Sunday, December 16, 2012

In-Class Movie: "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" (1977)

"'What is it, then?' I asked, for his manner suggested that it was some strange creature which he had caged up in my room." 

-- Doctor Watson, "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"

Austin: It only took a few months but I snuck Doctor Who into our syllabus. It's my favorite show and since it's been on for 49 years, of course there is a Sherlock Holmes episode. For all of you non-Whovians, Doctor Who is a British science fiction show about a mysterious alien named The Doctor who travels around time and space saving the day using cleverness instead of violence. Every time The Doctor is killed he regenerates into a new body with a slightly different personality. Since 1963, there have been eleven different Doctors. Today we focus on one of the most popular, the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)

In the mid-1970s, there was a golden age of Doctor Who. Robert Holmes was writing fantastic scripts and Philip Hinchcliffe was producing the show with a cool gothic horror feel. One of the highlights from this time was The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Instead of wearing his usual 14' scarf, The Doctor donned a deerstalker to investigate a mysterious string of disappearances in Victorian London. Along for the adventure is Leela, a warrior woman from another planet who grew up in a savage tribe.

In this six-part adventure they investigate the slightly-racist-more-uncomfortable Chinese magic show that is committing crimes for someone who claims to be an ancient Chinese god. Plenty of twists, clever dialog and awesome visual style makes this one of my favorite Tom Baker stories.

Yet as much I can rave about Doctor Who--AND I CAN--we need to ask the big question: is this a Sherlock Holmes story despite nobody says the name Sherlock Holmes for over two hours?

Sherlock Holmes and Watson
Leigh: I think for our sake and just to clear things up, there is a difference between "adaptation" and "inspired by." Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, begrudgingly Elementary, are, to me at least, adaptations. “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” is inspired by Sherlock Holmes. There is never a mention of Sherlock Holmes but the character of Sherlock Holmes and the pastiche that media has created of Sherlock Holmes is iconic. ACD said Holmes would never wear the deerstalker hat or an Inverness cape but here is Tom Baker, walking around "looking like" Holmes because of what the collective adaptations and inspirations have agreed Holmes looks like even though it differs from ACD's image of him. It may not be accurate to the stories but it is accurate to what Sherlock Holmes has become. This idea could get into a very interesting argument about who is correct, the creator or the consumer?

Another thing that I liked about the episode, and it was hard for me to get past the overt and uncomfortable but historically accurate racism, was the language. I haven't seen a lot of classic Doctor Who but the only other one I've seen is with Tom Baker (I couldn't tell you which one but K-9 was in it.) The dialog felt different. It didn't feel so much like a Doctor Who episode but definitely like a Doctor Who episode inspired by Sherlock Holmes. I could be incredibly off base here with my little experience of classic Who but from what I have seen of it and from my experience of the newer episodes, it felt more like a mystery than a typical episode with the Doctor. I think that if this episode were to be remade (with less racism) and Matt Smith were playing the role, it would still feel like a heavily inspired by Sherlock Holmes episode of Doctor Who

The characters that they added to make the Sherlock Holmes aspects more obvious were amusing to me. The Watson like character(s) and of course Mrs. Hudson. I feel like the writer Holmes took the two ideas of Watson and created two different characters. Instead of the bumbling Watson or the helpful one, we have both with Jago and Litefoot. This seemed to play off of the Doctor Holmes character really well. They helped with the mystery and still provided a bit of comedic relief. 

I know nothing of the Leela character except that for a warrior raised by warrior people, she was the worst warrior ever. For reals. 

So what do you think? Did you get Doctor Who in my Sherlock Holmes or did I get Sherlock Holmes in your Doctor Who? And if you want to tackle it, who gets the final say of interpretation, the creator or the consumer? 

