Saturday 12 December 2020


First broadcast: April 1966
Written by Brian Hayles (and, uncredited, Donald Tosh)
Plot spoilers? I wouldn't worry

”I'll never be able to look at a doll or a playing card again with an easy mind. They really do have a secret life of their own.”
- Dodo

Fiction Comes in Colour

In the all-important business of comparing Sixties 'Who' to Eighties TV game shows, if 'Keys of Marinus' was 'The Crystal Maze' then 'Celestial Toymaker' is 'The Adventure Game'. It's the one where they go to a puzzle world, and have to play their way out of it. Except while 'Adventure Game' was set on the planet Arg, here they've not been taken to any kind of planet but somewhere other – described dramatically by the Doctor as “the realm of the Celestial Toymaker”. So yes, this makes for another 'sideways' story. And yet at the same time he calls it “somewhat familiar”.

Officially this wasn't the show's first venture into the Land of Fiction. That was the Horrorworld section of 'The Chase', even if they backed away from the notion as soon as they raised it. But it was bound to happen. The science fiction of 'Who', with its absolute uninterest in anything genuinely resembling science, was always going to hearken to that fiction half. As the story so far shows, its tendency was to get all allegorical – rather than concern itself with credible world-building, it's focus was on what those worlds might stand for.

Look how quickly it gets going. There's barely any lead-in or preamble. A story motor is the Doctor already knowing the titular Toymaker, so he can drip-feed us exposition as we go. But this can be done because we know him, even if we've never seen him before. He's the sort of antagonist who's likely to turn up on a show like this. He just needs a name – the Celestial Toymaker, that'll do – and we're off.

Yet for all that its something tied up with the DNA of the show, this was another story designed to chime with the Sixties. The series didn't go into colour until the Third Doctor, yet I had always illogically assumed this was a colour story. And looking back to my much-treasured 'Twentieth Anniversary Special', on the spread given to this season it's the only story to be given a colour illo (reproduced below). As that scene doesn't appear in any of the episodes and there's others on-line to go with it, the most likely explanation is that contemporary colour publicity shots were made. Something they notably repeated two years later for the story's thematic successor, 'The Mind Robber'.

For in a way it was a colour story, in the way the upcoming 'War Machines' had to be in black-and-white – this was a modern, happening story. It starts with Dodo parading her “fab” Carnaby Street clothes, just as the fusty old Doctor is rendered invisible. But the main reason you can tell it's a self-styled modern story? It's all the Victoriana.

Though Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' books had long been a staple of popular fiction, they enjoyed a new lease of life in the Sixties. Jonathan Miller's acclaimed adaptation of 'Adventures In Wonderland', for example, was shown some months later. John Lennon considered Carroll an influence, and made him one of the cut-out celebrities shortly to appear on the cover of the incoming 'Sergeant Pepper' In a year which also saw Jefferson Airplane’s ’White Rabbit’ and the Incredible String Band’s ’Mad Hatter’s Song’.

And if the hippy interest ostensibly lay into reading non-existent nudge-nudge drug references into the work, that was their hamfisted one-track-minded way of parsing a genuine insight – there was something strange and possibly even dangerous here, beneath the skirts of twee Victoriana.

Which was what? Writing on that Miller adaptation Mark Fisher refers to “the feeling that Wonderland is Alice's world alone, yet she has no place in it. She is always late, in the way, misunderstanding what ought to be obvious. In this way, Carroll is the precursor of Kafka, and ultimately 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland' has far more in common with 'The Trial' and 'The Castle' than with 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' or 'The Wizard of Oz'.” And he's right. Miller's version resolutely burns its way through the story's surface features, the nursery-room Victoriana, to get closer to it's essence of child-eye paranoia.

So its perhaps no surprise to find the BBC episode guide citing his name here. Structured around a serious of encounters with strange creatures, it mirrors the Alice books. But that’s in form. What about content?

