How good can a story be before its bad aspects are excusable?

The Talons Of Weng-Chiang
is notable for many things — it’s the last story for Philip Hinchcliffe as producer (and he let the show go so far over budget to make it a good one that the budget was slashed for future series…), it’s the last story that David Maloney ever directed for the show, it’s one of Robert Holmes’ best scripts — but there are two things that make it especially notable — .

To deal with the second first… the cliffhanger of the first episode is one that, to today’s eyes, looks absolutely bizarre. The Doctor and Leela are in a sewer, and then we cut to a shot of a rat in a much smaller tunnel, then to the Doctor and Leela looking scared, and then to a stuntman in an unconvincing rat costume jumping at them. (The rat recurs a few episodes later, too, and is even less convincing).

This is literally impossible to make sense of now, but apparently the intent, at least, was clearer to 1977 eyes — the rat in the small tunnel is meant to be a large rat in the same tunnel, and is the same rat as the stuntman.

But even in 1977, the stuntman in a rat costume looked utterly risible, and apparently the five seconds or so this was on screen (out of a twenty-five minute episode of a six-episode story) was memorable enough that eighteen years later, Steven Moffat had this to say, in a discussion at about Robert Holmes (after Paul Cornell called him “a very good hack”):

How could a good hack think that the BBC could make a giant rat? If he’d come to my house when I was 14 and said ‘Can BBC Special Effects do a giant rat?’ I’d have said no. I’d rather see them do something limited than something crap. What I resented was having to go to school two days later, and my friends knew I watched this show. They’d go ‘Did you see the giant rat?!’ and I’d have to say I thought there was dramatic integrity elsewhere.

Before we go further, I’d just like to say that I am not (N-O-T NOT) going to use this seventeen-year-old discussion to berate Steven Moffat about the opinions expressed there in general. That discussion has been used to beat all those involved round the head for many years, because none of them come out of it very well, but if we had to hold everyone to everything they said in a drunken discussion with their friends decades ago, the world would be a very unfair place.

But I do want to pick up on that line “I’d rather see them do something limited than something crap”, because I think that does say something about the difference between the current series and the series under Hinchcliffe and Holmes.

The current series, at its best, has single-episode stories which do one thing well. Moffat’s Blink, which we shall come to presently, is a perfect example here. It’s a very tight story with only one ‘monster’, and the subplots, such as they are, are all only there to serve the purpose of the main plot. It’s a three-minute pop song.

Talons Of Weng-Chiang, on the other hand, is more like an extended free-jazz improvisation. It throws in everything it possibly can — Jack The Ripper, sinister Chinamen (Obviously not the term I would use for anyone actually from China — this is “sinister Chinaman” as stock figure), Sherlock Holmes references, evil dictators from the fiftieth century, strange criminal conspiracies, giant rats, evil ventriloquist dolls with pig brains, magic tricks, and everything else that Holmes could think of — in a story that isn’t completely coherent, and trusts to the talent of everyone involved to make it work.

And because everyone involved is talented, for the most part it works spectacularly. The dialogue is practically singable, even the minor stock characters are perfect examples of their type, every single actor in this is giving their finest performance, the set design and lighting are spectacular — in many ways it’s a near-perfect piece of television. There are things this story does well that it would never do this well again.

But when you’re trying so many ideas, sometimes some of them won’t work, and in this case the giant rat (total screen time about 1% of the total running time of the story) doesn’t come off at all.

Now, these are two very different approaches to TV — and to art, generally — and I wouldn’t want to privilege one over the other. Both have their place. But what I would argue is that the failure mode of one is much worse than the other.

Because if you consciously work within limits, all the time, and never push those limits — never try to do anything that might fail — then a lot of the time you’ll end up with banal, dull, boring work. If you are wildly overambitious, and try for something you can’t really do, you’ll end up with a risible, but memorable, mess.

I’d much rather watch Plan Nine From Outer Space than Sex And The City 2, because Ed Wood was trying to make something new and original and exciting. That he failed catastrophically is less important (though he definitely did fail catastrophically).

But of course, the people making Talons did not fail at all — with the exception of that one effects shot, everything in the story is precisely how they intended it. Which is a pretty remarkable achievement. Fundamentally, I can’t understand how anyone could watch this story and not love it.

Apart from the racism…

Talons Of Weng-Chiang has a curious relationship with the whole “Yellow Peril” idea. On the surface, it seems blatantly racist — it has an actor in yellowface playing the only speaking Chinese character, and he’s playing an evil cultist who speaks in a “me so velly solly” voice. I have one friend with a Chinese-American girlfriend who won’t have a copy of this story in her house in case her girlfriend ever accidentally sees it.

But on the other hand, this can partly be excused. Not the yellowface — though the claim was made later that they had tried and failed to find an actual Chinese actor to play the part, and that does ring true (British TV and films kept casting white actors to play non-white parts well into the 1980s, supposedly because of a lack of actors from minority backgrounds) — but the rest of it can be excused.

In fact much of what looks like blatant racism seems to be an attempt to undermine racist stereotypes. Notice that Li-Hsen Chang’s accent has definite degrees of caricature to it — when he’s on stage, he speaks in the worst kind of racist stereotype “Honolable master wirr be velly preased to see…” voice, but when he’s offstage he’s much less caricatured and when he’s around people he knows there’s barely an accent there by comparison. The writing and performance suggest a character knowingly playing on the stereotype Sinister Chinaman — most notably when the Doctor first sees Chang and recognises him, to be told “I am told we all look the same”.

And this is actually entirely the correct way to deal with this. In a story where you’re throwing in every cliche of the popular image of the late nineteenth century, from bits of every film Hammer made (and this does a much better job of trying to mix martial arts with Gothic horror than The Legend Of the Seven Golden Vampires) to Pygmalion to The Good Old Days you *have* to have a Fu Manchu character, and having the only character who is a racist stereotype (well, a non-white racist stereotype — there’s a comedy drunk Irishman and so on as well) be the only one who is intelligent enough to realise, comment on and use his stereotypical nature (in a story where everyone else is at least as much of a stereotype, but seems completely unaware of it), is a far more intelligent and interesting way of dealing with the problem than you would expect.

The problem is that while the story is trying to comment from a position of liberal superiority on the racist attitudes of the past, from our point of view the story is the racist attitudes of the past — the story was broadcast when there were still regular weekly blackface minstrel shows on British TV, after all, so it’s unsurprising that there were certain unexamined ideas that affected the story. And unfortunately this leads to Leela referring to “the yellow one” and the Doctor talking about being attacked by “little men”.

It’s very, very to stand outside racism and satirise it while having the kind of nihilist black humour that Holmes had which sees everything as fair game. The result is that because of a few lines which suggest that our protagonists are themselves racist, the whole attempt to undercut the racist nature of the character backfires, and the story just ends up being…well…racist.

But does that mean they shouldn’t have tried?

No, of course not. We all have prejudices that will look, in thirty or so years’ time, quite horrific. Trying to challenge those prejudices — and trying to do so artfully, and intelligently, and with a sense of humour — is always a good idea, even if it backfires horribly.

But it does mean that in a very important way,Talons is a failure.

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