Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Serial 24: The Celestial Toymaker

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Steven, Dodo

Written by: Brian Hayles (and Donald Tosh)
Directed by: Bill Sellars

Background & Significance: It's hard to think of a story with a sexier title than "The Celestial Toymaker". Part of that is because it comes off as inherently nefarious. Toymaker is the profession of a fellow obsessed with details and driven almost crazy by them. The title also sounds like a worthy adversary for The Doctor ("Celestial", that is, reaching out into the cosmos). And there's always (always!) something alluring about The Doctor going up against a nemesis. It's why The Master is so popular and why people will fetishize both The Monk and The Rani. So why not be excited about this? The title is WONDERFUL.

Because after the title it's all downhill from here.

"The Celestial Toymaker" is one of the few stories that was developed by John Wiles and Donald Tosh, the outgoing producer and script editor. As they developed it, Wiles and Tosh came up with an idea to effectively sideline The Doctor by introducing "The Trilogic Game", which The Doctor would solve while being invisible. In this, Wiles and Tosh (probably mostly Wiles) would circumvent William Hartnell and not have to deal with him, as the relationship between Wiles and Hartnell was openly confrontational/hostile. It's a shrewd move, but one that is at least understandable (if not a bit too passive aggressive for my tastes). And yet, Wiles and Tosh both stepped down from Doctor Who before this episode hit production. Wiles phased himself out during "The Ark" while Tosh stepped down during "The Massacre" to tweak Brian Hayles's scripts so they were ready for Innes Lloyd's producing and Gerry Davis's script editing.

And it's to this day considered a lost treasure.

Part of the reason for this (as Philip Sandifer so eloquently writes up here) is down to one authority deciding that certain stories (like "The Gunfighters") were bad while others (like this one) were good. And yet, outside of the underlying premise (The Doctor and his companions land in a dangerous funland full of evil, nefarious games that might end up killing our heroes) there's really... not much to it. And even with the underlying premise there's not nearly so much as you might instinctively believe. But we'll get to that. For now, know, that I dread this story, but mostly because it's the one last story that I truly hate as we pull into the end of this blog in just a few short months.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

When I first watched this episode, I came at it with trepidation. It was a story I was quite looking forward to for a long time, and then just as I got close to actually watching it, suddenly everything was that this wasn’t a “lost gem” so much as it was “kind of awful.”

So I walked into this first episode really looking forward to everything that was coming. I loved The Celestial Toymaker in theory, and I might have even gone and listened to two Big Finish Celestial Toymaker adventures because I had gotten to that point. And I had quite liked his appearances there more than I had expected. Sure, “The Nightmare Fair” is nowhere near what it shoulda been, but “The Magic Mousetrap” is really quite excellent. And hey, before you know anything about storytelling and writing, the concept of “guys who makes others play games” is a really sexy premise. It blends two things we love: stories and puzzles and games.

At least, that’s the wisdom when you don’t know better.

Games are fun with your friends because your friends understand the rules and you are actively engaging in a narrative with your friends (or enemies). They’re fun because the stakes are high.

But here’s the problem: it’s impossibly arbitrary. When you play games with your friends it’s done because you genuinely enjoy each other. But when some mad god-like being makes you play games “because he’s bored”, it’s impossibly arbitrary. And he makes deals? I mean, that’s his bag. He cuts people deals and makes them play games he knows they cannot possibly win. Which is fine, except this guy has such ridiculous power, why not steal their bodies as is? I mean, he wants to keep them there? Fine. Keep them there. Why tempt them with escape? Or rather, why legitimately offer them escape?

I call this “The Riddler Problem”. I love The Riddler in Batman. I really do. I think he’s a hoot and it’s really fun to watch him do those puzzles and clues. But at a certain point that stops becoming camp and just becomes perplexing. It’s impossible to take him seriously because he’ll pull off the perfect crime but leave a coded map that says “here’s how you stop me.” It’s like the friggin Rudy of villains. All he wants is to be bad, but he can’t stop completely sabotaging his own villainous acts. And it’s kinda sad and pathetic because if you do something like that (I’m sorry) you deserve to be caught. The point is not to try and outsmart the other guy. It’s about trying to steal half a million dollars in nickels. And it’s cute for the audience because it encourages an engagement with the text (can you be smarter than Batman) and there’s hardly anyone out there who doesn’t like to not solve puzzles that are easily solvable.

