Monday 22 June 2020

What's Wrong With... The Celestial Toymaker

What's wrong with The Celestial Toymaker? That's a question whose answer has changed over time. These days, most fans will answer that just about everything is wrong with this story, but that wasn't always the case. This was once held up as a lost masterpiece.
In the days before home video, Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly / Magazine and the internet, unless you could remember seeing a story on broadcast, there wasn't a lot of information available about old stories for newer fans. If a member of one of the fan clubs you might get the occasional periodical which had a feature on an archive adventure. Some people might have the soundtrack taped from the TV, whilst others might have banded together to buy a dodgy nth generation bootleg of an old story.
Magazines such as World of Horror sometimes featured articles on the series, generally more pictorial than informational. You might also have bought a copy of the Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special, or the 1st or 2nd editions of Target Book's The Making of Doctor Who. These gave very brief synopses of each story, which merely served to whet the appetite, especially for the Hartnell and Troughton stories. Knowledgeable fans - founding members of the clubs - gave their opinions about stories, which somehow became the standard opinion - received wisdom. If Jeremy Bentham, for example, said a story was great, then it was. If he said it wasn't terribly good, then it wasn't.
Doctor Who Weekly arrived in 1979, and Bentham was involved with that - so his opinions were carried forward to a much greater readership. We also had a number of hardback books from writer Peter Haining, and Bentham contributed to these as well.
Things changed with the advent of home video, and we finally got to see these stories, or at least the orphan episodes for the lost ones. After Doctor Who went off the air on 1989, producer John Nathan-Turner stayed on as a consultant for the book and video ranges, and he masterminded some compilation tapes of these orphan episodes - The Hartnell Years, The Troughton Years, Daleks - The Early Years and Cybermen - The Early Years.
These proved to be a double edged sword, as they made some very good stories look rather weak (the only surviving episode being a rather dull, atypical one), whilst other stories long held to be great were shown to be not that great after all.
The Hartnell Years included the final episode of The Celestial Toymaker, and fans were disappointed. They had heard so many great things about this atypical Doctor Who story, with its fantasy themes overriding the usual sci-fi trappings. Once we got to see the episode we found that it did not look all that impressive, with much of the action simply revolving around a glorified game of Snakes & Ladders. Things got worse once we heard the soundtrack for the missing three episodes, and found that the whole story was like this. The third episode in particular seems to consist of characters smashing crockery for half its running time.
Things aren't helped by the fact that Hartnell was on holiday for most of the story, explained away on screen by the Toymaker making him invisible then mute. He is sidelined away from his companions, playing the terminally dull Trilogic game. This is so dull, in fact, that the Toymaker has to keep hurrying it along, making the Doctor's moves for him.
It has been said that an effort was being made to write Hartnell out of the show at this time. When made visible again, the Toymaker would have permanently altered his appearance. Producer John Wiles was desperate to replace his star, but he had already handed over to Innes Lloyd by this time, and he elected to wait and make the change properly. It's unlikely that Hartnell was retained by accident, when someone in admin issued him a new contract without checking first.
The Celestial Toymaker had a very troubled production in other ways. It was first commissioned by Donald Tosh from writer Brian Hayles - but there is next to nothing of Hayles left as transmitted.
before leaving the programme, Donald Tosh rewrote the story as an absurdist piece based on the play George and Margaret. This play is similar to Waiting for Godot, in that the title characters don't ever turn up. It's about people planning a dinner party and they are expected, but fail to appear by the play's conclusion. Tosh's Doctor Who script would have featured George and Margaret. The play was written by Gerald Savory, who now held a senior position at the BBC. He was initially okay with Tosh using his play as the basis for his story, but then went off the idea. Tosh then moved on, and so it fell to his replacement, Gerry Davis, to come up with what made it to the screen - a story based around deadly versions of children's games.
When the programme tackled the Eternals in Enlightenment, some thought was given to their motivation. Because they live forever, they have long since become bored and need diversions. The Toymaker is also an eternal being, but there is no attempt to give him any motivation for what he does - playing endless games. He says he wants the Doctor to remain with him forever, yet at the same time  tries to kill him by hurrying along the Trilogic Game. He wants the TARDIS crew to stay and play, but is bored with his toyroom and wants to do something else. Why doesn't he just do something else then? He can create and destroy at will, yet seems to be a prisoner of his own world.
The Trilogic Game is presented as though it is extremely difficult to win, but people made their own version and found it remarkably easy, just a bit time-consuming. (It is basically just the Tower of Hanoi game. There are on-line versions you can play).
The tone of the story is also awry. The Toymaker is presented as an evil being, who turns his victims into toys, yet Steven and Dodo enter into his games in lighthearted fashion. Their opponents are mostly played for laughs as well. Dodo, as we see in the existing episode, has had some sort of brain bypass operation performed and acts incredibly stupidly - being continually taken in by the people out to kill them.
The Toymaker isn't much smarter, and you'd think he really does want to lose, as the Doctor attempts to get the game to reach the final move from within the safety of the TARDIS. The Toymaker must surely realise what he's trying to do, but doesn't intervene - allowing the Doctor to try again this time mimicking his voice.
Cyril, the rotund school boy, looks remarkably like Billy Bunter. Rather than attempt to have him looking only slightly similar, the script has him say his friends call him "Billy", despite being called Cyril. Did the BBC go out of their way to deliberately attract copyright problems? (Actually, actor Peter Stephens ad-libbed this line. He seems to be making up a few of his lines - and the rules of the hopscotch game - in the final episode).
Each game ends with a fake TARDIS, and Steven and Dodo get frustrated when they find that it is not the real ship - despite knowing that the Toymaker has a whole production line of fake TARDISes.
The Celestial Toymaker has also come in for some accusations of racism, due to the Toymaker appropriating Chinese costume and other symbolism - and "celestial" referring to oriental. Michael  Gough doesn't actually perform the part as a Chinese person, there is no 'yellow face'. He's more likely borrowing his look from the stage magicians of Victorian and Edwardian music hall, who appropriated Chinese culture. What is unforgivably racist is the use of the n-word in the second episode. You won't find it on the audio soundtrack, as they got narrator Peter Purves to talk over it (it's in the 'eeny-meeny' rhyme spoken by the King of Hearts).


  1. I wonder if even a animated reconstruction could lift this story up?

  2. It is a story that could be animated, as it has a relatively small cast of characters, and only one main set per episode. There's nothing they can do about the soundtrack (though that offensive word would be deleted) so the only thing to make it more exciting would be to be creative with the visuals. Either make it very day-glo and vibrant, or go the opposite direction and make it very dark and moody.

  3. Does the vinyl version of the celestial toymaker have the n word in it

  4. Anon: it's the CD master, with the word drowned out.