race. It’s as simple as that. Hand-wringing about it nearly 40 years later isn’t really that useful. It might make you feel better, and allow you to say to the world, “Look at me! I don’t support yellowface!” but is it really the most pressing issue in your life right now? Sorry to be harsh, but this kind of thing, where people get upset about stuff that happened a long time ago and, for it’s time, was perfectly normal, kind of annoys me. Again, there are bigger issues out there.

  2. I think you’re falling into the trap that more and more people are falling into these days, ie: looking at something from decades ago and judging it by today’s standards. TV of that era was marked by a ton of stuff which, by today’s standards, is stuff that wouldn’t fly on TV today. But does that make it wrong? On balance, I’d say no. It might well put a guy in yellowface but in no way, shape or form is it done as parody, or to laugh at the character… they simply hired a character actor who is portraying someone of a different race. It’s as simple as that. Hand-wringing about it nearly 40 years later isn’t really that useful. It might make you feel better, and allow you to say to the world, “Look at me! I don’t support yellowface!” but is it really the most pressing issue in your life right now? Sorry to be harsh, but this kind of thing, where people get upset about stuff that happened a long time ago and, for it’s time, was perfectly normal, kind of annoys me. Again, there are bigger issues out there.

    1. Hi Lynda. Thanks for commenting. (And good to see the Junior Gazette’s still in publication!).

      For me, the social mores and/or standard practices of the past can’t excuse some of Doctor Who‘s more difficult approaches to race, gender or a whole range of other issues. I acknowledge that for some people they can.

      I’m more interested in how we say that Talons is both a. very, very good Doctor Who and b. challenging to modern sensibilities around race (to put it mildly). There’s a tension there. Personally, it’s getting harder for me to say point a, because of point b.

      My intention was not to write a detailed deconstruction of the racism of Talons. As I say in my post, there’s plenty of that elsewhere on the web. (If you’re looking for a starting point, Philip Sandifer writes brilliantly on it here: http://www.philipsandifer.com/blog/the-lion-catches-up-the-talons-of-weng-chiang/) But I will just say that the story’s approach to race is problematic on many levels, not just because of its use of yellowface. I singled that out just to say that this was not the first, but it was at least the last, time the series used it.

      And yes, you’ve guessed correctly, this isn’t the most pressing issue in my life right now. Just in the same way that last week’s post about The Rescue and its odd treatment of Vicki or next week’s post on costuming in Destiny of the Daleks are not the most pressing issues in my life. But then, I don’t write Randomwhoness to talk about those things. I don’t think they would interest many readers. They are really dull!

      Again, thanks for dropping by.

      1. In which case, each to their own.

        But again, I just don’t see the point in trying to compare something that happened 40 years ago with more modern sensibilities. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

        Again, none of the yellowface or related issues are there to mock or parody the Chinese. It is an attempt to tell a dramatic story with the resources they had to hand, in the way they knew how. I suppose you could point to lines from the police about the Chinese in the story but I’d be dumbfounded if they weren’t in keeping with the prevailing attitudes of the late 19th century, and especially among the London police, dealing with criminals every day. In other words, the attitude and the lines are faithful to what they represent.

        I’m fearful of a world where, if a drama is written about a period where distasteful things happened, that it gets sanitised so people can feel good about it in the present and not have to write blog posts about it… even though it presents a completely wrong and skewed version of what actually happened in that period.

        I’m reminded of the “controversy” of Stephen Fry’s script for the Dam Busters (the Peter Jackson movie that’s been in development hell for years), and he included the squadron’s black Labrador, Nigger. “You can’t call the dog that! OMG!” quoth a shocked Internet. And yet, that’s what the squadron’s dog was called. We have the choice to tell the story like it was, or call the dog Rover or something ridiculous and, essentially, even if only in a small way, change history.

        In a similar way, when I read ancient history, I think someone like Julius Caesar is an amazing personality. If you dig deeper, of course, you’ll find stuff that’s inconceivable in the present day. But does that mean we should damn ancient Rome? No, it was simply of its time.

        And that’s why I can’t get behind the concept of damning something which never set out to cause *anyone* an ounce of hurt or pain and was simply of its time. If it was done to deliberately cause trouble, or hurt, or whatever, I’d happily agree with you. But not when that’s, clearly, not the case at hand.

      2. Without going point for point with you, we will, as you say, have to agree to disagree on whether contemporary attitudes (at the time of production) or indeed the intention of the authors excuse any racism on display.

        But a new point which you make is that it should be possible for a text to portray racism, sexism, prejudice etc in the interests of historical accuracy. I think this is possible, and it’s also possible to critique those attitudes from a modern day perspective. (For one small example, there’s a moment in The Shakespeare Code, where the Doctor berates the Bedlam gaoler for whipping his prisoners.) Further, it could be argued that without such critique, there’s a risk that the authors can be seen to be tacitly condoning such attitudes.

        Now in Talons there’s some evidence that Holmes is critiquing the attitudes of the time, in particular through some of Chang’s wry comments. But I’d argue that the rest of the story’s production choices work against such a reading.

        In the interests of moving the conversation on a bit, here’s another question for you: do you think Doctor Who fans are sensitive about criticisms of Talons? I ask this because, to my surprise, this post has proven to be the most popular on my blog – by a country mile. Do we love it so much that it’s harder to admit its faults? (though I acknowledge that you may not agree with me that it has faults!)

      3. I think it might depend on what country the person is from. That might sound weird, so let me try and explain what I mean.

        I have noticed, over the years, that things which are, “OMG, I can’t believe they just showed that/said that…” in one country aren’t regarded in the same way in other countries at all.

        Each country has its sore spots; its pressure points. I would speculate that most Talons backlash would be primarily in the UK, from UK fans, worried about the portrayal of a historical UK in a UK series.

        An American fan, or an Australian fan, meanwhile, likely feels none of the same cultural cringe towards it and would just enjoy it. I realise you are in Australia, however, you might be an outlier, rather than representative of the majority in your sensitivity towards it.

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