This is the latest in a series in which I choose one serial per season which is unusually well-made and/or innovative. It’s also intended to serve as a recommendation of where to start for people unfamiliar with the show in general or with the classic series in particular. Today I’m discussing an unusual story in which the TARDIS crew take part in a series of deadly games.
Shows like Doctor Who are often at their best when they stray outside of their boundaries, and produce something which is distinct from their usual output. (Perhaps this is why I’m so fond of Black Mirror and Inside No 9, in which every episode is different from its fellows.) The Celestial Toymaker is certainly a world apart from most of 60s Who.
Rather than dealing with an aggressive alien race or getting mixed up in some historical event or other, the Doctor and his companions are brought to a pocket universe run by the eponymous Toymaker and forced to play his games. If they lose, they will be turned into dolls trapped in the eldritch being’s domain forever, forced to compete against his next victims.
The Doctor is separated from his companions and made to play the ‘Trilogic Game’, a variant of the ‘Tower of Hanoi’ puzzle which, if carried out correctly, will take 1023 moves to complete. If he fails, or completes it before his companions Steven and Dodo have won all of their games, they will lose. If his companions don’t win all of their games, they will also lose. To prevent the Doctor interfering in the other contests the Toymaker first makes him invisible before later removing his ability to speak altogether.
Meanwhile Steven and Dodo have four games to play (conveniently broken down into one per episode). They play Blind Man’s Buff around an obstacle course against a pair of cheating clowns, compete with the King and Queen of Hearts to find out which of seven chairs will not kill them, and search for a key whilst avoiding the distractions of the comical Sergeant Rugg and Mrs Wiggs. All three of these pairs are played by the same two dolls – former victims of the Toyroom, competing for their freedom. In each game the final destination is the TARDIS, but at the end they always find an empty, police box-shaped cupboard.
It’s interesting to see the difference in Steven and Dodo’s reactions to the dolls they encounter throughout their puzzles. Dodo is innocent and trusting, which allows her to charm the soldier and the cook into calling off their fight but also causes her to be more easily tricked and distracted by the Toyroom’s inhabitants. Steven on the other hand is far more cynical and is quicker to realise that the clowns, playing cards et al. are not as innocently amusing as they appear.
The final game is ‘TARDIS Hopscotch’ played against Cyril, a 40-year-old man in a schoolboy outfit previously seen as the Knave and the Kitchen Boy. Cyril is, according to his creator, “The most deadly character of them all, because he looks so innocent.” The boy constantly cheats throughout the game, and his jolly demeanour disguises his evil – even murderous – behaviour.
William Hartnell has been absent throughout most of the serial as he loses first his physical form, then his voice (behind the scenes this was a failed attempt to write him out of the show altogether). He’s all the more impressive when he returns in the fourth episode (“The Final Test”), probably a combination of his absence making viewers grow fonder and the energy boost gained from his rest, and it’s fun to watch him play off against Michael Gough’s Toymaker. Gough (later to play Alfred in the 80s/90s Batman films, as well as marrying companion actor Anneke Wills) is sadly underused as the antagonist of this serial, and it’s a shame that he and Hartnell don’t get more screentime together.
With the Toymaker defeated, the Doctor tells Steven and Dodo that he can never be destroyed and may well return – setting the stage for a sequel which sadly never happened, as the villain’s planned return in the 1980s was ultimately cancelled.
The Celestial Toymaker has unfortunately lost all but its final episode. This serial, more than many others, relies quite heavily on visuals and so both the audio track and the visual reconstruction can tend to drag a little, as for many parts there is only action, with very little dialogue.
Overall The Celestial Toymaker is one of Doctor Who’s many stories which break from tradition, and which are all the more entertaining for it (although it was not so well-received by contemporary viewers).
Next time: the introduction of the Cyberman and the Doctor regenerates in The Tenth Planet.