Doctor Who – The Celestial Toymaker

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.

6 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The Celestial Toymaker

  1. One of my favourite stories from the last Patrick Troughton series in The Mind Robber, so I wonder what I would have made of its predecessor.

    Carmen Silvera and Campbell Singer both went on to make guest appearances in Dad’s Army. Carmen Silvera as Mrs Fiona Gray in Mum’s Army, Campbell Singer as Major-General Menzies in If the Cap Firs and Sir Charles McAllister in Honey For Tea. A picture of Clara appears on scrren in an episode of Sarah Jane Adventures when she’s looking up clowns on the computer.

    The Trilogic Game is based on Tower of Hanoi, or Lucas’ Tower (after the French mathematician Edouard Lucas who first introduced the puzzle to Europe), which is played my moving circular discs over three poles.

    The number of moves is (2^n)-1, where n is the number of pieces. So if you’ve one piece you solve the puzzle in one move, three moves if you have two pieces, seven moves if you have three pieces, fifteen moves if it’s four pieces, and 1,023 moves if you have ten pieces.

    The largest pieces is moved only once (the middle move), the second largest piece is moved twice, the third largest piece four times, the fourth largest piece eight times and so on.

    The smallest piece is moved every odd numbered move, the second smallest piece is moved every even numbered move where the number of the move is not a multiple of four, the third smallest piece is moved every move where the number of the move is a multiple of four that’s not a multiple of eight, the fourth smallest piece is moved every move where the number of the move is a multiple of eight that isn’t a multiple of sixteen and so on.

    When you get to Pyramids of Mars I might tell you of some variations of the riddle of the Osirans. And I don’t know if that’s a promise or a threat.

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  2. I remember liking The Celestial Toymaker (and the Mind Robber) when they were broadcast. In fact I rather liked 1960’s surreal stories in general (The Prisoner, The Avengers). I became rather intrigued by the Trilogic Game (better known The Towers of Hanoi, as Zanygang has explained very well, above).

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  3. The Celestial Toymaker was apparently due to make a return in a Colin Baker story entitled “The Nightmare Fair”, which was part of the season that was cancelled when the show was put on hold. There is a novelisation and a Big Finish audio version available.

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    • Yes, I’ve got copies of Graham Williams’ scripts knocking about somewhere – hard to say from that, but it doesn’t seem a very overwhelming story (although rewrites may have tightened it up).

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    • I read the book. It was the first of Target’s short live Missing Episodes series, and the best one. (The other two were The Ultimate Evil and Mission to Magnus which were also intended to be part of Colin Baker’s second series.)

      Nightmare Fair would have worked better as a first episode of a series starting in September rather than January. It’s a “What we did in the holidays” story like City of Death or The Leisure Hive. There was a Doctor Who exhibition in Blackpool (which I think closed in 1985), but they could have got Colin and Baker and Nicola Bryant to do the August Bank Holiday/Christmas (delete as applicable) edition of Disney Time from Blackpool as an excuse to plug the new series of Doctor Who.

      The Trial of a Time Lord box set contains a feature on the stories that were originally planned for the second Colin Baker series, and I would rather have had that version of season twenty-three than the Trial of a Time Lord that we got.

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