I have been looking forward to this moment with some degree of trepidation, because The Celestial Toymaker is an incredibly difficult Doctor Who story to write about nowadays. Due to issues of racism it is probably the most controversial Doctor Who story of them all. There are people for whom the very existence of The Celestial Toymaker really upsets them. So I’m not going to be able to avoid talking about the racism. Let’s just tackle the issue head on, and then move on.
Six years ago an amazing blog writer called Phil Sandifer wrote an article about The Celestial Toymaker which opened everyone’s eyes to the racism issues. He of course mentioned the use of the N word, but the main thrust of his argument was the use of the word Celestial as a racial slur against the Chinese, and the Toymaker being a yellowface villain. His argument was perfectly valid but based on flawed reasoning in my opinion, so first of all I want to say how brilliant his writing is. I have his books and they are magnificent – go and buy them. He did more than any other internet writer to move critical writing about Doctor Who away from standing in judgement about each story and finding something interesting to say about where a story goes thematically, although sadly the upper echelons of search engine results still throw up the most cynical click-bait rubbish for a lot of Doctor Who stories rather than the good stuff.
Firstly, the N word. I absolutely hate how an episode of Doctor Who includes this, but we have to acknowledge that the television series we love is now well over 50 years old. We are as distant from the start of Doctor Who as it was from a time pre- both wars. The Western world was waking up to the horror of racism but it still had a long way to go and unfortunately Britain wasn’t quite there yet; nobody got sacked for this and as far as I know nobody even complained at the time. The saddest thing is that nobody even noticed in 1966. If you do some basic research on other 1960s television shows it won’t take long for you to understand why. We have to acknowledge the rotten aspects of our past and celebrate how we have moved on since then, and, look, we have moved on. This has never been released in any format where the word has been left unedited. The CD release drowns it out with the narration. The unoffical reconstruction drops it so low in the mix that you have to go looking for it. And that’s a big point I want to make here, loud and clear. If you are offended by this story you have to go looking for it. You have to want to be offended. Just look at the Adventures with the Wife in Space blog (again, buy the book!) in which Neil Perryman skips back and replays that bit of the audio with the volume turned up high, telling his wife to really concentrate on what is being said.
We don’t need to do this. It’s not 1966 any more.
The same rule applies to the “celestial” stuff. Not long before his infamous review, Sandifer wrote this about The Daleks’ Master Plan:
Nobody even knew the phrase “The Daleks’ Master Plan” in 1966. It was just another episode of Doctor Who, aired on Saturday evening that the family sat down for and made an experience out of.
Similarly, the title The Celestial Toymaker did not exist at the time as far as the viewers were concerned. It is a title used on the scripts, and for the first draft the Toymaker was not even going to be dressed as a Mandarin and yet the title was used. The original use of the word was clearly to convey its obvious meaning, rather than the racial slur. So let’s look at what was actually broadcast:
- The first episode is called The Celestial Toyroom. The toyroom is not “celestial” in terms of being Chinese. They could have made some effort to dress the set in that way, but didn’t. So the term is being used and understood by the viewers as a more exciting way of saying The Toyroom in Space or something of that ilk.
- The name “Celestial Toymaker” is used twice in the first episode, once by the Doctor and once by Dodo, repeating the Doctor almost immediately. That’s it. There is no reference to the word “celestial” in any of the other three episodes, whatsoever.
So if you want to be offended by this you’ve got to look really hard, you have to understand the double meaning of a piece of archaic American slang, and you also have to pretend that there is something Chinese about the Toymaker other than just his fashion sense. He is about as Chinese as the Monk is holy. Michael Gough’s eyes are not stuck back like Martin Miller’s in Marco Polo, and he does not put on an accent. And the script is really crying out for him to do so, in that moment where the Doctor imitates his voice. That could so easily have been an uncomfortable imitation of a Chinese voice to trick the game. But it’s not, because nobody was trying to insult the Chinese here. It was all just a bit careless.
