Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 024—The Celestial Toymaker


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 024—The Celestial Toymaker

By T. Scott Edwards

The Celestial Toymaker, and for that matter the following story, The Gunfighters, are two oddities within fandom. For years, The Celestial Toymaker was viewed as an absolute classic, the zenith of Doctor Who at its most surreal and brilliant. Opposing this, more of which will be said in the following blog, The Gunfighters was the worst serial the series had ever produced, terrible in every single way. The vast majority of those who raved over Toymaker and spoke disparagingly of Gunfighters had never seen either serial – much of fandom is easily swayed by what is deemed as lore, and Jean-Marc Lofficier's guide, as well as Peter Haining's "A Celebration" were available at such a time when VHS and Target novelisations were largely unavailable, and as such the only way many could experience the stories was from the viewpoint of another. As such, what Haining said went – and fans were dismissive of one whilst craving the other. What is ironic is that whilst The Gunfighters exists in its entirety, and has since been released on VHS and, recently, DVD, The Celestial Toymaker only has one existent episode from the four made (the final part) and so it is only through the novelisation and the soundtrack that we can experience it.

The trouble with that, though, is that this is one which is clearly supposed to be seen. Whilst stories like Marco Polo are a huge loss to the series, they still work on an audio level. The dialogue is rich enough, and with the linking narration it is still utterly magical. This story, however, suffers massively by only being audio. The incidental music is great, jarring nicely between childish and bizarre, but there are too many sections where only physical sections occur, and the dialogue is clunky and uninspiring, so we're left with nothing.

Which brings me to my first bone of contention – the first of many – with this serial. Following on from the cliffhanger of last week's episode, with the Doctor seeming to disappear entirely, under some form of attack, we are welcomed to the Celestial Toyroom, plaything of a demigod who whiles away his time tormenting people with diabolical games for his own entertainment. Hartnell's exposition suggests that he and the Toymaker, played by the wonderful Michael Gough, are old enemies, and have competed before. The Doctor is quickly swept off to another room, and forced to play the Trilogic game whilst Steven and Dodo are forced to play a series of deadly games to recapture the TARDIS. And my issue is this – the Trilogic game is shit. Really, really bad. It's a ridiculous game, played by children all over the country, probably originating in China (which explains to some extent the Toymaker's Mandarin appearance, maybe). However grand the Toymaker's speech – that it is "A game for the mind, Doctor, the developed mind. Difficult for the practiced mind. Dangerous for the mind that has become old, lazy or weak" – it is essentially just a basic board game. There is no threat, no danger.

Meanwhile, Steven and Dodo are forced to play these deadly games with the inhabitants of the Toymaker's world – two clowns, Joey and Clara, two playing cards, the King and Queen of Hearts, and deal with Sergeant Rugg and Mrs Wiggs, all played by Carmen Silvera, a long time before she became famous for 'Allo, 'Allo, and Campbell Singer. The multiple parts are a novel idea, but it does somewhat undermine the suggestion that the Toymaker is almost undefeatable – if the games are so taxing, surely more people should have lost, and been trapped in this limbo? The clowns are quite interesting though – Doctor Who works well when it exposes deep-seated fears in the audience. Xenophobia is one which was still apparent in the sixties, so stories like The Ark work well. A fear of technology is always something which niggles, so later stories like The War Machines works. Clowns are undoubtedly terrifying, and so they work well here – although will be used to far greater effect in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Peter Purves is the one saving grace for this serial, really – his delivery as Steven actually shows some tangible menace, and although he seems put out by the silliness of the threats, he manages to convey his anger and frustration nicely – the insistence, after Joey has cheated constantly at the games, that even though he knows it will kill them, they finish the game, is unnervingly delivered.

But again, I have a bugbear – if the Toymaker is so obsessed with games, why is he so happy for them to be cheated? It takes his energy and will to maintain this Toyroom, yet the inhabitants cheat at every turn, making the idea of the game redundant. His insistence that the time travellers play fairly is undermined by this, too; whilst villains can be characters of double standards, the basic concept of the Toymaker is that he shouldn't. A character driven by the desire to play should have no time for people willing to cheat. Similarly, with the Trilogic game, the way in which the Toymaker keeps making the game jump ahead by moves is pointless – if he hadn't interfered in any way, he would have won, since the Doctor could never have finished in time with Steven and Dodo completing the last of their missions.