This story has the same problem. It’s impossible to take the Toymaker seriously because he’s such an assclown. He has no idea what he’s doing. The guy brings in the TARDIS and then just… what? Whisks The Doctor away to play The Trilogic game?

What’s the point of this? Seriously. There’s no point. It’s just an attempt to have a bit of fun. But there’s nothing fun about watching The Doctor slide tiles around a board or watching some Clowns cheat at a game of Blind Mind’s Bluff. There’s nothing inherently dramatic about that. The stakes are low, and yes, there’s the notion that they won’t get back the TARDIS, but so what? Everything here is so silly. I mean, why make a big deal about the two clowns you’re going to send in if they’re just going to cheat? And if they’re going to cheat, what’s the point of making the game so easy?

It’s a shame, because I remember this distinctly being the most exciting installment of this episode. And why? There’s no reason. There’s not.

So we’re already sunk. And I get what they’re doing here. They want games. They want puzzles. But the game and puzzle is so incredibly boring because at the end of the day, it’s not interesting to watch people do something you could easily do in the safety of your own home. There’s no drama to any of it. Even the cheating comes out of left field in such a way that it’s… hard to rationalize. These clowns are hand-picked by the Toymaker… because they cheat? It sets a bad statement of The Toymaker right up front. Is it not enough that we know he is bad that he has to go and cheat at his own games? It just paints in him in a light that isn’t nearly as favorable as it should be. If you’re going to be the gamemaster be the best at your games, kick ass at your games, and don’t cheat. Why would you need to? You know them back to front. You can beat them on skill every time.

And this was the most exciting episode. On my first time.

Part 2:

Okay. So let’s take a step back before drilling back in. Maybe this way we can get some perspective on the story and what it’s trying to do.

The basic premise of this story is: an extremely powerful, divine being known as The Celestial Toymaker abducts the TARDIS and forces The Doctor and his companions to play games for his amusement. The stakes? They will either win back the TARDIS, OR they will be turned into dolls and forced to be The Toymaker’s play things for the rest of eternity. As a premise it’s not bad. It’s a little dopey (if the Toymaker can capture them and do what he likes with them, why go through the charade of having games in the first place) but if you just buy into the central conceit it’s not so bad at all. In fact, it sounds downright enjoyable and a really good plan.

What it relies on is quality puzzles and games for everyone to enjoy. They have to be challenging games that Steven and Dodo can actually win, but not so easy that there’s no challenge. Blind Man’s Bluff in the first episode can almost get away with it because it’s so insanely visual/exciting. And it’s fun to watch a children’s game turn deadly.

Here, though, it doesn’t quite work. At all. The game in this episode is about seven chairs, all of which save one are booby trapped. Dodo and Steven must find the booby trapped chair, and to complicate matters they’re racing against the clock, trying to figure out which chair it is before the King and Queen of Hearts. And the King and Queen of Hearts are joined by a Joker and the Knave of Hearts. So Dodo and Steven are outnumbered two to one. So it’s almost set up to be dangerous and exhilarating.

Here’s the problem though. That game? Stupid. Really stupid. And it’s about the only thing that happens in this episode. No seriously. All that happens is this game for basically the whole episode.

And it’s not like the game is that hard. The Toymaker provides them with seven different dolls so that they can test every single chair. So there’s no real challenge outside of the Cards, is there? And there’s nothing more boring than watching dolls sit into dangerous chairs while our heroes stand off to the side watching it happen. There’s no stakes there. Nor is there any sort of urgency with which they’re acting (and why would they? We have to pad out these twenty five minutes of chair sitting). So it sucks on that, but even then, it’s not even that clever of a game. Blind Man’s Bluff at least had rules and challenges. This is just “guess the right one using no-stakes process of elimination”. And that’s… come on. That’s just impossibly dull.

So that’s bad. But it goes even worse. For one thing, the Knave and the Joker just sit around and do nothing and when it comes time for them to fry (Steven and Dodo hide three dolls so the King/Queen have trouble) they run away because they’re chickens. And fine, whatever. But really? Why can’t I watch a Knave curdle into dust?

