Monday, November 21, 2011

The Lion Catches Up (The Talons of Weng-Chiang)

i has a dragon
It's February 26, 1977. Leo Sayer is at number one with "When I Need You." Two weeks later The Manhattan Transfer take over with "Chanson D'Amour." It lasts for three weeks before ABBA play us out with "Knowing Me, Knowing You." ABBA, ELO, Elvis, Bryan Ferry, and David Bowie also chart. Bowie with "Sound and Vision," off of Low, the first album of his Berlin trilogy, recorded, predictably, in France. This trilogy, in many ways, amounts to a sort of public rehab stint after the excesses of the Thin White Duke era, especially with Low, which is basically Bowie's "quitting cocaine" album.

There is a weary familiarity suffusing this album. Its title is suggestive enough. The ever-fantastic Chris O'Leary tracks this album over at his blog, and reading it, as I am for the first time in writing this entry, there is an immediate sense that one is reading a grim and cratering inversion of the themes of the Hinchcliffe era. O'Leary describes one song in terms of "the idea of Bowie’s LA life as having been a time of samsara, a cyclic period of endless suffering and no advancement; a pointless life, one equivalent to getting into a different auto accident every day (but in the same car, of course, so even that variety is lessened)." There is, in this, a grim flip side to our old concept of reiterated history. No pattern captures the idea of history repeating itself quite like that of the addict, perpetually in recovery, fighting the continual downward progression of their cravings. The materialism of reiterated history indeed.

An earthquake in Bucharest kills 1500. Queen Elizabeth opens the New Zealand and Australian parliaments. The rings of Uranus are discovered. Focus on the Family is founded. Hay-on-Wye, an odd sort of success story in the depressed coal mining economies of Wales, declares independence from the UK. This is, of course, a publicity stunt, but it is a brilliant one. Devised by Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed King of Hay. Booth, a Hay native who went on to Oxford, wanted to try to find a way to save failing towns like the one he had grown up in, and toured America with strapping young Welshmen to obtain scads of books from closing libraries, shipping them to Hay to open a wealth of bookstores. His proclamation of independence was another step towards this revival - a deft pastiche of the comedic stereotypes of rural Wales.

The calmness masks a transition seeping along in the background - one we remarked upon a little over two months ago. I suggested then that we had, for most practical purposes, exited the Long 1960s, and were beginning to approach the Long 1980s. Here, at last, we enter them. For Doctor Who purposes, at least, this story is the transition point. It's an odd sort of transition - one expects to see the Long 80s begin with the start of something. But for the purposes of Doctor Who, I think there's a strong reason to set it here, at the end of the Hinchcliffe era. Because in many ways, it marks the beginning of the story of Doctor Who in the 80s. And in many ways, the story of Doctor Who in the 80s is a story of slow and often agonizing collapse.

But none of this should detract from the fact that we are, once again, dealing with a story widely regarded as a classic. This alone is worth pausing and noting. In less than three seasons, one of which was also an abridged season, Philip Hinchcliffe has overseen no fewer than nine stories that reliably show up on lists of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time: The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom, The Deadly Assassin, The Robots of Death, and now this. This is, by any measure, a jaw-dropping success rate. Even if one or two of those are not to your taste (and they're not all to mine), the sheer number of hits - nine out of the eighteen stories he produced - is striking. And in the eyes of many, this is the best of the best.

As I said before, though, I hadn't seen it. I owned it on VHS, but I never made it through it. I got it for my eleventh birthday in 1993 - a birthday memorable mostly for the fact that I'd come down with chicken pox a few days earlier and was in miserable agony. (The chicken pox were a gift from my sister, who wasn't even one yet. I much prefer her gift this year of not getting around to sending me anything.) And, well, I really just wasn't in a state to make it through a six-parter edited into movie format. So I somehow never got around to it. 

Here, then, is one of the endings of my childhood. The last four years of Tom Baker's tenure were ones I knew only from novelizations for quite a while, all of it having been relatively late to VHS release in the US (and indeed at all). When the Doctor Who that I was 10 and 11 when I watched returns, it will be the Davison era, and there's nothing from Castrovalva to Survival that I haven't seen at least once. This is, in that sense, the last hole in the Doctor Who of my childhood. The last time I can experience that version of Doctor Who fresh. 

There is, of course, no way to really watch this story fresh. I know too much. We all do. Especially since The Celestial Toymaker is my third most-read post, and I used it to take the show to task for being racist anti-Chinese trash. And so three separate commenters, as well as one or two more in private e-mail, have all made varying comments about what they thought I'd say when I got here. Because, of course, this is the infamously racist anti-Chinese story. The one everybody knows is racist. So it seems that I have some expectations upon me. 

I won't lie, it was an odd experience watching the story given this, and the knowledge that, given that the Celestial Toymaker post remains controversial, someone, somewhere, is almost certain to try to abut that post with this one and conclude hypocrisy if I dare do anything but condemn this story as racist trash. Whereas if I do dismiss this story for its racism I'll get equally pilloried by its many fans. And so the already conflicted idea of "finishing my childhood" becomes more vexed when bound to this sort of intensive scrutiny - the sense that my watching of this story must be impeccable and perfect, and that I am in some sense obliged to a higher standard than usual.

There are, of course, defenses to be had of this story. The strongest - and I mean that in terms of the extent of what it excuses, not in terms of the quality of the argument - is that the story is in fact a satire of racism, not racist in and of itself. Or, more properly, it's a satire of Victorian colonial attitudes. Everyone in the story is a stereotype, the English included, and so the stereotypes of the Chinese have to be taken in that context. The entire story, in this view, is told through a blinkered, Victorian perspective, and that's part of the joke.

This defense, however, is pathetic. First of all, it egregiously ignores the fact that there is no way for a show made by British people to be an equal-opportunity offender between the British and the Chinese. We know Doctor Who is British, and we know it's ideologically British. Even if it's poking fun at British attitudes, that will always come off as just that - a loving poke at history. Whereas the anti-Chinese sentiment in this story comes down to the fact that every single Chinese character is playing off of Fu Manchu-inflected yellow peril stereotypes and treated as a villain based purely on the fact that they're Chinese. And the fact that the main Chinese character, Li H'sen Chang, is played in yellowface. And this is the difference. Jago and Lightfoot may be bumbling comic relief, but they're lovable bumblers played by actors of the right nationality. The Chinese, if they are played by the right nationality, are still all just menacing criminals. There's no good way to equate those.

But more to the point, even if we were to give this story a pass on the grounds that everyone is a dated stereotype and that's the point, this defense would fall down for the simple reason that the Doctor and Leela display the same attitudes about the Chinese as everyone else. The Doctor describes the Chinese men who attacked him as "little men," and generally acts as though he broadly agrees with everyone else's characterizations of the Chinese. Leela, on the other hand, refers to Chang as "the yellow one." This is problematic in the extreme. It's one thing for the supporting cast to be stereotypes bound by the attitudes and conventions of the time and genre they're playing in. But the Doctor and Leela are supposed to transgress against the conventions of the settings they land in. That's the point. When even they're spouting racist slurs, it's pretty hard to say that the problem is one of satire.

