Do you ever wonder what it would be like if the Doctor encountered Q from Star Trek: the Next Generation? Or maybe that should be reversed. What would happen in Captain Picard met the Celestial Toymaker? After all, the Toymaker predates Q by a good two decades, though he’s a contemporary of the original Trek’s Squire of Gothos, Trelane. There’s a similar concept behind all of these television sci-fi stories: the idea of a nearly omnipotent being that can create and destroy worlds challenging the series’ protagonist to outwit or defeat him. Playing games, if you will. It’s obviously an impossible challenge made possible only by whatever rules the powerful alien lays down and is willing to abide by. I’m sure similar ideas can be found in earlier science fiction; however this is Doctor Who’s first stab at it. Is it a success? Mostly, as far as we can tell.
As always with these missing stories, it’s hard to judge how successful the whole thing is. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to be accurate, as “The Enemy of the World” demonstrated when it was returned and everyone saw just how good it was. Soundtracks and telesnaps can only go so far in informing us just what the story was like. There’s so much that can’t be judged without the visuals, particularly when it comes to action sequences. And there are plenty of those in this story as Steven and Dodo work their way through the challenges that the Toymaker puts in front of them. So let’s leave all that aside for the moment until we get to the last episode.
The concept behind the story can be more easily evaluated, and it is certainly solid. The characters are no match for the Toymaker, who could easily destroy or imprison them without any effort. There would be no story if that happened, so the Toymaker is written as a character who is bored with his power and his world, and who amuses himself by making less powerful beings play his games in order to see if they can win their freedom. Even that chance to win is something of an illusion since the Toymaker rarely loses, and is quite willing to cheat and allow his pawns to cheat in order to ensure his victory. He is quite literally toying with his victims. In a nice touch, the Doctor and the Toymaker have met before, so there’s some extra drama due to the animosity that already exists between the two. It was an off-screen meeting and we never learn much about it. At the end of the episode the Doctor fully expects further encounters with the Toymaker, meaning we’ve dropped in the middle of a running conflict between these two characters. But this one story is all we ever get.
The Doctor is forced to play against the Toymaker himself, while Steven and Dodo play against those who have previously lost the Toymaker’s games, with the clear threat that they will join their opponents in slavery if they lose. It’s a pretty nasty fate, and sets up some high stakes. But from what I can tell while listening to episodes one, two and three, the story moves along at a fairly sedate pace. Even episode four, which I certainly enjoy and which has its moments of tension, doesn’t manage to keep the level of suspense high for very long. Quite the contrary, the episodes roll by at a languid pace, and I find I’m more likely to feel annoyed with Dodo’s naiveté than gripped with concern over whether or not Steven and Dodo will prevail. It’s hard to know who to blame for this. The script was rewritten several times, with a number of authors, so it may well have become a bit of a jumble during that process. It may be that the director couldn’t really find a way to keep things moving. And there may just not be enough story for the four episodes. There is a lot of repetition, and one episode is much like another. A few more plot twists along the way may have been very helpful to keep raising the stakes or ratcheting up the tension, but we don’t really get them. We just get different obstacles for Steven and Dodo to overcome, and at the end of each they still haven’t found the TARDIS and have to try again.
The episodes attempt to wring their drama largely from the grotesque nature of children’s games turned deadly and psychotic opponents who appear harmless at first. The existing episode four features Cyril the schoolboy as Steven and Dodo’s opponent. He’s a man dressed up like a child, who lies and cheats and sets deadly traps in an attempt to kill his opponents, and he’s reasonably effective as a villain who keeps the episode moving right along. It may be that the other three episodes would be much the same if we could see them. I don’t think so based on the soundtrack, but again, without the visuals it’s impossible to know for sure.
The Toymaker himself is an effective villain, but that’s largely due to Michael Gough’s performance rather than the writing. The Toymaker doesn’t really do a lot over the course of the story other than alternately taunt and threaten the Doctor, Steven and Dodo. He does lose his temper with his slaves once or twice, and more of that would have been welcome in order to make him more menacing. For the most part Gough is every bit the villain who is charming on the surface but ruthless beneath the facade, and he really is good at the part. A lot of this is still evident from Gough’s voice acting alone during the missing three episodes, but actually seeing him act out the part in episode four is obviously far better, with his facial expressions and body language communicating volumes. William Hartnell’s absence from episodes two and three is very much to the story’s detriment, since more “Doctor versus Toymaker” scenes would have livened the story up immensely, in my opinion.
To summarize: with the caveat that seeing the episodes would probably change my opinion, I’m going to call this a “slow but serviceable” story. I enjoy episode four, and if the other three are similar, it would speak well of the whole serial. “The Celestial Toymaker” has a good concept underlying it and some decent villains, but it’s harmed by a repetitive plot, the Doctor’s absence from the middle episodes, and sedate pacing when more excitement is called for. It’s not the classic it used to be regarded as, but neither is it the slow and boring failure that revisionists would like to paint it. And I hate to even bring this up since the accusation is so stupid, but a white man with an English accent dressed in Chinese robes does not a racist caricature make. Still, people who want to see racism everywhere will inevitably find it where it doesn’t exist. In any case, I’d like to see the missing three episodes and see for myself whether or not the various games are enough in and of themselves to create effective drama. Hopefully they’ll turn up one day, but then I say that about every missing Doctor Who episode.