|Me Chinese. Me play joke. Me trap you in a nightmarish|
shadow dimension and force you to play sadistic games
for all eternity.
I wrote this essay more than eleven years ago. I have not rewatched The Celestial Toymaker in those eleven years, and have zero intention of ever watching it again in my life. While I stand by the broad claim that the story is both racist and terribly made, I am in no position to defend any specific detail of my reading at this point. While I remain broadly proud to have been part of the widespread reevaluation of this story and its mistaken reputation as a classic, I would note that the argument that it’s crap and the observation of its racism both predate me—they can be found in About Time, which at this stage in writing Eruditorum I was still, frankly, over-reliant on as a reference. More to the point, there’s a decade of subsequent discussion about this story, some of which I should dearly hope has surpassed my own analysis. Given this, and without being so arrogant as to think this is remotely binding, I would largely appreciate if my decade old work were not held up as a primary source to be cited in any current debates about the character, if only because, as a trans woman, I really don’t need the inevitable explosion in my mentions.
It’s April 2nd, 1966. The sun continues not to shine. In two weeks, The Spencer David Group will require someone to save them. So the singles chart isn’t that interesting. Flipping to current events, then, we have… not a heck of a lot. Artificial heart installed in Texas. That’s a bit funny, actually, given that the story we’re talking about today was almost Harnell’s regeneration story, whereas his actual regeneration story features a villain based on paranoia about things like artificial heart.
So this story and the next one are a bit interesting. I mean, Doctor Who is always interesting. Even when it gives a complete turkey of a story, it’s still usually interesting. But these stories are interesting because they are a consecutive pair of stories that have both had dramatic and significant re-evaluations within fandom. We’ll talk about the actual process of re-evaluation on Monday with The Gunfighters, but for now, let’s note that this was, for a long time, considered one of the great lost classics of Doctor Who.
It’s understandable on paper. You’ve got an unusual setting, a first rate actor in Michael Gough, and a bizarre and terrifying villain. Everything looks like we’re set for a story that works well. So in the absence of anyone actually taking a look at the thing, of course everyone thought it was good. Episode 4 wasn’t found until 1984, which is after the cut-off for initial impressions, and didn’t get a mass release until 1991. Loose Cannon didn’t get to it until 1999. So there was plenty of time for everyone to make assumptions about the story before anyone saw it.
Sometimes this process masks a hidden gem. Nobody quite knew how good The Massacre was for a very long time, because on paper it didn’t look like much. Here, however, that process led us to assume that this story was brilliant. After all – a nightmarish realm of toys ruled over by an insane demigod that forces the Doctor and his companions to play a bunch of nefarious games with odd titles like the Trilogic Game. That sounds great. Clearly a departure for Doctor Who into something new and exciting, and an ambitious idea that introduced new kinds of threats for the Doctor.
Then people actually saw the thing. And that’s the problem. Because in practice, this story is a complete trainwreck. The pacing is excruciating. Even if you make the standard accommodations of remembering that it’s not supposed to be watched in one shot, it’s tough to get over the fact that there is no emotional content to this story. It’s just the Doctor playing the Trilogic Game for four episodes while Steven and Dodo meander through a series of arbitrary deadly challenges. The reason it’s four episodes long is… that’s how long it is. It could have been one. It could have been three hundred. It doesn’t matter, because the plot does not build at all, at any point, anywhere in the entire episode. They just eventually run out of games and go free.
I mean, watching the reconstructions you can find a little leeway. Yes, it’s almost certain that the 40 second dance sequence in episode three would have played better if you didn’t have to stare at a single photograph for 40 seconds while music played. But then you get to episode four and realize that, no, the whole thing actually is as dull as you were afraid.
And on top of that, the whole thing is just… not even trying. It makes literally zero effort to be good. There’s an interesting bit that comes up occasionally in which Dodo tries to treat the opponents the Toymaker creates for them seriously because they’re real people who got trapped by the Toymaker. But her and the Toymaker saying so is the only actual evidence we have for this. She makes a vague claim that their remaining humanity is why they let them win, but it’s a tell-don’t-show moment. Nothing, watching the episodes, makes them look like anything other than generic villains. That’s par for the course here. “Ooh, that’s an interesting idea, let’s ignore it in favor of fifteen minutes of hopscotch.”
The central example of this – the one that I spent most of the four episodes laughing at – is the Trilogic Game. Which sounds delightfully esoteric when you just read the name, or hear the Toymaker’s description: “The trilogic game. A game for the mind, Doctor, the developed mind. Difficult for the practiced mind. Dangerous for the mind that has become old, lazy, or weak.” I mean, wow! What a great idea! A devilish, difficult game that is so savagely difficult as to be actively dangerous for a lesser mind! How does it work?
Well, as it happens… it’s Towers of Hanoi. If you’re not familiar with the name, you’re surely familiar with the concept. There’s a tower of discs of varying sizes, stacked with the largest on the bottom and the smallest on top. You must move the tower from one location to one of two others, one disc at a time, and never putting a larger disc on top of a smaller one. For my part, I first encountered this game in a computer game – I believe Sesame Street themed – in which the discs were layers of a cake. I was very good at it. I was also three.