I have recently been watching the long-forgotten detective show, The Mind of JG Reeder, starring Hugh Burden, made between 1969 and 1971. In two consecutive episode we get obviously British actors pretending to be Indians and then an actor called Denis Shaw playing a waiter in a Chinese restaurant called Wu Tong, squinting his eyes for all he’s worth. It’s horrible, but this is our television past, and we can’t do anything about it. In comparison to a lot of stuff like this of the period, The Celestial Toymaker is positively enlightened in its approach.
And there are much worse racial issues in Doctor Who than that, in stories such as Marco Polo, The Crusade and of course The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which recently featured on an episode of the quiz Insert Name Here to the sound of collective groans about its yellowface casual racism. Thankfully, this sort of thing was remarkably rare in Doctor Who, in comparison with just about any other contemporary British genre show you would care to choose.
Now we’ve got that unpleasant bit of business out of the way, let’s look at other aspects of this story. There are some disturbing and exciting ideas here. We are in a different kind of reality to our usual past/future mix, which is hugely rare in Doctor Who even to this day. The villain seems almost god-like and yet the Doctor has somehow defeated him before. The toys are a creepy idea because they are real people trapped as toys, although this point could have been played on more. In fact, under the surface of this is some scary psychological horror that never quite gets utilised. The Toymaker brings up an image of the day Dodo’s mother died, but then abandons the tactic, when a continued personal attack on the Doctor and his companions through the story would have been compelling viewing. The Doctor says “he manipulates people” but we don’t see a whole lot of manipulation. However, we can’t really complain about a story not taking the kind of approach it would take nowadays. In 1966 Doctor Who just wasn’t there yet. The Doctor is also truly trapped, with the safe haven of the TARDIS removed. The point is driven home with a conveyor belt of fake TARDISes. This feels dangerous.
The games in themselves are not particularly interesting and the pacing is slow. But the point is not how difficult the games are, but how Steven and Dodo cope with playing them by their high moral standards, while their opponents constantly try to cheat. Similarly, the accusation thrown at the Trilogic Game that it is just Towers of Hanoi is valid enough on a superficial level. Yes, it’s not that difficult a game. I had a version of it as an Amstrad computer game and had no trouble working my way through it as a child. But again, that’s not the point. It’s quite clearly solved with a simple algorithm and the script doesn’t hide that. There is no way you could move forward through the moves automatically if it wasn’t. The idea is how well the Doctor can maintain his concentration while being taunted by the Toymaker. If he makes one mistake while he is distracted then he’s trapped forever. You think Towers of Hanoi is easy? Think about playing it while in fear for your life, being taunted by your captor, with your friends in mortal danger and knowing that one wrong move will end your life as you know it. Again, he is facing an opponent who is trying to cheat. And in the end this is a story about how honesty pays off. The ones that play by the rules of the game are the ones who win, while the cheaters fall by the wayside throughout the course of the story.
I suspect there would be something of a re-evaluation of The Celestial Toymaker if the other three episodes are ever found. We have what is almost certainly the weakest episode, all Cyril being Bunter, which is now a reference that most viewers won’t even understand and belongs to the past as much as the casual racism. The story’s reputation was destroyed because it was hugely hyped up and then the existing fourth episode got released on VHS and proved disappointing. It was never going to live up to the promise of the premise. Like Tomb, people expected too much, and both stories have since been evaluated based on not achieving the pictures in people’s heads, which is of course an inherently flawed way to form an opinion of a story. A friend of mine watched every Classic Series episode of Doctor Who on first broadcast, and this was far and away his favourite story. Probably like almost every contemporary viewer at the time, he didn’t notice anything racist about the story. You won’t either, unless you go looking for it. Don’t do that. Enjoy The Celestial Toymaker for what it is: Doctor Who’s first ambitious sidestep into a different realm, that couldn’t quite afford to put its ambitions on screen. RP
The view from across the pond:
The Celestial Toymaker brings us back to the era of the first Doctor and another tragically lost story. That means to talk about this, we’re either looking at the existing episode, hitting the online synopses, or going from memory from the Target Novelization I read over 25 years ago. Alas, my mind’s eye is good at visualizing but after 25 years, I’m afraid, the image has faded substantially. But regarding eyes, there are a number of classic actors who have a strength about them that is conveyed very clearly through their eyes. Think of Charles Dance, Christopher Plummer, or even Michael Gough. Michael Gough can look like the most kindly of gentlemen; the sort one could sit with, sipping a nice cordial in front of a fire, chatting amiably with for hours about some philosophical matter. Think of him as Alfred, Michael Keaton’s butler, in the 1989 Batman. Or he can convey something much darker that hides an even greater power, as he did in The Celestial Toymaker. And, sure it may be little more than my opinion, but I see that conveyed through the eyes.
