Doctor Who #450: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Part 1

"What's the name of the tribe here?" "Cockneys."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD, most recently as a Special Edition. First aired Feb.26 1977.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Leela land in post-Ripper Victorian London and soon run afoul of Chinese assassins. They don't know it, but one of them is an animated ventriloquist dummy.

REVIEW: Let's address the elephant in the room, the racist elephant. I broached the subject back in Planet of the Spiders, where the use of a Caucasian actor to play the Asian Cho-je caused me some irritation, while a then-recent viewing Talons, with its Caucasian playing Li H'Sen Chang did not. I've thought about it long and hard, and watching Talons Part 1 again has solidified my defense of the serial's casting. Obviously, it would have been better if they could have found an Asian actor to play the role. It's a good performance, but he has to stand next to real Chinese actors (well, stuntmen and extras). But here's why I think it works. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a genre piece, more than that, it's a tribute to Victoriana. So we have shades of Ripperology, the Doctor dressing like Sherlock Holmes, Leela as Eliza Doolittle, and Li H'Sen Chang as Fu Manchu (there'll be more as the serial develops). This is a Yellow Menace story typical of the era, and features the same kind of prejudiced portrayal of the "inscrutable Oriental". In addition, the story addresses racism directly. Note how Chang's English becomes broken in his self-deprecating stage show, and he tells the Doctor all Chinese "look the same". Despite the make-up job, the story itself isn't racist towards its "Chinese" lead. Chang understands his adopted society and plays to what the English expect of his race. It's social criticism that doesn't resort to moralizing. Now again, could that criticism have been better served by an Asian actor in the role? Undoubtedly. Apparently, the production couldn't secure an actor of both the right caliber and the right ethnicity. Thankfully, the story has so much going for it, this stain on its record registers as a mere smudge to me.

One of those things is atmosphere. I don't think there's been this darkly lit an episode before. Shadows and fog. Even the sets have a real sense of place. David Maloney is the perfect director for this, bringing visual flair to the proceedings. The kung fu fight with the coolies is a bit rough, but Maloney does his best with editing. The dead body in the river is your adult horror moment of the week, very effective. And for some reason, I always think the rat cliffhanger comes much later, but here it is, and at this point, it works. Real rat, model sewers, low light level, extremely limited use of giant rat costume... that's a winning combination. Of course, a lot of the horror comes from Mr. Sin, or aren't you creeped out by animated dolls and dummies? Sin is an ugly runt who gets three creepy moments in this episode alone. "Sleeping" on a bench, he starts to nod as if giving Chang permission to go out and kidnap a girl. There's the moment we realize his hand is dripping blood on the floor. And I especially love how he's made to cry "Police! Murder!" on stage, moments after killing a man in the street (granted, you have to wonder how a small, slow doll stabbed him in the heart).

This is also one of Robert Holmes' best scripts. In addition to some great dialog for the Doctor and Leela, Holmes introduces his first real, and most famous, comic double act, even if they'll only meet later. Jago the carnival barker, with his amazing ability to alliterate in pretty preposterous purple prose; and Litefoot, the gentle and proper coroner who plays Watson to the Doctor's Sherlock. These are immediately memorable and will only grow more likeable. The Doctor and Leela here have the relationship I wish they always had. The Doctor's role as teacher, as mind opener, as civilizer is what we saw in The Face of Evil, but it's missing from several of their stories together. Here, it's at its peak, even if he lets her get away with using a janis thorn. The scene is actually mirrored when Chang earlier gives the arrested Tong member scorpion venom and the Doctor laughs at the trick. A darkly humorous scene, but it's a bit too callous for the Doctor. Then again, his mood quickly darkens, so he probably thought it WAS a magic trick. The Doctor has assumed the role of the Great Detective so entirely, he's lost a bit of himself, it seems.

REWATCHABILITY: High - The show's best writer (to date) and best director (to date) collaborate on a slick genre piece and introduce a couple of the show's more enduring guest characters. A must-see.


Zundian said...

I think they were Li was an homage to/tweaking of "The Original Chinese Conjuror" Chung Ling Soo, who was actually a white guy playing Chinese, and one of the greatest magicians of the period. He took it a bit further than Li, in that he never spoke English in public until he was accidentally shot on stage.

Siskoid said...

Nice detail!


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