Snuff Hopscotch in The Sinister Playpen

Much like 'Web Planet' they are literally drawn to a place rather than randomly landing there. And much like 'Web Planet' there's a division between the mental labour of the Doctor (who has been made intangible save for one playing hand) against the Toymaker and the manual travails of Steven and Dodo. The games they must play against his minions involve traversing spaces, overcoming physical obstacles.

The centre of 'Celestial Toymaker' is of course the Celestial Toymaker. Back in 'Monsters Versus Aliens' I noted 'Who' specialised in monsters, “always reducible to human foibles and hence always explicable in human terms”. Yet the Toymaker is the most alien thing so far. Inscrutable, he has no origin story. Unlike the Daleks he doesn't want to take over our world, nor the planet of some Earth-like people, he wants us to draw us into his.

Perhaps surprisingly then, particularly with the references to his being an adversary of old, the emphasis then falls from him and the Doctor – and falls onto Steven and Dodo. It's widely agreed that, with Michael Gough and William Hartnell actually acting in the other room, lumbering the viewer with Peter Purvis and Jackie Lane was something of a mistake. (This write-out was for the standard reason, to allow Hartnell to go on holiday. Donald Tosh has stated that earlier script drafts focused more on their conflict.)

There's some vague pretence at the start about the game he’s set being a challenge for the Doctor, the Toymaker describing it as “for the mind, the developed mind”. And we need something that looks fantastical and complex, like Mr Spock's 3D chess from 'Star Trek'. But the Trilogic game they pick instead is clearly child's play, and is really only used as a ticking clock for Steven and Dodo to race against. The Toymaker even speeds up the hands whenever he's feeling mischievous. (Which is often.)

But never mind, let's look where we're being directed to look. With her afore-mentioned 'fab' gear and her first reaction to Toyland “it looks dead boring to me”, Dodo is something of an anti-Alice. And this reaction is stronger still with the stripy pullovered Steven. He scoffs “you must be joking! Kid's games!” with such outrage you expect him to add that he's been in high-minded historicals, and will be bringing this up with his agent.

Their adult presence seems intended to create a juxtaposition which makes Toyland look more childlike, that its sinister side doesn't reveal itself until too late. The Doctor urgently warns them “this place is a hidden menace” and “the game you're going to play is not so innocent as it looks”. As Tomb of the Anorak says “the majority of its appeal seems to rely on the juxtaposition of innocent characters and situations with the deadly and the macabre.” 

Perhaps its aiming at something like the 1971 Genesis album 'Nursery Cryme' (below), with its cover image of decapitated heads on croquet lawns in a children's book illustrational style. And like much of 'Toymaker' it's a notion which recurs later in 'Who'. The Weeping Angels, for example, are clearly based on the children's game Statues.

That's the intent. Frankly, it doesn't work. There's no real unexpected rupture points between the twee and the macabre. There's just four episodes of bad actors playing cheap games which are, by common consent, tedious beyond belief. One involves Steven and Dodo looking for a key, and ends with them finding a key. There may have been snuff hopscotch at some point, though it's possible by that stage I was just hallucinating. Dodo had it right at the very beginning. It’s dead boring.

The script suffered rewrite roulette between Brian Hayes, and the uncredited script editors Donald Tosh and Gerry Davis. The main reason for this was budgetary – each version striking out something which looked like it might cost money and replacing it with something which didn't. As the games form the bulk of the script they suffered most, being scaled down considerably from their original version if not changed altogether. And perhaps this undercurrent of the macabre was lost along the way. Tosh found the result “much lighter, more pantomime” than his original intent. But however it happened, the story's a failure.

Not the Puzzle But the Pieces

Yet is it a total failure? You'd defy the keenest fan to show any interest in those silly games. But interest in games and puzzles isn't what drives the story at all. This is not a puzzle world so there can be puzzles. On the contrary, there are puzzles here so this can be a puzzle world.

Consequently the fear doesn't come from taking a wrong step in snuff hopscotch, or sitting on the wrong chair and getting a chill up your bum. The fear is of being reduced to an automaton, a game piece on a board that belongs to the Toymaker. Dodo and Steven are forced to play his games to escape this fate, but must play against others who've already played and lost. (Repeat antagonists who, in a nice touch, are always played by the same actors.) 

