Gaslight and Gastromancy: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

This essay is another spun off from Parlare the Carny and again explores a Doctor Who story using ideas derived from Mikhail Bakhtin.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s original term for the carnivalesque or the carnival sense of the world was Gothic Realism and that term seems particularly apposite for Robert Holmes‘s The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Holmes’s script, and the production design, are continually informed by, and comment upon – are in dialogue with – the works of Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), Sax Rohmer (author of the Fu Manchu novels), Gaston Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera) and Edgar Allan Poe (in particular, his short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue) – and the various film versions of those works with which the audience is perhaps more familiar. This isn’t ‘plagiarism’ – the audience is expected to recognise the source material, and there are injokes for those who get the references, such as Professor Lightfoot’s housekeeper being called Mrs Hudson.

Set against the backdrop of the Victorian music hall The Talons of Weng-Chiang is dense with theatrical folklore: Li H’sen Chang, for instance, is based on the self-styled ‘Original Chinese Conjourer’ Chung Ling Soo (in reality, the American stage magician William Ellsworth Robinson, who maintained his ‘Oriental’ disguise even while offstage, and who died performing a similar bullet-catching trick which nearly kills the Doctor). The music hall, is, of course, an institutionalised form of carnival: a place of bawdy entertainment for the working-classes associated with drunkenness, rowdiness, and prostitution, where middle- and upper-class men could mingle freely with working-class women – and as such a focus for moralistic concern and legislative interference by the ruling classes.

It is characteristic that the subculture of the theatre has even retained something of the carnivalistic sense of the world, the fascination of carnival

– Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

As in Carnival of Monsters the diegetic world is established intertextually: we see posters advertising Li H’sen Chang’s performances, and another alerts us to the disappearance of a number of young women. Professor Lightfoot is seen reading Blackwood’s Magazine (issue 197), a magazine famous for publishing horror stories and which was hugely popular throughout the British Empire’s Colonial Service of which Lightfoot’s father had been a part. The magazine was an influence on Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe, who’s How to Write a Blackwood Article is a satire on the magazine; it also published Joseph Conrad‘s Imperial horror story Heart of Darkness, a novella who’s serpentine river is echoed in this story during the Doctor’s journey along the River Fleet. As in Murders in the Rue Morgue the discovery of an unusual animal hair leads our detective to his foe. Lightfoot also references John Bunyan.

Such is the process of reaccentuation… Great novelistic images continue to grow and develop even after the moment of their creation; they are capable of being creatively transformed in different eras, far distant from the day and hour of their original birth

-Mikhail Bakhtin, Discourse in the Novel

Henry Jago’s alliterative mode of speech is modeled on that of Leonard Sachs in the TV variety show The Good Old Days.

JAGO: The Sheffield song thrush. Last time she was here, there were eggs all over the stage. Now, ladies and gentlemen, it is my great privilege to introduce to you, in his extended season here at the Palace, the first of two appearances this evening, someone whose legendary legerdemain has entranced and entertained all the crowned heads of Europe. Here to baffle and bewilder in his eclectic extravaganza of efflorescent ectoplasm, that master magician from the Orient, Li H’sen Chang!

We hear a performer sing the popular music hall number ‘Daisy Bell‘ (better known as ‘Daisy Daisy’) and Dudley Simpson’s score references that during the Doctor’s initial pursuit of Weng-Chiang through Jago’s theatre. Music hall songs also permeate the dialogue: Jago’s reference to the screaming ‘oopizootics’ is from a music hall song:

Father’s got ’em, Father’s got ’em,
He’s got the ooperzootics on the brain,
He’s running round the houses
Without his shirt and trousis,
Father’s got ’em coming on again.

The term probably derives from epizootic, the animal equivalent of an ‘epidemic’.

When the Doctor first encounters Jago, the theatre owner mistakes him for an auditioning performer: like Vorg in Carnival of Monsters he takes the Doctor’s title as a showman’s affectation, but on this occasion the Doctor plays along:

DOCTOR: Are you the manager?
JAGO: I’m the owner, sir. Henry Gordon Jago at the end of a long day, so if you’d kindly state your business.
DOCTOR: Henry Gordon Jago, how do you do, sir. I’m the Doctor.
JAGO: Doctor?
DOCTOR: Exactly.
JAGO: Ah, now I’ve rumbled your game. I admire your brass, but it won’t do. Call back on Saturday.
DOCTOR: Don’t move. Hold that. (The Doctor passes his cane to Jago and pulls a string of coloured handkerchiefs from Jago’s pocket)
JAGO: Auditions commence at ten o’clock sharp. Supporting acts booked for one week only. (The Doctor conjors a white dove from beneath a metal pan.)
JAGO: Is that all?
DOCTOR: No. Dramatic recitations, singing, tap-dancing. I can play the Trumpet Voluntary in a bowl of live goldfish.
JAGO: Don’t bother coming back on Saturday.
DOCTOR: I’m also a master hypnotist.

Artiface and theatricality is present on every level of The Talons of Weng-Chiang:  Magnus Greel is self-consciously ‘Playing-a-Role’: that of the Chinese god of abundance. The Doctor is ‘Playing-the-Role’ of Sherlock Holmes (at one point he even says ‘Elementary, my dear Litefoot!’) and Leela is ‘Playing-the Role’ of a Victorian lady. Talons is above all an exercise in artiface, in camp:

Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

– Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp

Images and metaphors in parody do not represent ‘primary means of representation’ as they would in ‘realist’ fiction but rather become themselves the object of representation. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is not an example of the Imperial potboiler, it ‘re-presents’ the potboiler’s representation through the ‘evaluative accent’ of parody.

