Monday, 15 June 2009

The Celestial Toymaker


(3/31/04 2:27 am)
The Celestial Toymaker 1:

It's become rather fashionable to dislike this story. I haven't heard it in ages so I can't really comment on it as a whole, but from this episode alone it's ok.

OK, it's very hard to judge any of this from sound alone. More so than any other missing story, a lot of the weight of this has to come from the visuals. The extended Blind Man's Buff sequence, with a mute clown as one of the villains show this clearly, but the tone of the story is unwordly and strange, and we can tell from the few photographs and part four that this is, in some ways reflected and enhanced by the design.

The Toymaker himself is a slightly unexciting character idea - some bored god like being or something, it ain't entirely clear - but it's really given life by a great performance from Gough, especially on the audio. The man's voice is magnificent. Shame the character seems designed to fit the requirements of the story rather than being a character in his own right though.

It's very odd that the Doctor's met him before. It doesn't actually help the scripting all that much, seemingly just a device to short cut the exposition. We as audience members think 'Who?' when the Doctor announces they're in the realm of the Toymaker. It's nice to hear that he has a life outside of what we know, any reminder of that is good - but we feel slightly left out here, with the Doctor's foreknowledge essentially being used to try and give us a sense of threat the story otherwise wouldn't possess. And ultimately, that short-changes us. We know the Toymaker's bad from the start, because the Doctor tells us. There's nowhere for that element to go. We expect the games to be rigged. And it sidesteps the need for plotting.

The games are... well I like the Blind Man's bluff, what I can hear of it. It's quite nicely playful to start with, but the sudden seriousness of the clowns when they have to play for real is quite creepy, and you do begin to sense that there is something at stake. Steven and Dodo respond well, both displaying more personality than they've had for a while, or ever, respectively. Steven is humourless and brash, but ultimately focused and pragmatic - he knows that they it's a them or us situation. And Dodo is naive and compassionate. The game brings out the best in them.

It seems quite odd that the Toymaker gets people to play his games because he is bored - but he doesn't watch the Blind Man's Bluff. He's more interested in the Trilogic game, which is dull and repetitive, and grabs him so much he rushes through the moves when he gets tired. Is he really enjoying this at all?

I know this sounds like I'm slagging it off, but I do genuinely quite like part one. The game is engaging and the characterisation is rather fine. There's a nice, creepy cliffhanger. However, I do have a faint recollection that it all just repeats the same tricks for a couple of episodes, so my liking will possibly wane.

There isn't a lot else I can say - not much happens in this episode. It is quite nice to see one that's totally rooted outside our reality and not standard sci-fi.


(4/3/04 3:21 am)

Well, I've figured out how to get my sister's computer to let me onto O:G (yay!) and so it's time for an update. I've been deliberately trying to avoid getting ahead of myself (and I did feel very ill for most of Thurs) so I'm only one episode further ahead. Should be onto Toymaker 3 later today...

The Celestial Toymaker 2:

One of the weird things about this story, so far, is that it gets a fabulous actor like Michael Gough in and then gives him nothing to do at all. It's an interesting character, and he sounds great, but he does nothing. He's just locked in a room watching the Doctor play a particularly dull boardgame - and then is completely emasculated by having the Doctor pretty much removed from the action (why do they do that, anyway - considering all the time and effort spent in recording scenes on film with Ian to give him a holiday in Reign and Crusade, and Susan likewise, how much effort would it have taken to record a few more lines of voice over from Hartnell. Isn't the whole premise of the intangible Dr a gift for the holiday-covering producers? Why only record one line from Hartnell? Grr...) Gough has nothing to do, and no-one to interact with. It seems a waste - this guy would have made a great Mavic Chen (they'd probably find it difficult to have got the three month booking, but they could have tried) Why hire someone this good if you don't get them to act?

