Monday, 16 June 2014

In Which A Vicious Genius Rewrites The Past In Order To Be Mean To Chinese People And Women

This month's Doctor Who best companion was judged to be Leela, which then led to her "best story" being chosen as "Talons of Weng Chiang".  This, it turns out, was a disastrous move, basically explained by a very small voting pool and the fact that I'd only seen this and "Robots of Death", and clearly hadn't remembered the more complicated issues for Leela here. As a result, I've spent the last two weeks trying to put together a defence of Leela's character in this story. In the process I've created something that lacks the bite of, say, Phil Sandifer's comments on the story. I hope that nothing I say actively reaches the point of clueless mansplaining, but I guess we'll just have to see.

(I've also, after seeing friend of the blog hammard employ the idea, chosen titles for each of the episodes to keep things interesting).

Episode One: The Case Of The Missing Chinese Character-Actors

I watched this opening episode twice now trying to think of something clever to say, but really all I've got is that it looks incredible, and that it's painful to watch.

One of the surest signs of my progress as a human being is how unquestioningly I watched my old VHS tape of this story when I was a young teenager. These days it's almost impossible for me to even look at Chang. You could swap his make-up job with Greel's and it would be a hundred times easier to experience.

I had a vague idea when I put the DVD in that it might be possible to distinguish between racist concept and racist execution.  To my knowledge it is neither Robert Holmes' fault that a white actor was put in yellowface, nor that Tom Baker was just allowed to make up whatever nonsense he liked and pass it off as Mandarin. But it's just too compromised at the script level for that to work. "We'll just make up a Chinese tong worshipping a Chinese god that we'll also make up; that'll do." (from my three minutes of research the actual Chinese god of abundance seems to have been quite a jolly fellow; not a death-ray or a poisonous gas cloud in sight). I think porting over racist elements of something you are using for pastiche is probably less ugly than generating them yourself, but it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card, as Mark Gatiss has learned. At least, I bloody hope he's learned that.

But let's move on from that, if we can; I'm supposed to be talking about Leela. Who obviously is wonderful here. She barely has a single line that isn't a delight. Sticking her in Victorian London and making it clear how little of a damn she gives about a culture that to this day seems oddly venerated by a lot of the population saves this from being completely retrograde, and is damn fun to watch, too. I love the Doctor telling Leela not once but twice to stay behind, only for her to wait twenty seconds and follow to get him out of whatever scrape he's gotten into. For any other female companion there'd be a jarring element of sexism in constantly insisting they stay behind, but with Leela it's far more likely the Doctor is just worried she'll murder the first person who looks at him funny, which in truth isn't a ludicrous concern. I'm not overly enamoured of how the Doctor responds to her killing the tong member in this episode, actually, but we can't blame Leela for that.

Plus bonus marks for Jago and Litefoot, obviously. I can never watch this story without wishing they'd at least tried the briefly mooted TV spin-off with these two. I really should get around to sampling their audio adventures). They might even be having adventures not awash in terrible racial politics.

Oh, look at that. I couldn't get off the topic after all. Best stop here.

Episode 2: Horse's Heads in People's Faces So this was the episode where I realised the brightness on my TV is turned down way too much. I barely saw the giant rat. Hooray!

This, obviously, is not a fast episode. It's not hard to see why that might be frustrating for some, but there's something oddly appropriate about the slow pace. Along with the night-time setting, the strange image of a masked man in a laboratory beneath a Victorian theatre, and the soft, sad reminiscing of Litefoot about his father, this episode has a kind of woozy, dream-like quality which I like very much. The result would be almost stately and elegaic in places, were it not for all the ridiculous running around backstage. But then that's dreams for you, isn't it? Hard to maintain a consistent tone.

(Plus, let's be fair: this isn't the worse use of a pantomime horse in classic Who.)

