Airdates: April 1966 (4 episodes)
Written by: Gerry Davis; from scripts by Donald Tosh, which themselves contained some material added by John Wiles; which were in turn based upon scripts by Brian Hayles
Screen Credit to: Brian Hayles
Directed by: Bill Sellars
The Story So Far: The TARDIS is taken to neither time nor space, but is lodged for a period in an area of human thought. And nightmares.
Novelization by: Gerry Davis and Alison Bingeman (June 1986)
This has been Classic Doctor Who‘s “it” story for about 47-and-a-half years now. Of course, that all depends on what your definition of “it” is. For the first half of that time, The Celestial Toymaker was crowned as an all-time classic, Doctor Who at its creepiest and most unsettling. For the second half of that time, it’s been considered plodding, boring, and juvenile. And, for the last few years, it’s also been deemed racist to the core and not fit to even be considered as part of the show.
So, with a sales pitch like that, and The Gunfighters up next on the schedule, should I have even bothered to spend four nights with this one?
There are four basic things that I want to talk about regarding The Celestial Toymaker. First is the tumultuous production history, which is so essential to understanding why this episode has become so disliked; perhaps what people used to love about this story is what it was supposed to have been, rather than what it was. Next, there’s the actual story that we got — what worked, what didn’t, and dreading the moment when I have to talk about the scene with the N-word. Then, we’ll apply some fixes — what could have been done to the script to make it the classic that everyone so desperately wanted it to be. And, finally, we’ll come back to those charges of racism — are all those critical (and I do mean critical) readings of this story, accurate?
As always, get acquainted first with the production nightmare fair that went on as this story was being put together (and see what I did there). Brian Hayles had the original commission, but, according to Donald Tosh (towards the bottom of this massive but marvelously opinionated interview), the story got too dark and “evil” for Hayles, who ejected halfway through. Tosh then wrote a set of scripts proper, with Hartnell sidelined (for sinister reasons) and Steven taking over the male lead as “the driving force for good in a totally evil situation”. After Tosh left the series, John Wiles then padded out those scripts, intending to polish up a dark, menacing, evil, lushly realized production — with Hartnell disappearing early in Episode 1 and being permanently replaced by a new lead actor at the end of the story (three years before Dick Sargent replaced Dick York on Bewitched!).
And that’s when things fell apart. New BBC Head of Serials, Gerald Savory, vetoed Tosh’s use of his own George and Margaret characters in the rewritten scripts. The BBC higher-ups didn’t want Hartnell replaced, and that was evidently one of the many factors leading to Wiles’ resigning as producer. Then Michael Imison went over budget on The Ark and this, the next story up in the production order, had to provide the savings. With Tosh also leaving, further rewrites fell to Gerry Davis, his replacement. What resulted were scripts written in a hurry and with a deliberately austere setting in mind, and largely without Hartnell, since he was already on a two-week vacation following Wiles’ failed attempts to oust him. The scripts, as Tosh said in the above-linked interview, were “upstaged by panto-land.” If this pre-production debacle wasn’t a recipe for disaster…
So, given that the original story brief, the one that Brian Hayles allegedly said was driving him “insane”, had fallen through, what’s left? Essentially, the TARDIS has been abducted by the Toymaker (Michael Gough), who forces the travelers to play children’s games. If they lose, they become characters in his nursery, unless and until they win a game against the next victims in line. With Hartnell on vacation, and a double’s disembodied hand playing the “Trilogic game” in his place, Steven and Dodo take center stage. Purves brings a steely determination and Jackie Lane brings a cheery, can-do, let’s-all-play-fair attitude to the games. In theory, it should be great fun just watching these two work their way through the Toymaker’s traps and puzzles, no matter how banal those games had become in Davis’ re-re-rewrites.
One of the reason this story is so disliked today is because those games were so banal: Blind Man’s Bluff (turned into Snakes & Ladders for the novelization). Musical chairs. Hunt the thimble. Hopscotch. We have no idea at all how well this played as live drama, because, with the exception of the 10-minute hopscotch sequence in Episode 4, the games survive only as reconstructions. We are missing so much context for this that it’s really hard to tell if Bill Sellars, directing his only Who serial, made these individual encounters appropriately spine-tingling.
There’s some visual evidence both for and against Sellars in the surviving Episode 4. Given that this story had to be made on the cheap, designer John Wood’s minimalist sets actually work, in a surrealist way. I really, really like the chairs from the Episode 2 game sequence, and the open-air kitchen in Episode 3. Peter Stephens is fantastically creepy as Cyril, the hopscotch opponent for the first half of Episode 4. He brings nuance to the dialogue; he’s a 46 year-old man playing a wicked schoolboy, and his menacing leer at the Episode 3 cliffhanger really highlights the disconnect between his own age and Cyril’s. This is a great marriage of juvenile costume, clever line-readings, and lascivious facial expressions.