The Toymaker, dressed in his Mandarin garb, is a power from another universe. Although it’s been suggested by one of the audio stories that he was one of the Elder Gods, a race that I find utterly fascinating from the H. P. Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos, I don’t think that does him, or them, justice. I’d argue that the Toymaker is more akin to Loki. The Elder Gods are gigantic beings, akin to the way we would appear to an ant. But Loki, the Norse god of Mischief, is a trickster. He likes to play with us, teasing, taunting… If that means causing harm, so be it. The Toymaker is far more in line with the trickster than an entity that exists out in the cosmos like the Elder Gods. The fact that the Doctor knows where they’ve landed within the first few minutes of the story makes the connection with Loki even stronger; the Toymaker is a known being to many worlds and cultures, unlike the Elder Gods, which tend to be obscured. And the clowns, Joey and Clara, are also in keeping with a trickster motif. Keep in mind that in 1966, when this episode aired, this would probably have been especially frightening. Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is an aspect of The Uncanny Valley; an idea that something looks like us but is different enough to inspire discomfort and even terror. I believe these two alone would have added a significant fear-factor to the episode.
Gough shares some interesting little connections with Doctor Who. He shares the Doctor’s birthday of November 23rd, , was married to companion Polly (Anneke Wills), and was in a movie in 1953 called Twice upon a Time. He was the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland which, as readers of our site know, has a strong connection to Doctor Who. In 1999, he even played a character listed simply as “the Doctor”. And he was also Councilor Hedin in Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity (as the bad guy, of course). But his first involvement in Doctor Who has helped this episode attain the legendary status that it has. Beyond just the Toymaker, the episode may have given us a far better look at the character of Dodo, one where she’s not sick and threatening to wipe out all of mankind. Steven’s brute strength is demonstrated against the Toymaker but is ineffectual at doing anything to the titular nemesis. In fact, Steven seems to be hurt when he tries to punch the Toymaker, which is a great message for the younger viewer. The episode is won by intellect, not brute strength; the Doctor has to outthink the Toymaker, not outfight him. And that’s exactly what I think made Doctor Who such an amazing show for the time. Watch the surviving episode, specifically the scene where he has to make his “final move”. I mentioned eyes before; it’s Hartnell’s eyes that convey intellect in this scene, an intellect that is more than a match for this cosmic trickster. And if the Toymaker were an Elder God, it would not have deemed the Doctor a plaything. Loki, on the other hand, abides the rules at the end of the game. Whether the Doctor really beats him or just proves too challenging an opponent, the Toymaker does not seek him out for a rematch for a very long time and that’s another one of those pocket universe things; the infamous Michael Grade prevented his return ever coming to life.
I don’t know if this will ever be found. As time goes by, it seems less and less likely. If we can get one back, this would be a good one. We need more with Dodo, for one. We have to get a better feel for how she really was as a companion. And we need to see Michael Gough in action again. This story also featured flashbacks; it would be incredible to see that brought to life too. This story is what I refer to as a gauntlet story; the heroes are put through a series of tests that they have to survive, but it would be fun seeing them do it, rather than just reading about it.
Maybe, like Hartnell’s Doctor in parts 2 & 3, these missing episodes are hidden in plain sight. Someone will just have to win another tri-logic game to make them all visible again. Do we have any contenders? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Gunfighters