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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang originally aired in 1977.

Ah! Eureka! Do you know what that is?

You ask me so that you can tell me.

That’s right. It’s a trionic lattice, an integral part of a time cabinet. It’s impossible to open it without it.

You mean it’s a key.

Yes. He’s not only a scientific fool, he’s an absent-minded one.

Perhaps he has another eureka.

No, eureka’s Greek for “this bath is too hot.”

– the Doctor and Leela

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is generally agreed to be one of the (if not the) greatest Doctor Who adventures ever produced. It tends to hover around the top of various official polls, with only Caves of Androzani and City of Death coming close to it in public opinion. As such, I feel a little bit guilty when I confess that it doesn’t rank as one of my absolute favourite adventures. I like it a great deal, I think it embodies a great deal of what works about the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show. However, if I’m looking for a dark pseudo-historical adventure, I am more likely to pick either The Pyramids of Mars or The Horror of Fang Rock.

I can see why a lot of people respond to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and it has a lot to recommend it, but there are a number of minor problems that hold the serial back from the cusp of perfection, in my opinion.

Read it at your (Yellow) Peril...

Read it at your (Yellow) Peril…

The Philip Hinchcliffe era had a habit of pitching its technical requirements to match the available technology. Indeed, the early Tom Baker stories generally measure up quite well against the other science-fiction of the era because they seem to measure their technical ambitions slightly. While his predecessor, Barry Letts, had a tendency to overuse CSO technology and the Graham Williams era had more than its fair share of special effects misfires, it seemed like the Hinchcliffe era did a better job at knowing its own capabilities.

For example, Hinchcliffe’s preference for gothic horror tended to play to the strengths of the production staff at the BBC at the time. Doctor Who had always done period drama better than futuristic science-fiction, and Hinchcliffe pitched a lot of his stories at that level. Genesis of the Daleks might have been set on a distant world at a different time, but it was designed like a war serial. (How appropriate, since the Daleks were rooted in the Second World War.) The Brain of Morbius might as well have been “Hammer Horror: In Space!”

Enter the Dragon...

Enter the Dragon…

In keeping with that sort of careful design aesthetic, most of The Talons of Weng-Chiang looks pretty great. It really does look like the sort of design that the BBC would have used were they producing a film about the Ripper murders, or a period drama set in that time period. The set design, the costumes, the posters, even the exterior shots are all put together with the greatest amount of technical skill. I suspect that that a great deal of the fondness for the serial is at least partially rooted in that production design.

However, then there’s the rat. You obviously have to put up with a lot if you are going to watch Doctor Who, and crap specially effects are something you just have to get used to. I adore The Caves of Androzani, despite the fact that it features one of the crappest monsters in the history of the series. However, the gigantic rat in The Talons of Weng-Chiang is just a little bit too far. I’m hesitant to try to explain why this one special effect is too much to me, as I know that different people have different subjective opinions about this sort of thing, but I’ll try.

I, Chang...

I, Chang…

Part of it is the fact that the gigantic rat is a pretty big deal here. It doesn’t just provide one cliffhanger, it accounts for another one as well. The monster in The Caves of Androzani is fairly incidental to the plot, but two out of the six endings here hinge on us being terrified that either magnified mouse footage or a guy in a towel with a rat-face painted on it are going to eat our hero and heroine. I can suspend disbelief for one cliffhanger, but you’re really pushing it if you want me to worry twice about it.

The decision to cut between blown-up footage of a real rodent and a man in a suit makes it seem especially silly. It would almost be better if the guy in the suit provided all of the footage. Steven Moffat has even talked about how the rat diminishes the serial a bit:

If Rise of the Cybermen had been shown in the 80′s (or the 70′s, or the 60′s), we’d all have fainted of joy on the spot. All of us! Some of us had to go to school the Monday after the Giant Rat (in Talons of Weng-Chiang)!! No, really! Thank about that! Added ten years to my virginity, that did, Giant Rat Monday! Oh, I haven’t forgotten!

Indeed, the rat is an example frequently cited by Moffat, and with good reason. I don’t think that ruins the serial or anything as dramatic as that, but it does diminish the adventure. I still like it a great deal, but the rat is part of the reason I wouldn’t consider it among “the best of the best.”

Talk about getting it in the neck...

