Sunday, 11 May 2014

What To Watch Next: The Girl in the Fireplace & The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Giant rat aside (he's apologised for this), Steven Moffat borrowed a lot from the "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" - his idea of the 51 century as an era of Time Agents and exciting futuristic technology is largely drawn from this one adventure.

The classic series side of things was rather fascinating this go-around. Everyone knows that Robert Holmes included lots of shout-outs to Victorian literature in his costume drama masterpiece, but there are definite patterns that make it clear he didn't just belabour the obvious; there's an underlying subtlety to how the story holds together.

The Girl in the Fireplace

A Casanova pic, as the Tenth Doctor didn't do period dress.
It is a fair bet that anyone reading this already has a good idea what Moffat's done, but since all the links in the Eccelston story were about the 1940s, now's a good time to mention the sitcom that put his name on the map.

As for why this clip and not any other...just keep watching.

"The Turk"
Helpfully, the BBC already has a write-up; the link is to the original radio version of the piece. RTD fancied the idea of Enlightenment clockwork robots and passed along the concept to Moffat.

"Rondò Veneziano - La Serenissima"
Curiously familiar visual aesthetic, isn't it? The music's by an Italian chamber orchestra who always play in full dress, and this single was in aid of the "Venice in Peril" charity (to stop the city sinking), so the music video is actually telling quite a straightforward story.

"Thunderbirds promo"
A female American narrator explicates Thunderbirds...rather painfully. Just think, Sophia Myles was the best part of this movie.

"The Palace of Pleasure"
Second in a three part series about France's final three kings, but this episode is standalone (there's a bit more info here, if you like). It's a BBC documentary, and makes for an amusing comparison with the costume design (and other things - they have the exact same Louis-looking-out-the-window-at-the-hearse scene). All the rudest bits are said in French (or acted: the acting leaves very little to the imagination), but there's helpful English subtitles.

Madame de Pompadour shows up at the seventeen minute mark, with an actress as much unlike Myles as they could have found. Probably wise. They sketch a tale considerably more detailed and intriguing then the one Moffat gives us - a bougeoise woman making her way at court against hostile aristocrats, invested in the French Enlightenment, and self-confident enough to guide France's monarch even when she's no longer his mistress.

(The Seven Years War wasn't entirely Louis XV's fault, mind - France lost all its colonies in large part because the British just had more extensive settlements overseas, which in turn was partly because Louis XIV insisted on a heavily centralised state that was difficult to co-ordinate. So it was the Sun King's doing. Again.)

The Talons of Weng-Chiang

And a comparison of costumes seemed called for here. 
"Music Hall"
This is Little Tich, one of the single most famous musical hall comedians in history; from the 1880s to the 1920s, he was wildly successful in England and in American and Continental tours. The mere fact that a bit of footage like this survives from 1900, when cinema was in its infancy, is a good tell of how beloved he was at the time.

He was also a Little Person, and in 1892 he'd just scored a highly acclaimed part in the Drury Lane Christmas panto, "Humpty Dumpty". Among other characters, he played a Chinese dwarf. Sound familiar? Given the Doctor's comment in the first scene about wanting to see Little Tich, and the hot muffins scene at the the end, it's very tempting to see this as Robert Holmes bookending his work. To say nothing of indulging the dark humour he liked so much.

(You don't really need the connection between Drury Lane and the Muffin Man elaborated, do you?)

Anyhow, the date given for this adventure in "About Time" is 1892, based on the date on a magazine that Professor Litefoot is reading; this bit of evidence would seem to reinforce this date. The Doctor's probably only just missed the panto season...

"The Face of Fu Manchu"
It's worth remembering that the use of yellowface in "Talons", as generally appalling as it is, did not take place in isolation; the fact was that less than a decade before Christopher Lee could star in an entire series of movies playing an evil Chinese mastermind. The extent to which British cultural norms have altered since "Doctor Who" began is dramatic (and bears reinforcing for overseas viewers in particular).