We are forced back, then, to a less all-encompassing defense. A two-pronged one, if you will. The first is that this is problematic in a way that we know Robert Holmes has been problematic before. He is a writer praised repeatedly for his cynicism. It's unsurprising, then, that he falls afoul of good taste, whether it be by treating Sarah Jane's feminism with condescension or be by tripping over some anti-Arab sentiment, Holmes has never been careful about the line of good taste on this sort of thing. So when he writes a Sherlock Holmes vs. Fu Manchu pastiche, well, he writes a Sherlock Holmes vs. Fu Manchu pastiche and doesn't stop to think about the consequences. Unlike The Celestial Toymaker, where the racial coding is arbitrary, there's at least a reason why this story is about the villainous Chinese. It's covert racism, and that's at least some defense compared to The Celestial Toymaker.

The second is that the story doesn't suck. The Celestial Toymaker wasn't just racist, it was bad. Its plot was non-existent, it treated the star with utter contempt, and it required us to watch Dodo for extended periods of time. It was lousy television that, for good measure, was also racist. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is good television that is also racist. And racism doesn't erase that. It makes it problematic and it gives us a lot to discuss and it is a distinct bad part about the story, but it doesn't erase clever characterization, great set-pieces, witty dialogue, a sense of adventure, or any of the other plusses this story has.

Inasmuch as I am willing to cede any ground to those who whine about "political correctness," a term that more often means "basic politeness," this is a real and important point. We do too often treat problems of bias and discrimination as totalizing issues, such that someone who displays overt racist or sexual bias suddenly has that become their identity: they are a racist or a sexist. Racism is horrible and appalling, but it is not a human identity, and reducing someone to it renders their sins irredeemable in a way that impedes any actual progress towards social justice. And if we treat racism as something that invalidates every other aspect of something by reducing it to a simple and totalizing description, we do real harm. 

Or, to put it another way, nobody disputes that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is racist, but that doesn't mean it's not also a triumph of American literature that is rightly assigned in numerous American literature classes. And when it's taught, if it's being taught well, the racism is acknowledged and accepted as a part of what the book is. But as a part of what it is. Not as the last word on it. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is racist, yes. But before we decide that it should simply be condemned, we need to at least ask what else it might be. 

On the other hand, of course, it means that there is inevitably something rotten in the story - a festering wound at the heart of it. Whatever else it is, there is always this dark undertone to it. A dark undertone that, in its own strange way, infects the whole series. Consider that the third episode of the new series - Mark Gatiss's The Unquiet Dead - is nearly a straight lift of this story, with entire sequences being nothing more than light reskins of this. Even Sneed and Dickens seem like an attempt at a 21st century Jago and Lightfoot. When we move beyond racism to the rest of the story and do not draw the angry "not canon" line we drew for the Toymaker, there is a price that we pay.

Still, there is much here to like. That old saying applies - works of art are wrongly forgotten, but never wrongly remembered. All that we have loved thus far in the Hinchcliffe era is in play here, and then some. Talons is a dizzying genre pastiche that, as mentioned, merges not just Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu but a wider constellation of images. The disappearance and death of women in the vague vicinity of Whitechapel (which is mentioned in relation to Magnus Greel's hideout) cannot be taken as anything but an allusion to Jack the Ripper. The reliance on the buried River Fleet as a plot point evokes the vast palimpsestual history of London. This is the densest nexus of ideas to date.

But really, why bother? Yes, of course there's a dizzying array of literary and cultural references that leads to this being a stylish and clever invocation of a huge swath of Victorian culture. At some point, no matter how clever these panoramas of cultural pastiche are, they become a crutch every bit as much as the base under siege did. So we have a kaleidoscope of intertextuality. We excused being clever for its own sake back in Pyramids of Mars because Holmes was revising an existing script and because it was opening a new door. At this point, however, just being clever isn't enough. It can't be. The show has demonstrated its ability to be so much more. 

And on top of that, there's a looming ugliness. We've spoken before about the growing problem of Baker's arrogance after Lis Sladen's departure. Here it begins to become a genuine problem. One of the first consequences of Baker's increasing tendency to bully his colleagues is that the Doctor stops being vulnerable. Back in Pyramids of Mars there was both literary pastiche and an effective stab at horror. But by this point the Doctor is invulnerable. He doesn't get hurt or scared. He might get knocked out for a bit, but nothing bad is going to happen to him. And that drains a lot, creating a story that risks being nothing more than clever.

But then, that phrase always got my hackles up. "Nothing more than clever," as if clever isn't a valid end in itself. Surely being smart is a good thing. I mean, here I will invoke my childhood. Because, look, let's admit something about American Doctor Who fans prior to about 2008. We were the freaks at the freak table. And if you were foolish enough to be an American Doctor Who fan in, say, 1993, in the sixth grade? You were going to get pure hell.

And so in that sense, Doctor Who is, for me, endlessly intertwined with the idea of bullies.

"Too clever" is a bully's phrase. As if it's possible to be too intelligent. As if being challenging and requiring your audience to think is a bad thing. Cleverness, in and of itself, is a valid aesthetic goal. No. More than that. It's a good aesthetic goal. A story shouldn't need more than cleverness to be judged well. Unless it has other overt problems, cleverness should constitute a defense. Not every story needs to be better than everything that's come before. 

But, of course, there are other overt problems. The story is racist. And while "too clever" may well fail as an attack, cleverness is not the sort of virtue that trumps all others. No, rather it's one of those virtues that can, when wielded by the wrong things, quickly turn to an overt evil. Cleverness is wonderful, but it can be used to ill ends. Clever racism is worse than stupid racism because clever racism can appear compelling and alluring. There's something worse about dressing racism in the trappings of quality. Not for nothing is the evil genius a better villain than the evil dumb guy. 

But, of course, there's no reason to cede the point that cleverness is all Talons of Weng-Chiang has to offer. Let us turn to the aspect of the Hinchcliffe era which has, of late, been paying the most fascinating dividends: the reiteration of history. This, after all, is the aspect of the Hinchcliffe era which offers the most effectively materialist aspect. This is where its alchemy arises. 

And Talons adds a fascinating new wrinkle to this approach. Magnus Greel is, superficially, an iteration of the standard issue Hinchcliffe era arch-villain - the once-great threat back from death with lots of snarling rants. But there's one detail that ends up being profoundly interesting. Greel is from a futuristic dark age. This obviously parallels significantly with Leela, but it also introduces a strange new sort of causality. In one sense this is an inevitable consequence of the observation that the past reiterates. If history repeats itself, so too must the future. 

This is a fascinating concept with vast implications. The future repeats itself. In this regard, the future affects the past. And not just in the sense of time travel. The Doctor is adamantly clear that the zygma technology Greel used to travel through time was a dead end - a wrong decision. No - it is the philosophic dimension of this idea that is the most interesting. What is interesting is not that Greel has traveled through time, but that the source of his disfigurement and monstrosity is the existence of a futuristic dark age. No - more than just the source of his disfigurement and monstrosity. He is, after all, apparently a Chinese god. He is a mythic being who hails from the dark ages - a classic Hinchcliffe villain in this regard. But his dark ages are those of the future. This is a show that has been going on at such a variety of lengths about the survival of the past into the present. And now it extends that trend into the future, reminding us that the survival of the past also means that the future is in a real sense present - accessible and right here.

