Monday, February 07, 2011

Doctor Who - "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"

On the suggestion of Chris K., I watched "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," which is a rollicking adventure story that happens to be an artifact of an obviously different era.

The good: this is the first proper period piece of Who that I've seen (I'm not counting "The War Games," because... well, because it doesn't feel like a period setting), and seeing the Doctor in a deerstalker and getting all Holmsian was a treat. (Interestingly enough, I was watching the new Sherlock series just before I went on to "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," which is even more interesting since the creators of Sherlock are both writers (and in Steven Moffat's case, the showrunner) of the new Who.)

A few of the supporting characters also amused me, even if they're little more than broad English stereotypes. Henry Gordon Jago, an impresario of a vaudeville theater (sorry, THEATRE) whose beautifully florid Victorian English captivated me. I hold special love, however, for George "Gordon" Litefoot, an unflappably calm pathologist. Strange visitors barge into his lab, demanding to participate in autopsies? Very well. Young woman at dinner literally grabbing a whole turkey leg for herself and ripping into it? One mustn't gainsay the customary practices of youth, shan't one? Cheers, I suppose. The villain captures him, all but saying that he'll be executed? My word.

Then, there's the elephant in the room: I'm kind of taken aback that as late as 1977, the UK was still casting white guys in yellowface for Asian roles (that'll be East Asian roles, to any actual UK readers), though I wonder if "yellowface" applies when the actor in question -- John Bennett -- is actually wearing a rubber mask to get that vintage epicanthic fold for true Chinese eyes (barf) (also, rimshot).

While some thoughtful assessments feel that Bennett's character, Li H'sen Chang, subversively navigates racialist expectations of characters around him and thus cuts a sympathetic figure, I have a hard time getting past first appearances, specifically, just how ugly the makeup is. I'm sure the visceralness of my reaction derives from the fact that my ethnicity is being reduced to a handful of signifiers (skin with a jaundiced tint, slanted eyes, reliably aphoristic and pidgin-tinged speech) (oh, and opium addiction), so any possibility of sympathy becomes, at best, marginal. Plus, he barely looks human. I'm further disturbed by some of the remarks on the DVD commentary, where the actors mention how characters like Li H'sen Chang couldn't fly nowadays because of "political correctness" and that the makeup was really good. More to the point, I'm disappointed to hear the actors defend the depictions in "The Talons..." in this way, but not altogether surprised, since these were people who were deeply involved in the production.

But going back to the fact that they had to get a white guy to play Chang is just another iteration of a practice that dates back to the Charlie Chan era. And, again, "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" was made in the '70s? ENGLAND, I AM DISAPPOINT. By the same time, the US had already had Bruce Lee and Kam Fong Chun as regulars on tv series, so Who's casting decision here doesn't reflect well on the UK. What's more, "The Talons..." does cast a bunch of actually Asian actors in cannon fodder parts, so it's not like they couldn't find any Asian actors in the UK. DISAPPOINT.

Then again, I wonder if I'd have been satisfied if the part of Li H'sen Chang had been played by a Chinese actor, or if I'd have felt that, given all the "Oriental" tropes associated with the role, even such a hypothetical casting would've been demeaning to the actor. If I try to imagine this scenario, where, everything else being equal, Chang was played by an Asian actor, I'd be able to dismiss the transposed L's and R's, the inscrutability, and so on, just because he wouldn't look like a burn victim.

Personally, when I focus on things as slippery as characterization -- one man's Engrish is another man's English, for instance -- I can easily rationalize away the offensiveness of "Oriental" tropes, especially when I otherwise enjoy the text in question. The text, for example, is just engaging in convention and that its intent isn't malicious, or that it embraces racial stereotype in order to subvert colonialist modes of expression, or so on. (See also the first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) But if offense is taken on a visceral level -- like Bennett's burn-victim makeup, or, god, Mr. Sin's entire look -- then the effort to break through the pique and into a space of rational (or at least rationalizing) thought. I think this distinction between characterization and visceral appearance explains why I feel one with the English stereotypes and another way with the Chinese stereotypes.

But I'm belaboring a point that's surely been made countless time and dwelling on a lot of negativity, and "The Talons..." is on balance one of the more enjoyable Doctor Who serials that I've watched so far.

(Although I was a little wary at first when I saw with trepidation the Doctor and Leela climb down into a sewer -- they're just like caves, but wetter and smellier, AARGH! Thankfully, the sewers are revisited only once more, but the story still has its fair share of geographic backtracking (which I either don't notice in the new Who, or which doesn't exist in the new Who).)

Some miscellaneous observations:
  • I have to mention one more race observation. Tom Baker manages to say "How are you doing?" admirably well in Mandarin in a scene where he's interrogating a Chinese flunky, though his followup question was, to my ear, gibberish. Later, when the Doctor finds the villain's hideout, he yells out in his finest Mandarin, "How are you doing?" as he busts through a door. I lol'ed.
  • Classic Who loves villains who hide ugly disfigurement in masks (not counting City of Death, there's also The Three Doctors and The Caves of Androzani. So on the one hand, we've got humans getting transformed into beasts, and on the other, the physically deforming effects of hubris.
  • Interesting that Louise Jameson had complained about Leela's skimpy outfit, and then when she gets gussied up in vintage Victorian togs, the writers have Leela complain about being so covered up. And by "interesting," I mean "perverse."
  • I've found out after watching that Greel's pet giant rat is a point of camp hilarity for longtime Who fans; unfortunately, I didn't get as much a kick out of it -- just another example of the cheesy effects to me -- yet I feel like I've missed out on a rite of Who passage.

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