The reason is so that we can get SOME stakes in here. Why do the King and Queen insist on sitting on a chair together even though they’re not sure which works? Tandem sitting? Really? Why not have one sacrifice themselves for the other? And that’s to say nothing of the fact that Steven and Dodo KNOW that they have three dolls stashed away in a cupboard and Dodo goes AND SITS ON A POSSIBLY DANGEROUS CHAIR ANYWAYS.

It’s the most maddening thing. And I’m a Dodo defender. I think she’s a bad companion, but worst ever? After this episode it’s hard to argue against that. She’s quick to reveal the game rules to the King and Queen because “it’s the nice thing to do” not even realizing that the whole POINT of this game thing is to win. And like... she even sits on an untested chair in an attempt to win. It turns out she sits in the wrong chair (but it’s okay she gets out of it because Steven manages to pull her off it before it can freeze her too much)  and for what? NOTHING. USE THE FUCKING DOLLS. YOU DON’T EVEN NEED TO USE ALL OF THEM. For god’s sakes, this is the worst use of companion I think I’ve ever seen. She’s an idiot. A real, bona fide idiot. And it doesn’t make the games more fun it makes them insufferable because she doesn’t fucking get it and we all at home do. Why this... I just don’t understand. It’s incredible.

And then you have The Toymaker still accelerating The Doctor’s trilogic game. And for what? He advances it a hundred moves. Dodo and Steven need to reach the TARDIS by the time The Doctor hits move 1023 (or something, whatever, the number is arbitrary or it’s all over.

Why though, why have The Ttoymaker accelerate the game like this? If he can just arbitrarily accelerate the game, why not have him accelerate to the ending and have Steven and Dodo trapped there? It’s just silly and certainly not the best way to do this. It’s these rules, or the rules like the Toymaker makes it so The Doctor can’t talk until his second to last move that make The Toymaker completely rubbish. All of this gaming is completely arbitrary and made completely up. And it’s true that yes that’s part of the madness of the world and that this is his domain, but why not make The Doctor not able to talk until you want him to? And I guess you did that, but it just seems so insane.

Like this episode. Which is… both not good and BORING in its not goodness.

Part 3:

Unlike the last episode, which was focused on one thing and one thing only (the chair puzzle) this episode at least splits time between two different puzzles/games. Which is… an improvement. I suppose.

And yet, these games are no better. The first game is a game of “find the key” in a messy kitchen. No really. It’s just that for ten minutes. And to add to the pain of that we have to sit while two characters (who are apparently parodies of George and Margaret) who do nothing but argue and bicker and I’m amazed that we’re out of the kitchen in just thirteen minutes. But it’s still remarkably boring. The solution is clever (the key is baked into a pie, the one thing you wouldn’t think to break), but it’s a twelve minute setup to a punchline that goes beyond nothing other than “Huh. That’s rather clever.” And I have to ask if that was really worth it?

Watching the dance sequence is boring as well. I mean, clearly this is a visual thing. You can’t do dance in audio. And yet, the dynamics of this is stupid. It’s like Steven pulling Dodo off the chair in the last episode. All Steven and Dodo need to do is dance to the TARDIS and it’s over.

As an idea, it’s good. Dance til you join the dance is a damn sight better than “look for a key in a messy kitchen”, but it’s still rubbish. I mean, there’s just no stakes in it and Dodo is looking like she’s having a positively delightful time and there’s no ominous tone and there’s no stakes at all. By the time they introduce stakes into the puzzle at the very end (the soldier and maid join the dance for eternity) and there’s very little point in me saying “oh that’s what COULD have happened to them” when you get much more drama out of saying “oh no they’re going to…” and then “join the dance.” Or whatever.

But even the Toymaker is rubbish in this. For reals. He keeps throwing ninnies at Dodo and Steven. His confession that he’s been “going too easy” on them is laughable. He’s been sending cheats and morons and they can’t beat Steven and Dodo.