Even the cliffhanger fits into this idea of uneasy sleep. It certainly trades more on the simple unsettling fact of Mr Sin than it does any real danger. Or at least, it does assuming we can remember who Leela is. I'm still not sold yet on the theory that this story treats Leela poorly, but I'm certainly more sympathetic to the idea having re-watched this episode. Actually, I think it's more that I agree with the conclusion, but not the diagnosis. The problem here isn't that Leela is being mocked for existing outside Victorian values - her confusion in the hansom cab seems very much to me to be poking fun at the weirdness of contemporary society if anything; what the hell are people doing ingesting the outpourings of burning weeds or comparing people to sharp fish? - it's that she's not allowed to actively fight against those values when it isn't convenient to the plot. I totally understand why Litefoot asks the Doctor whether Leela's seen a pipe before, or when he tells her to stay upstairs whilst he searches his grounds (actually, that's pretty reasonable in any case if you're the one with the revolver). What I don't get - and to be fair this has been pointed out before - is why Leela remains so passive about it. Or rather I do; it's for plot, stupid. But that doesn't make me any happier about it.

Those problems aside, I really rather like the pairing of Leela and Litefoot. At its heart this is a story about the clash of cultures - Victorian London vs Han Chinese vs Sevateem vs Time Lords vs whoever the hell the dude in the mask is (later on of course we learn he's from 51st century Earth, and also there's a doll that thinks it's a pig, which may or may not qualify as being a distinct culture; I don't want to be racist here). This is the case right down to the bones of this thing, as Sax Rohmer rubs up against Gaston Leroux in a cross-channel melding of late 19th/early 20th century macabre*. It's worth noting that culture-clash stories are always tricky things; you want to get across the fundamental strangeness of an utterly different way of living and thinking without reducing it to the "other". It's a genuinely difficult trick to pull off, though really I don't think Holmes is actually trying all that hard here as regards the Chinese.

Where was I? Oh yes. The Leela and Litefoot stuff works, I think. When he's not being sexist, their supper together is really rather sweet, for all that I can't understand why Mrs Hudson could possibly think that amount of food is a sensible spread for a single average-sized middle-aged man. I suppose one could colour an argument that says he's being rather condescending to his guest, but under the circumstances I'm prepared to forgive him. And Jameson is wonderful here; these are the sort of moments I was thinking of when I voted for this story. I mean, sure, she doesn't know what to do with that knife when it's handed to her to cut her shank with, but who would?

And everyone should eat trifle that way, I think.

*Actually, I wonder how much of Rohmer's Fu Manchu work delves into culture clash in and of itself. Has any of my lovely readers ever read any? It's one of those cultural icons that I've only ever experienced in pastiche rather than in its original flavour.
Episode Three - Dude, She Started Off Blonde Let's start, appropriately enough, at the beginning: the resolution to the pretty weak cliffhanger from the previous episode is actually awesome. Indeed, it's done so well - Leela throws a knife she only picked up that evening with startling accuracy into her assailant's neck and then jumps through a first (at least) storey window when she realises she has no idea of how to kill it. I know there are objections to this cliffhanger as badly damaging for Leela, but I don't see it. I'm happy to accept there's a problem here, in that Leela looks overly worried as she's retreating, but that's just so obviously a way to sell a weak ending, and so gloriously undercut when we see she's actually backing away to get in range of a weapon, that any reaction more extreme than an eye-roll over the limitations of cliffhangers makes any sense to me.

Particularly since this is a great episode for Leela, who gets all the investigating and action to herself whilst the Doctor draws on tablecloths and bigs up Birmingham. The division of labour here between Doctor and companion is almost Hartnellesque. And sure, when it comes down to brass tacks, Leela only - only! - saves the life of one woman, I'm not inclined to hold it against her that she doesn't realise how quickly she needed to get to that poor cleaner. In any case, there is something just wonderful in an unarmed savage woman in smallclothes coming within a whisker of killing a global tyrant with a time machine and ray-gun and getting away with it. Well, kind of getting away with it. I might have been fine with last episode's ending, but the screaming Leela here really is infuriating.

I always end up feeling almost sorry for Chang this episode, as Greel so casually fires him. Alright, so he's a kidnapper, attempted murderer and accessory to murder, but it's not his fault he can't shoot straight*. Greel should have added that into the pot when he made Chang a telepathic hypnotist. Besides, it's clearly not like Greel could hit Leela at ten paces, and he had the advantage of classic BBC over-lighting on his side.

(Speaking of which; still haven't turned up the brightness on my telly; ain't gonna 'til the rats have gone).

