Monday, July 19, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Talons of Weng Chiang"

There is a saying: "Do one thing and do it right". Well, in a way, the era of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes was about that. After the Third Doctor's era in which social and political issues were tackled under the guise of entertaining sci-fi stories Hinchcliffe had steered the show away from that model with his updating of old, classic, Gothic horror stories. There were few overt statements about class or environmentalism here -- instead playing up the frights and the atmosphere and the characters themselves.

Hinchcliffe had decided, though, to move on at the end of season 14 and Holmes was looking to leave as well. As such, these two long-time collaborators decided to pull out all the stops for their final story.

After the original writer had to pull out Hinchcliffe encouraged Holmes to write the story and also encouraged him to do what he wanted with it and spare no expense. If this was to be their swan song then they wanted it to be a good one....

The Plot: The Doctor and his companion, Leela, arrive in London in the late 1800's but are quickly embroiled in a police investigation. Young women are going missing and the Doctor soon finds clues which lead him to Chinese stage magician Li H'sen Chang. Li H'sen Chang, however, is a follower of a mythical, powerful and terrible Chinese god called Weng Chiang... and the Doctor begins to suspect that Weng Chiang may not be as mythical as he's been painted... at least in this time and this place.

My Take: "The Talons of Weng Chiang" is.... a troublesome episode. Not because it's bad but because it's good! Holmes pulled from a number of influences for this story -- including the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Fu Manchu stories of Sax Rohmer, and even a touch of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux and even a touch of My Fair Lady but it's the Sax Rohmer stuff that makes the story skate so close to the edge.

Rohmer is most commonly associated with "Yellow Peril" -- a kind of wave of Sinophobia that rolled through many Western nations -- in particular England and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was originally spawned by fears that Chinese immigrants would take away jobs from the white, native population and would increase in numbers until they outnumbered the white population. Sound familiar? Yeah, we've been through this old song and dance a number of times but people never seem to learn. But I'm digressing.

Political cartoons, comic strips, books, and short stories all took turns at representing Chinese as evil, cold-blooded killers or masterminds. One of the most famous representations which has come down to us today is Fu Manchu. Most people have never read a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu story and yet the term is still bandied about -- most notably in the name for a type of mustache. Rohmer's Fu Manchu, however, was of the "great criminal mastermind" type who ruled London's Limehouse district and always had his plots foiled by the white hero but who also always escaped to menace the world another day. We see elements of Fu in the original version of Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless and the original version of the Iron Man villain the Mandarin.

To a modern audience, however, this sort of blatant racial stereotyping would be anathema. And that's part of where the problem comes in. Holmes wanted to re-create the feel of the Victorian era with as much authenticity as he could. This includes using some of the slang terms of the time as well as racial attitudes. And at the same time he was pulling from literature from the era and wanting to present a kind of snapshot of that too. What results is a story which depicts Chinese characters talking in a very stereotypical dialect and with some very stereotypical trappings but at the same time, it's a near perfect mimic of something from the Victorian period. So do we forgive it for being accurate? Do we make allowances for what Holmes was trying to do? Or do we think that he should, perhaps, have mitigated things more and presented a more cosmopolitan world view? Added to that is the fact that Li H'sen Chang was played by an Occidental actor in make-up. It's very good make-up but it doesn't change the fact that an Occidental is playing an Oriental... something that tends to quite understandably get people's hackles up. All of this would not be so bad if the rest of the story was just God-awful but it's not.

In defense of the story, though, Li H'sen Chang may begin as a stock character but he DOES become more nuanced as the story rolls on. He may be devoted to the being he believes to be Weng Chiang but he also has been entranced by his success on the stage. He takes pride in his magic act and the more acclaim and fame he receives the more he feels the pull between his place on the stage and his place by his master's side. In the end, his "god" punishes him for his failures in the worst way possible -- by ending his stage career. Chang also gets a rather moving death scene and, despite the fact that he has been a willing accomplice to multiple murders, the viewer feels sorry for him. In many ways he becomes yet another victim of Weng Chiang.

