Doctor Who (Classic): S03E07 “The Celestial Toymaker”

Season 3
Directed by Bill Sellars
Written by Brian Hayles

After a brief reprieve, here we are back at the realm of the missing serial, or mostly missing as the final one has been recovered. We’ve been dealing with a bunch of larger scale stories recently but “The Celestial Toymaker” is remarkably scaled down. The core of the serial is simply The Doctor and his companions (two groups who are quickly separated from each other) solving puzzles against the Toymaker and the Toymaker’s minions respectively. With the lack of development Dodo especially has gotten so far, it’s not a bad idea to close ranks a bit and focus on the leads but sadly this doesn’t happen.

Instead we get another comedic story and they are far from Doctor Who’s forte. While the show can be funny, too often it goes broad and punctuates it with some truly horrific scoring that makes one opine for the comparative subtlety of Murray Gold. The most egregious offenders in this regard are the Toymaker’s minions. While an interesting idea to go with the toy theme by being nothing more than toys given life and increased in size, their execution leaves much to be desired. Even with the dark underlying current of being forced into service and given humanity by the Toymaker, I still spent the entire serial wishing for their brutal deaths.

The puzzle solving format allows for a ticking clock as Dodo and Steven must solve their puzzles before The Doctor finishes his (forced to make a certain number of moves in his stacking game at different times to prevent him from just sitting and doing nothing). The puzzles themselves would probably be a lot better if we could actually see them in action but you can’t blame them for that. The text rapidly (sometimes unreadably so) scrolling across the bottom can hardly convey what they are doing and the static shots of the actors with wacky music playing over them grow quickly tiring. I had to rewatch certain sections over again just to figure out what was going on. The riddles translated better to an audio drama format but even then I struggled to care about them and they were not nearly clever enough.

Despite the overarching story, “The Celestial Toymaker” feels incredibly episodic with each episode dealing with a different challenge for Steven and Dodo while The Doctor just plays off the Toymaker who makes a far less compelling nemesis than say The Monk. The first set a villains, a pair of stereotypical clowns with high pitched voices make me want to strangle them and ends with one brutal death of one after Steven exposes his attempts to cheat. The episode, to its credit tried to get briefly serious with Steven’s “It’s him or us” attitude towards the game feeling harsh if appropriate in feeling no remorse in letting the clown die (or just temporarily turn into a doll again it’s really hard to tell with this serial). It’s a moment that The Doctor would be proud of and Dodo takes on the sort of “Why does it have to be this way?” roll that Steven had in “The Daleks’ Master Plan” and “The Massacre” but it just doesn’t land the same way. It may be partly because Peter Purves (Steven) is no William Hartnell and even Jackie Lane (Dodo) feels a step down from Purves, but it also probably has to do with the abrupt change in tone both to and from that moment. You can’t bring up a potentially horrifying philosophical problem in Episode 1 and then forget about it.

The next two groups of underlings sent out are a card influenced set (King, Queen, Knave, Joker) which could have been more interesting in an Alice the Wonderland type deal but here are just instantly forgettable and a bickering pair (a soldier and a housewife) whose antics are beneath even that of a lousy 60’s sitcom. There’s also a set of “creepy” ballerina dolls who accompany this latest pair and draw others into their dancing against their will but without any sense of movement, the notion of their creepiness is completely lost. I feel bad constantly bringing this up and it is probably unfair to judge, but as is their impact is nonexistent.

The final toy sent out is perhaps the most obnoxious of all intentionally and unintentionally. Pulling off the adult manchild, especially one that dresses and acts like a kid, is a hard task. It’s a thin line between Pee-Wee Herman and late period Adam Sandler and here it is just disturbing yet played off as “comedy”. I get that he is supposed to annoy Steven and Dodo with his continual attempts to get them to “cheat” (which are inexplicably successful too) but as viewer it’s just unpleasant to watch. He’s not even fun to root against and each successful attempt just made me groan even harder.

I didn’t remember disliking “The Celestial Toymaker” as much last time but here I just couldn’t wait for it to end. “The Sensorites” may have been worse but I don’t think I’ve struggled getting through a serial as much as I did this go around. There’s hidden potential in here especially with The Doctor and the Toymaker’s battle of wits which is practically The First Doctor’s specialty, but it never comes together and their conflict feels more like a lesser version of ones the show has done before.

Grade: D+

Stray Observations

– The Toymaker is played by Michael Gough better known as Alfred from the 80’s and 90’s Batman movies! Gough will always be my Alfred I think of despite the performances of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Michael Caine.
– Interestingly, The Doctor is already aware of the Toymaker’s existence. This is probably only the second time I can remember such a thing happening on the show away from Earth (“The Rescue” being the other) and I appreciate when the show goes through the effort of showing that The Doctor is already familiar with certain extraterrestrial beings and planets not mentioned before. He did travel with Susan before the series and it expands the world.
– The way the Toymaker creates his minions by increasing them in size from small inanimate objects feels remarkably Power Rangers-like.
-This fact only further draws attention to the if not yellow-faced then certainly running pretty darn close to it portrayal of the Toymaker. Doctor Who has frequently had this problem before and dressing up a white actor in oriental clothing and treating him like a Fu Manchu styled mystic is just too uncomfortable.
– The cliffhanger from last time of The Doctor starting to disappear is eventually treated more as a joke, with the Toymaker messing with The Doctor’s visibility for his own amusement because nothing in this episode can be treated as even vaguely threatening.
– Anyone who says they like clowns is lying.
– Dodo’s accent does get to me at times and it makes me feel bad for siding with The Doctor on occasion in critiquing it. I think part of that is what feels like forced “hip” lingo which writers have and always will struggle with.
– The dancing dolls really just made me think of the far superior “Once More With Feeling” and “Waiting in the Wings” which handled the concept of character being forced to dance against there will infinitely better.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: There’s a tease for The Toymaker possibly returning in the future (hah) and with The Doctor apparently poisoned by the grownup child’s sweets

Next Up: The intact four episode serial “The Gunfighters”. Why is it again we are missing “The Massacre” and most of “The Daleks’s Master Plan” but not this?