Chang is not only an illusionist but a ventriloquist and it is as ventriloquism that parody can best be understood. Ventriloquism and parody are speaking through the voice of another, and ventriloquial figures (dummies) are – like clowns and jesters – granted license to say things which would be outrageous if they were spoken in direct speech (the ‘primary means of representation’) just as the carnival licenses speech and behaviour which would be outrageous at any other time. The word ‘ventriloquism’ is from the Latin, ‘venter’ (‘belly’) and  ‘loqui’ (‘to speak’), i.e. ‘to speak from the stomach’. The Greeks called it ‘gastromancy’ and the art dates back at least to Pythia, the Delphic Priestess. Ventriloquism, then, relates both to ancient sacred rites and – etymologically – to what Bakhtin calls the ‘material bodily lower stratum’.

As in Carnival of Monsters the dialogue is rich in examples of polyphony and heteroglossia, of Robert Holmes refracted through the voice of another:

WOMAN: It’s a floater, all right. You’ve got it, guv… On my oath, you wouldn’t want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oh, make an ‘orse sick, that would.

The phrase ‘never in all my puff’ is still in common use, for instance here:

Here I was surrounded by my family and my so-called mates and I’ve never felt so alone. Never in all my puff.

– Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting

 In this sequence Chang’s florid stage Chinese contrasts with the earthy language of Teresa, a street prostitute:

CHANG: Pleasant are the dreams of morning.
TERESA: You gave me a turn, dearie!
CHANG: Fresh as dew and bright with promise.
TERESA: Yeah, well, that’s how you might see it, Mister Ching-ching, but as far as I’m concerned all I want is a pair of smoked kippers, a cup of rosie and put me plates up for a few hours, savvy?
CHANG: Budding lotus of the dawn, despicable Chang has other ideas.
TERESA: Well, I can tell you what to do with your ideas!

The authoritative discourse of the police is satirised through excessive formality, drunkenness and malapropism:

QUICK: Professor, still here? I’ve traced our cab driver. Name of Joseph Buller, 14 Fish Lane, this parish.
LITEFOOT: Oh, splendid. You can let the coroner have all the details, then. Is there someone to identify the clothing?
QUICK: His mother in law, Mrs Nellie Gusset. Same address. Deceased has lived there since his marriage six month ago.
DOCTOR: Anything else?
DOCTOR: Well, you had a few drinks with Mrs Gusset. Did she tell you anything further about the deceased?
QUICK: A bearer of sad tidings, sir. I shared a glass or two while the poor thing got over the shock. Yes, well, she did mention the deceased had been in a queer state all day.
QUICK: Well, it seems his wife, that’s Emma Buller, daughter of the house, didn’t come home last night. Deceased refused to take his cab out today as a consequence. Deceased then had several drinks and went round the Palace Theatre.
LITEFOOT: The theatre?
QUICK: Oh, not on pleasure bent, sir. It seems he believed that’s where his wife was to be found. Mrs Gusset says he went off making horrible asseverations as to his intentions.

Henry Gordon Jago uses the ‘Language of the Marketplace’ here as he contemplates financially exploiting the gruesome happenings in the theatre’s cellar:

JAGO: Think large, Henry Jago, think large. Shilling a head? I must be crazy. A guinea a head! Conducted tours round the lair of the phantom. I’ll lead them myself and modestly mention the part I played in the affair. The ladies will swoon in my arms. Oh, it’s a winner. It’s a beauty. I’ll go bail. I’ll clear out all this old junk, call in the electric lighting company

‘I’ll go bail’ is an alternative expression meaning ‘I’ll be bound’ and may be a borrowing from H Rider Haggard‘s Dawn (1884).

The Talons of Weng-Chaing has also become the focus of moral concern for the representation of the Chinese, which demonstrates a failure of understanding of intertextuality on the part of the offended parties. Talons borrows from Victorian thrillers which do, indeed, embody racist and Imperialistic assumptions, but the source material is refracted through parody and artifice. ‘One of us is yellow’ says Li H’sen Chang – but like Chung Ling Soo and the magician Fu Manchu (David Bamberg) who took the name of Sax Rohmer’s evil genius, Chang is played by a westerner (John Bennett). Indeed, Rohmer’s description of Fu Manchu mixes ‘Chinese’ features with distinctly oxidental characteristics such as Shakespeare’s brow:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present… Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man

– Sax Rohmer, The Insidious Fu Manchu

Suppression of dialogical writing has a long tradition: Plato (born around 428 BC) distinguished between diagesis (narrating in one’s own voice, corresponding to Bakhtin’s monological narration) and  mimesis (narrating in the speech of another, an essential element of dialogical narration). The purest form of diegesis is the dythramb, a type of hymn in which the poet speaks purely in his own voice, while tragedy and comedy are the purest forms of mimesis; distrustful of the loss of moral authority implied by mimetic narration Plato refused to admit it into his Republic, granting access to only the most austere, monological forms of writing.







Bakhtin, M.M. (1965) Rabelais and His World

Doyle, Anthur Conan The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Haggard, H Rider (1884) Dawn

Leroux, Gaston The Phantom of the Opera

Poe, Edgar Alan The Murgers in the Rue Morgue

Rohmer, Sax (1913) The Insidious Fu Manchu

Sontag, Susan (1965) Notes on Camp in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966)


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