It’s, erm, it’s a bit racist.
The depiction of the Chinese is absolutely horrific. Not even the fact that they all do kung fu comes close to rating on how bad the depiction is. The main point is that the main Chinese guy is played by an obvious white guy putting on a dodgy accent, the type that some people do when they talk about ordering takeaway, and a bit of makeup around his eyes to make them appear more oriental. Everyone seems to talk about the Chinese derogatorily, I can let that slide and the copper calling them “Chinee” on the vague hope that it was done on purpose to try and emulate the Victorian mindset. But even Tom Baker’s throwing around casual racism during the conversation. If there’s one person who shouldn’t, it’s the Doctor.
All that said, The Talons of Weng Chiang actually manages to be pretty decent. The idea of an human from much later in our evolution experimenting with time travel, ending up being stuck in a primitive time period and using their advance knowledge to appear almost God-like, and using that to his own advantage is a great move. That the serial keeps this buried and instead has us follow “Chinese bloke” as the main villain for the first few episodes, only to be shown to be a snivelling sycophant is great.
Like the Mad Monk, Weng Chiang comes across as the anti-Doctor, as it would be so easy for him to do that, and has done only to rush to correct their misunderstanding. I’m pretty sure the Master has used it too, and it suits him pretty well, if it wasn’t for the being stuck here part. Though admittedly I couldn’t help wonder if “Talons” started life as a Master story before heavy rewrites. Along with the plot fitting him quite well, the destroyed DNA would fit nicely with his last appearance three serials ago in The Deadly Assassin.
Jago and Litefoot are great too. It’s understandable how they become such a big part of the spin-off material, even if they don’t meet until part 5, and not at all what I expected.
Leela slips a little at the start here, and I can start seeing the treatment of her as a savage idiot everyone complains about, but its passing. During a fight with the Chinese is the most obvious actually. Towards the end she’s also captured, and becomes a simple bargaining tool for Chiang and the Doctor. The rest of the serial she manages to come across pretty decent, standing on her own, saving someone and getting far closer to the person behind it all before the Doctor has a decent inkling of what’s going on, again. But the violent aspect that I can’t believe the Doctor having issue with is getting more and more obvious. She openly tries to kill Chiang. I can appreciate that she stowed away on the TARDIS, but the Doctor seems to have accepted her, and the most we’ve had for him addressing it is a small moment in Robots about her not bringing a gun along.
I’ve noticed this numerous types over the last three serials, but for a ‘savage’ Leela can sometimes be very well spoken. Louise Jameson occasionally delivers a line totally out of character in a proper London trained actor voice. It’s fine, sometimes it really helps. There’s also one moment in The Robots of Evil where it was to great effect.
But The Talons of Weng Chiang. There’s no doubt it’s good. But watching it today, especially for the first time like me, there’s a lot of themes and decisions that make it unwatchable to anyone who isn’t a Whovian. It’s racist. A good story dragged down by racism. The Talons of Weng Chiang was one of the first stories on the recommended list that started all this. It shouldn’t be. Despite how good it is, the racism drags it down to “If you’re already hooked on Who, here’s a great story hamstrung by the time it was made”. Which is a shame, because beneath the racism it’s great.