As the Toymaker says "I'm bored. I love to play games but there's no-one to play against. The beings who call here have no minds, and so they become my toys.” Seen this way, the image of the Doctor being reduced to a playing hand is a strong one. This isn’t really Carroll, but there’s a closer correlation to him that you often get.

Dodo has a running argument with Steven about the reality of the world and their antagonists. There is something of a big brother/younger sister element to their relationship. Which may be why fans tend to assume that the elder Steven's right. Yet the headstrong lad would seem to be the straight man of the joke, given lines like the quite hilarious “I'm going to see if there's an invisible barrier round his backside”.

It's the more empathic Dodo who intuits the situation and insists the Toymaker “can bring them to life, but they have wills and minds of their own”. As she says, after Steven's zillionth tantrum, “if they're not real, how can you lose your temper with them? You can't have it both ways, you know.” Their antagonists do seem to develop more personality with each iteration, from the two clowns to the King and Queen cards to Sergeant Rugg and Mrs Wiggs, like greater time outside the doll's house allows more of their humanity to reappear.

A child can have an animistic conception of the world, imbuing spirits into inanimate objects. This can include their toys, which seem not props but to have their own life with which the child interacts. Yet what can seem charming and innocent to an adult can have a sinister side, as the child senses 'their' toys are not actually under their control. And we carry a trace memory of that into adulthood.

...all of which leads you to expect Dodo to do a Lincoln act, to throw open the doll's house and allow the toys to regain their wills and minds and walk free. Except none of that happens. Their running argument reaches a head in the third episode and is then forgotten about. (When the King and Queen are replaced by Cyril, the story seems to take a different direction, and abandon previous themes.) However, it seems so seeded that perhaps it's something else which got lost in translation between one draft and the next. Whichever, it's another nice idea which doesn't come off. What we have here is another interesting failure. Like a broken toy, pick it up and it will rattle with sound – but don't expect it to have life of its own.

Lost Without Translation (Signs Which Point Nowhere)

Except there's one way to look at this where it does almost line up, though one almost uncertainly unintended in any of the string of rewrites. This review has so far jumped between the concepts of 'puzzle worlds' and 'fictional realms' interchangeably, and there is a reason for that...

What happens in a 'Who' story? They encounter an adversary, get split up and separated from the Tardis, and on their way back the script conspires to throw at them a series of pitfalls and obstacles. And all that happens here except those obstacles are made diegetic, formalised into the story. The script's full of metafictional references.

TV then tended to use dressed down adult actors for child roles, often with little attempt to disguise them. You'd merely stuff an adult in short trousers and give them a cap, like a form of 'youth drag'. They continue this here with Peter Stephens as Cyril (below). Yet Steven makes a point of saying that he “look(s) pretty grown-up to me”. And once the unquestioned convention is pointed out it starts to look pretty creepy.

And there's an association between being fictional and being an automata of the Toymaker. The King and Queen cards are there to serve a plot function as much as playing cards serve a game function. They have no actual agency, they exist only to serve a greater purpose. Its not just that they must do their master's bidding, royalty made servants. Its that they only have life when they are doing his bidding. The rest of the time they are back in the box.

And this has a particular meaning for a show with a strong allegorical element. The Daleks for example are not just counter-tokens to stop the other side getting back in the Tardis and off the board, they exist to point out at things in the wider world. Pretty much everything in the Hartnell era represents something in this way.

The crew want to be back out in the Whoniverse, where they can be making a difference. But they're trapped in the Toymaker's realm - a hermetic space where signs are just signs. Divorced from their meaning they exist only in relation to one another.

And the games have no 'meaning', in the sense of significance, because they're in a realm which doesn't - and so they become more like empty rituals. Fail to win the game and you appear to die, but actually you become trapped in it. Places in the dollhouse are shown awaiting Steven and Dodo. 

