What’s It About
The Doctor and Leela intend to take in a show while visiting Victorian London, but they become embroiled in an investigation of disappearing women, a Chinese magician, and an ancient Chinese God.
Never trust a man with dirty fingernails
By nature, I am a contrarian. I often take an opposing view, not because I always agree, but because I believe civil dialogue promotes understanding and refines convictions. I have encountered many people who seem to believe things, occasionally quite passionately, but cannot explain why or have a healthy, respectful conversation about their beliefs. Too often, I think we believe out of habit. But if we can be challenged and defend our position, we can grow stronger and more confident in that position. Perhaps we can even change minds. Thus, if you read this review and disagree with something, please consider what you disagree with, why you disagree with it, and give a thoughtful response. Please don’t respond in rage or attack—regardless of your opinion.
On we go, and perhaps we should get the main problem of this story out of the way first: is this story racist? Yeah, probably. But I’m far more interested in looking at why it is racist. Doctor Who has the image of being above such things, and it really galls a lot of people when one of the best-executed stories in the oeuvre has racist undertone. There are two things I want to explore (albeit briefly) in looking at the racism in this story: First, the context; second, the genre.
Context is something that modern consumers of media seem to miss. All texts, whether the written word or moving pictures, cannot escape the world in which they were created, and Doctor Who is as prone to this as others. Yes, over the years Doctor Who has become a type of icon for moral, enlightened liberalism, but it is clear that the show has not always had this flavor. One only has to look back at Tomb of the Cybermen and The Celestial Toymaker to see this. But it is easy to sweep both of those stories under the rug because a) Tomb is in black and white, and most modern viewers probably won’t bother with it, and b) Toymaker is partially lost and it isn’t very good. But Talons is at that unfortunate crossroads of having racist undertones and being very, very good (much like H.P. Lovecraft, although with Lovecraft they aren’t exactly “undertones,” but clearly stated opinion).
The genre of Talons is clearly Victorian fantastic literature (or “gaslight” for short). Robert Holmes perfectly captures this style that he obviously loves. But was Holmes was letting personal ideas slip through or was he just was being true to the genre? Make no mistake, there was quite a bit of anti-Chinese sentiment in gaslight stories, Fu Manchu being a prime example. Holmes probably gave no thought whatsoever to the undertones in Talons. (Is casual, unintentional racism a valid defense?) We only have to look at The Two Doctors and The Sunmakers to see what Holmes did when he wanted to make pointed social/political commentary. He was quite ruthless when he did this, and his writing gives little to no room for argument. No, Holmes’s concern in Talons was writing a Doctor Who story—on short notice, according to some sources—and he chose to imitate a beloved genre; in this he succeeded spectacularly. But by being faithful to the genre, he perpetuated some grievous stereotypes. He produced extremely well-crafted art, and he probably wouldn’t have cared if it the undertones had been pointed out to him (although I have very little to base this assertion on).
And let’s be honest—many fans would say that the Doctor Who is about monsters; the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era certainly is. Monsters are not nuanced; they are black and white. They are an evil to be despised and defeated. It is easy to accept this when we have stories about Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, or Sontarans. It is not as easy to accept this when the monsters are humans. I enjoy Doctor Who more when it portrays nuanced and sympathetic villains rather than black and white monsters. That is why I love The Silurians so much. It would have been interesting to see Holmes subvert gaslight racism in Talons, but he didn’t. He wrote a story of heroes vs. monsters.
Contextually, Talons belongs in 1970s British television and gaslight fantastic literature; creators of these contexts would have given little thought to the undertones. But we, in 2013, do see the undertones. It is a shame that this nearly-perfect story can offend. But much in art does. As long as we contextualize said art, and make sure we don’t recommend Talons to a viewer who will be hurt by it or form negative impressions from it, then it can still be enjoyed for the work that it is. Ideas in art can change the world, for good or for ill, but we need not fear them if we try to understand them and dialogue about them. And I personally believe contextualizing Talons to a specific genre—warts and all—goes a long way toward undermining its racism. And if Talons truly does bother you (for any reason—it is a fairly gruesome story, which can be argued as anti-Doctor Who in itself) or if you think it will bother you, then please don’t feel you have to watch it just because it is so popular. Art has the power to have a profound effect on us, and we should really understand how art makes us better or worse. We should never blindly consume art.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang is very well crafted, and it obviously provokes discussion and dialogue, as all good art does. The discussion, however, is not what Holmes probably would have intended. But that is what is so great about art: it becomes timeless and lives and grows beyond authorial intent. Thematically, Talons holds everything Hinchcliffe and Holmes tried to do with Doctor Who (create sci-fi horror pastiches), and it did them to perfection. It is a prime example of how to do a six part story. It should be enjoyed for what it is: a faithful imitation of gaslight literature.