Monday, 7 August 2017

The Celestial Toymaker

Chapter The 62nd, which is slightly racist.

The TARDIS crew find themselves trapped in the realm of a mysterious and powerful being called the Toymaker. To win their freedom and avoid being turned into his toys, they must all go along with the Toymaker's games: the Doctor must play Space Towers of Hanoi for ages after having been turned invisible, while his companions Steven and Dodo have to endure a succession of sinister and twisted (but not that sinister and twisted) versions of childhood favourites like blind man's buff, hopscotch, and - erm - a food fight. This climaxes in a relatively simple stalemate, which nonetheless takes ages to explain: if the Doctor makes his final move and defeats the Toymaker, the realm they are in will vanish taking the TARDIS team with it, but they can't leave until he makes the move. Is this how their travels come to an end? Will they have to stay there forever in torment or - no, no, they've outwitted the Toymaker and scarpered. As you were.

The Celestial Toymaker is one of the Sixties Doctor Who stories that are sadly incomplete in the BBC archives. Three out of its four episodes are missing, but - thanks to the forethought of young fans back then with tape recorders - the soundtracks to all four exist. Another preservation method in those pre-VCR days, but more for trade than home use, was to get offscreen stills - or 'telesnaps' - taken by an outside contractor (a very specific one, as it seems only one fellow, John Cura, ever offered the service). If engaged, Cura would take a portfolio of shots, on average once every thirty seconds or so, of a TV programme. He was employed on Doctor Who early on, but the second producer of the show, John Wiles, decided Cura's  wares weren't worth the coin, so no offscreen photos exist for his era. The Celestial Toymaker was on the cusp; incoming producer Innes Lloyd is credited as producer, but it was commissioned by Wiles, and Lloyd reinstated telesnaps coverage from the very next story after it. With insufficient visual data, any slide-show reconstruction would have to be so inventive it would be distracting to watch. As such, I stuck with the 2001 CD release with narration by companion actor Peter Purves. After listening to it all the way through, I popped the remaining final episode in the DVD player (it's on the 'Lost in Time' odds and sods compilation box-set). No one from the family was interested in joining me for any part of this.

First-time round: 
In 1991, long before they ran out of complete stories to release on VHS, the Beeb (probably at the behest of 1980s Doctor Who supremo John Nathan-Turner who had a consultant role on the range at that time) put out some special releases to include the orphaned episodes and clips that otherwise would not find a home. These were the Years tapes, and appropriately one of the first releases in June 1991 was The Hartnell Years, covering the first Doctor. Inappropriately, it was presented by Slyvester McCoy and had a 'Latin' version of the Doctor Who theme by Keff McCulloch accompanying its titles. Urggh. It is truly one of most horrible things I've ever had in my ears (and I once had olive oil poured in to dislodge some compacted ear wax). Anyway, one of the three episodes on this tape was The Final Test, episode four of The Celestial Toymaker. It's a bit odd viewed out of context (Slyv was given literally seconds to summarise the plot of episodes 1 to 3 as a lead-in), but it does at least round off a story. It was ten years later in 2001 when the audio CD was released before I found out exactly how it fit together with the rest of the piece.  One mystery was explained: why the electrocuted body of the Cyril character that appears near the end was so inadequate. I thought in 1991 that it was rubbish as it looked just like a doll. Of course, now I realise that it is supposed to look just like a doll.

It was hard to find story connections between this one and the last story covered for the blog (Doctor Who and the Silurians - see below), but maybe they both have one similarity in their production: the money spent has struggled to find its way onto screen. Toymaker was undoubtedly budgeted cheaper than Silurians, but it still was aiming to create a highly visual fantasy world, with colourful childhood imagery of toys and games being the main driving force. The extant episode, though, looks empty and drab, like a contemporary children's game-show rather than a wonderland where godlike beings toy with mortals and all that carry on. It could just be episode 4 that's like that - unless they find the rest it's hard to know - maybe the money had run out by the end. The photos of the costumes and scenes from the earlier episodes do look great, but they are colour stills. In black and white, shot by bulky video cameras moving around Riverside Studio 1, it might not have been so impressive.

The story's a bit 'one note' throughout. Steven and Dodo get a riddle to solve, face some grotesque nursery characters as opponents in a game, these characters end up defeating themselves by dint of one stupidity or another, Steven and Dodo move on; riddle, repeat. No sense of building to a climax, nor much urgency despite the ticking clock of the move counter being referenced regularly. Having the same small repertory company of actors playing this succession of opponents only adds to the effect. There's also a lot of tell not show: lots of speeches about how powerful the Toymaker is, but no real evidence. The obvious sign of this power is demonstrated when toys turn into beings and back again, which mostly happens in those pesky missing episodes; maybe that sells it. The only similar effect in the available episode, mind, was mistaken by me for a decade as just being a rubbish dummy (see above), which doesn't inspire one with confidence that those moments in episodes 1-3 were spectacular and chilling. The ending too, is very talky. The predicament and its resolution are both neat bits of business, but it just takes too much time, and too much rabbit, to deliver.