And as everyone else has fallen out of the regular universe to get here, so they retain a memory of what they were before they were diminished. Like one of those fever dreams where you can reach out but never grasp anything, you can utter words, form sentences, but you can't utilise them. In Semiotic terms, the Signifier has become divorced from the Signified, and language no longer describes the world but just refers to itself. Signs which point nowhere, what could be a greater trap than that?

The Doctor's is rendered intangible before he enters the Toymaker's realm. Unlike later, when he has to be prevented warning Steven and Dodo, there's no intra-story reason to do this. It even cuts against the notion that the viewer should only be gradually made aware of the sinister nature of this realm. But it has a symbolic value, there to tip us off we're entering the intangible. Look how Steven's repeated threats of physical force are attempted only once - and to no avail.

But most of all look to the repeated motif of the fake Tardises. Conceivably, these came from the fact the Tardis prop on stage was just a cramped hollow space. But within the story the Tardis, the very thing which allows the crew to travel the Whoniverse, the symbol of their agency, has been rendered into a hollow sign. It's like that time you were looking for scissors, and kept repeating "scissors, scissors, scissors" like the word might summon the object.

In this way the endless rewrites, while they probably did wash the story of any originally intended rhyme or reason, may even have served to enhance things. The more remote and disconnected it got from its original purpose, the better it described the Toymaker's realm.

The exception to, and proof of, all this is the Toymaker himself. Like the Red Queen in Carroll, all the ways belong to him. Effective use of language is his alone. The pieces of the Trilogic game move at his command, but so do the clowns and playing cards. Without him they're inert, listless as dolls. 

Attempting to escape the Doctor realises “if this place vanishes, the rest of us will vanish also”. They can't destroy his realm without destroying themselves because they are themselves based in it. They're not merely signs, but they are signs. As the Doctor puts it, “the mind is indestructible. So is the Toymaker.” After earlier being struck mute the Doctor finally affects their escape by imitating his chief power – his commanding voice.

From Celestial to Infernal (And Back Again)

More than anything else in the Hartnell era, this is a terrible story persistently haunted by a brilliant one. Which makes it in equal parts frustrating and fascinating. Could anything have been done to solve this? Maybe...

In the longstanding debate over which found ‘Who’ story would best be lost, this one ranks highly. And we know this because for a long time it was lost, and it worked much better that way. In 1976 the Doctor Who Appreciation Society proudly named its newsletter after it. In 1982 John Peel was enthusing “this was one of the weirdest, cleverest and most successful 'Doctor Who' stories ever”. But in 2004 the ’Lost in Time’ box set gave us the chance to actually watch the surviving episode. (Yup, just one. Still too many.) At one point in the story the Toymaker shows Steven and Dodo film of past incidents, causing the Doctor to cry “Turn around this instant! Turn away from it!” And the reappraisal went pretty much like that really.

And as those budget cuts bit, original producer John Wiles said he'd prefer the thing to have been scrapped altogether. Which is the smartest thing ever said about ’Celestial Toymaker’. It would work so much better if it hadn't been made. But we knew just enough to know it almost was.

With ’Who’ the lightning rod is not the lightning. It’s very often the idea of the thing that appeals, with the cheapskate stuff that got cobbled together for the screen just a way of attaching to that idea. So imagine back when you just had a few stills, and evocative quotes (such as Dodo's up top), and were able to mull over them at your leisure.

Things can be literally legendary, a status they gained precisely because they didn’t get made – Jodorowsky’s adaptation of ‘Dune’, the Who’s ‘Lifehouse’. They’re not just flawlessly uncompromised by production, leaving us free to imagine them as we want. They enable us to imagine something beyond our imagining.

The Toymaker never reappeared in the show proper, but has become a staple of spin-offs and fan fiction. (He was intended to return just as it was cancelled. But as it had virtually become a fan production by then, this emphasises the point rather than diminishes it.) Which suggests not just that people were reacting to something in him, but also sensed that it was something which hadn't been able to flower in his original appearance. He was from a daft TV series from the Sixties, trying to riff on contemporary trends they only clumsily understood while avoiding spending any money, reduced by rewrites which progressively lost the point of the exercise. And yet he's still out there now...

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