Which brings us back to Leela. The interesting thing about Leela is, as we saw last time, the way in which she is at once futuristic and primitive. In this regard she prefigures the larger idea of a futuristic dark age. But here the ugly flip side we've been putting off about her rears its head properly - the Eliza Doolittle aspect of her character. Because there's a real and ugly kick in the teeth in this story that is a fairly horrific. We already noted that Leela is a particularly extreme form of the Problem of Susan in that the tension between her subservience to the Doctor and her independence as a character gets played out materially - as a commentary on the nature of social development. Under Boucher, this line was more or less successfully walked because he found ways of giving Leela her own strange power over the narrative. 

And more to the point, Boucher did it in a way that set up the interesting implications of the future recurring. If the past reiterates into the future then any notion of progress must assume the reuse of past elements. This is the basic logic of détournement. And so by having Leela have insights beyond those of other characters we see this viscerally. It's an astonishing concept for a companion.

Were it that the streak continued. But it doesn't. Leela becomes almost completely subservient to the Victoriana in this story. She is alternately used as an excuse to show off a new period dress or stripped down to soaking wet white dresses that are even more revealing than her usual leathers. She is chloroformed and captured, and even gets her first proper scream as a companion. The climax of the story hinges on her being used as a peril monkey. She is completely beaten down by the story.

And in that context the horrific colonialist implications of "civilizing" Leela rear themselves horribly. Here she becomes the full-out Eliza Doolittle figure. Her entire nature is shown to us as flawed and in need of changing. She's played as comic relief in her failures to understand Victorian England. And generally not in clever ways. Her jokes revolve around her failure to use plates and glasses, not in her ability to savvily deconstruct Victorian excess. 

But at least the Doctor still gets in plenty of deconstructions. Even if we lose Leela - and I'm not denying that it's a nasty and ugly moment - we still have Baker at his imperious best, stomping around and delightfully mocking and subverting everything in sight. This is a story in which it's easy to just sit back and delight in the anarchic glee of the Doctor - his most mercurial elements as he tears down everything he can find. Even the structure of this story is borrowed from Whitaker - the steady colliding of elements into set pieces as the story builds up towards the big payoff confrontations in its final episodes is right out of Enemy of the World. This alone should satisfyingly undermine the Victorian tradition and give Leela at least some cover.

But surely at some point there just becomes too much to excuse. We now have a story that is racist, sexist, and, due to the nature of Pygmalion, classist. So the Doctor gets some good lines off and the plot is fun. At some point you've got to say that's not enough. That the story is, at its heart, just a misanthropic piece of dreck. But, of course, cynicism is what we love Robert Holmes for.

That's a cop-out though. Cynicism isn't a virtue. If we're going to declare that history reiterates, at this point we have little choice but to reiterate the message of The War Games. If all the Doctor does is anarchic tearing down then he must be punished. If all the show does is cynicism, surely its fate must be the same. Cynicism is, after all, self-defeating. Look at the ruin it's left in its trail within this story. Untethered from a belief in progress the urge to tear down and destroy becomes mere cruelty.

Let's return to the original problem here: the racism. The Doctor, early in the story, refers to being attacked by "little men" - a nasty little moment of stereotyping. But not, to my mind, the nastiest. Later on in the story, the Doctor is ambushed by Greel and his servants and has a glib comment about how he loves "little surprises." I strongly suspect, of course, that Holmes did not mean this line to be a racist jibe as well. It's a perfectly ordinary Tom Baker line that one can imagine him saying in any story when the bad guys surprise him - a standard example of him refusing to take the enemy seriously. 

But in this story, surrounded with such careless bigotry, there becomes no way to completely avoid the negative implication. That's the problem that this utter and unfocused cynicism leaves us with. Because the story is being so gratuitously careless with its politics everything - even light moments of banter - become tainted with the... you can't even say malice. No. Condescension. That's what this is. There's an ugly, arrogant condescension to this - a refusal to care what you're saying as long as you're being clever. 

And there's the word that does it. The word that brings the entire defense of this story crashing down. The thing that has been floating around in Robert Holmes's writing since Carnival of Monsters. Vorg's bit about how "our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political." But we know better. There's no such thing as "nothing political" when wandering through time and reiterating it endlessly. In Carnival of Monsters it seemed that Holmes was joking - that he understood that Vorg, by his nature, when thrust into the world of Inter Minor.

Now it is more troubling. Now one has the sense that he just doesn't care. That he's hiding behind the goal of amusement so that he doesn't have to deal with the politics and doesn't have to worry about things like not perpetuating racist stereotypes or demeaning the working class. It's all in good fun. He can just be clever and witty and everything will be good. Just like Baker can be. Just like the whole show can be. There's an arrogance here that's demoralizing. A sense of the show flying too close to the sun. A sense that it must be cast down.

(This is where you should be imagining the "sting" sound effect and a fade to a cliffhanger.)

60 comments:

  1. There's an entertaining pastiche of this story called 'Frenzy Of Tongs' in the series Doctor Terrible's House Of Horrible. It's complete with Mark Gatiss in deliberately ridiculous yellowface, declaiming things like "the pieces are falling into place like a well-oiled jigsaw" and "perhaps it is time that the thwarter becomes... the thwartee!"

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hmm. I've never seen the Eliza Doolittle aspect of Leela as being as pronounced as you make it out to be. Surely the whole point of "civilising" Leela is that, whatever some of the other characters might think, we in the audience all know she's great as she is and these efforts are pointless and futile, and just make the Higgins types look boorish, stuffy, and ridiculous most of the time? We're in on the joke. We aren't laughing at Leela when she doesn't understand plates in this story, we're laughing at Litefoot. Leela's savagery throws into stark relief how absurd the conventions of Victorian society are. Or the conventions of all societies, for that matter. Civilisation is a joke, and Leela being the one person who isn't in on it shows it for a joke.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The difficulty with this post is likely to be that we have a person from one culture (Philip from the US today) shining a light onto a product of another culture (the late 70s UK) and trying to make sense of it, while himself being reviewed mostly by people from a third culture (today's UK) - and of course his own culture. No wonder the light will bring out different details to different people.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Spacewarp - Surely that's every post. I think the difficulty with this post is likely to be that I was ruthlessly uncharitable to a beloved Doctor Who story and someone's going to be pissed about it. :)

    (That said, as the ending indicates, there are, to say the least, elements of this post that get picked up again on Wednesday. It is, in many ways, a two-parter.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. I must admit, I've thought some of your essays rather over-analytical in the past, but I think this one is your best so far in this blog. It looks at every charge, defends and prosecutes, and comes to a conclusion. I was involved in a long, long, long debate on whether this story was racist or not - and furthermore whether that racism mattered or not with a story that was otherwise rather good - some time ago on a forum, and I wish I'd been able to link to this essay which sums up most of the arguments made much more succinctly.