The writer who invented Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer, got his start writing music hall ballads; he eventually switched to prose, writing Little Tich's biography (in which there were apparently a lot of jokes about Little Tich's Chinese impression) and short stories. The Fu Manchu stories gave him his big break (his writing skills improved on a purely technical level as he went along, but the three books that made his name are pulpish, incoherent Doyle pastiches that barely function as adventure literature even if you're not considering the racism. As for the racism...Fu Manchu is a opium-smoking Chinese mastermind who employs Indian Thugs and keeps samurai swords lying around, for crying out loud; it's simply a mish-mash of Terrifying Oriental Exoticism. Though the moustache wasn't his idea).

That being said, Rohmer's article about how he developed Fu Manchu reads like a first draft of "Talons"; we have the Tongs, the "death of a pretty showgirl", and a tall Chinese mastermind operating out of Limehouse. His first novel features scorpion venom, adventures down London rivers, over and underground, and a Thames hideout for Fu Manchu, while the second employs some curious hypnotism and torture-by-rats (anticipating the "Giant Rat of Sumatra"; Doyle didn't mention that until 1924. Haven't been able to find any evidence suggesting that Doyle and Rohmer knew each other, but they were both friends with Harry Houdini...along with the Doctor, of course).

So, Robert Holmes has done his homework. It all fits together into such a neat pattern.

One datum that'd be impossible to prove; there was a real Emma Buller, and she liked singing comic songs (check page thirty in William Mallock's Memoirs). Four pages before this is an anecdote about a cupboard that smacks of C. S. Lewis' "bigger on the inside than out". Did Holmes have a copy of this book? Mallock's book is a middling of-its-era tell-all that'd be ideal for getting yourself into a Victorian mindset, if you're in a hurry and need to capture the flavour of the era right away.


One thing that tends to be overlooked in the "sleep is for tortoises" how-superhuman-is-the-Doctor fan debates; he's emulating Sherlock Holmes in this adventure. Who's often showing off to Watson by going without sleep and food during cases. This doesn't necessarily tell us anything about a Time Lord's usual habits, just that he can do quite as well as a human when he likes.

Oh, and if you missed the announcement, Moffat's said the show is returning in 2016. If he left after Capaldi's first season, this gives him a year to write and prepare a season of Sherlock. Maybe it'll be longer when it comes back?

"Jack the Ripper Documentary"
There are a lot of these, but this one's relatively short, talks about the overall cultural context, and has a British narrator. It's a fascinating look in how ideas congeal around a myth. There's discourse on musical halls, too.

"Opium Wars"
A fast if lurid explanation of what Britain was even doing in China in 1860. (If the Opium Wars make the Victorian stereotypes about Chinese opium addicts sound massively hypocritical...well, it was). As a matter of fact open conflict ended that year, after the British and French forces burned and looted the Beijing Summer Palace, a sanctuary of ancient artworks and beauty.

As Litefoot's supposed to be a sympathetic character, the time cabinet hasn't been looted but is specified as having been a present from the emperor - specifically, the Tongzhi emperor, which combined with the 1860 date means that he's had the cabinet since 1875 at least. There's a lot of curious, unanswered questions here...why the emperor's soldiers would want to loot that cabinet in particular and why they let it go again so easily. It couldn't be that the Chinese government wanted Britain to have the terrifyingly destructive cabinet, could it?

If Litefoot's as old as Trevor Baxter was during production of "Talons" (it's never an unreasonable presumption, if there's nothing to suggest otherwise), he'd have been a teenager when his father came to  China - old enough for the country to seem foreign to him. Which makes sense of his bewilderment with Chinese culture. The real surprise is that his father brought Litefoot along; plenty of Victorians posted east would have left the family in England.

(It's a wonder how Weng-Chiang ever made it to England when he needs so many young women to sustain him. Maybe his fleshy appetite has exponentially increased over time, as in "The Pirate Planet". But once you've started on this train of thought, it's hard not to imagine some unfortunate P&O steamer coming into port like the Demeter in "Dracula", with no crew and a shadow slipping away from the hulk...)

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