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Talons of Weng Chiang OR “It Was Alright in the 70s”?

February 15, 2015


The online Steve Moffat TV show fanzine community has long lobbied for some kind of Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover initiative.   Younger viewers may not be aware that this crossover took place decades ago in the form of the 1977 Holmes-Hinchliffe swansong – Talons of Weng Chiang, in which a Holmesian Doctor dons a deerstalker to solve a mystery in foggy late Victorian London.  (Furthermore, not long after reluctantly leaving the Tardis key with Peter Davison, Tom Baker returned to play Holmes in a TV adaptation of the Hound of the Baskervilles.)

There is much that is very right about Talons of Weng Chiang.  The design by the incomparable Roger Murray Leach is superlative.  Working on a ludicrously tiny budget, he has the knack of making you feel that you are seeing rather more of Victorian London than you really are.  One of the most popular shows of the late 1970s was called “The Good Old Days”, and featured recreations of fin de siecle popular variety acts.  The context for Jago’s theatre was well established therefore for a 1970s audience.  Interestingly, Talons features a rare on screen appearance by Dudley Simpson – Doctor Who’s most prolific and significant composer.   The only real visual problem is with the giant rat – one of the very worst special effects in the entire History of Stuff.  However, at the beginning of episode four, you won’t really be watching the rat.  You’ll be watching something else.  Your jaw will hit the table as you ask yourself “Could they really show that before 6pm on BBC1?”  In 1977, there was no TV recording or freeze-frame technology available, so the nation probably collectively agreed that they couldn’t possibly have seen what they thought they’d seen.  But they did see it.  And you can see it too.

Robert Holmes script fairly crackles throughout.  I love the phrase “I’m a tiger when my dander’s up” and I will endeavour to work it into conversation more often.  Jago’s affably asinine alliterative archaisms are in a class of their own while Lightfoot is a superlative version of Doctor Watson – all quiet decency and understated courage.  Small wonder that Jago and Lightfoot have enjoyed their own spin off audio adventures – even though the pair of them don’t even meet until the fifth episode.

And yet, and yet, and yet… there is the whole racism thing.  Last time I rewatched Talons, I was hoping that the racism wasn’t that bad – and guess what – it is that bad.  The sinophobia is runs rampant throughout the story – with every possible hostile Chinese stereotype being invoked.  John Bennett is a fine actor, and he has a redemptive scene in the opium den where you almost forget that he’s a white guy in yellowface.  Almost.  But not quite.  Not really.  The racism feels worse because the story is so good.  Talons came less than two years after the jurassic sinophobic romp that was One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.  A racist film like One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing is, of course, a piece of garbage.  It’s easier to dismiss.  Racism spoils Talons, on the other hand, in much the same way that racism spoils Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  The racism in Talons makes you feel bad about loving somethiing.  And it’s no good saying that racism was simply representative of Victorian prejudice, because the Doctor is not a Victorian.  He’s never been shy about expressing anachronistic moral outrage either.  After all, the Doctor is allowed to be anachronistic.  That’s the whole point of being a Time Lord.  While the Third Doctor is constantly outraged by late twentieth century military stupidity,  the Fourth refuses to speak out against 19th century racism.  Sad.

A more extended and thoughtful discussion of racism in Talons is offered by Philip Sandifer here:

The sorry truth was that in 1970s, a critical mass of influential people had yet to be persuaded that there was anything wrong with attacking Chinese people in overgeneralised and stereotypical terms.  Attacking the Chinese “didn’t yet count as racist” in 1970s discourse.  Was it alright? No.  But Talons is an instructive warning to us all.  Even when – especialy when – the drama is so delightfully staged.

Recently Channel Four ran a series called It Was Alright in the 70s, which reviewed casual racism, sexism and homophobia in 1970s TV..  It occurs to me that the laziest response to such reviews is to congratulate ourselves on how much wiser and more tolerant we are than our forbears.  The casual acceptance of pervasive hatreds is something that should, rather, stimulate us to question our own values.  It may well be that in 30 or 40 years time, we’ll be watching a show called It Was Alright in the 2010s  which exposes the full horrors of 2010 culture to a more enlightened age.  It may well be that angry young people will grab wrinklies like me by the collar and scream at us – asking us how and why we tolerated such a hateful reality.  I do hope so.  I hope I am so throttled.  Because such a bitter retrospective judgement will demonstrate that we might just (by 2035) have gotten somewhere.

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One Comment
  1. Great post – i vaguely remember watching the giant rats.

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