On my travels through the web this week, I encountered – on one of those random, Buzzfeed-style science fiction websites – an article entitled ‘Doctor Who‘s Most Perverted Moments’. It was badly-written fifth-rate clickbait that was either written by someone who hasn’t watched the show, or who did but didn’t really understand it. I’m not even going to provide a link. It cited among said moments the minute-long cleavage shot that concludes Androzani, the rape scene in Nekromanteia, and Spike Milligan’s Pakistani Dalek sketch – itself a veiled commentary on bigotry and intolerance that is often accused of the very things it seeks to expose. It was clearly assembled by someone who didn’t get the joke, although from what I’ve seen these people are all over YouTube, so that doesn’t exactly narrow it down.
They can have Nekromanteia, which is horrid, but the one that interested me – and I’ll quote directly here, warts and all – was number nine, ‘Yellowface Makeup‘. “The Talons of Weng Chiang <sic>”, it says, “is one of the best stories in the Doctor Who franchise. Set in Victorian London, it features murderers, pig fetuses, and an evil Chinese villain. The script pretty much had an anti-racist script and gave the Chinese villain multiple anti-racist jokes at the expense of the other characters.” I still can’t fathom out whether ‘anti-racist’ is a simple mistranslation or a genuinely held view – so let’s assume instead that the author has been Googling The Wife in Space and is objecting to John Bennett, more or less unrecognisable behind the Fu Manchu moustache.
It’s a commonly held view, but I don’t want to base an entire article around clickbait, so here’s Philip Sandifer to provide an expansion:
“The anti-Chinese sentiment in this story comes down to the fact that every single Chinese character is playing off of Fu Manchu-inflected yellow peril stereotypes and treated as a villain based purely on the fact that they’re Chinese. And the fact that the main Chinese character, Li H’sen Chang, is played in yellowface. And this is the difference. Jago and Lightfoot may be bumbling comic relief, but they’re lovable bumblers played by actors of the right nationality. The Chinese, if they are played by the right nationality, are still all just menacing criminals.”
There are two things going on here. One is Bennett, and one is the story. Bennett’s depiction – indeed, Bennett’s casting – gives a supposedly enlightened twenty-first Century audience ample opportunity to take pot shots. Why not use a Chinese actor? There are Chinese people in Weng-Chiang; wouldn’t one of them have done the job just as well? Where’s the equality in casting? What about giving opportunities to ethnic minorities and the disabled? Is this why I pay my license fee? (As I write this, the right-on, supposedly enlightened twenty-first Century audience has just effectively endorsed the views of a political movement who are complaining about foreigners coming over here and taking all our jobs, but let’s not go there just now.)
Don’t get me wrong: I find Tomb of the Cybermen uncomfortable at times. In its defence, it has that lovely little hand-holding exchange between the Doctor and Jamie. We can whine about Toberman all we want, but it’s the Enid Blyton complex: the safety net of history does not excuse abhorrent attitudes but it does lessen their effect, provided it is accepted that these views are no longer culturally acceptable and do not allow them to happen again. If it had happened today, it would be a problem – but the fact is that gazing at this sort of production decision through a 2016 filter is like giggling at the bubble wrap in The Ark in Space. Yes, the advent of CG makes it slightly laughable, particularly when you’ve spent years hiding in the office stationery cupboard surreptitiously popping it. In 1975, it was about the best they could do. By all means find me an experienced English-speaking Chinese actor with an equity card who’d have performed conjuring tricks on a BBC budget, the same year Kraftwerk released Trans-Europe Express. Then we’ll talk.
The main problem with Sandifer in general – as any enthusiast will tell you – is that he takes everything so goshdarned seriously. He describes Talons as ‘good television that is also racist’, and it’s hard to argue with many of his points, but outrage is criminally easy with hindsight. It’s easy to blanche at Ann Robinson’s quips on The Weakest Link – something she’d almost certainly be asked to tone down these days – or the casual mockery of disabled people in an archive Beatles performance. That’s the way it was and while times have changed you do not get to throw out the baby with the bathwater on the grounds that a different historical period happens to disagree with your particular cultural sensitivities; not unless you are a student, anyway. Besides, if we extend the noose a little further there are double standards at work. We balk at Weng-Chiang, but do people have similar hang-ups about Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit – or is my generation more willing to forgive that because it’s a part of our childhood?
But there’s a greater subtlety at work here. It’s Bennett’s depiction of Chang as a stereotypical Chinese conjurer that causes much of the bristling, consisting as it does of broken English, pregnant pauses, and a lot of mystique. But that’s only the half of it, in a quite literal sense. Never mind the racial stereotypes. Chang’s theatrical facade is clearly a character he has created, in the same manner as Al Murray, or Dominik Diamond’s clueless twit in the first two series of GamesMaster. Chang is the Great Soprendo of the Victorian theatre, living off pre-conceived stereotypes with a wry wink at the (partially) unsuspecting audience. Or, as the man says to the Doctor in perhaps the story’s most important line of dialogue, “I understand we all look the same”.