Now, that doesn’t say a whole hell of a lot about Dodo. The Clowns were rubbish and the playing cards were idiots. This George and Margaret pair can’t get outside of themselves. And now he’s like “Okay. I’m throwing Cyril at them!” and it’s like… really? The dude who hid under the kitchen table during an argument of words? The guy who ran away from the King and Queen of Hearts? Like please. And all you do is turn him into a grown schoolboy who uses hand buzzers and offers saltwater taffy. He’s even the bloody cliffhanger! But there’s been no stakes before this, so why the hell would I start believing that this guy is serious face now?

And the worst part is you can tell they’re trying. The grown-man, evil schoolboy is something that kinda gets you from the “this is so bizarre and surreal”. And yet, that’s if you’re really trying to make the story work. It’s hard to take anything seriously at this point.

Oh. But wait. Wait til you see what they have set up to go down next.

Part 4:

And they finish it off with a game of hopscotch.

Here’s the thing. In theory this works. You have fun playing hopscotch, so why not show Steven and Dodo having a bit of fun? It’s thrilling because they might die and this is it oh snap! AND YET when you actually start watching it you realize this is about the most boring thing you can possibly imagine. Watching people roll dice is boring as fuck. Cyril as a character is boring in the way the rest of these games are (if you’re going to play a game, play fair, otherwise there are no stakes). Watching people hop to different raised triangles is boring. Watching them count their hops is boring. It just comes out to a big mess of boring.

Nothing that happens in the game is interesting either. There’s no urgency in the way it’s shot. It’s really like… it just feels like you’re watching people fill out time because they have to. That’s what it feels like.

And if they’ve got nothing, I’ve got nothing. It’s really a waste of everyone’s time. What good is there about this? What is strong about seeing these characters do this while waiting for the story to stop? Hell, there’s not even any reason given for Cyril and his desire to win. It’s just built into his character and he runs around like a bloody sod and does nothing for so long as this episode is going on. And he’s cheating! CHEATING! The floor is electrocuted and he throws “slippery powder(?)” onto one of the blocks so that whoever goes on it too fast will slip and fall and die.

Of course he’s the one who does that. Which is moronic. And poorly shot. It literally looks like he just jumped off the thing with not even an insert shot to show his foot slipping as he topples over the side.

God. It’s just bad. And Dodo doesn’t help anything. She knows he’s a sneak and a cheat and a douchenozzle and she still goes to help him when she thinks he’s bleeding. And fine. She’s compassionate. Fine. But this goes beyond compassion to impossibly moronic. Does she not know where she is? Has she not already gone through five DIFFERENT examples of the Toymaker’s creations cheating? It’s really the death knell of her character. I don’t care how lovely she is in “The Gunfighters”, this is just too far. And it’s because of her that they almost completely lose the game. She’s RIGHT THERE. She’s not even far! And she still goes back to help the weasel whom she’s competing against?

It’s just madness. And it’s not even helped by the ending and the reappearance of The Doctor. The Trilogic Game notwithstanding (because more on that later) he re-appears because the story says it’s time for him to re-appear. And he doesn’t even really do anything in this episode.

Honestly, it makes me wonder if The Doctor was even needed in this story. Sure, he wasn’t even in episodes two and three (aside from the random one-off line) and he was gone halfway through episode one. Sure, his solution to beat the Toymaker is clever (he uses the Toymaker’s voice to finish the Trilogic Game while he escapes in the TARDIS) but it’s still completely insane. Like he can mimic the Toymaker’s voice that well. And really, that’s your solution?

The problem with this is there’s too many “oh but you didn’t account for”’s. It’s one thing to have The Master and The Doctor constantly one-upping each other. It’s another thing to keep changing the rules in front of us.

It’s what Cyril does. Cyril says “you guys start” and then keeps introducing the rules of the game when it’s convenient to him. Sure there’s nothing anyone can do about it (it’s a fucking dice game) and yet at the same time it’s so arbitrary and contrived. And there’s that spinny tower that acts as “chance” cards in the game, which has Steven miss a turn TWICE. For no reason. Yes it brings him forward and it does send Cyril back a few spaces, but at the end of the day why play against chaos? It’s just not worth it. Would you play a game with your friend if your friend cheats? The only example of that I can imagine going along with is Calvinball. And yet with Calvinball you can BOTH make up rules so it’s at least fair.