In other words, the diabolical logic puzzle is, in fact, an idiotically simple puzzle that children can and do solve and that is trivial to write an algorithm for. Which would be one thing if the sodding Toymaker didn’t routinely shout for the game to advance itself. Which kind of establishes the game as the linear execution of an algorithm that it is. I mean, it’s a bit puzzling why the Toymaker constantly goads the Doctor about whether he has the sequence right when the Toymaker has been making half the moves himself. (Really, about the most fun you can have with this episode is trying to come up with elaborate explanations for why the Toymaker is as stupid as he is. Unfortunately, as we’ll see in a moment, the most sensible explanation is a deeply unpleasant one.)
This may also be the story that functionally kills Dodo as a character. After an introduction in which she’s maddeningly stupid, here she has nothing to do. I mean, nobody has anything to do in this story, but for Steven or the Doctor that’s not so bad, because we at least know them well as characters. But Dodo has gone from stupid to nothing to do, meaning we’ve had eight episodes of her not working as a character. Even if she’s extraordinary in her remaining ten, she’s kind of up a creek now, and it’s no wonder she got dropped.
To some extent, there are excuses to be made. The original idea for this story was apparently to have it be an implicit sequel to a play called George and Margaret by Gerald Savory. George and Margaret was a minor piece of absurdism that got to the central idea of Waiting for Godot a decade and change earlier than Beckett did. The play is about a dinner party for George and Margaret in which the titular characters never show up. This episode was going to actually have George and Margaret, until Gerald Savory decided he didn’t like the script and demanded they be taken out, which necessitated a hurried rewrite of the script to remove its central concept. Probably the whole story would have been spiked there and then, except the show needed a cheap story and this story fell right on the transition from John Wiles to Innes Lloyd as producer, so Lloyd didn’t really have time to kill it, even though by that point even Wiles, who commissioned it, wanted it killed. Still, given that we’re already slagging on Wiles, and I don’t want to turn on Lloyd in his first story, since he’ll be here for two more seasons, let’s blame most of this on Wiles for simplicity’s sake.
But this is only so helpful. You could try watching the story as a piece of absurdist theater, except it’s lousy absurdism too, because absurdism is ultimately about something. This story isn’t. It’s not exposing the capricious and arbitrary rules that tyranically govern the world. It’s just faffing about with musical chairs of doom. It may use the tropes of absurdism, but it doesn’t get at the point of those tropes, making them an empty exercise, and making the absurdist explanation little more than an interesting production detail.
But here’s the really brutal part. It’s not enough that this story is complete rubbish. I mean, it is, and it boggles the mind that this was once thought of as a classic. (They were going to bring the Toymaker back in Season 23, before the 1985 hiatus killed that plan. Doctor Who fans should thank Michael Grade for sparing us from that trainwreck of an idea.) But that’s not actually the biggest problem with this story.
So let’s get to the real problem. The thing that takes this story beyond “Interesting idea with completely botched execution” into “Oh for God’s sake, just kill me.” The fact that this story is unrepentantly racist. Again.
And, I mean, seriously. I’m certainly deliberately including race as a running theme in this blog, but would the show mind cutting me a little slack so I don’t have to point it out every damn episode? I mean, I suppose at least the racism has changed slightly. The Ark is racist deliberately and ideologically. Everything about it is racist. Which is oddly more tolerable than this, where the racism is wholly incidental. The Ark was racist because some people with racist beliefs decided to write a story about what they believe. The Celestial Toymaker is racist because some people with racist beliefs just couldn’t be bothered not to put them in.
There’s two big aspects of racism in this story. One is more commented on than the other. The less commented aspect is this – the Toymaker himself is a vicious caricature of the Chinese. You may have missed this reading about the story. First of all, let’s note that the Toymaker is explicitly dressed as and described as a Mandarin. This would be one thing, except the title of the story – The Celestial Toymaker – reiterates this. Celestial does not mean “cosmic” here. It’s old slang for Chinese. (Fire up an episode of Deadwood and you’ll see it thrown around) Specifically, at least according to some sources, it implies drug use, which sets up an interesting interpretation of this story as a condemnation of the entire idea of psychedelic culture, but is probably neither here nor there. So we have a racial slur in the title, and a villain dressed in the appropriate ethnic clothing.
But wait, you say, Michael Gough was white. Yeah, but so was most of the cast of Marco Polo. He’s playing the role in obvious yellowface. For proof, look at him when he shouts at the Trilogic Game (also of Asian origin, at least by legend, although exactly where in Asia varies, and the legend is likely an apocraphyal backstory to explain a 19th century invention) to advance some number of moves. Hear that clipped, shouting speech with an accent that isn’t quite English? Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the same exact parody of East Asians speaking English still in use whenever you want an ethnically stereotypical Asian. The entire story is based around having a Fu Manchu style villain who is evil precisely because he’s Chinese. To an audience watching and even remotely aware of these stereotypes, the fact that he is Chinese is how we know the moment we see him that he’s evil. And just think about the xenophobia here – his toys and games are all classic Victorian stuff. So this is a nefarious, evil Chinese man who twists good Victorian children’s culture into sadistic and evil games.