But as for the rest of it, we can only guess what might have been. The principal adversaries for Steven and Dodo before Peter Stephens emerges from the background, are Campbell Singer and Carmen Silvera, who play different versions of the same double-act in all three missing episodes. Silvera later played an evil environmentalist in Invasion of the Dinosaurs; all anyone remembers about Singer is that he uses the N-word in this script. The pair play clowns in Episode 1, with Singer mute and Silvera using a high-pitched squeak that annoyed the heck out of the dog who lives upstairs from me. Were they creepy as clowns? We may never find out. Dudley Simpson’s sprightly score takes on a menacing turn when the clowns lose their game and devolve into dolls. This might have been a spine-tingling moment. As a slide-show, which is all we have left, however, we can only do two things: imagine that it would have been creepy, or wonder why we just spent 12 minutes of our lives watching a limply-directed game of Blind Man’s Bluff.
Episode 2, The Hall of Dolls, is devoted to the musical chairs sequence, most famous for Singer reciting the N-word within “Eeny, meeny, minie, moe”. The “six deadly sister” chairs involve macabre fates for anyone who sits on them. Singer and Silvera this time play the King and Queen of Hearts. It’s hinted that these two used to be real people, and are so desperate to win that they’ll sacrifice their own son (and their Joker) on those chairs, just to defeat Steven and Dodo and escape the Toymaker’s nursery. Silvera, by the way, rocks an amazing headpiece as the Queen. This is clever scripting by Davis — first, they’re given a faintly sympathetic back-story; then they callously try to dispose of their son; then they nobly face their fate, with only two chairs left and their choosing to sit in the wrong one. But ow did their death-chair effect look? How creepy were the walking, stalking ballerina dolls who make up the cliffhanger a few moments later? No idea…
Episode 3, The Dancing Floor, looks awful as a recon. Singer and Silvera now play Sergeant Rugg and Mrs. Wiggs, fairy-tale figures; a key to the next level is hidden in their kitchen, and they devolve to slapstick routines to prevent Steven and Dodo from finding it. As we learned from The Feast of Steven, slapstick just doesn’t play well as a slideshow. Now, the script does wittily comment on the cost-saving device of reusing Singer and Silvera again (“All the Toymaker’s creations look alike to me!”, says Steven). But the rest is glacial and muddled without moving pictures; with Hartnell gone, Turn Left — a brooding reflection on the Doctor’s absence — this is not. The second half of the episode involves Steven and Dodo trying to get past those three ballerina dolls and into the TARDIS. Tutte Lemkow, last seen in The Myth Makers, did the choreography. Let’s hope he did it justice!
So we have no idea if these superficially banal challenges for Steven and Dodo, were effective. The hopscotch sequence does survive and is almost universally derided, but I think the interplay between Purves and Stephens make it very watchable, and it’s a lot shorter than you think it is. Without visuals and nuance to fall back on, though, the remainder of the first 3 episodes are pretty bad. The N-word. The dreadful, woeful scripting that turns Dodo into a congenital idiot, in every installment doing something stupid to help her opponent get an advantage in the game. Jackie Lane is so adorable that it pains me to watch her character flame out like this; she won’t last much longer on the show. Tosh said that Katarina was written out because her character didn’t work in the first draft scripts for The Ark; well, she might still have worked better than Dodo!
Then there’s Michael Gough. He’s got the perfect voice for this part, superficially genial with an icy edge. But as the Toymaker, he has nothing to do. His game is against the Doctor, and the Doctor’s not even there for most of the serial, so Gough spends most of Episodes 2 and 3 talking to himself. There’s a great moment in mid-Episode 3 where he berates Singer and Silvera for losing a game and threatens to break them… but the scene has no payoff, because when the characters shrink back to dolls at the end of the episode, there’s no actual breakage involved. When the Toymaker’s world is finally destroyed at the end of Episode 4, Bill Sellars has Gough react in horrified slow-mo to the Doctor’s game-winning gambit… this is a pretty cringe-worthy moment. Plus, Hartnell, during the brief time he is there, can’t pronounce “celestial”, and his pre-recorded voice-over bits in Episode 2 are famously misread (“It’s chair number,” he says as a complete sentence rather than an interrupted one, in a bit of Paul Jerricho-esque acting).