    My major problem with the story - besides Chang being played by a chap in yellowface - is the fact that the Doctor cracks various racist remarks as well, and that unlike his "The rest were all foreigners!" line in Robot it doesn't seem to be at all satirical or humorous. Rather, he's saying it because he's in a Victorian Fu Manchu pastiche. But that's not good enough. The Doctor controls or else just distorts narrative conventions just by being there. For me, he exists outside those sorts of conventions. Which raises the possibility that the Doctor is suddenly being racist because a) he is a racist (which flies in the face of his character elsewhere) or b) that he's being racist for a laugh. He's not subverting anything with his remarks or making a point, he's just saying rather uncomfortable things.

    I do like Talons. It's sumptuous, has a cracking story (albeit one that makes no sense at all), and some great set-pieces. But it's still jarring to watch and I've never been able to regard it as the pinnacle of Who.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Phil - It probably isn't every post, because as you say you've been particularly uncharitable to this story. I'm certainly not pissed at you, but I am mystified, because even if I try to look at Talons the way you're looking at it, I really can't see what you see. I see it in the same vein as Dr Happypants. Victorian Society (represented in Lightfoot) does indeed highlight Leela's savagery and lack of sophistication. However what plainly comes through to me is that the things Leela is expected to know (how a lady behaves) are plainly absurd things. Lightfoot is the one who ends up looking foolish and by implication everything about his society that he holds important. I'm not saying our UK-centric view is correct and your US-centric one is not, however since the show was produced in the UK there's a strong possibility that our view is the intended one.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's hardly like American commenters are the only ones pointing out the problems, to be fair. But perhaps more to the point, I don't disagree - the end scene, for instance, is clearly in part about how silly the overly elaborate cultural role of tea is. But being about that doesn't remove the degree to which it's also about Leela being one of those foreigners who will never quite understand British society. Even if the audience is laughing at British society, it's still a loving laughter directed at themselves, and that's always fundamentally different from jokes at the expense of the other.

    And it's that gap that I think Holmes was sloppy with. Yes, I think he obviously intended it to all be in good fun. I don't think he was malicious. I think he was cynical and careless.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think it's significant that the *only* time the Doctor asks Leela to dress up as a "civilised person" rather than a kinky dominatrix is also the *only* time the Doctor himself adopts period dress. The Doctor is just as much a foreigner to the Victorians as Leela is, he's just more experienced at hiding it. Tom Baker certainly plays him as being in on the joke. He's taking them to England for a bit of fun, not for cultural indoctrination. Victorian England is like his Disneyland. I'm not saying that isn't problematic at all, but it's not straight-up culturally imperialist.

    And while Talons definitely contains much that is racist...At the same time, the heroes of the 51st century battle against Greel are the Filipinos.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Is there such a thing as "yellowface", or did the term originate in academia? I take it to mean white actors pretending to be Asians, but that is quite different from Blackface, which is surely part of a unique and complicated art-form, America's only indigenous theatrical tradition, supposedly. How could a Chinese actor possibly play Chang? His character is that of a stage Chinaman; the effect would be far more bizarre than the prosthesis. Come to think of it, how could a German possibly take a part in Inglourious Basterds? I'd offer that film as a comparison. Is it anti-Semitic? In my opinion, yes, in a horribly devious kind of way. It portrays the British contemptuously – in fact the only race who come out looking half-decent are the Germans, and of course they're the Nazis. Slavoj Zizek may or may not have been the first to point out how stage and screen portrayals of Nazis mirror Nazi portrayals of Jews – greasy, shifty, libidinous, always ready with some supercilious, pitiless wise-crack. So maybe Holmes is ruthlessly mixing and mashing up the stereotypes, more like an edgy comedian than a scriptwriter burdened with a sense of "moral responsibility" by virtue of working on Dr Who etc.

    By the way, have you or any one here discussed Talons with any Chinese people? The Chinese and other Asian media is not short of caricature Westerners. Would we be offended? My degree btw was in Japanese and Cambodian. I thought some of my classmates were, if not racists, then stupid bigots. It was because no sooner did they arrive in Japan than they started confronting their Japanese teachers about "human rights issues" and tales of Japanese prejudice. I wonder. I think a Chinese insight would be very helpful. Because I can read the characters in stories like this, I can't take them seriously as I can see that the characters are either nonsense or illiterate looking. At once the whole things seems endearingly amateur and phoney and any bad feeling vanishes or seems absurd. Maybe a Chinese viewer might feel the same way.

    Having said all that, I'm not even offended by Mickey Rooney, who so spectacularly disfigures Breakfast at Tiffany's. Once offense reaches a certain point, it becomes an art in itself. Doesn't Amos Vogel make the same point in his Subversive Cinema book about Jud Suss?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Tom Watts: "How could a Chinese actor possibly play Chang? His character is that of a stage Chinaman; the effect would be far more bizarre than the prosthesis. "

    Ummm... Did you miss the part where he is quite clearly stated in the story to be an *actual* Chinaman, born and bred over there, found by Greel there, and only lately moved to Britain and taken to the stage?

    If the character were a "stage Chinaman" who was actually a Brit in make-up, then having him played by a Brit in make-up would be entirely fine.

    (For the record, I love the story; but with my 46-year-old 21st Century eyes I clearly see the problems of portayal that I was oblivious to 30 years ago. Which makes me wonder, what other problem with Doctor Who's classic stories will I come to recognise over the next 30 years...?)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Ummm... You've entirely missed my point. But then I expressed the point very badly. Chang is a "character" part, not the portrayal of a character, as I see it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Chang on stage is meant to be a mannered performance and John Bennett adds more stereotypical "Chinese" accent things to his performance during those scenes. But the rest of the time, Chang is meant to be by turns a villain and then a noble henchman who was manipulated into doing wrong. He's one of the leading characters of the story so it should be the portrayal of a character: he's the Tobias Vaughan of the story.

    Of course, you could be saying that Chang is just part of the Fu Manchu genre scenery, and therefore it's perfectly proper that it should be a white man in make-up. One chap on the forum where I had the discussion argued quite forcefully that that was the case (indeed, youy might be that chap for all I know!). For me, that isn't really an excuse.

    ReplyDelete
  14. David, that is the point I was hamfistedly trying to make. I'm not the same chap, btw!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I think the fact of the Doctor changing his costume is a pretty salient one, actually. It always struck me as very odd, watching it as a child.

    I think I can see by this reading something interesting in it though. By deliberately choosing to enter into the role of Holmes, stereotypical Basil Rathbone deerstalker and hunting cape (itself an inaccurate reduction of the Holmes character), and forcing Leela to dress for the occasion as well (as Dr. Happypants says, the only occasion he does) could it be said that the Doctor is allowing himself to be subjected to the rules of this genre, or even period?

    Perhaps that is a visual queue to part of the problem with this one. Rather than subvert, the Doctor allows himself to be subverted, and that's where we get into problems.

    I think Philip is right about Robert Holmes and his lazy cynicism. He is the smart kid, who is an outsider, but he is the intellectual bully amongst the smart kids. He thinks that his acerbic wit is all he needs, and that because most of the other kids don't get that he is making fun of them, he can get away with it.

