I will now ask my eager volunteer kindly to step into the Cabinet of Death!
Take one part Pygmalion, one part The Phantom of the Opera, stir in a healthy dollop of Sherlock Holmes, then rent a fog machine, and you have Robert Holmes’ “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (Story Production Code 4S), the most interesting story of Tom Baker’s run thus far. Though many a threat from the future has found its way to Earth’s past in Doctor Who, the setting in Victorian London feels fresh; there’s no invasion here, no plan to take over the planet, just individual greed, hubris, and tragedy on a smaller stage. Characters grow and change within the span of six episodes, and Holmes (also the series script editor) and veteran director David Maloney deploy the large cast with skill, slowly unveiling new plot dimensions without the audience being cheated or blindsided by sudden revelations. One even feels charitably inclined to overlook the dodgy giant rat. It’s a shame, then, about the blithe portrayal of the Chinese as a stereotyped other behind which a stranded time traveller works his malevolent plans.
The historic verisimilitude of Victorian attitudes towards the Chinese notwithstanding (and, indeed, verisimilitude has often taken a back seat to dramatic necessity on Doctor Who), the overall treatment of the Chinese by the script feels at odds with the ethos of the series; the Silurians, the Ice Warriors, and even the Daleks have come in for more nuanced portrayals than the Chinese in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” with their supposed servility, fanaticism, and lack of individuality serving as plot points. Overbroad pastiches of Victorian England also feature prominently here, but the invocation of Cockney rhyming slang and overwrought fishwives is played for self-knowing humor rather than the slightly meaner presentation of the Chinese. To his credit, Holmes writes the Doctor as being above such beliefs. While not directly countering the prevailing attitudes, the Doctor does display an abiding respect for and interest in Chinese culture and language.
Casting John Bennett as the key character of Li Hsen Chang requires the use of extensive facial prosthetics, to the extent that the actor could not blink for fear of disrupting the heavy makeup; the overall effect is jarring and likely could have been avoided through casting an actor with a Chinese background. The casting seems stranger still given that many of the other Chinese characters are played by actors who seem to have such a background. This is not to take away from Bennett’s performance, which carries some depth of nobility amidst the stereotyped mannerisms and thick prosthetics, but rather to note that the casting, like the incessant stereotyping, creates an unpleasant dissonance in an otherwise engaging tale.
On the positive side, it does prevent one from spending too much time wondering why there’s an entire sub-plot devoted to giant rats in London’s sewers…