The rest of the episode is quite good fun. I think this is one of those stories that proves you should never watch more than one episode at a time. It's how they were meant to be seen. There is an air of repetition about this episode, curiously emphasised by the recasting of Cambell Singer and Carmen Silvera (two people with the same initials... odd, but totally insignificant). With each episode filmed completely week by week, this doesn't save the production any money, as it would have done in the later years, so it's clearly a directorial choice rather than one of budget neccessity. But it's not really referred to (Dodo does say 'they look familiar', but she's referring to the playing card motif rather than them resembling the clowns), and it's not clear what it's supposed to mean. Steven and Dodo react to the games the same way, Steven all ruthless pragmatism, Dodo all naive innocence and compassion - which frankly makes her look a little stupid.

The game itself - well, the whole thing reminds me a little of the movie Cube. Seemingly random choices, death dealt out for the wrong ones through a variety of booby traps. There's something genuinely creepy about it, though once more it would have to work better on tv (bizarrely, the various explosions, slicings, shakings make no sound at all - maybe an attempt to make it look less nasty?). The whole juxtaposition of childhood symbols with gruesome death played out against a surrealistic background is rather unnerving, really.

The other characters are quite nicely written, having distinct personalities and being broadly speaking likeable - but we are carefully made to sympathise with Steven and Dodo through the queen's slightly uppity nature and their plan to sacrifice another being - the Knave - for their freedom. Having said that, they're decision to be free together or go together is rather touching.

So quite a nice episode - not vastly dramatic or anything, but tense, creepy and a little strange.


(4/3/04 3:30 pm)

Re: Day by Day
The Celestial Toymaker 3:

OK, this is the episode that really explains TCT's poor reputation.

A lot of my criticisms of episode 2 still stand - Gough is still utterly wasted, even with a little more to do in this episode. But more on that later.

The general problem with this episode is... well, practically everything. Episode 1's game had novelty, 2's had a tangible sense of threat. The majority of this episode is taken up with the search for the key. And it's utterly woeful. The guest characters, Rugg and Wigg, are nicely drawn caricatures, instantly personable and likeable - but ultimately this goes for a burton when we see that the whole key search has no real dramatic or threatening base. It's just a lot of silliness. Now silliness is all well and good, but when you have an episode like this without a clear direction or purpose, then it just seems dull. It ain't going anywhere, it's just hot air to fill time. The scene isn't really about anything more than filling in time.

And that's a general problem with this episode. There's a real sense that the imagination has run out. The game is less interesting this week. The support characters, being less clearly based on totems of childhood, don't have the same creepy air. And unlike the previous guest parts, the whole thing doesn't really interest them, they care less about escaping, so Dodo and Steven's quest doesn't really seem to be in danger. With no proper opponents they're clearly going to win.

There's a faint air the script team are getting bored too. The only properly deadly part of the game, the dancing floor, is rushed through dismissively without any real interest. There's a nasty idea at the heart of it, but it doesn't get investigated - it's all well and good saying that if they lose they'll be trapped in the Toymakers reign, but that's quite an oblique context. The booby trapped chairs worked because we saw, and could be afraid of, what they did, we knew it was something bad. No-one seems to consider quite what the eternal dance could mean.

With the dance treated so perfunctorily, there then remains rather an uncomfortable five or so minutes of padding. This all has to be desperate first draft filler, really, there's no other excuse. There's loads of dialogue from Dodo, Steven and the Toymaker that fails to have any dramatic point, or takes the story forward. Wasting time, pure and simple. (This is where Gough's extra screen time comes from - but he isn't given a single line of interest or significance to say).

Steven and Dodo are still pretty much the same - her complete failure to take any of it seriously is quite annoying. Steven's almost too serious about it, and his threat of physical violence to Cyril at the end is strikingly odd. (And 'My friends call me Billy?' How could they expect not to be sued?)

I think the various bits of padding underline the problem with this story - it just isn't going anywhere. There's no heightening of the stakes, each episode is roughly the same as the next. It's a series of events, not a plot. A lot of nice ideas, but not a coherent story. We're in Feast of Steven territory here with this episode - Who has to be about something. It has to be a story, not set pieces. It's hard not to listen and think 'Honestly, what's the point?'