Putting aside the controversy of the story... there are some positive things about it. The companion of the time, Leela, was a "savage" from the future and was really the first ass-kicking female companion. Nearly fearless and a tough fighter, Leela often got herself out of any situations she got herself into. She also often was the one saving the Doctor's life. This story is no exception as, in one sequence, Leela throws a knife at the advancing living ventriloquist's dummy Mr. Sin and when that fails to stop him she jumps onto a table, runs across it and escapes from the room by doing a header out a window. And it is awesome. Leela also is untaught, not stupid, and that is clearly shown here as well as she quickly picks up on information from the time period. There is a also a touch of Eliza Doolittle as she transforms into an elegant lady for a night at the theatre.

In all of this actress Louise Jameson hits every not pitch perfect. Jameson makes all of Leela's various threats of violence absolutely believable and yet turns around and displays a shy side of the warrior as she prepares to embark on the unfamiliar world of polite society.

Tom Baker also puts in a much more subdued performance than usual. He even has a costume change, temporarily subsuming the bohemian look for a Holmesian inverness cape and deerstalker cap. While the Doctor's usual bits of whimsy are present they are not as overpowering as he takes the mystery seriously. It is something just enough out-of-usual to attract the attention of the audience and make the story something special.

And of course there are the characters of theatre owner Henry Gordon Jago and scientist Professor Litefoot. The two characters proved so popular that there were actually, for a time, rumors that the BBC was considering spinning them off into their own series. The bombastic Jago and the cautious Litefoot are such well-developed and charismatic characters that they really do steal the show. The two do not even meet until the very last episode but they are woven so well throughout the story that they seem a natural part of it all -- and perfect foils for one another. The actors in question -- Christopher Benjamin for Jago and Trevor Baxter for Litefoot -- inhabit the roles so fully it is impossible to imagine anyone else doing a better job. They manage to make the characters both larger-than-life and yet utterly human at the same time. In point of fact, there is a sequence in particular I love... Litefoot offers Leela some supper and is rather discombobulated when the young woman picks up a chunk of meat and just starts biting into it -- foregoing knife, fork and plate -- but rather then hurt her feelings or make her look foolish, Litefoot puts aside his own refinements and picks up another piece of meat and bites into it. It says volumes about Litefoot, his world view and yet at the same time his kind heart.

The story also really excells at the true villains. Weng Chiang is revealed as an impostor called Magnus Greel and Greel, like the Phantom of the Opera, is hideously disfigured. He's also mad as a hatter. At first his over-the-top ranting work well but after a little while they do go on too long and they start to become silly instead of threatening.

And then there is Mr. Sin. Holmes understood well that, in the hands of a talented comedian, a ventriloquist's dummy can be funny. The dummy itself, though, can be a creepy thing. The size of a small child and yet usually made to look like a human being there is always that faintly creepy feeling that the thing is watching you. Horror movies have long picked up on this and turned the dummy into a nightmare figure. Holmes, therefore gives us "Mr. Sin". At first an innocuous figure, it quickly moves into the realm of creepy and then goes on to full-on menacing. Mr. Sin was played here by Deep Roy, a well known and respected midget actor.

Tribute must also go to everything else about the story as well. There is some just absolutely gorgeous location shooting and the locations were chosen with care and add to the atmosphere and tone of the story. The costuming is also lovely -- in particular Li H'sen Chang's stage costumes -- ornately beaded affairs which are simply stunning. And even the special effects are pretty good here. The two exceptions are the "giant rats" in the sewers which are, alternately, real rats filmed on a miniature set and a hand puppet. Sadly the real rats look like rats on a miniature set and the hand puppet looks like a hand puppet. And neither is very threatening. Then there is a fight between the Doctor and Mr. Sin at the climax which is really sadly, embarrassingly, obviously Tom Baker wrestling with a large rag doll dressed as Mr. Sin.

One will not find deep commentary on class or environmentalism here but what one will find is a tightly woven story that seems to just fly by even at six episodes. There is mystery, danger, excitement, action, death, and near-death escapes but sadly there are also some elements which are uncomfortable to modern audiences and which do leave something of a blot on the story. I'll leave it to you, reader, to decide if this can be forgiven or whether it will be a deal-breaker.

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