Friday 4 May 2012

The Talons of Tired Tropes

Another fan favorite, another beloved Hinchcliffe story that I am about to complain about? In my defence, I will point out my praise for The Brain of Morbius in the last post. However, once again I must express my disagreement with a fan consensus, in this case, that The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a classic story.

My low opinion of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is shared by many fans who have more love for the Hinchcliffe era than I do. There are plenty of fans who feel that Talons does not compare favourably with the more popular Genesis of the Daleks or Pyramids of Mars (as it happens, I think Talons is better than Pyramids of Mars). So the faults in this story are not simply my bias coming out as a Hinchcliffe critic.

It is easy to understand why The Talons of Weng-Chiang is so popular. There is some wonderful humour in this story, including that delightful moment when Leela has supper with Lightfoot. We have incredibly strong performances from Louise Jameson, John Bennett, Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter. The production values are very strong, though this being a period drama, it does have an unfair advantage over the more overtly science fiction stories. David Maloney's direction cannot be faulted and he would later go on to produce the BBC's astounding adaptation of The Day of the Triffids. Mr. Sin is wonderfully creepy.

Despite all its manifest strengths, Talons is let down by some very significant weaknesses. Perhaps the most obvious one is the appalling racism of this story. Talons is an unashamed throwback to Fu Manchu stereotypes of sinister orientals kidnapping young women. In defence of this it is sometimes pointed out that Lhsen Chang is a well developed and complex character. That may be true, but he is still a stereotypical superstitious and treacherous oriental, who cringes before a white man and who is played by a white actor to top it all.

The Eliza Doolittle subtext with Leela is also a bit suspect. The whole idea of the Doctor teaching Leela to be civilized has some rather unappealing connotations, however funny it might be for the Doctor to promising to reward Leela with an orange. Leela's sudden enthusiasm for dresses and going to the theatre seems completely out of character.

The plot is seriously padded, unsurprising given that it is a six-parter, but still not excusable. It takes Greel six episodes to recover the time cabinet and then to delay the action further, his men just happen to forget the key! We are treated to a parade of captures and escapes that delay the action as long as possible. This padding makes Talons one of the more tedious stories to watch.

Talons of Weng-Chiang betrays the somewhat sadistic delight of Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who in painful deaths. There is an awful lot of disturbing material, from the life force being drained from young women (why women, we might ask?), the suicides of the Chinese gang-members and Chan dying slowly after his leg gets chewed up. None of this is portrayed very graphically, but there is clearly a very tasteless enthusiasm for pain and butchery on display. Stripping Leela to her underwear and splashing her with water was not a good move in my book either.

What I dislike most about this story, however, is that it is just a mass of Victorian cliches thrown together in the belief that this is rather clever. I have never quite understood the appeal of Scooby-Doo-Victoriana, but for some reason its incredibly popular, hence the rise of the absurd genre of Steampunk. Perhaps this was all rather original in 1977, but with the endless parade of cartoonish Victorian tropes in horror, fantasy and science fiction, Talons of Weng-Chiang feels a bit too much for me.

As for Leela's first outfit in the first episode, not a good choice if he wanted Leela to be inconspicuous. Wearing bloomers for riding a bicycle or doing sports was not unknown in Victorian times, but it would have been a shocking choice of outfit for walking around London and would have aroused disapproval.

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