Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng Chiang

Doctor Who Story 091 – The Talons of Weng Chiang

Written By

Robert Holmes

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

Mr. Sin holds a knife menacingly.
Source: Comic Related

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.

My Rating

5/5

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7 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng Chiang

  1. Excellent analysis! I agree that Talons of Weng-Chiang is a nearly perfect Doctor Who story, and certainly one of my favorites, but it does have one glaring fault… and, no, I am not talking about the giant rat!

    As you say, there is a certain amount of casual racism that must have more or less flown under the radar in 1977, but 35 years later is much more obvious. The majority of the Chinese characters are one-dimensional villains who are depicted as ignorant and superstitious. Obviously, the exception is the excellently written Li H’sen Chang… but here we have a problem that the single Chinese character who is given nuance and personality is portrayed by a non-Asian actor. That said, John Bennett’s performance is excellent, and for many years I did not even realize that he was a white actor in make-up.

    Hopefully, if a story like Talons was to be made today, all of the above would be rectified. We would see an actual actor of Chinese descent playing Li H’sen Chang, and the rest of the Asian characters would be elevated above shifty background thugs. But, yes, it is a product of its times, so we do have those faults. I guess the best way to approach this is, as you suggest, to acknowledge those failings, instead of attempting to, um, whitewash things. You cited H.P. Lovecraft, and that’s an excellent analogy. Obviously the racism in Talons is mild compared to some of Lovecraft’s material, but the same principal holds true: we can enjoy the work while recognizing that it is a somewhat flawed product of a less tolerant, sensitive time period.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      John Bennett does a great job and brings some well-received nuance to the role, but you are right, it would have been better to have an Asian actor in the key role, rather than just casting Asian actors in the flunky roles.

      • It just occurred to me that the issues surrounding John Bennett playing an Asian character are still very relevant ones. Just recently, it has been announced that Iron Man 3 will feature Ben Kingsley playing the role of The Mandarin, a character who is Chinese in the original comic books. One could argue that Kingsley has already played Gandhi. But the actor, despite his name & accent, is of mixed racial ancestry, including, I believe, some Indian roots. Despite his multi-ethnic background, though, Kingsley is not Asian, so it just seems odd to me that he is portraying a decidedly Asian character. It seems an odd casting choice for the year 2013. I don’t know, maybe he’ll be brilliant playing the part. But I’m sure there are many extremely talented actors of Chinese descent who could have also been cast in the role.

  2. I have to say I take a very opposite view on the casting. Not only do I believe it isn’t necessarily racist to cast actors of one ethnicity as characters of another, but I would argue that casting by race is itself racist to a degree. We are all people. Chinese people are not fundamentally different from British people. That is the entire premise of modern concepts of racial morality. The difference between the two is in culture and background. Nearly every role an actor plays is of a different culture and background. Provided the portrayal is done with respect and care, there’s no reason it should be considered racist purely on the basis of where the actor was born. On the flip side however, insisting Chinese characters be played by Chinese actors, or American characters by American actors, carries the underlying assertion that they are fundamentally different.

    Regarding Talons, If it is to be considered a racist story, I believe it would be for the writing or actual acting, not the casting.

    I’m a little disappointed though, I was hoping for a review of the story. I think its quite overrated (note: overrated does not mean bad).

  3. […] The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Not only is this one of the stories consistently beloved by fans, it became highly criticized early in the year as accusations of racism were levelled at Doctor Who. It is interesting to me that in the 50th anniversary year a significant backlash manifested. There have always been critics of Doctor Who, but the publicity may have brought it more to the public eye. […]

  4. I know this is beating a dead horse but I’ve noticed the racism in the entire series… not just with a European with makeup playing an ethnic race to be honest I don’t care, even if it was in full black face I wouldn’t care I would have raised an eye-brow and laughed holding it in perspective that this is what Europeans still believe that other races act.

    From the very begainnning of the series with the companion Rose who was taken from her ethnic boyfriend, who was throughout the episodes called lazy, ignorant, a punk, an idiot by the doctor several times… Later we see Catherine Tate as a companion who is stole form the altar by the Tardis and she too was getting married to a person of color… Martha in the two episodes before the introduction of the Weeping Angels was made to be the doctors servant/slave in 1920… It showed an entire part towards the end of that episode that showed the “what if the doctor hadn’t gotten his memory back and lived as a human” Martha was no where in that “what if” glimpse.

    I was informed that she was later on married to Mickey somehow which makes very little sense as they are from two different time periods and ended up in one together. There is a very anti-race mixing theme I noticed and as a multiracial individual in a interracial relationship I find it pretty unsettling.

    I don’t understand why other people have not seen or pointed this out at all as it’s pretty obvious and very disgusting. Yet it seems all minority races even the aliens are characterized as being easily manipulated or ignorant as Martha’s mother and sister were…

    The best episode happened to be the one about the weeping Angels in my opinion, it was amazing the story remained consistent and just flowed together very nicely. But I will not watch this show again…. Although still it shouldn’t be surprising England’s soccer team still makes gorilla/ monkey noises when they are playing against Africa…

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