Aired 2 April – 23 April 1966
Picking up with the cliffhanger from ‘The Ark’ in which the Doctor becomes invisible, the TARDIS soon lands in the domain of the ancient and eternal Celestial Toymaker, a being with a penchant for games with the highest of stakes. With Steven and Dodo almost immediately cut off from the TARDIS and the Doctor, they are tasked with solving and winning a series of challenges before the disembodied Doctor finishes the Trilogic Game set before him. In so doing, ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ represents Doctor Who’s first trip into more surreal territory, putting a nefarious spin on childhood pastimes along the way.
Of course, the invisible and sometimes mute nature of the Doctor allows a script-based reason for William Hartnell to again take a scheduled holiday. Apparently, producer John Wiles had several problems with William Hartnell behind the scenes and wanted to take the programme in a more adult direction, intending to replace him with someone else when the Doctor rematerialized at the end of the story. This, of course, does not happen, but it perhaps sowed the seeds for the renewal/regeneration that would occur later to usher in Patrick Troughton. Regardless of the reasoning and intentions, this setup once more means that the companions must carry the story. Peter Purves naturally succeeds in doing so, the suspicion and distrust he imbues Steven with paying off handsomely. While the show still doesn’t seem certain what it wants to do with Jackie Lane and the character of Dodo, she does at least get to show some flashes of genuine humanity here as she plays the more trusting counterpart to Steven.
The guest characters are a rather cruel and intriguing lot as well. Campbell Singer, Peter Stephens, and Carmen Silvera play multiple roles as the companions’ challenges progress; though all of them are ultimately nothing more than the Toymaker’s pawns, they each bring something unique to each of their roles. Stephens does make a few noticeable mistakes in his delivery that takes away from at least some of the menace, but Silvera is incredibly effective throughout. The standout star without question, though, is Michael Gough as the titular Celestial Toymaker. Without venturing into a more exaggerated or even pantomime performance that would have been so easy, Gough offers an incredibly subdued and minimalist performance for his eternal genius who has grown bored with the passing of eons. He turns the Doctor invisible solely for his own amusement, takes joy in taunting Steven and Dodo as they fail to find the real TARDIS, and even willingly threatens his own pawns, all aspects that come together to create one of the most unique and inherently dangerous foes the Doctor has ever met.
There are some noticeable faults with the story, however. Despite the intrigue and tension, he pacing is unquestionably slow, and this is unfortunately highlighted by the fact that the first three episodes exist only as audio recordings. Episodes one and three, in particular, feature little dialogue as the challenges progress from Blind Man’s Bluff to a search for a key, meaning that there is a lot of incidental music that doesn’t necessarily highlight the drama. Surprisingly, given that this is a story that seems to revel in visuals, the existing photographic still and episode four suggest that a very minimalist set design was utilized, perhaps giving an otherworldly feel but ultimately a little disappointing given how excellent the sets have generally been up until this point.
‘The Celestial Toymaker’ is certainly not a perfect story, but its incredible core villain and its ability to turn children’s games and characters into deadly weapons certainly make it a memorable one. With the Toymaker beaten but not destroyed, the potential for future encounters is certainly welcome.