I know exactly the date when I decided I wanted to write a Black Archive on that most divisive of Doctor Who stories, The Talons of Weng-Chiang; 20. August 2018. That was the day that Twitter was awash with angry outrage, either against an editorial written by Marcus Hearn in Doctor Who Magazine rehashing the old argument that Talons was a product of its time, or against the outrage itself. In particular, the one thing I kept seeing repeated was the trite “nobody knew it was racist in 1977” refrain that has dominated any discussion of the story, and the supporting evidence that The Black and White Minstrel Show was still uncontroversially broadcast as primetime entertainment in the same era.
I knew that both these arguments weren’t quite as clear cut as their supporters seemed to think, and I thought that a Black Archive would be a fantastic arena to explore that idea in.
Having written a few things for Black Archive creator Philip Purser-Hallard before, I dropped him a quick email asking if he would be receptive to a pitch for a Black Archive on The Talons of Weng-Chiang. His answer was, disappointingly, that he wouldn’t be: he had also seen the internet outrage, and knew that any Black Archive written in response to it would be dominated by the argument over the story’s racism. The best Black Archives use their focus to discuss multiple aspects of a story to shine a light on the overlooked details; discussing what everybody was already discussing about The Talons of Weng-Chiang would just be reiteration at best, and at worst seen as an attempt to win the argument by getting my opinions published.
I had to admit that Philip was right, but even if I didn’t there was no point in trying to pitch something I’d been told wasn’t wanted. But that didn’t mean I let go of the idea completely either: a year later I emailed Philip again to remind him that I was interested in pitching him a Black Archive on The Talons of Weng-Chiang. This time, he asked me to pull together some ideas for it so he could look them over.
Getting the Story
The first thing I realised as I started putting down my ideas was that Philip had been right: the Black Archive I was planning in 2019 was completely different to the one I thought I wanted to write in the heat of 2018. With a bit of distance, there seemed to be more space to say some of the other things that there are to say about The Talons of Weng-Chiang, without losing focus on the argument I wanted to lay out. There is a single argument running through the book about Doctor Who’s relationship with a story that has been hailed as the best ever written for the series, but there is room for a few asides and diversions.
My first pass at the pitch got down the main points I wanted to cover about the ongoing arguments about the story’s racism: a chapter detailing its production (to set up the background to the argument that yellowface was used in the production because there wasn’t time to find a suitable Chinese actor); a chapter about just how much of Fu Manchu ended up in the final story (adding context to the argument that the character was split between Greel and Li H’sen Chang and that this is the root of the story’s racism); a chapter on Science Fiction’s relationship with colonialism (to bring in some of the wealth of literature available in the Not We world about the thematic problems in stories like Talons); and finally a chapter setting out the state of race relations in Britain in 1977, and the history of the Chinese in Britain.
Looking at this, it was clear I needed one last chapter to properly complete the book. Fortunately it wasn’t too hard to decide what this should be: one of the most famous scenes in The Talons of Weng-Chiang is the moment that Greel’s disfigured face is exposed by Leela, which is in its own way just as problematic as the depiction of the Chinese characters in the story. By exploring this a little, I would be able to make a lot of the same points I would need to make later about the story’s racism, but in a context that I suspected a lot of readers would feel more comfortable with.
I noted down the bullet points for each chapter and sent them along to Philip as my pitch for the story.
Writing the Story
I started with the last chapter - as this was the one where I knew I would be explicitly saying “The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a racist story” and I’d offered to let the editors see it first so they could have plenty of time to make any tonal changes they needed - and spent the next few months reading books and making notes. At first, I waited until I’d done all my background reading before I wrote the chapter it related to, but as I moved onto other chapters I found it useful to draft out the specific paragraphs or sections that related to what I’d just read whilst the ideas were fresh. This did involve a little extra work making sure that all the sections flowed into each other, but the benefit was that no nuance was lost in the barrage of new information I was taking in.
The whole thing did take around a year to get a first draft for, including some time spent going over everything again to make sure that my central argument for the book hit all the points it needed to in each chapter.
Once I had a first draft I was happy with, I passed it round a few people to get their opinions on it. These included my usual crew, and my wife, whose main comment was “Is it all about this one story?”.
I also passed it to Alan Stevens to review, because I’d written a few things for him to publish in Celestial Toyroom and he’d impressed me with his knowledge of the minutia of Doctor Who history and lore. I was a little nervous about this, partly because I’d crumpled under his editorial feedback before but also because I knew I was specifically arguing against some points he and Fiona Moore made in their review of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances about Greel. I shouldn’t have worried, of course: Alan provided some great feedback which led to a number of tweaks being made, and also managed to get me a copy of the rehearsal script for Talons that allowed me to make a point about how the script had developed during rehearsals that strengthened my argument.
He also objected strongly to some of my interpretations of the story - including the bit I was worried about - but I took a little time to confirm that none of his objections were that I’d made a factual error and that I was happy with the possibility that people might disagree with the readings I’d made. On the whole, I was: in some cases I fleshed out my reasoning a little more, but on the whole I was happy for the opinions in the book to be mine. After another quick brush up, I submitted the book to Philip for editing.
In between submitting and hearing back, Obverse supremo Stuart Douglas got in touch to ask if I wanted to submit a story for a new short story collection he was editing. He also dropped into conversation that he was going to be my editor for the Black Archive book, something which he does infrequently do. This meant that by the time I was officially introduced to Stuart as my editor, I’d already given him the draft of my book and he’d started reading it. He also asked if I’d mind if they brought the book forward in the schedule as there was another book that wasn’t going to be ready by its deadline. I was given a publication date of April 2022, and settled back to wait for Stuart to finish the book.
After Christmas 2021, I got an email from Stuart that just said “Bloody good book!”, and for a day or two it looked like that might be the extent of the editorial comment. But then an annotated version of my draft arrived, along with a nice note that said Stuart had checked his archives and confirmed that this was the Black Archive that he’d offered the least amount of notes on, including the ones where he hadn’t been the main editor. I had been privately thinking that the book had managed to do everything I wanted it to do, but it did feel good to have somebody else say it.
The editorial process took about a week, and mostly involved clarifying a few of the statements I’d made as minor asides and not properly attributed. Stuart provided some useful background on the history of the reaction to The Black and White Minstrel Show, and also helped identify that a story my children had brought home from school about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was actually a myth. A final draft was completed and sent across for proofreading on 4 January 2022. The proofreader was range creator Philip Purser-Hallard, who corrected a few typos and made a few requests to remove or temper some of the hyperbole that I had let sneak in: Philip’s primary ambition for the Black Archive is that it will be factually accurate as well as insightful, and no statement - no matter how ancillary - can make it into the book without being fact-checked and referenced.
And then, we were finished.
What Happened Next?
I have to admit to being a little nervous about what happens next with this book. It was after all only written because of a demonstration of the strong feeling this story still provokes, especially online, and it is the first book I’ve written that I’ve felt the need to pre-warn my employer of its publication. At other times, I feel like I’m overreacting, or worse looking forward to a little notoriety after most of my work has been published with little fanfare or reaction.
At this point, writing before the release of the book, I’m mostly just excited to see it get out there at last. I’ve lived with it for a long time, and my main ambition for it was that it might introduce somebody to some writers or ideas that they might not otherwise have come across; that it might introduce a wider world context into a discussion that some people might think is an extraordinarily fannish concern, and even an embarrassment that doesn’t need raking over again in the enlightened 21st Century. Once it actually gets out there, we’ll see how successful it is on those terms. Until then, I can take some satisfaction from knowing that it at least says everything I wanted to say on the subject.