Richard Tarrant explores an important and often overlooked subject
To claim Talons of Weng-Chiang as one of your favourite Doctor Who stories in 2019 is to court controversy. Not because it lacks quality; far from it. Talons is a sublimely well scripted and performed, genre-mashing banger of a serial – a supernova collision of the best writer, producer and lead actor in Who history with expert BBC costume drama, a much-underrated companion and supporting characters of spin-off series quality. It is all-time top ten material, all day long. But that shouldn’t mean it gets a free pass on racism, which is sure to feature prominently in the Who Back When review.
The usual defence of Talons is that it reflects the racist attitudes of the era in which it is set, and there is some justification in this. The story is drenched in late-Victorian literary allusions and there is no denying the colonial attitudes and racist terminology of Kipling, Conrad and particularly the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer which are so clearly influential to the story. Society at large would have reflected these prejudices, and I would much prefer to see this depicted naturally (as opposed to New Who, which occasionally prefers to write ‘history as it should have been’). But the Doctor should be the one character enlightened enough to challenge this backwardness, and the major problem with Talons is that he doesn’t, even when Litefoot uses the term ‘Chinks’; indeed, at times, the Doctor actually seems to endorse these prejudicial attitudes with comments about, for example, ‘little men’ or ‘epicanthic eyebrows’.
The ‘yellowface’ aspect (more of which later) will also undoubtedly be troubling to modern viewers, but as we condemn it let us also recognise that John Bennett puts in an absolutely extraordinary performance as Li H’sen Chang – by turns mesmerising, terrifying, charming, sympathetic and vulnerable.
Whilst The Talons of Weng-Chiang was one of the last Doctor Who stories to have an overt issue with racism, it was by no means the first. The high watermark came 11 years earlier, in Spring 1966. Three out of four stories airing between March and June are extremely problematic. This was a time when one former British colony after another were declaring independence and, once you view The Ark as a polemic firmly opposed to this movement, it is impossible afterwards to see it any other way. The black-skinned Monoids, mute ‘savages’ at least in the first two episodes, are an expendable servant race to the civilised, white-skinned crew of the ark (and, by extension, the miniaturised human cargo). Upon overthrowing their former masters, they prove themselves to be, by turns, violent, incompetent and comedically stupid, apt to accidentally blurt their out nefarious plans. They are portrayed as completely incapable of self-governance; a society falling to pieces without the white man’s civilising influence.
Any hopes that this might have been the nadir of Doctor Who racism though were immediately quashed with the next serial, The Celestial Toymaker. The Toymaker’s robes and hat are clearly Chinese and it is well documented that ‘celestial’ was a term commonly interchangeable with ‘Asian’ in the 1960s (indeed Li H’sen is described as ‘The Celestial Chang’ in Talons). But any ‘yellowface’ offence is dwarfed by the astounding decision to include the Eeny Meeny Miny Moe rhyme with the audible n-word (removed or disguised on subsequent releases). The Wikipedia contributor for the story suggests that its use was still acceptable in 1966, but Elizabeth Sandifer of the always excellent TARDIS Eruditorum blog (who also highlighted the imperialist overtones of The Ark) correctly disputes this, pointing out that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None had its title changed from Ten Little N- as early as 1940 to avoid offence. There is no possible justification for its inclusion.
Then, two stories later, we have The Savages, claimed to be a parable about Apartheid-era South Africa, with some of the actors in ‘blackface’. It is difficult to reconcile though – in what is ostensibly a ‘utopian society hides a shameful secret’ story, in which the primitives are enlightened and the Elders exploitative and evil, how does it aid the allegory to have the Elders played in ‘blackface’? At least doesn’t instinctively feel as if there is an unpleasant agenda here – possibly the opposite, in fact.
And it’s at this point that I want to loop back to earlier Doctor Who. There are ‘yellowface’ and ‘brownface’ depictions in earlier stories – particularly Marco Polo, The Aztecs and The Crusade – yet, perhaps perversely, I don’t take much issue with these. Even as a very left-leaning person, I don’t necessarily find ‘colouring up’ immediately 100% offensive. If characters are portrayed respectfully and three-dimensionally – Bernard Kay’s Saladin or Keith Pyott’s Autloc, for example – it is considerably less of a problem than when the portrayal strays into caricature or stereotype.
Consider the talent pool that the BBC had at its disposal in the 1960s. The 1961 census recorded a Chinese ethnicity population of just 38,730 in England and Wales, of which no more than a handful would have made their way into acting and the union Equity, which ruled the stage and the airwaves at the time. Until 1988 every entertainment professional was required to be a member of this union, so from a casting perspective, the very limited Equity listings were all you had to choose from. It would likely have been impossible to cast the likes of Marco Polo with actors from an appropriate ethnic background. There were enough actors and actresses of colour in the Equity ranks to suggest that the very occasional representation in 1960s and 1970s Doctor Who (such as the excellent Carmen Monroe in The Enemy of the World) was racism by omission, but still nothing like the numbers of today. Does this paucity of casting options mean that Doctor Who should never have attempted stories based outside Caucasian countries? Some might say yes, but I would respectfully disagree – that would have made it a tremendously parochial programme and one that would have failed in its initial educational remit.
The upshot was that ‘colouring up’ was still a core element of British television in the 1960s and 1970s. As late as 1981, for example, four years after Talons aired, Anthony Hopkins played Othello in full ‘blackface’ in a landmark BBC televised play.
‘Blackface’ is rightly consigned to history now, but one or two questions remain. Is it unacceptable for any actor to portray a character of a different racial background? In which case, why should it be acceptable for a British actor, black or white, to portray the Moor of Venice? Brits playing Russians in Killing Eve and Chernobyl? Mark Eden playing Marco Polo? Patrick Troughton playing the Mexican Salamander? Of course we criticise the appalling ‘mute brute’ racial stereotypes in consecutive 1967 stories Evil of the Daleks and Tomb of the Cybermen, but not the fact that in the former a Trinidadian actor is playing a Turk. Are we saying then that an appropriate skin tone confers a ‘pass’?
Sensitive questions and, in some ways, I wish we could avoid them altogether. With a racist US President and an apparently racist UK Prime Minister emboldening more widespread racist attitudes, it is easy to see racism in everything and find ourselves playing at the sort of ever-more-intersectional identity politics which causes even the most enlightened liberalism to eventually consume itself; all at a time when liberals should be uniting in the face of existential threats to society (and indeed the planet) as a whole. When very reasonable people are arguing between themselves whether Zoe Saldana is dark-skinned enough to play Nina Simone, for example, it is hard not to conclude that we are enabling ‘divide and rule’ by dividing ourselves.
One final, deliberately provocative but genuine question – what purpose does condemning racism in 1960s and 1970s Doctor Who actually serve? On whose behalf are we offended? Because it is certain that the majority of those taking offence are doing so from what Drew once beautifully described as ‘the top of privilege mountain’. I am amongst them, but still recognise that there may be an element of virtue-signalling in the reaction. Isn’t the fact that it couldn’t and wouldn’t happen now enough? Should we not simply view the likes of Talons as a museum piece; the product of a less enlightened age, but no less beautiful for it?
Without lived experience of racism, my answers to questions like these frankly carry very little weight. I still have Talons of Weng-Chiang in my top three stories of all time and Marco Polo in my top ten. Is that wrong?
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