    He here allows the Doctor to be subverted, and thinks that it is O.K, but what it does is expose the flaws in his usual approach to a more withering gaze.

    (As stated here before, I am no expert on the reading of texts - so feel free to tell me if you disagree with the whole costume/subversion thing.)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Well, more than anything I'd point out that it's the same thing he does at the start of Terror of the Zygons, only he stays in the odd costume all story, so I'm skeptical of the uniqueness.

    I mean, yes, the fact that the Doctor lets himself become subject in a way that he isn't always. But I think it's less a matter of him being subject to history/period as being subject to genre. I noted way back in The Daemons entry and the Pop Between Realities after it that the Doctor is very much descended from Victorian literary tropes. So it's only fitting that he's partially subject to the period. But I'm not sure that subjectivity needs to be read in terms of a change to him. I think you can read it as an acknowledgment of things that are always present.

    This is also why I don't think you can treat Jago and Lightfoot's interactions with Leela as wholly benevolent. Even if the show is laughing at them, the show is also tacitly admitting that it extends out of them, and that all of its pleasures come, in one sense, from Victorian culture. Given that, there's a softness to any critique the show offers of its Victorian characters, because any critique is coupled with an inherent and necessary love of the Victorian.

    I mean, in the end the fast-paced and giddy fun of the Doctor playing around with Victorian conventions and stereotypes is based on the fact that, at the end of the day, the show believes that we all love the Victorians. And that's not there for any of the story's other targets, namely Leela and the Chinese. That, in the end, is where the story falls down for me - because you cannot make the "it undercuts the Victorians too" argument land with the same force that the other mockeries do.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I think Spacewarp's comment is pertinent. "a person from one culture (Philip from the US today) shining a light onto a product of another culture (the late 70s UK) and trying to make sense of it"

    I saw this when I was six. These were the days of Mind Your Language, Love Thy Neighbour, Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson regularly on the box. Really, Talons of Weng-Chiang is nothing at all compared to its context. I do think you tend to overemphasise this aspect to the point of distortion, as I commented on The Aztecs recently. Of course the issue is a real one.

    I remember the scenes in the theatre, with the Doctor nonchalantly walking round Chang's box (I assumed he was meant to stay inside) and drawing the playing card over his face - such amazing stuff at that time.

    I agree with you that this is the high watermark of Dr Who before it's long decline, though this really begins following The Horns of Nimon. It feels like after that it loses it's innocence in a way which weirdly reflects the times.

    ReplyDelete
  18. "Well, more than anything I'd point out that it's the same thing he does at the start of Terror of the Zygons, only he stays in the odd costume all story, so I'm skeptical of the uniqueness."

    Given this, I find it interesting that you considered TotZ's overt mockery of Scottish culture to be "tongue-in-cheek" as opposed to something that should be dissected and attacked/defended.

    Or are Scots a dominant culture, and as such a ripe target for racially tinged satire?

    ReplyDelete
  19. Certainly Scotland has a more dominant role in British culture, given that they are a part of Britain, than China does. I mean, there were Scotsmen working on the production in major creative roles. Talons had some Chinese extras. I think the difference is pretty pronounced.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I think it could also be possible that the Chinese are stereotyped in Talons because they are not viewed particularly prejudicially in the wider society. There was a time in the early to mid 90s when I heard quite a few Jewish jokes, as in "Jokes about Jews", as Alan Partridge put it, generally Jewish comedians playing with soft anti-Semitic stereotypes, but post 9/11 that sort of thing seems to have dried up entirely. Anti-Semitism is an obvious and renewed threat in Europe, so it no longer seems safe to play with. But no one believed in the Yellow peril by the 70s. Who talks about "face" any more, or believes in a shame-guilt distinction? That's for the Arabs. In that sense, Talons may be compared to a child having fun with an antique pistol.

    ReplyDelete
  21. On the other hand, rather more Scots would have been expected to watch Terror of the Zygons than Chinese watching Talons. (And, indeed more Welsh would be watching The Green Death.) If you're going to broadcast a condescending stereotype of a culture, more actual harm (as opposed to theoretical harm) is presumably done when you broadcast it in prime time to the culture you are stereotyping.

    There is a strong argument in this post, but there are a couple of points I would mention. The yellowface itself (which is certainly not the most racially problematic issue in the story) was not only considered acceptable at the time, it was an absolute necessity of the production: according to David Maloney, there simply were no suitable Chinese actors with Equity cards who were available for the part. And there is a charming "reverse Pygmalion" moment where Lightfoot, out of politeness, joins in with Leela in eating with his bare hands. There might be a lot of stuff about "civilising" Leela, but it's nice to see a moment of Leela "savagifying" Lightfoot.

    ReplyDelete
  22. My point is really more that the Scottish in the 1970s simply do not have the sort of "other" status that the Chinese - who were only five seasons ago played as the villains of contemporary geopolitics (Day of the Daleks) - had. I mean, the British still held Hong Kong as a colony in 1977, with no apparent intention of changing that. Scotland may have a vexed relationship with England, but it's still distinctly part of the body that the BBC serves. I don't really think you can equate the situations very similarly at all.

    I would also suggest that if there are no suitable Chinese actors with Equity cards, this is a compelling reason not to do the story.

    The reverse Pygmalion moment, however, is great.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Scotland may have a vexed relationship with England, but it's still distinctly part of the body that the BBC serves.

    Well yes, that's my point. The BBC is supposed to serve Scotland, therefore has all the more reason not to indulge in ethnic stereotyping of Scots. Your argument appears to be "The BBC is supposed to serve Scotland, therefore its stereotyped portrayal of Scots is less bad than its stereotypical portrayals of Chinese": unfortunately, the conclusion does not follow from the premise. [It requires the hidden premise "The BBC behaves responsibly and sensitively towards all elements of the society it is meant to serve", and there is no reason a priori to accept that premise.]

    ReplyDelete
  24. ...not, I hasten to add, that this makes racist portrayals of Chinese people acceptable. It's just that the more people whose ox is being gored are actually likely to see the show, the greater the sum total of harm. I mean, for all I know Chinese TV has a long-running series called "Wee Jock McSporran and the Deep-Fried Mars Bar of Doom", but as I'm unlikely to ever see it, or even know of its existence, it doesn't harm me.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I don't think it does require that premise. Sure, that premise is required to conclude that its portrayal of the Scots is good.

    But I think the basic issue of poking fun at your own versus poking fun at the other persists in a meaningful sense regardless of any disparities that exist between how the BBC should and does treat the Scots. Nothing the BBC can realistically do renders the Scots as much Other as the Chinese are by default.

    And as I noted, there were Scotsmen in prominent roles behind and in front of the camera on Zygons and it was filmed in Scotland. Again, that gives certain protections that the Chinese don't get in Talons.

    ReplyDelete
  26. A bit off-topic, but I'm surprised to see the claim that Inglourious Basterds makes the British look bad; I thought that Hicox, the British agent, came across as clearly the most positive character.

    I've written a bit about Basterds here.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I think it might help matters to remember we're talking about Chinese criminal gangs, and the viewer knows this. The Godfather might be considered racist by some, but it seems inappropriate and excessive to do so.

