The Celestial Toymaker

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The Celestial Toymaker is one of those stories that sounds great on paper, really spooky and mysterious, and a bit like the more surreal elements of The Prisoner. Sadly the reality is that it’s four dull episodes of watching Steven & Dodo playing boring Victorian parlour games, something that might have been enlivened if the Doctor had been playing them too. Unfortunately Hartnell’s on holiday for a fortnight, covering the middle two eps, putting paid to that idea right away.

And the show’s troubled production, resulting in three different writers all tackling the story the wrong way, doesn’t help either. It also saw off Producer John Wiles as well as Script Editor Donald Tosh, curtailing their short and creatively unhappy time at the helm.

And can you imagine what would have happened if they had followed through on their initial idea of recasting Hartnell come The Final Test? What a ridiculous idea, as if sticking some other bloke in Bill’s wig and cossie and telling us he’s the same Doctor but with different face would… oh, hang on, they did that in The Five Doctors, didn’t they. Which kind of proves the point…

All that really needs to happen is that they turn up, play as few games as possible with the Toymaker, win and leave. Simple. So that’s what they do here! Of the four games Steven and Dodo play in the original, we only need the first one with Joey & Clara and the last one with Cyril, meaning we can race through the story PDQ as it’s an audio only edit. And there’s so little story here that we can cut down four episodes to the equivalent of just one!

A game show with people solving puzzles and playing games for the audience’s entertainment and amusement, much like that of the Toymaker, is an idea that television has visited on several occasions. And in much more entertaining ways than this one. It’s also where the idea of the current craze for the Escape Room gaming experience finds its origins, and it’s an idea that can be made to work if you get it right. It’s gone through various iterations over the years…

First there was the BBC’s rather tame and inoffensive The Adventure Game, and although it’s a bit lame watching it back now, almost any of the games in that show would have been better than what Steven & Dodo go through. It’s also of interest in that several episodes feature peeps associated with Doctor Who, most notably Janet Fielding in episode 5 of series 3.

Then there was The Crystal Maze with the camp-as-a-row-of-tents Richard “Rocky Horror Show” O’Brien, reprising his ever so slightly creepy turn as Riff Raff, only with less hair and a lot more leopard-skin. I like to think that somewhere there’s a universe where O’Brien is an earlier iteration of the Toymaker, and that The Crystal Maze is that universe’s version of The Celestial Toymaker. I’d much rather see that one, frankly.

And who can forget Knightmare with the fabulously fruity Hugo Myatt…

You can imagine how, with a bit more atmosphere, and better, more dangerous games for the Doctor, Steven & Dodo to play, this might have been made to work, but if the idea was to make parlour games scary for kids then Toymaker spectacularly fails to do so.

And the reason it fails is because we don’t give a monkeys if Steven & Dodo’s opponents lose. If instead we had a scenario where all the game players were human, with the Toymaker forcing Steven & Dodo to fight for their lives against their new friends Katniss & Peeta [!],  then we would care, but if two toy clowns lose, what does it really matter?

That said, it’s testament to the strength of the idea of the Toymaker character that he’s made return after return in stories in comic strips and audios that are far better than in his initial TV outing. But for all that I’d still rather see a version where all three travellers are playing for their lives against other abductees for the amusement of Richard O’Brien’s Toymaker and his assistant Treguard…

Celestial Toymaker by Adrian Salmon
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