Doctor Who Reviews: The Celestial Toymaker

The Celestial Toymaker is the first Doctor Who story to take a weird and wonderful trip into the surreal. This tale plucks all the elements of childhood playtime and adds its own slightly twisted take. We get games of Blind Man’s Buff, Hopscotch and Statues: Remember playing those as naïve young innocents at birthday parties? The worst that would have happened would have been the customary spoilt brat trying to get his or her own way, resulting in said brat getting their head shoved into the birthday cake.

In The Celestial Toymaker, though, you’re playing for your life.

A simple mistake in Hopscotch or Blind Man’s Buff means that you end up deader than a Jim Davidson joke being told at the Women‘s Institute Christmas Party. This is all down to the eponymous Toymaker, a bored genius who gets his kicks out of devising life-threatening games for all those who blunder into his domain. Imagine '80s’ kids’ show Knightmare taking place in your local toy megastore, and you get the idea.

The only saving grace for Steven and Dodo is that they don’t get to walk about with a wooden bucket on their head. Sadly, that’s where the good news ends. Not only are they cut off from the TARDIS, they are also cut off from The Doctor, who’s been reduced to a disembodied hand playing the Toymaker’s Piece-De-Resistance, The Trilogic Game.

Of course, this is all a neat trick to allow William Hartnell to take a couple of weeks’ holiday. The problem is, that for what seems like the umpteenth time this season, we’re presented with another Doctor-lite story. Never has Doctor Who lived up to its title so completely.

The word around the campfire is that when The Doctor rematerialised, he would possibly have a new face: the result of alleged behind the scenes squabbles between Hartnell and the production team. While the producers wanted to steer the show in a more adult direction, Hartnell didn’t like this approach. In the end, nothing came of this idea, although it looks like the seeds were being sown for Hartnell’s later departure in The Tenth Planet (which had a far more dramatic way of changing actors anyway).

So, again, it’s left to the companions to carry The Celestial Toymaker. Peter Purves inevitably succeeds, with Steven’s mistrust and cynicism really coming through here, when dealing with his opponents. Amazingly, so does Jackie Lane’s Dodo, who with her flat cap and bizarre circular outfit, looks like what would happen when you combine Bob Dylan and a certain brand of holey chocolate bar. I wasn’t exactly complimentary about Dodo’s cardboard cut-out character in my last ramblings about The Ark, but here, it’s a question of context.

Here, Dodo is called upon to support Steven, and work as his polar opposite. She is more trusting of their opponents, and even shows some compassion towards them, for example when Cyril the Schoolboy (Or Billy Blunder, as he should be called) apparently hurts his foot while playing hopscotch. Since Dodo isn’t called on to stand around wailing all the time, she actually gets to show some initiative for once, in what is her best story.

Mention of Billy Blunder brings me on to the characters, who serve no real function apart from being the Toymaker’s pawns in his wacky game. Interestingly, Campbell Singer, Carmen Silvera and Peter Stephens play more than one role. Out of these, Silvera is easily the most successful, bringing something different to the characters of Clara, Mrs Wiggs and, in particular, the snooty, nasty Queen Of Hearts. Peter Stephens’ performances aren’t quite so hot, and it’s a problem that whenever his Billy Blunder graces the screen, I’m distracted by thinking that he’s the spit of Christopher Biggins, both in appearance and voice. We actually get to see Billy Blunder in action thanks to the sole surviving episode, and while he’s admittedly a nasty piece of work, there are too many fluffs from Stephens to make him totally convincing.

Yaroo! Are we on Take Twenty Two?

The key player, though, is of course, Michael Gough as the sinister Toymaker. Gough nails the part instantly, and intriguingly, underplays the role, when it could have been so easy to slip into hammy parody. The Toymaker is presented as someone who’s inventive and clever, but thanks to his isolation, has become sadistically insane. He gets kicks out of tormenting Steven and Dodo, frequently taunting them when they fail to find the real TARDIS. He renders The Doctor partly invisible, merely for amusement. And he also takes delight in threatening his very own pawns, such as when he threatens to reduce Sergeant Rugg and Mrs Wiggs to the equivalent of broken china. All of which adds up to one of the deadliest foes that the First Doctor meets - even if he’s gliding around in what looks like his granny’s curtains.

What makes The Celestial Toymaker work is the way in which it takes harmless kids’ pastimes and characters, and turns them into children’s worst nightmares. All of the games and the characters become deadly weapons, and in the process, this makes for some memorably macabre imagery. The clowns. The creepy blank-faced ballerinas. The King and Queen Of Hearts. Even Billy Blunder, for all his faults and fluffs, just about works. The way in which Billy Blunder and the clowns end up as broken (and in the former’s case, badly charred) dolls only adds to the dark atmosphere of the story.

That said, The Celestial Toymaker does plod a fair bit, and those who are only used to quickfire 21st century-style storytelling will probably get bored quite easily. The bulk of the last episode, for example, seems to be very long scenes of the hopscotch game. The direction also comes across as fairly static for these sequences, too, and so, the drama flags as a result. The denouement of the story, while well worked out, is also flat, with the Toymaker only defeated rather than totally destroyed. How is he supposed to start again anyway? Pop into the nearest toyshop off the constellation of Kasterborous?

With that in mind, The Celestial Toymaker succeeds as a series of creepy abstract images and surreal drama. The macabre characters and the villainy of the Toymaker are highly memorable. Too bad that Gough’s Toymaker never got a second shot in the aborted Sixth Doctor adventure, The Nightmare Fair, but at least his lone adventure is a successful first stab at the surreal for Doctor Who.

* All 3 of my 1970s Doctor Who ebook guides are on sale at Amazon, for very good prices. Yaroo!