Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Talons of Weng Chiang - "Budding lotus of the dawn, despicable Chang has other ideas."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Talons of Weng Chiang - Details

Series 14, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #91) | Previous - Next | Index

Four matches wits with Magnus Greel.
OK, here goes. I've been both dreading and dying to write about this one. Dying to because it is, and has been, my single favorite story since it debuted. But to admit this is your favorite episode is to take a position, whether you want to or not, on whether this story is too racist to be tolerated, or not. I don't want to dance around the topic though I would if I felt like I could and get away with it. So let's get the hard part over with.

The case against "Talons," as I see it, is largely based on the following points:
  1. An Anglo actor plays Li H'sen Chang and makes a "One of us is yellow" joke while speaking heavily fake-Chinese accented English
  2. The British characters make stereotypically racist remarks about the Chinese characters
  3. All the Chinese characters are villains (and some of the henchmen are also Anglo playing Chinese)
  4. The Doctor refers to the Chinese as "little men"
Here's the defense that is meant to cover all the points above: it was the time, it's not significantly more racist than anything else produced in the mid- to late-70s. There's a degree to which I think we can accept this defense, much like we don't dismiss the Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee era stories for their problematic use of non-white actors, usually black. (See "Terror of the Autons," & "Tomb of the Cybermen," for example.) Sure, from a position of white male privilege, it's pretty easy to say, "That's just how privileged white males depicted other groups back then, let's not make too much of it."

A litmus test I'd suggest for whether this story is too racist to tolerate is: if you had Chinese house guests coming over, say business associates, or someone else you may not know well, and who doesn't know you well, on whom you want to make a good impression, would you feel comfortable if they went over to your DVD collection and pulled this story, and not being familiar with it, and asked you what it was about, suggesting maybe you could all watch it together after dinner? Or would you have hidden it away beforehand to prevent having to talk about it? And, if you would hide it away to avoid the issue, can you still argue there's nothing wrong with owning it, watching it, and enjoying it today?

Does the "it's a product of the times" defense help us with our litmus test? I'm skeptical.

I'd like to attempt a more robust defense that would leave us in a position to be comfortable leaving our DVDs out and willing to talk about and watch the story with any house guest, regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference or what have you.

Let's imagine if Li H'sen Chang had been played by James Hong instead of John Bennett and we didn't have to deal with that issue. If all the Asian characters had been played by Asian actors, I think issue 1 above largely disappears as a problem. So, to start, we've got to acknowledge that having Anglo actors play in blackface, yellowface, or anyface is not something we can really tolerate now except when its done to draw attention to itself. It's not something we're just going to play along with.* But it's a thing that happened. So do we not watch this for that reason? Well, I think we needn't throw this particular baby out with the bathwater, but I think this is the extent to which our "that's how they did it then" can cover us: watching in company we can be confident feel the same way. I'm not so sure it's a defense we should expect our hypothetical Chinese house guests to accept a face value.


Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles offer a defense that considers how Chang behaves on stage for Victorian era audience, conforming to the to their stereotypes of Chinese culture. They also point out that Jago and Litefoot, and the London police are as stereotypically British as the Chinese are stereotypically Chinese, so to some degree what's happening here is the story is playing with the all the available stock characters, offering none as "real" people. They view this as a parody of British imperialist fiction, not an example of it. This is a stronger defense and one that I feel nearly gets us there.

There's a defense, of sorts, that also takes into account the fact this isn't just casual racism. It's something a little more self-aware. Sue puts it this way in the Adventures with the Wife in Space's write up: "OK, this is more complicated than I first thought. Now we have anti-racist jibes delivered by actor who is 'yellowed-up.' This is going to be tricky … " That was in response to Chang's remark at the police station, after the Doctor has asked if he's seen Chang before. Chang says, "I understand we all look the same." This isn't so much a claim that there isn't something racist going on here, as an observation that something more complex than we might garner at first glance may be. And, once we're in the territory where we need to stop and unravel what's happening, and really think we about it, we're not watching something that's just out to score cheap points with xenophobes by picking on a minority group.

If this story had been about a gang of West Indians, where all the henchmen were black, or Anglos in blackface, and the Li H'Sen Chang character equivalent was an Anglo actor, would I be as inclined to be forgiving?  No. But I think there's a reason there's a difference. I think we need to remember that 1977 the Cold War era and Britain was only a few years removed from fighting with the U.S. against the North Vietnamese and, by extension, China. It's not an excuse, it's merely a factor to consider in understanding why some forms of racism were more "acceptable" at the time, than others. It would never occur to anyone, I think to put a white actor in black face for a story set in the late 1800s, but the recent history of conflict in Asia at the time this story was produced I think warps the mindset of those involved in a way that we don't condone, but can understand in context.

As for all the Chinese being villains, I think the defense there is as simple as this being a story about a gang of murderers working for an evil dictator from the far future. Since the fugitive future despot arrived in China, it only makes sense for the story that the gang is a Tong. And, it's as complex as Li H'sen Chang, the most evil of the Chinese characters ultimately being a somewhat sympathetic figure, one whose evil actions we can at least understand. Also, he's played by an Anglo actor, so the most evil Chinese character isn't even Chinese. Sort of. (The other most evil characters, Magnus Greel AKA Weng Chiang & Mr. Sin are also not actually Chinese. Greel is Anglo, played by an Anglo, pretending to be a Chinese god. Mr. Sin is played by Deep Roy, and Indian actor, playing a doll animated by by cerebral cortex of a pig and some fancy circuit boards, so he's not really Chinese in any meaningful way.)

