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.
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.)