Talk about getting it in the neck…

That said, there is another more pertinent issue. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a decidedly uncomfortable watch. There are several aspects of it that feel racist. Of course, this is a pastiche of the popular conception of Sherlock Holmes (more than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s actual Sherlock Holmes) and Fu Manchu. One might argue that the viewer should reasonably expect some political incorrectness. After all, while the term had been used in various contexts as early as the 18th century, the New Left only really coopted the term “politically correct” in 1970.

So, in trying to do a pastiche of familiar genre tropes, a certain rough quality was to be expected. And I can accept that. I like to think my standards for racism or sexism aren’t absurd. So I don’t mind the inevitable use of a Chinese Laundry as part of the villain’s evil scheme. I don’t object to the fact that the bad guys all know martial arts. I don’t even mind that all of the Chinese characters in the story are presented as unquestionably and irredeemably evil. Robert Holmes is writing an affectionate ode to those pulpy adventures, so these elements are to be viewed in that context. It would probably be better to write around these stereotypes, but I can understand why they are here.

It's not my head on a chopping block...

It’s not my head on a chopping block…

After all, the Doctor has arrived in Victorian London. It’s a very different world. There are two options for the show when it comes to portraying the past. On the one hand, it can gloss over the existing bigotry of the time period in question and get on with the business of telling an entertaining story. (The Shakespeare Code, for example, does this.)

On the other hand, it can acknowledge the prejudices of the setting and allow the characters of the era to speak and act as they would have if they really lived in that time and place. With the xenophobic gossip, unfortunate stereotypes and racist nicknames thrown around by educated Londoners and police officers, The Talons of Weng-Chiang seems to lean towards this approach, which is perfectly valid.

I hope the Doctor's not feeling boxed in...

I hope the Doctor’s not feeling boxed in…

However, the show doesn’t just acknowledge this prejudice. It indulges in it. The Doctor is a character from outside this time frame, one who should be free of prejudice. So it’s very disconcerting to see the Doctor arrive in Victorian London and play into those prejudices. Reporting an attack by Chang’s henchmen, the Doctor explains that he was attacked by “this little man and four other little men.”

More damning, however, is the decision to cast the a white actor, John Bennett as the primary disciple of Weng-Chiang, the stage magician Li H’sen Chang. Bennett winds up playing the role in yellow-face, which is occasionally cringe-inducing. It’s hard to believe that the producers could not find a Chinese actor to play the role. It doesn’t help that the character of Chang is constructed as something of a stereotype – the mystical Asian speaking in metaphors and mysteries – so Bennett has to play up the cliché aspects of the role.

You can really see the whites of his eyes...

You can really see the whites of his eyes…

You could construct a theoretical argument defending the casting of Bennett. After all, Li H’sen Chang is a great stage magician. Perhaps the goal was to evoke the real life magician of the era, Chung Ling Soo. Chung Ling Soo was a Caucasian in make-up as well, born William Ellison Robinson. Robinson wore yellow-face as part of his act. However, the character of Chang is not a white character in make-up. It’s a white actor playing a Chinese character in Chinese make-up.

There is a way to defend this, by arguing that The Talons of Weng-Chiang so heavily relies on meta-fiction and theatricality that the homage to Chung Ling Soo doesn’t require that Li H’sen Chang be a white man. More than most Doctor Who stories, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is preoccupied with the notion of staged fakery, and part of that involves winking at the audience by leaning a bit on the fourth wall.

Well, at least those characters played by actual Asian actors are well-developed... right?

Well, at least those characters played by actual Asian actors are well-developed… right?

“I had an idea that his dummy was a midget dressed up,” Jago explains after breaking into Chang’s dressing room to examine the ventriloquist’s doll. It isn’t in the story – in the story, it’s a homunculus with a pig’s brain. However, in real life, it is just Deep Roy dressed up as a dummy. It’s a knowing wink, and one that the audience will get at the expense of the characters. Similarly, the reference to Chung Ling Soo (like the line about the dummy) is something obvious to the viewers, but not to the characters themselves.

Theatricality is a massive and important part of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and one of its stronger themes. Indeed, a scare is enough kill off the character of Casey. “He died of a fright,” the Doctor explains, suggesting that Grell’s grim pantomime was too much for the Irishman. Similarly, Chang is not too bother about the betrayal of his associate. He appears to be more upset at being publicly humiliated. “Until he shamed me. I lost face. The whole theatre saw my failure.”