Truer words were never before said

Austin: I would say that "Talons" is definitely inspired, not adapted. This time around, I caught a few more hints to their Holmes appreciation. The dinner was fixed by Mrs. Hudson. Near the end, The Doctor exclaims "Elementary!". It's
clear that writer Robert Holmes is playing with the tropes and it's fair to say that so is The Doctor. (He's a very well alien. (Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie are some of his favorites.)

I think it's fair to say the consumer has the final word on the art for they are the last one chronologically to take part in the process. An artist comes up with the art, creators create the art, the audience appreciates the art. Each one adds something new to it.

If we religiously followed the belief of Sydney Newman, the creator of Doctor Who, the show would be lousy. He wanted it to be an education program where the use of time travel was to teach children about different points in Earth's history. He didn't want any "bug-eyed aliens".

That mentality lead to some of my favorite First Doctor stories "The Aztecs", "The Romans") but it was the wild success of its second story involving metallic Nazi-esque aliens that made the show popular enough to last almost 50 years. ("The Daleks")

Anywho, this story is awesome. I say that Leela is a fine warrior. She stabbed her fair share of enemies. I do think that she could have attacked Weng-Chiang better when he came through the window. I'm glad you caught that about the dual Watsons; Jago and Litefoot were a ton of fun. They were only in this story and they are only together for two of the six parts. Yet their popularity has had them star in a couple of series of audio dramas produced by Big Finish in the past few years.

As for the dialog (I'm just jumping around), this is pretty par on course for Doctor Who. This didn't have as much techno-babble as some of his space adventures but this is common to Tom Baker's era, just maybe a little less screaming since they are in refined Victorian company.

Ultimately these two characters work because there are plenty of similarities between The Doctor and Sherlock Holmes. They both have an encyclopedic knowledge thanks to Sherlock's studying and The Doctor living over 700 years. The Doctor wasn't bragging about what he knows unlike when David Tennant played the role a few years ago.

Okay, I started this avalanche of comparisons. How else are Sherlock and The Doctor similar?

Leigh: I think the creator/consumer argument might be one of my favorites out there because every time I come to it or discuss it, I have a different opinion. It’s one of those that there is no right answer to, I feel. This time around, I think that while the consumer does have the final say of what the piece might mean, I think that the creator should have the ultimate say. It isn’t as easy now to go back and ask Dickens what he thinks about how high schoolers are interpreting Great Expectations, but we can ask Dan Harmon how he feels about the future of Community.  We can’t ask Fitzgerald what the billboard meant but we can ask J.K. Rowling about dementors and what they represent. Sure, the blue curtains might mean that the room had a depressive feel about it that matched the mood of the mourning household or they could just be blue because that’s what color the creator chose to make them.  The consumer can believe that the curtains are blue to show emotion but in the end they’re wrong because the author is the one who decided what they meant when he wrote it.

Now to go in a completely different direction, a bit about the chronology of my experience with Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.  The first episode of Doctor Who that I saw was “The Impossible Planet” around Christmas time in 2006. I first started reading the Sherlock Holmes stories in the summer of 2010. When I was listening to them, I kept thinking, “Huh, this guy sure does remind me of the Doctor…” Because David Tennant will always be my Doctor, I use him as a comparison to Sherlock Holmes.

We have two impossibly intelligent people who use facts to figure out problems. They both try to stay away from violence unless absolutely needed. They have a lovable sidekick. They are both frantic at times and expect those around them to keep up. I think the only difference is that one is a 1000-year-old alien and one is a Victorian detective.  I don’t think that it is a coincidence that both the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes are so popular decades after their creation. They are very similar characters. Benedict Cumberbatch originally auditioned for the role of the Doctor and Moffat said, “You’re not quite right but I have another project you’ll be perfect for.” This shouldn’t surprise anyone. 

My only question is “why?” Why are they so popular? What is it about them that makes them icons in British Culture so many years after they were first introduced? Maybe this is something we can try to tackle at a later date.

Next time, we learn that communication in relationships is key and leaving someone on your wedding day is really crappy.

And now Austin Lugar with the final word:

Austin: JellyBabies!

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