How could this have been fixed? I’m not talking about reviving Hayles’ script fragments or Tosh’s discarded drafts; those are long since lost to history. But Davis’s scripts, the ones as filmed, could have been tighter. The Toymaker needs more actual menace. We need to see him break Sergeant Rugg and Mrs. Wiggs, as he’d promised, and make us feel sympathy for these bumbling slapstick characters caught up in his nightmarish universe. We need a little more explicit backstory for the King and Queen of Hearts; Rob Shearman suggests in Running Through Corridors is that this is what Steven and Dodo would have wound up like, had they lost their games and become the Toymaker’s playthings. And more Peter Stephens — he’s the best thing about what’s left of the story, and his silky menace, like that of Michael Gough, is quite frankly underutilized. Lastly, a little more backstory about when the Doctor met the Toymaker before, to explain why the Doctor is so afraid of him (and, no, Divided Loyalties does not provide a satisfactory answer).
But it’s too easy to give these suggestions. We’ve now had 47-and-a-half years to suggest changes to scripts that Davis rewrote on the fly in less than a week…
And now, the racism. It’s hard to imagine that a script put together as haphazardly as this one, would have time for xenophobic attitudes, but Philip Sandifer did a pretty persuasive reading on the subject a couple of years ago. He based his arguments primarily on three things: the word “celestial” is an archaic word for “Chinese”; Michael Gough’s affecting a “parody of East Asians speaking English”; and (in the e-book version of his blog) the novelization contains a single paragraph that uses the word “Chinese” three times.
But the decision wasn’t made to make the Toymaker a Mandarin figure until after the word “Celestial” was already mooted for the episode title. And the novelization, while it has Gerry Davis’ name on the spine, pretty clearly was not written by Gerry Davis. His previous novelizations were far too well-written and richly detailed; this one is pitched at the less-discriminating 8-year-old, and was pretty clearly written almost entirely by Alison Bingeman, an American TV writer in her late 20s. Bingeman’s level of sophistication was illustrated by the fact that her Tales From the Darkside TV episode was called Miss May Dusa. I’m gonna chalk that novelization bit up to poor writing rather than deliberate racism. The novelization does at least describe what the sets could have looked like if The Ark hadn’t gone over budget, though.
But again, relying again on the Four Corners doctrine, there’s just not enough evidence here that Toymaker is deliberately racist, that the villain was meant to be “a nefarious, evil Chinese man who twists good Victorian children’s culture into sadistic and evil games.” Donald Tosh certainly didn’t think so. The Toymaker’s an immortal — the first one we’ve seen on the series — and is merely wearing a costume, almost as garish as the ones Peter Purves and Jackie Lane were wearing. His villainy doesn’t derives solely from the fact that he’s affecting a Chinese persona. Again, I think Sandifer’s reading is largely correct — casual ethnic stereotypes were used almost reflexively back then — but he gives too much credit for this patchwork story having time to be intentionally evil; as we’ve seen, it clearly didn’t.
Now, if you want a more example of racist Mandarin caricatures with parodic accents, and you’re still watching TV from 1966, you need look no further than the Marvel Super Heroes adaptation of Iron Man:
Honestly, if you’re looking for TV from half a century ago that very deliberately trades in on ethnic stereotypes, The Celestial Toymaker is barely a blip on the radar compared to the above clip. The Toymaker character was made Chinese to add a twist to the story, not because the production team wanted to warn against how evil the Chinese people were. What Toymaker was, was a great idea about subverting childhood games into something horrific, but dragged down and ruined by late script changes, massive budget cuts, and a director who at times seem to have been asleep in the gallery. It’s got cringeworthy moments, and the best things about the episodes are the moments that we have to pretend would have looked great on the now-lost videotapes.
Yes, early Doctor Who did traffic in racial stereotypes; for a show birthed by Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein, minorities all, there are many moments that go against everything the three of them would have believed. But, let’s not go tossing stories out of the canon. Let’s make a teachable moment out of this. Let’s use it to understand how racist stereotypes work; let’s learn when they’re accidental and should be rewritten, and let’s learn when they’re meant to belittle and frighten, and should be punished.
Look, I live in a country where people actually defended Paula Deen. Where politicians are still actively scheming to suppress the minority vote. I live in a country where this is a thing:
Celestial Toymaker at least has decent moments in it. Let’s learn from it and move on. Pete Hoekstra lost that Senate race by 20 points, by the way, but there is still, obviously, a lot more work to be done. Meanwhile, there are more flagrant examples of bigotry embedded in Who, about which much more anger is due…