So the short answer is, yes, I would leave my DVD out, and I would watch it with Chinese guests ... but I would want to talk about what we were about to see first and prepare them for what was to come, in case they weren't familiar with the depictions of Asians in Western movies and TV going back to the days of Charlie Chan & Fu Manchu, and how a costume pseudo-historical set in the Victorian era made during the post-Vietnam Cold War era was going to be, frankly, bonkers. I think I could do this because I've seen how Anglos are portrayed in some Chinese movies of that era (think of the pompous Anglo villains some Jackie Chan's movies, for example) so there's a parity of stereotyping we could use as a starting point for the discussion. It's not a straight equivalency; we need to acknowledge the difference between how a people who've been on the receiving end of imperial aggression might stereotype the aggressors versus how the aggressors stereotype the peoples they interfered with, but it's still a discussion I think reasonable people can have.

The last bit I don't think anyone has found a satisfactory defense for yet is how the Doctor himself makes cracks like "We were attacked by this little man and four other little men," and later when Mr. Sin and a bunch of coolies show up to menace him at Greel's command he remarks, "Life's full of little surprises." Again characterizing the Chinese as little people. My defense here is admittedly a bit weak, but I can only observe that at 6'3" Tom Baker is taller than nearly everyone in every scene he's in. The problem, of course, is that the Doctor only ever cracks like this here, when the folks who are littler than him are Chinese. Mr. Sin's presence -- he has, after all, been masquerading as a ventriloquist's dummy -- perhaps could be seen as the point of the second jibe. But it's a stretch. Had Hartnell, Troughton, or McGann (all under 5'9") delivered these lines, we'd be unable to take this tack. As it is, I'm leaning towards saying they're disconcerting, but not terribly egregious. Indefensible, but, hopefully not unforgivable.

OK, after all that, I'm going to proceed as if we're OK with the defense even though I fully expect to have to come back and make it more compelling, or abandon parts of it, and talk about why I love this story outside of casual racism. The problem is, this story is so popular, and so well-loved, that it's difficult to shower any praise on it that hasn't already been done.

For starters, it just looks awesome. It doesn't look cheap and stupid and polystyrene and CSO. This, this is something the BBC seems to be able to do in its sleep: the gaslit dark alleys, the Victorian homes, the Sherlockianisms. It all works so well.

Litefoot makes Leela feel at home.
Tom Baker is absolutely at the top of his game here. He's perfect. Louise Jameson, too. She's so great doing Leela as Eliza Doolittle; I'm always a little surprised when she talks about "The Sun Makers" as her favorite story for Leela when she's so good in this one. All the cast, really, even Bennett with the prosthetics over his eyes (*groans*) brings a strange, unexpected nobility to the role. He's trying so hard, but he just can't do his evil (fake) god's will quite right. And, of course, Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Jago and Litefoot are fabulous.

I know the giant sewer rat is a disaster, but it's a funny disaster. It doesn't bother me in the slightest when everything else looks so good.

I don't care how bad the rat looked.
Leela more than made up for it.
Mr. Sin, the Peking Homunculus, is great and creepy. His little pig snorting is priceless.

Even apart from the sort of casual racism, there are flaws, things we could nitpick at here for not exactly making sense, but on the whole this is writer Robert Holmes at his finest and tightest. Also near his edgiest. I mean, how many family shows could get away with these: we have a scene in the coroner's office where the Doctor and Litefoot discuss autopsy results over the corpse in question; young women are being hunted for their 'life essence'; Leela is soaked in her clingy, nearly transparent undergarments, making a part of the female breast not normally seen in family programming plainly visible; Chang dies in a drug-induced stupor in an opium den; and a wizened crone oversees the fishing of a bloated corpse from the Thames, making remarks like, "On my oath, you wouldn't want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oh, make an 'orse sick, that would." Sex, exploitation, drugs, gruesome death, flying axes, and nunchucks -- what other show with these elements can you watch with the whole family?! (Holmes will go too far, in my opinion, with "The Two Doctors," but here he manages astound us with how he can dance on the line between transgressive questionable taste and being a sick twist.)

This is the rarest of  six-parters, one that I wish could have been even longer. I didn't want it to end. But when it does end, it's also the end of Hinchcliffe's run as producer. We'll ease into the Graham Williams era with the excellent "Horror of Fang Rock," but the Williams era is more problematic on the whole, though certainly not so much as JNT's, but Hinchcliffe went out with a story that may be the pinnacle of the classic series; there are still many highlights to come, but it's after this that the failures start to take on the appearance of coffin nails. It takes a lot of them to seal the fate of show in the twelve odd years it has left after this, but it never feels like it's got sustained upward trajectory again.



* Which has got me wondering if we really do still accept this after all, because we don't seem to have an issue with gay actors playing straight and straight actors playing gay. Or do we? I may be missing the pulse of public sentiment on this, but isn't a bit odd for straight actors to play gay roles when there are plenty of gay actors who could play them more convincingly? Or would that be typecasting?


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