Saturday, 8 November 2008

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The state of opinion in 2001.

Time to bring out one of my old Doctor Who fanzine articles, lately rediscovered. This was published in Faze issue 23, in 2001.

Nearly five years since the last new Doctor Who production for television was broadcast, and eleven years since the last series, it's becoming more and more difficult to say anything new about the programme. Stories that through the 1990s, especially, were closely scrutinised, deconstructed, reconstructed and pastiched in Virgin or BBC novels are receding into the past. There's a danger that a critical consensus could emerge by default, as fandom's intellectual wing finds it has nothing more to chew and moves on, leaving newcomers with sets of statements that become final and definitive by neglect.

This situation affects 'classics' as much as it does the less-regarded adventures of the Doctor, and one of these is 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', one of those stories that almost everyone still rates highly. It came second in the DWM awards in 1998, at 89.21%. In this article I intend to question some of the recently-printed statements about Talons, and try to reanimate the spirit of debate!

"It's pulp adventure, and not profound - there's no message, no clunking allegory to be found at its core..." Alan Barnes, DWM 295, 3 June 1998

It's certainly pulp adventure, and I wouldn't claim that it sets out to moralise, but like all good drama, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is concerned with the relationships between people and how individuals live with the compromises that they make in everyday life. In doing so it delves a little further than most Doctor Who stories do. 'Talons' concentrates on physical appearance and how this affects how people see each other as human beings. The viewer is alerted to this by the Doctor's failure to recognise what marks out the features of Li H'sen Chang from those of the police sergeant in episode one, ethnicity being all-important to the Doctor's Victorian British hosts. The first exchange between Jago and Litefoot is also remarkable as Jago comments that he should have recognised Litefoot's intellectual ability from his physiognomy - a fashionable notion throughout the nineteenth century, allied to the skull-exploring science of phrenology, with deeply obstructive effects for those deemed, 'scientifically', to be physically second-rate.

The story plays with Victorian theory - and modern prejudice - by presenting the central villain as a man in a mask, who has become deformed through his own experiments and is failing to restore his physical form. His speeches often are self-congratulatory, but Magnus Greel cannot bear to look at his own face, nor does he wish anyone else to see it. It is almost as if Greel's experiment has revealed his own inner nature. The Zygma experiment is another picture of Dorian Gray, but Greel has become his own canvas.

"Goofs: Why does Greel need girls rather than young people in general?" Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, Doctor Who: The Discontinuity Guide, 1995

The most obvious explanation for Greel's obsession with young women is a sexual one; his draining of their life essence analogous to the way that Dracula (indirectly alluded to both in the script's dialogue and its execution - Greel seems most active during the hours of darkness) principally sought young women as his prey, or to the sexual assaults of 'Jolly Jack', mentioned by Casey as part of the scene-setting in the first episode.  Alternatively, as the script suggests that his DNA is breaking down following his failure to enter the correct levels before making his journey through the zygma beam; perhaps all the damage was to his X chromosome, and he can only be guaranteed repair by taking genetic information from young women, unravelling their bodies as he does so. This is probably bad pseudo-science, but it should not obscure the fact that Greel is as foul a rapist as the Ripper from whom he is drawn.

The difference between Greel and the Ripper is that he needs a procurer, someone who will drag his victims from the streets, and his participation in this business shows how far Li H'sen Chang is prepared to go in the service of his benefactor. Chang shows occasional signs of wanting independence from Greel. John Bennett rolls his eyes in exasperation as Greel outlines his demands during their scenes together in the carriage, and we learn just before Chang's death that he was anticipating a performance before Queen Victoria. The logic of Chang's ongoing season at Jago's establishment is that he remains there to protect Greel; how many times, one wonders, has he had to hypnotise Jago to keep him from becoming suspicious? Yet in other scenes Chang appears to be genuinely subservient to his master; it's difficult to be certain whether the production had a clear line on how far Chang is independent of Greel. The focus of the story, after all, is first on the disappearances, and then on the who and what of Weng-Chiang, not on the detail of the criminal network that Chang runs to service Greel's needs. As a beaten Chang escapes the Doctor to offer himself as a dinner guest of the giant rats, with himself as the entrée, the Doctor muses that 'it was a good act'. This simple, but multi-layered sentence, refers not only to Chang's stage performance, but to his benevolence in taking in the failing Greel in the first place, and perhaps also pays tribute to his ability to convince Greel that he was his devoted servant for so long, well after his experiences had taught him that Greel was not the god he had once appeared. Terrance Dicks, perhaps feeling that he would be unable to explain this ambiguity to the Target audience, omitted this line from the novelisation and portrayed Chang as a religious fanatic at the (almost) last; a pity, as the part is written and portrayed with more sensitivity, and Dicks's novelisations had a great influence on the way that fans remembered the broadcast serials.