Something which occurred to me in this episode was how lucky Greel was to end up in a place and time where his specific scientific gifts could plausibly allow him to pose as a God. Or was it deliberate? I kind of like the idea he called up the 51st Century equivalent of Wikipedia and typed in "list of ancient Gods what grow animals to stupid sizes". Or does he have a whole bunch of ridiculous tricks that his cover identity doesn't let him use. If only he'd found a civilisation which worshipped a God that fired space-hoppers from the nose, or could moonwalk whilst mixing a Victoria sponge.

* Though of course his real fault is not seeing the difference between the woman he snatched and Leela. I was so desperate for there to be a joke here about how all white women look the same to him, but it was not to be. Bah.

Episode 4: They Catch George Litefoot Napping A Second Time How lovely; a trip to the theatre. I've never really understood why a bloodthirsty warrior like Leela would be particularly interested in the idea of the theatre - or, indeed, restrictive Victorian dresses which couldn't possibly be any use in a fight to the death (better that than the soaked smallclothes they made her run around in as the episode opens, though) - but if she wants to try new things we should consider that laudable. Besides, if Leela going local is a problem, then considering this is an episode in which a stage hand dies of fright from seeing a man in a weird costume in a theatre, she'll just have to take a number.

Is that really how the gentry entertained themselves in the Victorian era, though? Watching a woman more or less competently run through a well-known song? I know this was before radio, but it still seems pretty strange. At least Chang's act is better. It might be incredibly simplistic by modern standards, but I find it quite charming. The deliberate application of pidgin English is a nice touch as well, as Chang plays up to the racism he knows his audience will be harbouring. It's a nice way of reflecting the weird double-think that you can see working in bigots - they simultaneously find those different from them exotic and entertaining, but unless you tread carefully they'll see you as dangerous as well. The entire history of black music in America until the '70s at the very least demonstrates this (after which I'd say there was a new idea introduced of explicitly dangerous musicians one could appreciate at a safe remove).

On a similar note, it's profoundly ironic that Mr Sin gets into Litefoot's house in the way he does. You've been targeted by a Chinese Tong and have a guard by the door and a revolver by your side, but you've forgotten who it is does your laundry? Sure, if you're the kind of person who thinks "Chinese criminals are after me, I bet the Chinese laundry I use are in on it too", you are a terrible person, but my point here is that the otherwise quite pleasant Litefoot does seem to have a mind that works like that, with the result that following the initial attack he is now simultaneously viewing the Chinese as a major threat but also as a group beneath his notice. Again, this has more than one real-world analogue, and between this and Chang's approach to reassuring his audience this is the episode in which Holmes is at his best with the subject matter. Which doesn't mean his best still isn't shot through with terrible problems, of course.

Episode 5: Can't Anyone Escape In This Blasted Story? Ye Gods, the carpet bag. OK, so we've all at one time or another left something behind in our hurry to catch a plane/ make a rendezvous/flee a vengeful Time Lord. But this particular snafu is painful in how obvious it's been thrown in to extend the plot. I had wondered whether this might have been the point in "Foe From The Future" when the enemy did escape and forced the Doctor to follow him into the time-stream, but I'll leave a decision on that to others with far more understanding of that story. Whatever the reason behind the sudden elongation, it's a moment of supreme clunkiness. Though I do like to think Lee didn't remember to get the bag because he was so busy putting the final touches onto Greel's utterly ridiculous secret palace HQ. "Sorry, Master; I had to make a run for some more Polyfilla".

How come modern-day Britain spends all its time fretting about immigrants and Muslim terrorists, and not the far more terrifying and imminent threat of dolls with pigs' brains? Seriously, how did no-one see problems with that coming? Did it almost cause World War VI because everyone realised how obviously stupid the Chinese government clearly were and decided to invade?

Leela is so cute when she tries to say "homonculus".

I mentioned earlier that I wasn't entirely without sympathy for poor old Chang - when a God says jump, you say "How high to avoid being fed to your giant rats?" But it's pretty hard to maintain that empathy when we learn Chang realised Weng Chiang was a fraud not when he demanded the deaths of eleven women, but when he deliberately ruined Chang's career. "I knew my God was a multiple murderer, but I didn't realise he was petty".