    ReplyDelete
  28. " I take it to mean white actors pretending to be Asians, but that is quite different from Blackface, which is surely part of a unique and complicated art-form, America's only indigenous theatrical tradition, supposedly."

    It's.. it's not that different from blackface. Oh, in specifics, sure (I don't believe there were ever Yellowface Minstrel Shows) but on the whole, yellow and blackface are just ways of expressing racial stereotypes, caricatures of of foreign cultures portrayed by white people to ridicule or mock them.

    @Philip Sandifer I love your essays, and I wouldn't have you change a word of them. Some anvils need to be dropped, after all.

    Well, actually, I might cut back on your distressing habit of unnecessarily starting sentences with "And" or "But." No other changes, though.

    ReplyDelete
  29. It's.. it's not that different from blackface. Oh, in specifics, sure (I don't believe there were ever Yellowface Minstrel Shows)

    That's actually a pretty big difference, and I believe it was what Tom Watts was referring to.

    but on the whole, yellow and blackface are just ways of expressing racial stereotypes, caricatures of of foreign cultures portrayed by white people to ridicule or mock them.

    This isn't necessarily true -- I don't think there are any racial caricatures in Fred Armisen's attempt to impersonate Barack Obama, for example, but he does "black up" to play the role.

    But yes, that's nitpicking. We think of "blackface" in terms of minstrelsy, not mere makeup, and yellowface performances of the kind seen in Talons are offensive for the same reason minstrelsy is offensive. And if there are also elements of Talons that are not offensive -- well, there were elements of minstrelsy that aren't offensive too. Stephen Foster was a talented tunesmith.

    My defense of Talons' high standing is that it isn't merely a clever story; it's much more clever than most other classic Who serials. Of the list of Hinchcliffe hits that Phil included in this post, the only one that I think is comparably clever is The Deadly Assassin. So I don't disagree substantially with Phil's critique of the story's racial politics, and I don't feel the need to push back against it. I just think it's possible for a work of art to be both politically problematic and an aesthetic standout.

    ReplyDelete
  30. "I just think it's possible for a work of art to be both politically problematic and an aesthetic standout."

    Yes, this is certainly true. Take Al Jolson, for example, and his performances in blackface. Great musician, but the blackface is a fascet f his performance that will also be difficult to come to terms with. However, the culturural climate and opinions of the 20s is different from 1977, where I expect better than "don't-give-a-shit" cynicism giving us yellowface. There's simply no way to justify it as forgivable.

    ReplyDelete
  31. You don't have to forgive it to appreciate it.

    ReplyDelete
  32. "Terror of the Zygons" is different. Almost everyone in the serial is dressed up as a Tartan Scot, from the Doctor to the Brigadier to Broton. Even Angus the innkeeper is putting on something of an act for the tourists.

    ReplyDelete
  33. This discussion reminds me of yet another show making transmitted at that time in the UK - The Black and White Minstrel Show. Hugely popular. No one would dream of making it now.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I've known for two or three years that THE BLACK AND WHITE MINSTREL SHOW was airing as late as the 1970s, but the fact still floors me. A vivid reminder that the cultural history of the US and the cultural history of the UK are rather different things.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Sadly, racist stereotypes and jokes about Chinese were broadcast on the children's show Knightmare as recently as 1991.

    ReplyDelete
  36. I can advance on 1991. 2010, second episode of "Sherlock". Every stereotype in the box.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Was that about criminal gangs rather than the group as a whole too? I can't remember, though I know that was the one episode not by the creators of that brilliant reboot of Sherlock.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Well the Chinese jokes in Knightmare certainly were not about criminal gangs.

    ReplyDelete
  39. No, that sounds worse.

    I do feel that having grew up with all those programmes I can put the stereotypes of Talons in perspective. I don't want to be blind to it, but it's hard to say it as pure racism. I can't agree it shouldn't have been made because there were no Chinese actors available. If that was the case actually, shouldn't the DVD be unavailable now anyway?

    ReplyDelete
  40. Is it even possible to be racist against the Chinese as a whole, as opposed to Chinese individuals? There's a point where a nation stands sufficiently tall that its citizens pretty much rank immune - Americans anyone?

    ReplyDelete
  41. And Talons marks the transition point, the point at which Made in Nippon changed from something written on the underside of cracker novelties to Made in Japan branding real high end desirable gear. Paradoxically, it's only when they bring back the Minstrel Show that we'll know racism against people of African origin no longer exists. A New Millennium Minstrel Show, but alas this millennium so far is just repeating the mistakes of the last.

    ReplyDelete
  42. Tom - Declaring that it's impossible to be racist against X because it doesn't make sense lends, I think, excessive credence to the sensibility of racism in general.

    ReplyDelete
  43. I don't want to labour the Scottish (and Welsh) issue too much, as it is tangential to what is a very good exposition of the problematic issues in Talons. Also, it would take far, far too long to do the topic justice. I'm afraid it is a case of you, Phil, as an American, just fundamentally not getting some pretty big and deep issues about British culture, but to expound fully upon them would be a massive task, taking in everything from Sir Walter Scott to the White Heather Club.

    In fact, the White Heather Club does help to illustrate quite a lot of these issues. It stopped in 1968, so it's too late for you to do a piece about it for this blog now, but it's a remarkable piece of cultural history in all the wrong ways. Put it this way: imagine if the Black and White Minstrel Show were performed, not by white men in blackface, but by real black performers. Would that be better? In some ways, yes - you wouldn't have the grotesquery of blackface, at least. But, especially if that were the sole or dominant representation of black people on TV, it would still be pretty questionable, and would raise all kinds of issues about the complicity of these hypothetical black people in the stereotyping and erasure of their own culture for the entertainment of the white establishment. That's pretty much what the White Heather Club is like for Scots, and these are the questions that are raised by the position of "Scottishness" within British culture right up till the 1980s at least. And Terror of the Zygons, I'm afraid, falls squarely into that pattern.

    Still, it could be worse. Jo Grant's "funny little Welshman" line in The Green Death is unforgivable - and much worse than any of the lines in Talons.

    ReplyDelete
  44. Oh, and one factual point: Terror of the Zygons was not filmed in Scotland, as is pretty obvious from the location footage. It was filmed in Sussex, which is about as far away as you can get from Scotland without needing a passport.

    ReplyDelete
  45. I would just like to chime in to agree with Iain. It is still culturally acceptable in the UK to make stupid remarks about the Welsh, and in particular the Welsh language. I don't believe in extending the word racism to cover Southern attitudes to the Scots, Welsh and Irish, but it has as much justice as most uses of the term. I believe, though Iain might know better, that some peasants from Skye were actually sold into slavery by their landlords, only escaping when they were shipwrecked. I mention that because it's hard to overstress the deep historical wrongs inflicted on in particular the Gaelic and Welsh speaking populations, and it is certainly impossible to overstate the ignorance and indifference of the majority population to these facts, now and in the past. I think Zygons is just careless with Scottish stereotypes,and the Green Death has so much else going on that it's easy to forgive it. Talons I like unreservedly, but to justify that I'd compare it to the David Niven Bond film Casino Royale, which does to the Scots what Talons does to the Chinese, at least for part of its confused and convoluted running-time. When caricature is raised to such a pitch, it becomes more of a circus, a carnival.

