Thursday, November 12, 2009

4S1 - The Talons of Weng-Chiang 1

Never before have the roots of a story been so exposed in Doctor Who, and never before has it felt so right. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is unabashedly Doctor Who doing Sherlock Holmes (as if Tom Baker's one-off Holmesian costume isn't enough of a hint), and in the first few scenes of Episode One, it's equally obvious that this story is going to be something special. The dialogue in this episode is just tremendous, the performances superb.

There is a feeling of comfortable dominance when watching Talons in that everyone who is involved in this production doesn't have to try because they are nigh on perfect at producing this type of television drama. We're treated to two rarities right off the bat - an OB shoot at an actual Victorian era theatre, and some gorgeously filmed material from an exceedingly rare (for Doctor Who at the time) night shoot. Both of these elements lend bucket loads of credibility to setting up the setting and the story, and this is even before The Doctor and Leela arrive on the scene.

And then there's the racism that this story is sometimes famous for. This is a dicey situation to comment on, but I'm going to anyway. The Chinese characters in this story are not shown in a good light - period. Most, if not all of them, belong to underground tongs or are coolies. They're treated disrespectfully by most who come into contact with them, such as the sergeant at the police station and, alarmingly, The Doctor himself when the latter calls them "little men". Looking ahead to Episode Two, Professor Litefoot casually drops the racial slur "inscrutable Chinks" before offering dinner to The Doctor and Leela. To top it all off, the lead Chinese character, Li H'sen Chang, is played by a white actor, John Bennett, wearing make-up to make him look Chinese. To 21st century eyes, this is shocking stuff for any show, let alone Doctor Who.

However, we must remember two things - the time period in which this story was made, and the time period it is representing onscreen. 1977 was a different and highly liberalized time for television. The top US series All in the Family featured a character, Archie Bunker, who possessed a rabid distrust for most other races, with attitudes and comments that, despite their offensive nature, never failed to get laughs from the live studio audience or the millions of viewers at home watching on television. Also, England was not the multi-cultural hub that it is today, and the notion of making up a white actor to play an ethnic role was not frowned upon in those days as it is today.

Also, this flagrant racism is in keeping with the attitudes of Victorian England, if not the fictitious world of Sherlock Holmes, as well. In short, the racism is unpleasant, and yet historically accurate. Look ahead to 2007's Human Nature, which contains a scene where Martha Jones experiences the racism of the typical English schoolboy in 1913. That scene needed to be there because to not have it would be unrealistic and anachronistic.

I am 100% against banning older films, television series, or literature that contain racist overtones - not because I agree with them, but because it feels like it's covering over the past. Burying such films as Song of the South or some of the banned Bugs Bunny cartoons of the 1930s is akin to denying the Holocaust ever happened. The Talons of Weng-Chiang should be appreciated for what it is - a solidly entertaining story made in a time when attitudes towards racism were nowhere near as enlightened as they are today. It's a window into our past, and it is up to us to decide whether or not we as a society have improved upon it.

There, now that's off my chest, on to Episode Two...


Erik said...

I agree that the story shouldn't be judged solely by its racial attitudes and casting decisions--but I think it must be a least partially taken into consideration when judging a story, just as direction, lighting, music, and effects must be. For me, Talons has significant failings in a lot of places, but it still makes itself fun--but I would be much happier if they had even tried to find a leading guest actor who was Asian.

Who+ said...

Wasn't Holmes' Singapore-set story for the Season-23-that-wasn't going to be called "Yellow Fever, And How To Cure It"? Not that one can read too much into a mere title, but it doesn't exactly sound like he trod sensitively around the issue of race, even ten years later...

I'm pretty sure the treatment of Chinamen is consistent with Arthur Conan Doyle, at least.

donn said...

Steven, well said, sir. Good on you.

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