Saturday, January 26, 2008

KBTC, one of the local PBS affiliates, aired the entire six part 1977 Doctor Who serial, "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" tonight as a mini-telethon to raise funds to continue to broadcast Classic Who.

The serial has earned a bad reputation due to the ethnic stereotyping of Chinese people in it. While it certainly deserves to be rapped for that, it doesn't seem to be notably worse than television in general from that era except for the magician Chang being portrayed by a white actor in yellowface. Much of the rest can even be seen as a reflection of the attitudes of the story's Victorian-era white characters toward the Chinese, but the use of yellowface for one character is a decision that the show's producers and the BBC deserve full blame for.

Putting that contentious issue aside, it's actually one of the best written serials of Classic Who. Writer Robert Holmes conjures up a wonderfully melodramatic story chock full of clever dialog, and it's clearly a homage to Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes. The Holmes references include the Fourth Doctor wearing a deerstalker and cloak, Professor Litefoot (a Watson analogue) having a housekeeper named Mrs. Hudson, and a giant rat, among other things. It also marks the first mention of Time Agents from the 51st century, something picked up on by New Who when a certain Captain Jack Harkness was introduced. Director David Maloney realizes the story in a surprisingly atmospheric manner.

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