❉ Covering two controversial Doctor Who stories, Obverse Books’ latest brace of Black Archive titles form a fascinating duet, writes Graham Williamson.
Since launching in 2016, The Black Archive has served an increasingly essential purpose in the ecosystem of Doctor Who fandom. These book-length studies of single stories are more thorough and more free to explore controversial topics than licensed tie-in media, while also maintaining their distance from the heat and noise of internet discourse. It’s a position that suits them well for their latest two releases, which cover two of the most controversial stories in the show’s history – The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Kill The Moon.
Admittedly the nature of the controversies are very different. For many years following its broadcast in 1977, Talons was one of the least divisive stories in the Doctor Who canon – apparently everyone loved it, with one brief anecdote about it being pulled from broadcast in Canada the only counterweight. Today, its use of yellowface make-up and unchallenged racist language has made it deeply contentious. A new generation of fans are more likely to sympathise with TVOntario’s decision to reject the story, while an old guard continue to defend it on the grounds that things were different back in the ‘70s.
One of the triumphs of Dale Smith’s Black Archive entry on this story is that it comprehensively demolishes the “acceptable in the seventies” myth. Some of his examples come from wider society, as he rescues contemporary protests against The Black and White Minstrel Show from underserved obscurity. Some don’t – despite owning the Target novelisation as a child, I hadn’t realised that Terrance Dicks removed the explicit racial slurs from his version of the story – and that was published just nine months after the serial was broadcast! Clearly there was backlash to the serial’s portrayal of Chinese characters long before phrases like “woke” or “politically correct” had been formulated to dismiss them.
The division over Kill the Moon exists more within the boundaries of fandom, with only its supposed anti-abortion subtext touching on wider issues. Writer Peter Harness has affirmed that he definitely didn’t intend to write a pro-life tract, but one might counter that Robert Holmes wasn’t trying to create a polemic about Chinese immigration either. The abortion issue is raised in Darren Mooney’s Black Archive on the story, but only briefly as part of a more holistic discussion on the story’s gender politics. Mooney’s analysis begins with a neutral recap of the story’s reception and goes on to become a full-throated defence of what he calls “one of the defining Doctor Who stories”.
With this in mind, the two books form a fascinating duet. Smith’s book explores elements of Talons which now appear screamingly obvious, but have nevertheless been ignored by fans. In fact, ignored is too kind a word – suppressed would be more apposite, particularly in the story Smith records of a fan being banned from a website simply for pointing out that the serial was racist and ableist in its depiction of disfigurement. Yet, in his own way, the book’s account of Robert Holmes’ research and influences demonstrates a deep respect for the screenwriter’s erudition even as Smith excoriates his blind spots. Because Smith refuses to accept the usual excuse for Talons’ racism – that Holmes was just writing a Fu Manchu pastiche – he ends up cataloguing the serial’s inspirations and tropes in dizzying detail.
The influences Smith describes are not limited to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. One of the most fascinating chapters of Smith’s book deals with the Victorian influence on Doctor Who as a whole. As Smith points out, the show had barely touched this era before Talons was broadcast, so why have trips to the 19th century become such a staple of its later incarnations? There’s a lot of fascinating material here, some of which builds on the scholarship of others, such as John Rieder’s writing on the colonialist influence in early science fiction. Some of it, though, is unique to Smith. I’d never previously considered how neatly the show’s modern mythology of ‘fixed points in time’ lines up with the Victorian ‘great man’ model of history.
Mooney’s book, too, explores his chosen story’s effects on the wider series. If Smith is less focused on Talons’ position in Doctor Who history, that’s surely because everyone accepts it was hugely influential; just watch The Crimson Horror, Ghost Light or The Haunting of Villa Diodati. Mooney has to actually argue that Kill The Moon is a landmark, and he sets about it with equal parts passion and rigour. His argument takes up the majority of the book, but two main points recur: That the serial is a key part of the Capaldi era’s interrogation of the Doctor’s masculine authority that culminated in the thirteenth Doctor, and that it is equally important in restating Doctor Who’s identity as an optimistic show, a bulwark against the reactionary nostalgia and apocalyptic obsessions that infect so much mainstream geek culture. No wonder it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Mooney doesn’t duck the more common criticisms of Kill The Moon, most obviously that its grasp of science swung from uninformed to insane. But he also successfully argues that this is in part an aesthetic argument: plenty of Doctor Who episodes, and indeed plenty of mainstream science fiction in general, gets away with a similar level of science illiteracy by sticking closely to a tone and a look that audiences associate with science fiction. By the time the creature in the moon is revealed to look exactly like a dragon, though, it’s impossible to deny that Kill The Moon has plenty of fantasy in its DNA, and Mooney examines the show’s fraught relationship with this genre in detail.
Both these books run boldly counter to the fandom grain, then, but do they convince? For my part, I’d say Smith has successfully made me think a lot harder about some of the defences I’ve used for Talons in the past, to the extent that it now seems actively idiotic to defend racism by pointing out that it has good jokes and supporting characters. I am still unpersuaded by Kill The Moon, largely because its Doctor-Clara schism still seems arbitrary to me; why did it blow up during this planetary crisis, rather than any of the other ones they faced?
Yet Mooney’s book is, to my eyes, the most thorough and impressive of the pair. I still think Kill The Moon is a series of fascinating subtexts in search of a functioning text (and it really isn’t a pro-life screed!), but its Black Archive instalment has persuaded me there are more of those subtexts than I previously thought. If Smith’s points about Talons are less revelatory, this is because the flaws he finds in the story are essentially open secrets, tacitly understood by fans but viciously pushed back on whenever anyone tries to vocalise them. In exploring them, Smith has created a book which any future work on Talons will have to reckon with – and the Black Archive deserves credit for being the only line where such a book could plausibly exist.
❉ ‘The Black Archive #58. The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ by Dale Smith; published by Obverse Books, April 2022. ISBN: 9781913456306. RRP £3.99 – £8.99 ‘The Black Archive #59. Kill The Moon’ by Darren Mooney; published by Obverse Books, June 2022. ISBN: 9781913456320. RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!
❉ Graham Williamson (he/him) is a writer and film-maker from Middlesbrough who runs the Pop Screen podcast for movies either starring or about pop stars. His writing has appeared in The Geek Show, Horrified and Byline Times. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd for Bowie hot takes.