The world's a stage...

The world’s a stage…

In keeping with the meta-fictional aspects of the serial, the alliterative Jago might be a reference to the music-hall-themed BBC television show The Good Old Days. Composer Dudley Simpson even has a cameo as the conductor in the music hall – meaning that he is composing music both inside and outside the show. You could argue that, given these fourth-wall breaking references and the importance of theatricality to the adventure, that the casting of Bennett is intended as just that sort of gag. The kind of thing that doesn’t make sense inside the context of the show, but needs to be seen outside it.

You could also make the case that Chang is not as superstitious and as easily exploitable as some of the characters might claim. Ghang only really starts talking about Weng-Chiang as a god – rather than a partner in crime – once, to quote Leela, “his mind is broken.” The Fourth Doctor even seems to note that his religious reverence for Weng-Chiang is evidence of a mental breakdown. “Li H’sen,” the Doctor asks, “you know he’s not a god, don’t you?” The writing is a little ambiguous, but the scene is played in such a way as to imply it.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

Truth is, though, I’m a bit wary of those defences. After all, the revelation that the only Chinese character who might not believe in the superstitious nonsense that Weng-Chiang is selling just happens to be the one played by a white man has unfortunate connotations all of its own. Even if you can argue that the portrayal of Chang in yellow-face is not racist, it seems desperately ill-judged.Again, it’s a problem that could easily have been avoided if the crew had cast a Chinese actor in the part.

There’s also the racist portrayal of Casey, the Irish stage-hand. I’ve seen enough stereotypically superstitious Irish characters in shows like this that I don’t really mind too much, but it just feels a little bit lazy – playing too heavily into British stereotypes of how Irish characters should behave. Again, you could argue that this is just part of the mood that Holmes is trying to capture, like with all the evil fighting and laundry-running Chinese characters. It doesn’t let it sit any easier.

Phantom of the Music Hall...

Phantom of the Music Hall…

This racism casts a considerable shadow over the rest of the story, and one significantly larger than the silly rat special effect. Again, this insensitivity isn’t so great that it ruins The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but it does undermine it. As I argued above, it’s not that I hate (or even dislike) The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s just that I don’t love it. The show is smart, well-directed and entertaining. It’s an effective horror pastiche executed with considerable skill by all involved.

There is a lot here to like, and I think that The Talons of Weng-Chiang does quite a lot successfully. It’s a shame that Philip Hinchcliffe had to leave. I can only imagine how wonderful another season of Hinchcliffe’s storytelling might have been – it seemed that the talent of the people working on that era of the show only improved with time. I actually quite enjoyed a significant portion of Graham Williams’ time producing the show, but Hinchcliffe’s tenure really was impressive.

Put that in your pipe...

Put that in your pipe…

What’s more impressive about The Talons of Weng-Chiang is that, according to director David Maloney, it was apparently written on the fly:

Robert Holmes delivered the scripts more or less hand to mouth. He’d gone away on holiday expecting a six-parter on his desk when he got back, but it fell through and at very short notice he had to write six episodes himself. We didn’t ever start with all six scripts and we discussed it a lot between us.

I’d argue that Maloney’s direction is the finest aspect of the finished episode. Holmes’ script is great – a lot better than some of the writer’s more workman-like efforts – but I wouldn’t consider The Talons of Weng-Chiang to measure up to his work on The Caves of Androzani.

He's melting, melting, oh what a world!

He’s melting, melting, oh what a world!

Indeed, the six-parter falls back on the fairly conventional plotting mechanism used to pace these longer-than-average adventures. Like quite a few six-part serials, The Talons of Weng-Chiang can effectively be broken into a two-parter and a four-parter. The four-part section opens the story, and the shift is a little more subtle than it is in other six-part adventures like The Sensorites or The Seeds of Doom.

The fourth episode ends up the discovery of the lair beneath the theatre, the defeat of Chang and the vanquishing of Grell. Indeed, the cliffhanger for the fourth episode doesn’t require an immediate solution in the opening minutes of the fifth episode; instead it changes the nature of the plot. As the Doctor notes, “That means he’s going to start up all over again somewhere else.” Grell has changed his hiding place, and he now has the cabinet.

There's something in the water...

