Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Celestial Toymaker

Previous viewings - none (missing episodes), many (Episode 4)

Innes Lloyd takes over as producer, but as I understand it this story was well into planning stage when John Wiles was still in the producer's chair, as this was to be the story that carried through with his idea of replacing William Hartnell as the Doctor. More on this later.

It's always a delight when the TARDIS's destination isn't somewhere that can be described as either a time or a place - the writers are pushing the boundaries of what the show is capable of, which is risky, but I love The Mind Robber which is probably the best example of the surreal subgenre of Doctor Who stories. Unfortunately The Celestial Toymaker is nowhere near as good; despite some good ideas behind it it is handicapped by some shocking flaws that should have been addressed before recording began.

The TARDIS has materialised in the realm of the Toymaker, a supernatural being who ensnares his victims and forces them to play his games - if they win, they can go, if they lose, they're his forever. The Doctor is invisible, and plays the Trilogic game against the Toymaker, and is required to win the game at the exact same time Steven and Dodo complete their assorted challenges. This all sounds like a brilliant premise for a Doctor Who story, although it's one that demands to be fun in a creepy sort of way - mindful of the danger, but with some life to it.

Okay, strengths first. Michael Gough plays the Toymaker. I'm not quite sure what to make of him - calm and measured despite doing nothing but plays games for goodness knows how long, and with a dry sense of humour I wouldn't have expected. It's not quite clear why he plays the games. His plan to turn the TARDISeers into his toys is certainly cruel, but considering he makes the rules which makes it his decision to give the players a chance, however unfair, makes him a little more three-dimensional than usual. If only we had learned more about the character - he has bags of potential, but we don't see enough of him. Fortunately Michael Gough gives a scene-stealing performance (though most of his scenes are opposite an invisible and mute Doctor so most of the time he's only got disembodied hands to compete with) which makes him a very memorable character.

Minimalist sets reign supreme, but here it makes sense. It has all been conjured up by the Toymaker rather than being part of physical reality; they're sufficient for the games to be played in them, detailed enough for the set designers to use their imaginations a bit, daft enough to be believable. It's the type of story where Doctor Who's budget works to its advantage rather than its detriment - by concentrating on just a few sets, the designers can do them justice and perpetuate the 'pocket universe' claustrophobia of the Toymaker's realm, and it's very well done.

Those are two key strengths, but they're far outnumbered by the weaknesses. By far the worst of these is the absence of the Doctor. William Hartnell takes two weeks off as his character plays the Trilogic game against the Toymaker. This subplot is sidelined obviously because scene after scene of the Toymaker taunting a silent Doctor would get tiresome. Of the games played, the Trilogic game was the one I found the most interesting, because it seemed to be based on actual rules and the cheating in the other games removed any dramatic tension. Unfortunately more than in any other 'Hartnell holiday' episode the Doctor's absence is felt and his presence is missed. The Toymaker is great villain, so why deprive viewers the joy of seeing him sparring with the Doctor for most of the story? There's some interaction in the first and last episodes but it's not enough.

The bulk of the story, and the episodic structure, revolves around Steven and Dodo facing off against assorted creatures in a battle to return to the TARDIS. The first challenge is a game of blind man's buff against some clowns - cheating clowns at that. Dodo is only slightly annoying so far, and Peter Purves does the best he can, however I wasn't too clear on what was happening amongst the commotion, with squeaky clown voices and horns. It wasn't fun and it wasn't interesting. The second episode was a bit better, with Steven and Dodo trying to determine which one of seven chairs was safe to sit on. Again, the competitors - this time the King and Queen of Hearts - weren't entertaining enough for it to be worth listening to a whole episode of them deliberating over testing the chairs with dolls. It's obvious that every time Steven and Dodo win a challenge the TARDIS they find will be a fake, although I did like the structure of the episodes - ending with the end of a challenge rather than some contrived peril which would have probably had to come out of nowhere just for the purpose of having a cliffhanger. It led me to continue listening because I was hoping the next challenge would be better than the last one.

The final episode is probably the best one, and the only one I watched rather than listened to. Strangely, it's also the one where Dodo grates the most - with her and Steven competing against Cyril in a hopscotch game, Dodo seems to think it fun and keeps giving Cyril the benefit of the doubt despite knowing that the Toymaker's prisoners cheat. It's the first time I've been actively annoyed at a companion's stupidity. Again, there's nothing wrong with the idea of having an episode revolve around a simple game, but it's done in such a pedestrian way that it's dull to watch. It might have been better to save the script for the colour era, who knows it could have been a classic.

In the second half of the final episode, yay the Doctor is back! And more than a match for the beaten Toymaker, who retains his composure despite being about to lose his entire world. The story ends with one last victory for the Doctor, who is able to trick the Trilogic game into accepting his final move from the inside of the TARDIS, allowing them to escape without being destroyed with the Toymaker's world. Hartnell seems quite refreshed after his holiday, which is good because I was getting tired of hearing his voice being dubbed into the scenes where the Doctor was invisible. It didnt convince me at all that the Doctor was really "there". By this point, however, it's clear the Doctor isn't as commanding as he was in the first and second seasons. I'm not sure why; he's less present in the stories, but I can't help wondering if he is being deliberately sidelined because of the creative differences between Hartnell and the production team (this was after all supposed to be the story where he was replaced). Where in the first few seasons the Doctor seemed to be undergoing a character arc and the writers seemed to know where they were taking him, at this point I think they don't know what else to do. For all the talk of Hartnell's health declining I'd say the change in the Doctor is down more to the writing. I'm glad William Hartnell is still aboard, even if only for a short time more, but I'm hoping that the writers make the most of their leading man again!

The Celestial Toymaker is not a Doctor Who classic. The Toymaker manages to be one of the all-time great villains, but I can see him being better in a return story (no, I don't mean The Nightmare Fair).

Horror quotient - The horror doesn't come across well on audio, but if "The Final Test" is anything to go by, it's not a horror story visually either.
Comedy quotient - Despite the danger, this story demanded to be fun, or at least enjoyable.
Drama quotient - Stifled. Steven and Dodo's foes are (unfunny) comedy figures, and Dodo ruins it even more with a strangely upbeat attitude, even after sitting in the freezing chair. It's watchable, but the constant prolonging of the conclusion gets annoying after an episode or two.

A rewrite or two, with Hartnell in all episodes and in fine form, and we're talking. As it is, a huge letdown.


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