Regardless, the first game against Joey and Clara sounds ridiculous – an obstacle course mixed with blind man's bluff, there seems to be no danger to it. Yes, if they lose – as warned by the Doctor – they are stuck there forever. But, the only fate which befalls the clowns when they lose is that they are reverted to the doll form they had originally had. Whilst we can presume that if the crew were stranded in the Toyroom forever, they would take the form of dolls, it just doesn't seem urgent enough.

All the way through the four episodes, Hartnell is reduced further and further in importance, either invisible, a disembodied hand, or, at worst, utterly mute. It is telling that the script was originally commissioned by John Wiles – who was renowned for his dislike for Hartnell and was hell-bent on having him removed from the serial. Hartnell is sidelined throughout, pointlessly relegated. Indeed, there is a rumour that at one point the crew considered recasting Hartnell whilst he was invisible.

The second episode, at least, ups the ante – the threats of the outcome have a genuine sense of danger to them, and each of the chairs is rather chilling, from literally (freezing the person to death) to vibrating until a doll loses its head. The King and Queen cards are far more interesting than the clowns, too – the scenes in which the King tries to persuade the Knave and Jester to sit in the potentially fatal seat is wonderfully played. Unfortunately, episode 2 is most famous for the use of the racist slur which the King utters whilst picking a chair at random. Even today, it is an awkward moment of horrific racism, one which was not even acceptable at the time of making – whilst this was airing, civil rights movements were progressing, and to hear the N-word bandied around so freely is uncomfortable. The deaths of the King and Queen are rather touching, though – their hand-in-hand double suicide is sweet. Sadly, the threat is once more undermined when Dodo sits on the 'freezing' chair but is pulled out of the seat by Steven.

The third episode is probably the most frustrating, as once again there is no sense of threat – simply playing 'find the key' with a couple of characters making lots of pointless noise over the top. Once through the door, however, we can only imagine how effective the following scene must have been; the dance scenes sound rather chilling and if Tutte Lemkow's choreography is anywhere near as good as his performances always sound, it could well have been wonderful. Instead, we simply have a couple of stills and the soundtrack – and again, it falls flat.

Finally, though, episode 4 comes – The Final Test, indeed – and it moves! Finally, we're given a chance to have a glimpse at the surreal madness of The Celestial Toymaker – and it stinks. Really. After the last 3 audio tracks sounded like it could have looked wonderful, with surreal sets and bizarre performances, but instead it is simply flat and one-dimensional, frivolous and pointless. Even after all of the things that Steven and Dodo have been through – the deaths of the dolls and the cards – she has the audacity, and indeed the stupidity, to utter the line "I think I'm going to enjoy this game". In fact, she has never been as dense as she is in this serial – leaving her position to check on Cyril's progress despite Steven's protestations is ridiculous.

The saving grace is Peter Stevens' performance as Cyril, the Billy Bunter-esque character, who manages to be both childishly irritating and tremendously unnerving with ease, flitting between the two states quicker than you can say "yarhoo". The entire final game is actually over within ten minutes, with Cyril having cheated one time too many and falling for his own trick, slipping to the floor to be returned to the form of a charred doll, smouldering. That image is rather haunting – and if the entire serial had been like this, maybe it could have been salvaged. There just isn't enough evidence to suggest it.

But these games aren't really what it has been about. For three and a half episodes we have followed Steven and Dodo on their pointless tasks, but it has all been distraction for the main event – the return of Hartnell and his final showdown against the Toymaker. It has never been as simple as beating a few incompetent competitors. The only game that really counts is the Trilogic game, and the end of the Toymaker's universe. Purves' nobility as Steven is touching – his offer to sacrifice himself for the sake of the Doctor and Dodo is lovely, as is Hartnell's dissuasion that there has to be another way.

Unfortunately, though, the conclusion is still something of a disappointment – ultimately the Doctor wins by inexplicably imitating the Toymaker's voice, getting the game to automatically move the final playing piece and winning the game from inside the safety of the TARDIS, dematerialising at the moment the planet explodes.

So, the story winds to its conclusion, and Hartnell keels over in agony after biting into one of Cyril's sweets.

Look, I'm sorry that I've been rather negative, and that this is certainly not the best written of my blogs. But ultimately, I just really dislike this serial. There are a couple of little glimmers that show this could have been good... and perhaps it was, when it originally aired. But now, I just can't tell... I'm sorry.

On the upside, the next serial is apparently the worst Doctor who ever made.

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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