Michael Gough is as good as you'd expect, playing arguably the first sci-fi supervillain in Doctor Who history; you could say Mavic Chen did it first a few stories earlier, but he's just a corrupt politician and doesn't have any powers per se; anyway, whoever we give the honour, the seeds were planted and the OTT protagonist took root henceforth. Another interesting innovation is that this story acts as a sequel to an unseen backstory adventure, where the Doctor has encountered and escaped the Toymaker before; this also would prove to a useful device in the series' future, being used often in the years to come. The story's themes chime with contemporary obsessions: its exploration of the dark corners of childhood, primary-coloured psychedelic grab bag of imagery, and Lewis Carroll-esque whimsical surrealism would all infuse 1960s pop media from Sergeant Pepper through to the White Album, so Doctor Who was ahead of the curve here in 1966.

Another less happy element that's 'of its time' is the unfortunate and unnecessary racism; the use of the 'Jeremy Clarkson' version of Eeny Meeny Miny Moe is perhaps not so bad (it's not very foregrounded, to the extent that the audio version uses a bit of narration to mask it, leaving the listener hard pressed to notice anything's gone); but, once you find out that 'celestial' can also mean oriental, the depiction of the Toymaker as a Chinese mandarin, with - it's hard to tell from the surviving visual material - maybe a touch of yellowing up and eyebrow work on the actor too, all makes it less forgivable. The jury's still out on whether any of this was deliberate, and it's somewhat overshadowed by Doctor Who's much more blatant transgressions in a later story where another white actor wears a similar get-up, is similarly described using the celestial double-meaning, but this time is unmistakably and outrageously made-up. And this was ten years later, when such things were even less socially accepted. But we'll get to that when we get to it.

They both have a featured character that holds the rank of sergeant... I think that's about it. They don't even have the TARDIS in common, as it didn't feature in Doctor Who and the Silurians, although The Celestial Toymaker contains about twenty TARDISes to make up for it.

Deeper Thoughts:
Odd? Balls. This is one of those early episodes about which an official reputation hardened sometime in the late seventies / early eighties. It was unassailable in those days as an experimental but excellent episode. It's probably objectively only average; certainly that's the more recent consensus - it came 197th out of 241 in the last major Doctor Who Magazine poll - but, it was clearly felt to be shockingly different in feel to all the episodes around it when it was first shown, which made it stand out to the young fans watching that would later become the taste-makers of early Doctor Who fandom. The regular fanzine of the Doctor Who appreciation Society was named Celestial Toyroom rather than, say, Small Prophet, Quick Return or The Sea Beggar. In the later production period of the aforementioned John Nathan-Turner, these stories that did something a bit weird or stylised came to have a categorisation of their own; they were known as 'oddball' stories. 

Putting aside the very un-Who and somewhat playground bully tactics of categorising those different from the perceived norm, betraying a lack of imagination regarding approaches the show should and shouldn't take, this is also rather forgetful about Doctor Who's origins. When first established, the parameters of the show were that the TARDIS could take our heroes forwards, backwards and sideways. The last of these three story types always proved more challenging than the other two. I've written recently about a long gestation of the very first 'sideways' idea they had, an adventure into the dimension of dimensions, when the TARDIS crew are miniaturised. This was mentioned in the series bible and planned for the first ever story, but eventually struggled onto screens at the start of the second season. Before that, they'd managed one bottle episode early on with psychodramas happening within the TARDIS; the next truly 'sideways' efforts were The Celestial Toymaker, and then The Mind Robber, several years later. So, they were rare, but they did happen, and were encoded into the show's DNA from the off. Additionally, a house style had never established itself in those days, and even if a particular story had a fairly straightforward plot, there was still scope to use a wild variety of different styles and tones in its realisation.

By the time of Turner's tenure, the backwards stories had fallen out of favour as well, of course, and the tone was something they were more restrictive about; but, Who is never about abiding by a formula, and - to give him his due - JNT did allow a few more 'oddballs' to slip in later on: The Happiness Patrol, Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and arguably all of Slyvester McCoy's first season. The spirit has continued in the new series, and there's still room for the odd experimental show like Extremis or Listen or Heaven Sent, and out and out oddballs like Amy's Choice, which - aside from a preposterous explanation tacked on the end - takes place completely in a domain of dreams, and  - aside from a slightly more satisfying explanation tacked on the end - has an adversary every bit as enigmatic as the Toymaker.

In Summary:
Talking of riddles: I can't remember for the life of me the other Doctor Who guest role Micheal Gough played. And it's doing my Hedin.

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