Honestly, I am stunned and kind of upset that the Toymaker is still considered a classic Doctor Who villain. Big Finish has been using him in audio stories as recently as June of 2010. Despite the fact that he’s a flagrant racist caricature. And you can’t even rewrite him to avoid that, because the racism is in his name. It’s not like you can just shave off the pointy bits and have a character that isn’t racist. You’re pretty much stuck with it. The fact that anybody trots this character out as a classic part of Doctor Who history is a black mark on Doctor Who fandom.
And that’s not even all! The other, better known bit of racism, is that the 19th Century American version of Eenie Meenie Miney Moe is recited in the second episode. That would be the version in which “tiger” is replaced with “nigger.”
And for those sources (which I decline actively to do the service of linking) who defend the slur as being acceptable in 1966… No. The slur was not acceptable in 1966. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None had its title changed to not include the slur in the 1940s. It was racist then. It’s racist now. It’s just plain racist. There’s not a defense of this one to mount. You can’t hide it behind “Oh, times have changed.” Yeah, they have. But that’s not one of the things that’s changed.
I mean, for God’s sake, the American Civil Rights movement is international news by now. The word is an American slur. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes establishes conclusively that any UK usage of that version is picking up on the American version. To use that version is explicitly a reference to American culture, and in 1966, shortly after the heyday of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in America, there’s no sympathetic reading here. There’s no way to pick that version of the rhyme without making a conscious decision that you’re perfectly fine with calling Martin Luther King a nigger.
So it’s not “a product of its times” or anything like that. Nor was The Ark. Or, rather, they are a product of their times, but they’re a product of the worst and most reprehensible instincts of the times. I mean, I’m OK with sympathetic readings of racist texts of the past that acknowledge the failings even as they celebrate what’s good about them. Hell – I freely admit that The Ark, and the entire John Wiles era, is gripping television, even if it is largely ethically bankrupt. And it certainly doesn’t help that The Celestial Toymaker is crap to start. But there’s also no excuse for this. Or for The Ark.
Yes, there were more unrepentant racists in 1966, and so in that sense racism was “part of the culture.” But so was the idea of racial equality, and the sense that maybe colonizing people and oppressing them wasn’t a very nice thing to do. I mean, the entire Rhodesian conflict we’ve been talking about puts the lie to the idea that racism and colonialism was unambiguously accepted. Frankly, the ideas that are needed to label this story and The Ark as reactionary bullshit were just as present in 1966 as the racism they embody. Possibly moreso, in that this was an explicit debate going on at the time, and these stories unashamedly associate themselves with the wrong side of that debate.
And I just can’t do it. I can’t. The show I love doesn’t pull stunts like this. It doesn’t do stories that exist to revel in stereotypes and crass racism. It certainly doesn’t do them a week after a ringing endorsement of the idea that brown people just aren’t fit to govern themselves. This isn’t Doctor Who. I take back what I said in the first post about every story being a Doctor Who story. That’s not true. Stories that are fundamentally about racist ideologies and oppressing people because their culture isn’t as good as yours? Those aren’t Doctor Who stories. No matter what theme music you put at the top and what actors you cast, they aren’t Doctor Who stories. I’ll accept the Paul McGann movie, the Peter Cushing movies, hell, In a Fix With Sontarans and Death Comes to Time. Those can all be canon if they want to be. Fine and dandy.
The Ark and The Celestial Toymaker, though? Not canon. Plain and simple. I flatly refuse to let these two into the clubhouse. Doctor Who is not a show in which reactionary imperialist ideology wins the day. It’s not a show where the Doctor fights racist caricatures, unless he’s fighting someone for producing them. It’s not a show about xenophobia and racism. It’s just not. And stories that try to make it into one are far, far bigger violations of what the show is about than most of what constitutes a canon debate. The fact that there are far more fans outraged about the fact that the Doctor maybe was in love with Rose than there are about the fact that in 2010 we’re still using a racist caricature as a recurring villain is, frankly, disgusting. This is a real and major failing of Doctor Who fandom, and one of the few points over which I feel kind of dirty being associated with it.
OK. So, really, with this blog, it’s my sincere intention to remain positive about Doctor Who and try to find the best in stories. And it’s been two in a row that I’ve just had to throw my hands up and admit are really, really upsettingly not good.
For those who know the order of Doctor Who stories by heart, then, it will amuse you to know that I promise, I really do actually like Monday’s story.
Do you own the (existent) bits of The Celestial Toymaker on DVD yet? If not, and if this entry hasn’t totally dissuaded you from wanting to, consider buying them from Amazon via this link. If you do, I’ll get some money.