How does this manifest in the script, besides the above? It’s partly the subtleties that distinguish Chang’s on and offstage (specifically, off-the-clock) personas: they are two different people, and everyone knows it. His body language tightens and his eyes widen when he addresses Greel; the exchanges between the two suggest a man who realised he had chosen the wrong path only when he was halfway along it, far too late to retrace his route. Viewed in this light, Chang’s confession to the Doctor is an eye-opener: here is a villain who has formed a complex interdependent relationship with his employer, and who has taken drastic steps in order to maintain it.
But everything else is a matter of narrative convenience. It’s very easy to say that this is a pop at the Limehouse culture but to do so is to read too much into Holmes’ narrative – something we tend to do because by and large he’s one of the most respected writers in the canon and it therefore stands to reason that everything he has written must mean something. But from a storytelling point of view, it doesn’t. There are no helpful Chinese people in the story because there are already more than enough characters running around and Holmes knew when he was in danger of over-egging the pudding. Do people complain that there are no helpful Ice Warriors in The Seeds of Death, or no helpful Ogrons in Day of the Daleks? It’s a flawed argument because we’re talking about fictional creations that are designed to move the story along. Simultaneously, is there a moment at which you realise that a narrative composite has ceased to be a collection of characters who happen to be of a particular persuasion, and become a statement on the overriding nature of said persuasion? Sandifer et al. clearly have a tipping point in mind, but I can’t help feeling that, given a pen, they’d all draw the line in a different place, which somehow makes the argument rather less persuasive.
Then there’s the use of cultural stereotypes as epitomised by the police – particularly in the first two episodes. Part of the issue is the Doctor himself, in that he does not condemn the racism outright; indeed he seems to revel in some of the Victorian preconceptions, describing the attacking band of muggers as ‘little men’ more than once. Not that the Doctor isn’t having issues of his own, what with breaking in a new companion who goes through at least two Whovian initiation rituals in her underwear. That’s a whole other argument for another day. The fact is that Baker’s Doctor, for all of Sandifer’s apparent desire that he be otherwise, is not one to care about these things; that’s partly what makes him so interesting, because the outbursts, when they come, are all the more sincere. By and large, the Fourth is the most detached of the lot – City of Death ought to prove that, if nothing else does – and it seems churlish to criticise the Doctor for being… well, the Doctor.
Moreover, eleven years of revival have tempered our collective judgement: it’s all too easy to look at a story like this through the same eyes we use to judge the (necessarily PC) NuWho. Classic Who made points with varying degrees of subtlety; NuWho has developed an irritating tendency of driving each one home with a sledgehammer (when a nutcracker would probably do). Suffice it to say that this sort of thing would never have happened on Tennant’s watch, and would indeed have resulted in a quasi-ironic, casually delivered rant about the ignorance of the human race; the Twelfth Doctor, to contrast, would have said something awful that prompted Clara to slap him.
But for all my defence of Bennett, and of Chang, and of Holmes, there is something about the whole thing that makes me uncomfortable – because besides Weng-Chiang, and that irritating girl in Battlefield, when was the last time you saw Chinese culture depicted in Doctor Who, like, ever? Actually, don’t answer that: it was probably Turn Left, in which Donna is tricked by an ostensibly Chinese con artist (on an alien planet, which gives Davies a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card). Or it might have been the TV movie, in which the Doctor is gunned down by Chinese gangsters in San Francisco before being betrayed by an unsuspecting Oriental with the acting skills of a walnut. Or The Mind of Evil, in which the same thing happens again, except that Pik Sen Lim really is quite good. And no, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hop to the Qin dynasty in The Angels Take Manhattan doesn’t count. Does the fact that the show was banned in China have anything to do with all this? Or is it just something they never really thought about? Is it a British thing? Would Chinese culture have played a bigger role in the hypothetical American Doctor Who, starring Kyle Machlachlan and Lindsay Lohan?
On the other hand, if we’re talking about balance, it’s strange that there have been comparatively few complaints when it comes to the likes of 24 – a show which takes a cursory glance at terrorism and points the finger of blame largely at Islam, whether trouble manifests in the form of disgruntled Arabs or radicalised Brits. Perhaps it’s easier to forgive this sort of thing when the mastermind usually turns out to be a silver-haired billionaire who’s after the oil – but let’s not forget that every crime against humanity is foiled by a white American male. Or, as four African men put it in this deconstruction of Hollywood’s attitude towards Africa, “There is nothing more dangerous than a brave Western protagonist. We’re talking to you, shirtless Matthew McConaughey.”
Still, perhaps that’s it. Particularly (if not exclusively) since 2005, Doctor Who has gone out of its way to deconstruct stereotypes of ethnic minorities (for the sake of the argument, let’s say non-Caucasian society) and while it’s not always successful, you can usually tell when the BBC have been on a equality-themed recruitment drive. I’m not expecting them to do everything. Doctor Who isn’t Balamory. But the general absence of East Asians is the elephant in the room (African elephant? Indian? Asian?), and perhaps it’s this, more than anything else, that accounts for much of Weng-Chiang’s ongoing criticism.
Because it’s easier to diminish the impact of an earlier stereotype when you’ve made it abundantly clear that it’s one you no longer practice. When it comes to the depiction of the Chinese, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re all still waiting.