Same with the Toymaker here. If he’s beaten his world is unmade? That’s bizarre. And he seems so okay with it for no reason. But oh wait. If The Doctor finishes the game it all explodes and goes up in flames.

I have to question that, only because it’s so bitter. Not only are the people who play this game cheats and douches, but they’re whiny bitches as well. And who likes that? Who likes playing with whiny bitches? I don’t think anyone does, so not only is this episode boring and bad, it’s also really sour and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And they spend so much time arguing it. Why does it take so long to end the damn episode? Just fucking finish it. Who cares. Seriously. I hate it. Twelve minutes of this episode is The Doctor walking back to the TARDIS (walking back to the TARDIS because there are NO STAKES) and then debating about how to leave without blinking out of existence.

It’s really quite the worst thing. Dodo and Steven have reached the TARDIS. Send me home. Please.

Final Thoughts?: This is one of the worst stories ever.

I refuse to sugar coat this, but it's absolute bullshit (bullshit) that this story wound up at #151 on the Doctor Who Magazine Mighty 200. That means there's 49 stories that are worse than this? That's too many. This is the worst Hartnell story, hands down. "Space Museum" and "Galaxy 4"? They're bad sure, but at least they're not this.

This story literally gives up halfway through the first episode and just goes with consistently boring set pieces. None of them are terribly interesting and they all go on for way too long. As a story, there are no stakes, and even if there, are none of them (NONE) are ever treated with any sense of urgency or peril of any kind. There's never a threat of bad things that feels like it's serious. The Toymaker is a rubbish villain who ends up being a petulant child (and not even an interesting petulant child), which is to say NOTHING of the racist elements (eat your heart out) and his lackeys are both stupid and cheaters, which is exactly the sort of people you don't want to play games with at any point ever.

The games are rubbish. Dodo is an idiot. It really falls to Steven to keep the whole thing together and thank god for Peter Purves because he manages to elevate the material way more than he has any right to. He in no way saves it, but it's still rubbish.

And it's just a bad story. Really bad. It's a story that relies on its surrealist imagery, and yes, the surrealist imagery can go a long way, but look at episode four and ask, "is it enough"? The answer is no. The Fall is a bad movie regardless of how fucking beautiful Tarsem Singh makes it. You need character work and you need a story to hang it on. This story is all plot and terrible, excruciatingly drawn out plot at that. And really, that's what you take away from it. This story is only good if people don't watch it because I can't even imagine the people who've seen this episode and liked it. Hell, it's not even the best of its season, much less the era. That there are people who prefer this to "The Gunfighters" is one of the most appalling things I can imagine.

Thank god it's over. Thank god it doesn't exist. Thank god people are finally coming around to seeing that it's really rather rubbish.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! A base under siege! On the moon! And there's Cybermen! And a quintessential Troughton line! And Space Bubble Helmets! "The Moonbase!" Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. Phew, you survived :) There is another Big Finish with Charlie (a companion chronicle) which is quite enjoyable.

    I thought the Space Museum was very bad (boring, mostly), so I'm not gonna watch this one - thanks for taking this off my hands (or eyes and ears).

  2. Wow. Completely disagree. This is in my top-5 of 'missing stories I hope they find.' It has a quality to it that I think you're missing. And the Doctor's power with vices is a running thread for this Doctor- such as his vocal command/Dalek mimicry in The Chase. Its one of the Doctor's powers unique to Hartnell, which I like.

  3. You didn't like 'The Fall'? I really enjoyed it, but I was quite happy to just soak up the imagery, and I like depressing, maudlin stories ;)

    I've seen the episode of this that still exists, but haven't watched reconstructions or listened to audio of the rest. I agree, from what I've seen, it was pretty tedious, and about the most childish thing the series has ever done. I was curious to see if you'd mention Philip Sandifer's blog, because when I read his entry on it I was really surprised at the allegations of racism, I hadn't picked up on that at all. I had no idea the word 'celestial' was racist slang for a Chinese person, for instance. I love Dr Sandifer's blog, but I really didn't get much of a sense of the episodes I hadn't seen of this serial from his entry - your post has given me a much better idea of what was going on, so thanks :) Not sure if I'll bother tracking down a reconstruction though, I think I might be happy to giv this one a miss ;)

  4. This story is about as racist as a sponge.