    ReplyDelete
  46. A few disjointed comments.

    I grew up in England as during the 1970s when nursery-rhyme books still contained the insulting verse "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief. I hope that this verse is not still considered to be culturally acceptable in England. Things have moved on a bit. I don't think that the verb "to welsh" is culturally acceptable any more. And I can't forgive "The Green Death."

    In 2005 the North Wales police considered a complaint against Tony Blair when it was reported that he repeatedly shouted "Fucking Welsh!" at the TV while watching news of a disappointing election result.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/4290624.stm

    Whereas the English simply don't care about the Welsh, Irish, or Scots, the Welsh, Irish, and Scots (to differing degrees, I am sure) have built their national identities at least in part on anti-English sentiment. When England was knocked out of the Rugby World Cup recently, several Englishmen told me that they were now supporting Wales (who reached the semi-final). I remember listening to the Rugby World Cup final in 2003. Like most Welshmen, I was supporting Australia against England. I accept that this aspect of Welshness is not a positive trait.

    Scottish national identity is more problematic because the Tartan stereotype was created by Scots for consumption by the English.

    The "breakout" show for Chinese actors was "The Chinese Detective" in 1981. The title of the programme demonstrates the problem - Chinese people were expected to work in takeaways and restaurants, not to have jobs which involved interaction with society in general. It would have been considered ludicrous, for example, to call a programme "The Indian Doctor", because almost everyone would have met one.

    ReplyDelete
  47. I would like to add that the term 'Welsh' is in itself problematic. It's a name imposed by the English, and it basically means 'foreigners'.

    ReplyDelete
  48. Right. I understand most of what's been said in the last few comments. I haven't really disputed any of that, and in both Zygons and Green Death I talked about the problems. My assertions were:

    1) That the presence of significant amounts of Scottish creative talent in major roles complicates any discussion of racism in Terror of the Zygons and cuts the sting.

    2) That there is a fundamental difference between discrimination against a subset of the nation doing the discrimination and discrimination against an external population in contrast with the nation doing the discrimination.

    ReplyDelete
  49. Not sure that I can agree with (2). Firstly, it's unclear whether the British are one nation or (at least) four. Secondly, I imagine that you mean that a "fundamental difference" is a difference in kind rather than a difference in degree, and I'm not sure that such a fundamental difference exists. It can't be better for an English shopkeeper to refuse to serve Gypsies than it is for Gerry Anderson and Channel 4 to make a joke about "A Nip in the air" (Dick Spanner PI, 1986). And it's certainly unhelpful to start drawing lines to separate the resident population into members of the nation and non-members.

    As for (1), quite clearly you are right. Robert Banks Stewart's contribution to "Terror of the Zygons" is much greater than (for example) Stepin Fetchit's contribution to "Charlie Chan in Egypt", which I have not seen but from the title must surely be one of the most abject films ever made...

    ReplyDelete
  50. I tend to think that it's very clear that the British are one nation. They are also at least four, and probably several more than that. This is, perhaps, less difficult for a citizen of a country that is simultaneously 50 states and one state than it is for you. ;)

    I also think that we should distinguish between resident population and native population. There is a difference between, for instance, mocking residents of Appalachia in the US (Appalachia being our nearest equivalent to Wales) and mocking the African American population that exists in the US purely because their ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved.

    ReplyDelete
  51. Great post, and as usual, great dialogue in the comments. I finally watched Talons a couple weeks ago knowing this post was approaching, and I feel that I vibe very closely with Phil's analysis. I'd avoided it because I knew it was pretty problematic.

    Anyway, as spot on as your takes on the racial and feminist issues is, I was rather hoping you'd address the disability issue represented by Deep Roy's performance. As I've said earlier, I am a wheelchair user, but as a disability activist, I have many friends and colleagues from the little person community. Now, I wouldn't necessarily say I find the inclusion of Roy's character problematic (or at least nearly as problematic as the yellowface and Pygmalion issues already touched upon), but it is part and parcel of a larger trend that we in the disability community find troublesome, namely the trope of the sinister cripple/dwarf/disfigured person as monster. Magnus Greel and actually many of Holmes' villains also fall into this characterization. And again, taken case by case, there probably isn't actually much to get worked up about, which is why I haven't said anything up to now. But the cumulative effect of these portrayals, not just on Doctor Who, but across popular media, is to reify the belief that disability is an unqualified negative. The presence of disability either causes madness and evil, as in the case of Holmes' villains, Blofeld, etc., or creates neutered, sexless children deserving of pity (thankfully, no examples of the latter on Who immediately come to mind).

    Anyway, with at least Sharaz Jek in Caves and Syl in Vengeance on the distant horizon (and perhaps others before, my knowledge of latter Fourth Doc era is still being filled in), it's something I'd like to see addressed in one of your posts, and I'd be willing to share any knowledge or experience to help.

    ReplyDelete
  52. I'm not sure I see this as the story for it, given that Roy's character was supposed to be a perversion of animal parts cobbled into human shape and not a little person as such. He's not a sinister dwarf, he's an animated puppet. (Likewise, Syl isn't a little person, he's a talking slug.)

    Off the top of my head, I think there's a high probability of a paragraph on disability issues in Curse of Fenric, in particular with how being a wheelchair user is used as the substitute character trait for Alan Turing's homosexuality. Jek is probably also going to be used for purposes you'll like, though if I'm being honest, I've thought less about what I'll do with Androzani than I have about Fenric.

    ReplyDelete
  53. Agreed on Sin and even Syl, Phil (although I reserve the right to change my mind if something come to me later, ha). I was talking off the top of my head towards the end there, and I'm not the best person to comment on the stigmatization of little people, anyway. As I said, taken case by case there isn't a reason to get terribly upset most of the time. However, I think my point about the cumulative effect of characters disfigured/made evil by their disability still stands, and I guess I'll wait and see where you go in the Caves entry.

    ReplyDelete
  54. "Appalachia being our nearest equivalent to Wales"

    If the Appalachians had been conquered by the u.s., maybe.

    "Taffy was a Welshman"

    A poem I learned from this 1970s American cartoon (though the fact that Taffy has a Russian(ish) accent complicates matters.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlBvbVbGDLY

    Incidentally, one still hears "welsh" (or sometimes "welch") used as a verb in the u.s., but generally by people who have no idea it has anything to do with Welsh people (and who would be hard-pressed to find Wales on a map).

    ReplyDelete
  55. As an added (and rather late) aside, the term "Welsh" was "imposed" by the Anglo-Saxons (Behold the reductio of Marxist theory's obsession with power relationships). Complaining about it now is like wanting a health and safety investigation for the construction methods used for the pyramids.