The beginnings of the great Litefoot and Jago double-act finally swim into view. I'm a big fan of Jago, even when he's doing nothing, which is often. Eddie Izzard once did a comedy routine about cowards you rooted for, and came up with Falstaff, Leopold Blume, and Shaggy and Scooby. Jago might not quite be the equal of those notorious names of most felicitous and fantastical fiction, but his antics and aspirations, and in particular his prolix pronouncements, are still most efficacious at enabling explosions of entertainment across this particular visage. You can always tell when a character has been nailed when someone else can read his words and you still know exactly who it is, as when the Doctor reads his brief (hah!) note at Litefoot's.

Plus, it's nice to have two men captured and needing rescuing whilst the female companion is busy sharpening knives and evaluating the possibilities of golf clubs as javelins. Shame she gets jumped by Greel. Just how did he get in, anyway?

ETA2: And furthermore...

Episode 6: The Cook and the Pig

I'd not noticed before, but this is a really abrupt episode. Holmes sets up a traditional mystery in Episode 5 with Chang's dying words, and then sweeps it utterly off the table as irrelevant the moment this episode begins. This makes sense in as much as the story is running two threads - Victorian mystery caper and time-travelling vampire - and one of them now has to become dominant, but the resulting shock to the narrative still feels very strange; like a breathless run to the finish after five episodes of strolling along whistling. Again, I wonder if this is a side-effect of the script changes lying underneath this all.

So, this is our last chance to discuss the riddle that is Leela. There's loads here I love about her. Her comment on the ludicrousness of the British tea ceremony is wonderful, and again shows that Holmes is doing more than simply using her as the butt of jokes. I also love how easily she tracks Greel back to his base. Further awesomeness points are given for her beating down at least one guard without trouble and for concocting the plan that gets her a gun and ultimately leads to her shooting out the dragon's eye lasers. She and the Doctor basically take it in turns to sort each other out here. Really the only big problem is how stupid it is to shout "Die, Bent-face!" when approaching from behind and then leaping without her knife out in front of her. But then this has always been the problem with Leela; her back-story just jibes too much with what the BBC were likely to allow on TV at the time. Killing a mook with a bloodless janus thorn is one thing (though as I've noted I'm not at all comfortable with that scene) but actually stabbing the main villain to death? It's just not going to happen, which paradoxically makes Leela seem like a weaker companion than others because she fails so often. Had I written this I most certainly would have had her get to finish of Mr Sin, for example.

Litefoot and Jago still delight me, though I wonder how much of that will remain in force once they no longer have the Doctor and Leela to bounce off of. They're still clearly competent just as a duo, however. I particularly love Jago's crowing when he's brought before Greel and mistakenly believes the game is over. Jago has a kind of nervous bluster that's very hard to pull off without making a character unlikeable, but Benjamin has him down perfectly. And you can see why he'd be confused. A cook and a pig in the same room? No wonder he thought he could smell bacon...

Greel certainly built his lifesucker device in an odd way, didn't he? Hitting the control box turns it off automatically, unless you shove something really hard into it afterwards? Dude was a lunatic and no mistake. Well that and/or a massive egotist. I particularly love the idea that he was convinced a creature which gained notoriety for betraying its old master would never betray its new master. Because, er... it'd be grateful to get to see London? There's a certain wonderful, jet-black irony in Greel shouting "Your demands are becoming TOO GREAT!" and signalling for Sin to shoot him, only for moments later for Greel to demand AGAIN that Sin not kill somebody - the only thing we actually know he enjoys doing - and thereby sets in motion the events that will get himself skewered by the same laser beams he intended for the Doctor.

I suppose I should wrap up here, really. So, "Talons...". Um... I dunno. There's a lot I love here, and I've gone on about it at length. Ultimately though it's just too exhausting to sit through. It has the gender issues common to the period and a huge steaming helping of racism dolloped on. Not because Holmes wanted it that way, just because it didn't seem to occur to him that you can't just stick in the occasional criticism of white Victorian men and trust everything to hold together. Ultimately, this story reminds me entirely too much of "Tomb of the Cybermen"; everyone gets their turn at being reduced to stereotypes, and no-one seems to realise that stereotyping yourself and stereotyping others isn't the same thing. The result is something that thinks as long as you take swings in all directions, you don't need to worry about where or how the blows land.  And that's hard to digest irrespective of how prettily the punches are presented.

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