(4/4/04 5:04 am)

Re: Day by Day
The Celestial Toymaker 4:

The worst thing about this episode is having to watch it on the Hartnell years tape. The fortunate rereleases of the Pilot episode and Crusade 3 means I haven't had to dig this video out for yonks. And blimey, is it awful. McCoy is forced to utter things like 'Wonderful stuff' at the end of the episode when he clearly hasn't watched it and doesn't care, and do slightly forced comedy moments with an Arabic Edge of Destruction and Lady Peinforte. Not the best work he's done.

Anyway, the episode. This is very much an improvement on part three. The main game seems properly deadly (even if they do have to work hard to make it look like Steven and Dodo could ever be in danger - Steven's wobble at the edge is contrived, how hard can it be to hop a yard or so?). Having the games themselves be potentially fatal is much more striking than the abstract threat of not getting to the TARDIS. Cyril veers perhaps a little too close to irritating, for my money though. It's fair enough that we have to be against him, we have our heroes, but actively annoying can't be a good idea, surely? As a minor point, one I forgot yesterday, it is at least acknowledged that he was the Jack of Hearts, though there's still no explanation of why the characters look the same. Just adds to the slightly surreal atmosphere, and the enigma of the Toymaker.

Gough finally gets to do something in this episode. His scenes talking about being a bad loser are the best he has in the story. It's one of the few times we get to see him as an actual threat, genuinely all powerful and nasty, rather than just being told he is. Actions speak louder and words and his childish pettiness at his loss really work. We finally get to see him as a bored god figure, immoral and unpleasant, rather than just some alien with a nursery fetish. OK, his strained face pulling as he waits for the film insert to be cut in at the end doesn't entirely work, but that's more a fault of direction than Gough himself. The character becomes a figure of menace, showing how dangerous it is to be powerful and bored - rather than just some intergalactic Richard O'Brien/Des Lynam cross breed. He should have been out there, talking to Steven and Dodo more, threatening them and his players in the previous episodes. They've been fun, but that could have made them more dramatically satisfying and coherent.

The hopscotch is a bit of a weird finale game, btw. It's not terribly visually exciting (after all my banging on about how this story probably looks better than it sounds, the rather univentive look of this episode suggests that it would sound better than it looked. Maybe the whole story is like this, maybe not. Hard to tell, obviously). One of the clear problems of this story, as I said last time, is the lack of any real progression. The game's don't get successively harder, they all seem the same. As a result it becomes a little repetitive - We know Dodo and Steven are going to win, Steven's going to be petulant, Dodo's going to be ridiculously stupid (Honestly, she's been banging on about being nice to the Toymaker's players for three episodes, you think she'd have got the message by now. At least they were pleasant, likeable people. Cyril's a total arse, so her going back to help him is utterly insane). Still, it's more about the why, and it's entertaining in its way.

There's a clear boom mike over the robot displaying the Trilogic moves counter at one point. Bit of a shame.

The trap of the Trilogic game's final move is quite a nice idea. There really does seem no way out and the eventual solution is quite fun - yep, the Doctor's sudden ability to be Jon Culshaw comes out of nowhere rather, and considering that the script indicates that it's the Tone the Toymaker uses to move the pieces, rather than his voice specifically, the dubbing could perhaps have been dropped. It's quite nicely done for a while. Usually the pre-recorded voices in the show sound distinctly, well, pre-recorded, the Hartnell ones early in the episode here certainly do. But this one feels as if live, in the right place.

All in all, quite good fun. Surreal and strange and with a good villain. Could have been a classic if it had been about anything, or bothered with a proper plot, but, barring part three, I enjoyed it and think it's underrated these days. There's a clear set up for a sequel, but I'm sort of glad they didn't do one as it's hard to see what else the character could do apart from an exact re-run of this script. And whilst I enjoyed it, it made sure that at four episodes it didn't outstay its welcome (at six episodes, this would have been unbearable). As it is, it's a pleasant enough diversion - though it must be watched one episode at a time. Seriously.

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