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!