Poor old Celestial Toymaker. It’s one of those stories that’s languished in obscurity for decades – probably ever since 1991 when its only surviving episode (The Final Test) was released on VHS and the less than thrilling hopscotch game was once again seen in all its glory.
It’s fair to say that The Final Test doesn’t show the serial at its best – if any of the first three episodes also existed I’ve a feeling that we’d think better of it. Given the production issues The Celestial Toymaker had to overcome (a restricted budget and numerous rewrites) it’s possibly not surprising that it feels a little rough round the edges. And yet …
I’m never averse to the series trying something different – especially since once Innes Lloyd gets his feet firmly under the table he’ll format DW much more rigidly than its ever been before (I hope you like base under siege stories, as pretty soon you’re going to get an awful lot of them). The Celestial Toymaker‘s childlike fantasy world is like nothing we’d seen before and would rarely see again (apart from The Mind Robber).
Unlike most stories where there’s scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) reasons for whatever happens, here we just have to accept that the Toymaker (Michael Gough) is a fantastically powerful being who can trap people and force them to play his games. Refreshingly (unlike in The Mind Robber) he doesn’t have galactic conquest on his mind – he’s simply bored and wishes to be entertained. As the story progresses we learn little about him – apart from the fact that he and the Doctor have met before.
As the episodes tick by, one obvious weakness is that Gough ends up being rather underused. After his impressive entrance in the first episode, the Toymaker spends most of his time with a mute and disembodied Doctor (Hartnell taking the opportunity to enjoy a few week’s holiday). So he’s got little to do except keep an eye on the Doctor’s progress in the trilogic game and pop up every so often to annoy Steven and Dodo as they battle through a series of different games.
The world of the Toymaker initially delights Dodo, who so far has been played as little more than an over-enthusiastic child. Steven’s less enamoured with some of the silly games they’re forced to play (I like to think a little of Peter Purves’ attitude was seeping through here).
One thing that appeals to me is the way that Campbell Singer, Carmen Silvera and Peter Stephens keep reappearing in consecutive episodes as different characters. It helps to keep the budget down of course, but it’s also a chance for Singer and Silvera especially to stretch their acting muscles (a pity that neither appear in the final, existing, episode).
In part one they’re a pair of clowns – Joey and Clara. Joey doesn’t speak (he just, Harpo Marx style, honks a horn) whilst Clara has an incredibly annoying high pitched voice. With very little photographic material in existence, the game they play with Steven and Dodo seems to stretch on interminably.
Things pick up in episode two – The Hall of Dolls – as they’ve now been reincarnated as the King and Queen of Hearts – joined by Stephens as the Knave of Hearts and Reg Lever as the Joker. Singer’s performance as an amiable old duffer with Silvera offering strong support as his stern wife enlivens proceedings enormously (without them, the game of hunt the chair would have been far less fun).
Indeed, as I made my through the story this time, Campbell Singer really emerges as the serial’s unsung hero. His turn in episode three – the bluff and cowardly Sergeant Rugg – is another entertaining one. As with the second episode, it’s the byplay between Singer and Silvera (here playing Mrs Wiggs, a stern cook) that helps to drive the first half of The Dancing Floor on. The second half – Steven, Dodo, Sergeant Rugg and Mrs Wiggs contend with some deadly dancing dolls – might be eerie or it could have fallen flat (with only the soundtrack available it’s impossible to know for sure, but I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt).
As touched upon earlier, the absence of Singer and Silvera hurts the final episode. Peter Stephens’ performance as Billy Bunter (sorry, Cyril) is annoying, although I’ll concede that it’s supposed to be, so in that respect it works well. It’s nice to have Hartnell back in the flesh but his final confrontation with the Toymaker does feel somewhat anti-climatic.
So, it’s a mixed bag overall. But I’ve a feeling this is a story that needs to be seen in order to be appreciated. Some missing stories work well as audios, but The Celestial Toymaker lacks well drawn guest characters (although the roles adopted by Campbell Singer and Carmen Silvera in the middle two episodes are worth the price of admission alone) and so suffers without any visuals.
Although on the surface the Toymaker’s games appear whimsical, there’s a harder and nastier edge lurking under the surface. Subverting the safety of the nursery (at one point the Toymaker proudly shows the Doctor two children’s chairs he’s designed for his latest dolls – Steven and Dodo) is an eerie thing to do. And are the ‘people’ Steven and Dodo encounter just figments of the Toymaker’s imagination (as Steven believes) or are they real people, previously ensnared by the Toymaker and now forced to act out his wishes on command? The latter possibility is a horrific one.
Given it’s experimental nature, I’ll give it three and a half TARDISes out of five.