Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts one and two)

We’ve come to the completely amazing “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” and it’s not going to be one of our son’s favorite Who stories. We took a short break between episodes to explain the cultural background to the adventure and noticed he was really, really tired. He spent the night with a buddy last night and got maybe six hours of sleep and played hard most of the day. He and I may have to watch these two parts again tomorrow afternoon, and I wouldn’t object if we do.

“Talons” is the farewell outing for director David Maloney, who had helmed many adventures in the seventies and was moving on to other jobs, and for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was being moved to other jobs. A teevee watchdog group had been giving the BBC headaches about the violence of the last season or two, hitting new heights of grievance this year, so Hinchcliffe was told that he’d be producing a new cop show called Target after this story, while the fellow who devised and developed Target, Graham Williams, would get Hinchcliffe’s job.

And so they go out with a bang, overspending massively and visibly on one of Robert Holmes’ very best scripts. “Talons” is a love letter to Victorian fiction and lore. As we explained to our son, this is not quite the real world, it’s the world of Sax Rohmer novels and Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where Jack the Ripper is on everyone’s mind, and that Giant Rat of Sumatra that Dr. Watson never could bring himself to write about is crawling around the London sewers. The Doctor dresses as Holmes and Leela is playing Eliza Doolittle.

We also explained the elephant in the room that troubles everybody who writes about “Talons” in this time: in 1977, there were enough people at the BBC to decide it would be okay for a white actor to get his eyes pulled back and made up to play Li H’Sen Chang. I don’t object to the depiction of all the Chinese characters as just part of a criminal gang; this is a story about archetypes from the idealized world of tawdry literature. Many people may love Doyle, Collins, Reginald Barrett, and all those Rivals that Hugh Greene anthologized, and many others may venerate them, but it’s tawdry literature all the same, and not the real world.

I wish that they had not cast John Bennett as Chang, just as I wish they had not cast Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in those movies he made. But they did, and the world at the time found it acceptable, and I’m not going to condemn them for it from a position of We Know Better These Days. We told our son that We Do, in fact, Know Better These Days, as we often do, and he gets that this is old TV and that a program made today would find a Chinese actor for a role like this.

Other than this disagreeable casting, the production is excellent. Leela has a lot to do and she’s incredibly amusing dropped into polite Victorian society. Christopher Benjamin is all kinds of fun as the theater owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and there’s a living ventriloquist doll who stalks around the foggy streets of London with a knife. There’s just so much to love in this story.

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