"Even as late as 1977's 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', a white actor was employed to play a Chinese villain under heavy eye make-up. Strangely, many fans of this popular serial are surprised that it hasn't had a recent terrestrial repeat." Gary Gillatt, Doctor Who From A to Z, 1998

Having cited Terrance Dicks's approach to the novelisations as one reason why the sophistication of Chang's characterisation has been overlooked, I'll now quote Dicks again to explain the racist casting puzzle which has dogged 'Talons' ever since it was broadcast. I remember reading in the article 'Overseas Overview' in DWM late in 1982 of how the Canadian broadcaster TV Ontario ended up not showing 'Talons' in their province at all following concern from representatives of the Chinese community. David Howe and Stephen James Walker write in Doctor Who: The Television Companion that Bennett's "performance and make-up are so convincing that it is difficult to believe that he is not actually Chinese". Bennett's performance is strong, yes, but his features can't be disguised by prosthetic eyelids, and the result could even be seen as grotesque.

It's possible, though, that this effect was sought by the production team. To quote Terrance's interpretation of the story again:

"...the magician had appeared from nowhere. Perhaps he really was from China as he claimed. After all he really was Chinese, unlike most Oriental magicians who were usually English enough once the make-up was off." Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang, 1977

Most commentators have agreed that the success of 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' stems from its sense of fictional period; the Doctor and Leela do not step out of the TARDIS into Victorian London as such, but in a particular Victorian London that was already well-established in the popular imagination. I don't know about the contributions of Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake or Fu Manchu to Talons, but those who do agree that their influence is all there. It's appropriate therefore that instead of facing a villain who appears to be a native of China, the Doctor has as his foe someone whose image evokes a late-nineteenth-century idea of how a hostile, "inscrutable" Chinaman might look - a European in exaggerated eye make-up and elaborate moustache. This argument does not refute the charge of racism but shows how the casting of John Bennett was a calculated manoeuvre rather than an act of laziness on the part of a production team reluctant to give a leading role to a non-white actor. 

I've dealt with the main criticisms that I can remember, and my remaining observations are somewhat random. London's geography in 'Talons' owes little to reality; there is no doubt that the Fleet runs near Limehouse in the televised story, whereas in reality it enters the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge, having followed the course of New Bridge Street, Farringdon Street and Farringdon Road. A friend of mine once insisted that I had assured him the Venerable Bede really did like fish, although I have no recollection of anything of the sort. Does anyone know if Bede mentions a taste for seafood in his writings? Counterfactualists might like to speculate on the companion we might have had, if Leela had not been carried over from 'The Face of Evil', as the Victorian setting would have been the obvious point to introduce Philip Hinchcliffe's Eliza Doolittle character, although this story shows very well how Leela ended up fulfilling that role. I'm an admirer of Jago and Litefoot as characters in the context of this story, but have difficulty seeing how their partnership would have continued in any proposed series. Their characters would have needed to be fleshed out considerably, and at the very least Litefoot would have needed to find a laboratory without masking tape on the walls! I mean to get round to digging out the magazine he is seen reading at one point, issue 917 of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine; considering the care taken with the Doctor Who of this period the choice of periodical could well have been deliberate. Finally, after a couple of viewings of the story with frenzied note-taking, I'm realising how much easier DVDs will make the reviewing process!