Talons of Weng-Chiang: racist?
Every so often on this community, the 4th Doctor story Talons of Weng-Chiang is mentioned, and every time someone refers to it as being racist. The latest occurrence was in the comments to this post. Well, I'd like to defend it.
Firstly, Talons of Wang Chung, sorry Weng-Chiang is rightly regarded as a classic, but of course that doesn't mean it isn't racist; I'd certainly agree that there are some unfortunate stereotypes in some of the older Who stories. And it needs to be remembered that attitudes in the 60s ad 70s weren't what they are now; people were less aware of unconscious racism, less on the look-out for it. And even deliberate racism was far more acceptable than it is now. Still, I think Talons is at worst only mildly racist; in fact a better word might be "naive".
Most of the villains in Talons are Chinese. More troublingly, all the Chinese characters in it are villains; there are no Chinese good guys to provide balance. However, since it's about a secret Chinese cult, it can be argued that that's natural enough. Any Chinese good guy that had been included might indeed have seemed shoehorned in for the sake of what's now called "political correctness".
But never mind the broad strokes; look at the details. The policeman the Doctor encounters is certainly a bit racist about the Chinese, but he's clearly painted as a bit thick, and the Doctor loses patience with him quickly. Besides, this is Victorian England; it would be unrealistic if everyone acted like they didn't care what race someone was. More alamingly, Professor Litefoot uses the word "chink" once, and he's lived in China and (you'd have thought) would therefore be an appropriate character to provide a more balanced view.
But that's not what this story is mainly about. It's a romp through Victoriana. Elements of Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu (hence the Chinese thing) and Phantom of the Opera rub shoulders, and part of that setting is the relative narrow-mindedness of its people, even respectable gentlemen like Litefoot.
And look at the other side. Li H'sen Chang plays is, to some extent, a "sinister Oriental" stereotype, but he's also a complex and in some ways noble character. He believes he's serving the will of a god, and will not disobey no matter what. Nevertheless, when he's dying you can't help but have some sympathy for him. He's not an evil person, he's just been tricked into serving a false god. The racist attitudes of the Victorian public are highlighted by the way he plays up to them in his stage show -- speaking stereotypical pidgin English etc. -- then switches to perfect English offstage.
And then there's the wonderful scene in the police station where the Doctor (who has earlier seen a poster for Chang's stage show) asks if they've met, and Chang replies, "I think not. I understand we all look the same!" The Doctor, puzzledly, says, "Are you Chinese?" :D Chang's taking the piss out of the racist Western attitude to the Chinese, and the Doctor hasn't even noticed until now that he is Chinese!
Apart from Litefoot's use of the word "chinks" as mentioned above, there is IMO only one other valid arguments that this story is racist, and it's in the casting rather than the writing. It's the fact that the main Chinese character, Li H'sen Chang, is played by a white English actor in make-up to make him "look Chinese".
But even that has to be understood in the context of the time. In the 70s, actors "blacking up" was common, and not yet generally regarded as inherently racist. The Black and White Minstrel Show was popular, and even if people considered it a bit dodgy, they would have considered this very different, as it's not a piss-take and it's not done for comedy. There were really very few Chinese actors in England, and most of them had very little experience (which in itself may have been due to racism, but that's not the fault of this story). It was vital that Chang should be played by a really good actor, and I imagine that would have been the primary concern. If the actor could be made to seem Chinese, I don't think it would have occurred to anyone that some people might consider that offensive.
Sorry this is a bit long! But in conclusion, I'll say that Robert Holmes was a brilliant writer, with a love of satirising aspects of British culture, and if you think he was just a nasty old racist, you've misunderstood this story. That's not to say there aren't things in it they'd never get away with today, but it wasn't made today. And if you ignore that basic fact, you're doing an injustice to everyone involved in it.