There’s something in the water…

What had been a very morbid investigation into macabre murder in Victorian London becomes a battle of wits between two time-travellers. It is at this point that the script teams up Jago and Lightfoot, one of the best Holmesian double acts. Considering how well the pair play off one another, and the reputation that they’ve garnered in the years since, it’s quite surprising to watch the serial and observe that they don’t come into contact quicker.

While the scripts may have been written rather hastily, they do offer an effective pastiche of various Victorian icons and archetypes. The tendency is to compare the Doctor to Sherlock Holmes here, if only because he wears a deerstalker in Victorian London. Many of the archetypal ingredients here aren’t that firmly rooted in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but in the popular conception of him. As Andy Lane argued in In-Vision, quoted in The Television Companion:

[It] picks up not on the truth of Sherlock Holmes, but on what people think the truth is. In fact, the vast majority of Holmes’ cases do not take place in London, do not involve fog and hansom cabs, and revolve around villains smaller, rather than larger, than life… The Doctor’s costume of deerstalker and cloak is suitably Holmesian, except that Holmes never wore a deerstalker – that was the invention of one of the original artists… Sherlock Holmes’ reputation rests upon his powers of observation, memory and deduction… In comparison, the Doctor puts up a bad showing. Fair enough, his memory is as good – he immediately recognises scorpion venom, the Tong of the Black Scorpion, the rat hairs on the murdered cab driver and the effects of opium. But his ratiocinations are few and far between… In fact… one [is put] more in mind of Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, arch-enemy of… Doctor Fu-Manchu. The connections here are more obvious: the fog, the alleys, the crowds of orientals skulking through the streets spoiling for a fight, the base on the river, the villain who expands his lifespan through strange scientific means, the hero and his sidekick who blunder into trouble but escape more by luck than judgment, the melodrama, the plot device that could affect the world. It’s almost too good to be true.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

Even Robert Holmes himself acknowledges that his influences were somewhat broader than the literary conception of Sherlock Holmes as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

I’m not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, although I’ve read all the books, but I am a fan of that fictitious Victorian period, with fog, gas lamps, hansom cabs, music halls… We look back on it and say that’s what it was like, but of course it wasn’t. People were slaving in dark, satanic mills and starving in London gutters, but the popular concept of  Victoriana is this, with colourful language. I think David Maloney was a wonderful director, he got it all so right.

There isn’t a trope or cliché about Victorian London that The Talons of Weng-Chiang doesn’t skilfully pick up on, giving the serial a delightfully pulpy air. Of course there’s fog. Of course there’s murder. Of course there’s a secret foreign society at work.

One of us is a dummy...

One of us is a dummy…

There’s even a “reclusive phantom”, although he’s haunting a music hall rather than an opera. Jago even repeatedly refers to the Grell as such, when he plans to turn the villain’s hideout into something of a grim tourist spot. “I’ve got it! See the lair of the phantom. Conducted tours, bob a nob. I’m on to a fortune here.” Given the popularity of tourism associated with Jack the Ripper, I suspect that he is on to something there.

And Jack the Ripper haunts the episode as well. We’re told that the mysterious Weng-Chiang operates out of a headquarters that apparently “lies somewhere between Whitechapel and St Georges in the East. Place of appalling vice and squalor.” The very mention of Whitechapel in a story like this evokes Jack the Ripper. Casey even explicitly compares the murders to those of the Ripper, “Oh, it says in the paper how it could be jolly Jack at work again.”

Going out in a blade of glory...

Going out in a blade of glory…

The Talons of Weng-Chiang broadcast in February 1977. The 5th of that month had seen the murder of Irene Richardson by Peter Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe would be nicknamed “the Yorkshire Ripper”, perhaps a reflection on just how deeply the spectre of Jack the Ripper had imprinted itself on the British psyche. Richardson was a prostitute, and the third victim of Sutcliffe. It’s fair to say that the Ripper was firmly on the minds of both the Victorian London setting of the story and the contemporary audiences watching at home – something that it’s very difficult to separate from the story itself.

Like the Ripper, Grell preys on women. It’s interesting, because he has a practical use for his victims. He hooks them up to a science-fiction doo-hickey that helps keeps him alive. However, it’s never explained why he needs women in particular, and why he doesn’t simply use some of the legions of loyal henchmen he has assembled. When a male character stumbles across his operation, Change has the man killed and his body disposed of. The use of women seems to be a preference, rather than a necessity of the process. Grell is sociopathic murderer, it’s not too difficult to imagine a misogynistic streak.