    ReplyDelete
  56. Folks interested in these matters are invited to consider submitting to an anthology I am editing on the theme 'Doctor Who and race' - see http://doctorwhoandrace.blogspot.com. Both academic style essays (5000-7000 words) and personal style reflections (≤1000 words) are invited. The deadline for expressions of interest is 15th December, but contact me if you need a little more time. Since Kate Orman has already written a piece on Weng-Chiang a couple of years ago (http://seeingred.livejournal.com/46656.html) have a chat to me about your ideas if you want to write some more on this serial and "yellow-face".
    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  57. When I came in, Leela was running thru the sewer, chased by a giant rat. Perhaps it was the SAME giant rat seen in THE NEW AVENGERS episode, "GNAWS"? Anyway, NA got here before DW. I was so enamored of Sarah-Jane at the time, when the rat grabbed Leela, I remember yelling at the TV, "Yeah! Yeah! GET her!!" I doubt I'd have said that about Sarah... or Purdey.

    So this one took me a bit to figure out. Come to think of it, the 2nd tme I saw it, I came in at the beginning of Part 2, when that hatchet was thrown at Tom Baker. This sort of thing can be maddening. Certain stories over the years I've seen myself missing the beginning, then, on repeat viewing, missing a bit LESS of the beginning, until, eventually, I do see the beginning. Strange phenomena. (With TCM, I eventually started going to their website and compiling a month-long list of films I might want to see. That way, I could actually manage to have the tv set on to that channel before the movie started.)

    I have never had a problem with this story. Ever. Maybe because I understand the traditions of the story, and just thoroughly enjoy them as they are?

    In the early-to-mid 70's, comic-book writer Doug Moench said he had great difficulty, while writing MASTER OF KUNG FU, of dealing with the main character Shang-Chi's origins. Because Shang's father was none other than Dr. Fu Manchu. To this day, I still have trouble understanding this. Fu Manchu, in my eyes, does not represent ALL Chinese. He is what he is-- a SUPER-VILLAIN who just happens to be Chinese. Oh, yes, and he's very racist about it.

    But then, so was Sir Denis Nayland Smith, at least, if you've ever seen the 1933 MGM film THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. I understand that film went out of its way to be as "sensationalistic" as possible-- including its racism-- far more, in fact, than the book it was adapted from!

    Having read the 1951 comic-book adaptation of the same story, with art by Wally Wood, one can see far more civility and mutual respect between Fu and Sir Denis than was on display in that Boris Karloff movie. Of course, the comic had Fu raising an army of bloodthirsty racist ARABS, while the movie had an army of bloodthirtsy racist ASIANS. (Anyone know which it was in the novel?)

    A stranger-but-true thing about the MGM film was, while many "pre-Code" films vanished or were heavily censored once the Hayes Office began enforcing The Production Code (late-'35-early'36), MASK remained intact-- until the mid-70's, when Asian groups complained and the film's most excessively racist dialogue was removed. But then, some years later, it was put back-- except, from an inferior source. So while, in its current form, the film looks pristene and clean as if it were "made yesterday", every time the "offensive" stuff comes up, both the picture and sound quality DROP. In those moments, it's like watching a kinescope film copy of DOCTOR WHO that's been returned from overseas. "Do you want women like this one for your brides? Then KILL the white man-- and TAKE his women!" Ohhhh... what a movie!

    It'd be interesting to hear opinions about various "Blaxploitation" films of the early-mid 70's, which were often every bit as "offensive" to all sides involved. "What is this BLACK thing, Shaft? YOU ain't so BLACK!" "And you ain't so WHITE, baby!"

    ReplyDelete
  58. I'd never actually noticed that Litefoot and Jago represented BOTH the book Watson AND the Nigel Bruce variety, side-by-side! Now that is clever. Just saw Christopher Benjamin in "Koroshi", the only 2-part DANGER MAN ever made, where John Drake tries to stay as far as he can from him (in the exact same way Sean Connery tries to avoid Rowan Atkinson in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN). Also in "Koroshi" is Burt Kwouk, playing a chauffer who turns out to be a sword-wielding baddy. So... would Lee Sien Chang have been less "offensive" if Burt Kwouk had played him?

    I wish the idea of "educating" Leela had continued. She was so good at proving herself better than the people who looked down at her, it was a nice source of humor. Also, considering her "Avengers girl" look in the next story, I wish she'd have visited modern-day England (or maybe swinging sixties London), in something other than a tribute to a Hammer horror film.

    You know what we really need? More crossovers like this...

    CHARLIE CHAN VS. FU MANCHU
    TARZAN VS. FU MANCHU
    DOC SAVAGE VS. FU MANCHU

    ...and the really obvious one...

    MR. MOTO VS. FU MANCHU !

    ReplyDelete
  59. Part of the problem with the existence of yellowfacing in this story lies in one difference between the UK and the US: the story was filmed before the UK was forced to face the backwards nature of yellowfacing. In the US, David Carradine's casting as Caine in Kung Fu forced the issue a half-decade earlier, which led to outrage about this story when it first aired in the States.

    (The irony there being that it wasn't until the '90s that Chinese stereotypes were scrubbed from the cartoons that aired on Saturday mornings on that great American tradition, The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show.)

    "A stranger-but-true thing about the MGM film was, while many "pre-Code" films vanished or were heavily censored once the Hayes Office began enforcing The Production Code (late-'35-early'36), MASK remained intact-- until the mid-70's, when Asian groups complained and the film's most excessively racist dialogue was removed. But then, some years later, it was put back-- except, from an inferior source. So while, in its current form, the film looks pristene and clean as if it were "made yesterday", every time the "offensive" stuff comes up, both the picture and sound quality DROP. In those moments, it's like watching a kinescope film copy of DOCTOR WHO that's been returned from overseas."

    It seems likely that somewhere along the way, the high-quality elements of those scenes may have been trashed (especially given the number of hands that the older MGM films have passed through since the '70s). As it is, a good deal of the MGM library exists in second-generation form because of the infamous 1967 Vault 7 fire that leveled tons of silent films, early talkies, and the O-negs to every MGM cartoon made before 1951.

    ReplyDelete
  60. Great blog!

    I first saw this episode in movie format (UGH -- TERRIBLE way to watch almost any six-parter, but this one especially suffers) on Maryland Public Television circa 1991. It was one of my least-favorite Tom Baker episodes at the time and also one of my least favorite Robert Holmes episodes, and not just because of the racism. Re-watching it recently, on DVD, in episodic format, it's much more fun, but the plot still doesn't add up to much. I can really appreciate the actors and the dialogue now, whereas I didn't so much as an impatient teen-ager hoping for more far-out action and adventure. John Bennett does an amazing job with a horrible, thankless yellowface role -- a real menacing charisma shines through. And now I finally see why people like Jago and Litefoot so much. Even so, I'm amazed to see that an entire Big Finish line has been based on them! Wow! When I was a frustrated pimply teen-ager who discovered the show just after it got canned in 1989-90, I never thought I would see the day that non-televised DW spin-offs would become a major industry! Cool.

    I have to say, as much as I love Hinchcliffe's era, I like him a bit less after watching some of the DVD extras. NOBODY addresses the racism on the DVD extras except when Hinchcliffe briefly snarks something like "I don't think we could get away with this kind of thing today!" and tries to smile raffishly. Damn, dude. Just... damn. Really?

    ReplyDelete