Dragon's teeth...

Dragon’s teeth…

As much as a family adventure could do in the seventies, it is made clear that Grell and Chang are preying on prostitutes. His needs are met by “a few contemptible slatterns who will never be missed.” At one point, we see Chang ambush a woman returning from a night’s work. “Yeah, well, that’s how you might see it, Mister Ching-ching, but as far as I’m concerned all I want is a pair of smoked kippers, a cup of rosie and put me plates up for a few hours, savvy?”

There’s very little ambiguity about it, either. Chang refers to the victims as “painted drabs.” It’s a bit of old slang, as referenced in the old ballad There’s Nothing to be Had Without Money. You can probably guess the context. The Merry Man’s Resolution includes the line, “And farewel unto Sodom and all her painted drabs.” This is pretty explicit stuff for what is a family television show airing at a reasonable hour. And I admire Hinchcliffe and Holmes for dealing with this sort of thing – the kind of people who could easily be ignored in an exploration of Britain’s history.

This could be the start of a wonderful spin-off audio series...

This could be the start of a wonderful spin-off audio series…

There’s something very disturbing about the same prostitute’s escape from Grell out of the depths of the music hall. She meets male authority figures who don’t seem at all interested in what she has been through, even though it’s clear that she has suffered some sort of brutal shock to her system. “What happened to me last night? Can’t remember a thing.” On finding two girls in the cellar with them, Jago observes, “Poor creatures. They can’t be a day over sixteen.” This a pretty grim examination of Victorian London.

I also like the inclusion of the “Peking Homunculus.” It’s a very old concept, but one that is (understandably) associated with horror and the macabre. Indeed, the concept features quite heavily in The Bride of Frankenstein, for example. While the Doctor gives a scientific explanation for Mr. Sin, it’s clear that he’s rooted in a much older horror tradition, and it adds greatly to the sense of dread and gothic horror haunting the production.

Elevated by the talent involved...

Elevated by the talent involved…

Proving that there’s no shortage of good ideas here, The Talons of Weng-Chiang even gives us the neat concept of a fugitive from the future hiding in the past. It’s a great idea, one we’ve seen mimicked quite often in science-fiction, but the execution here is solid enough to make it more than worthwhile. The past is another country, and it doesn’t have an extradition treaty. The notion that The Talons of Weng-Chiang is effectively an epilogue to a story we’ve never seen – the closing chapter in the story of a fleeing “Minister of Justice” and “Butcher of Brisbane” and the whole zigma experiment – is strangely compelling.

This is only Leela’s second trip with the Doctor, and I have to admit that I’m less than thrilled with the Eliza Doolittle angle they are pushing with her. “I am trying to teach you,” the Doctor patronisingly explains at one point. I know it fits with the Victorian theme, but the notion of “civilising” Leela seems a little bit too much like cultural imperialism. More effective, however, is the delightful scene where Lightfoot’s Victorian manners force him to eat like Leela (with his hands) for fear of offending, depsite the fact he’s clearly uncomfortable doing so.

Hitting all the sights...

Hitting all the sights…

Again, don’t get me wrong. I do believe that travelling with the Doctor is meant to be a learning and enriching experience for the companion, but I always assumed it was something a bit more grand than social etiquette. It was about sharing a set of values and demonstrating the ability of one person to change the world (or a world) rather than about teaching a Leela how to conform to Anglo-centric cultural norms.

That said, there is something to be said for Leela as the Doctor’s bodyguard. I like the idea that the companion might be able to support the Doctor in that sort of way – offering a skill or a strength that he lacks. There are moments in The Talons of Weng-Chiang that play this approach to the character quite well, as Leela proves to be considerably more physically formidable than her travelling companion.

The edge of his seat...

The edge of his seat…

The script even acknowledges the Doctor’s own tendency to be a bit hypocritical when it comes to weapons.

Yes. I thought I told you not to carry–

He was trying to kill you.

Oh. Oh, well, in that case you’d better come along.

I like The Talons of Weng-Chiang. I like it lot. Unfortunately, I don’t love as much as many fans seem to. It’s a highly-enjoyable period adventure, but it’s not one that I would rank among the absolute best that the show has produced.

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