Right. So, a little over a year ago I had a blog that was just starting to get some attention. And I came upon a story that, well, kinda sucked. And the thing is, it was a story that had a surprisingly good reputation, but the story itself was really, really rubbish. Plus there were some really uncomfortable racial elements to it, and it was the second story in a row to have those, and I wrote an entry that tore the story to shreds. And writing it, I was getting a nice build-up going, so I went for broke in the conclusion and suggested that the story should be exiled from the canon on the grounds that it’s racist and terrible.
So, funny thing, it turns out that if, right when people are just starting to take notice of your blog, you viciously slaughter a mildly sacred cow this rapidly becomes one of the things you’re best known or. It’s not actually one of my most read posts, which I’m fine with, but to this day if I see a link in my referral logs from something I haven’t heard about before and I click through, over half the time it’s someone citing my blog to say that the story is a bit racist. It is unmistakably the case that The Celestial Toymaker (or, really, the combination of that and The Daleks’ Masterplan three entries earlier) is where my blog made itself. Because apparently nobody had really made the observation that The Celestial Toymaker was a piece of racist crap. (And it was. And it’s deliberate. I didn’t quote the novelization in the entry, but I’d like to point out the quote I’ve been pointing to since writing the entry: “The Toymaker was lounging in a black Chinese chair behind a laquered Chinese desk inlaid with mother-of-pearl and scenes of chinese life,” and, its counterpart a few sentences later, “The Toymaker stood up, a tall imposing figure, dressed as a Chinese mandarin with a circular black hat embossed with a heavy gold thread, a large silver red and blue collar and a heavy, stiffly embroidered black robe encrusted with rubies, emeralds, diamonds and pearls set against a background of coiled Chinese dragons.” Also, the Toymaker is Chinese.)
So you can imagine that it was somewhat comforting to open up Graham Williams’s The Nightmare Fair and discover that someone actually had noticed this problem before me. After a bunch of referring to the Toymaker as a Mandarin, Williams, at about the halfway point of the book, drops all pretense and just becomes a wonderfully snarky jerk about the fact that watching Michael Gough pretend to be Asian is kind of horrifying. My favorite bit, for what it’s worth, is “Stefan carefully tore off the printed sheet and made his way towards the Mandarin, who was standing, listening attentively to a technician in a white coat who looked distinctly as though he had the better right to the eastern style wardrobe the Mandarin favoured.” Oh snap, as they say.
This concludes the race and racism portion of our program. I don’t think the Toymaker should have been brought back, but he was. Given that, I’m at least pleased that his return openly acknowledged the most searing flaws of the original. And, more than that, it seems to attempt to address the more fundamental problems of the story, namely that there was nothing resembling a plot or a concept beyond “Michael Gough makes people play inane games.” A problem that Graham Williams, who may have been many things, but who understood the basic standards of entertainment, would have noticed the problems with the surviving episode immediately.
Actually, let’s look at the basic phenomenon here. We’ll talk about the oddness of Graham Williams being brought back in 1985 next entry (or, at least, about a closely related topic), but let’s look more broadly at the fact that this marks the second reversal of John Nathan-Turner’s reluctance to use writers from before his time. The first, Robert Holmes, was largely down to Eric Saward’s staunch advocacy of him, but it’s difficult to imagine either Saward or Nathan-Turner demonstrating a deep and abiding love of Graham Williams’s work.
It’s telling to look at the planed scripts for Season 23 as a whole. Four of them featured clear returns of past story elements, but one of these – Mission to Magnus – was at least partially Philip Martin reusing his own idea. The other three – The Nightmare Fair, Yellow Fever and How to Cure It, and Gallifray – featured ideas created prior to Nathan-Turner’s time. One (The certain to be renamed Yellow Fever and How to Cure It) featured a writer revamping his own concept, but Holmes writing Autons fifteen years after Terror of the Autons in a story that also had the Master and the Rani is clearly another example of the kitchen sink script that he dealt with in Season 22. The Bakers doing the Time Lords with Gallifray is odder, but that script, from what is known about it, looked set to heavily revamp the concept. Which means, in other words, that the two kitchen sink scripts in which a pile of pre-selected elements had to be cobbled together into a story were both given to extremely experienced Doctor Who writers.
This marks a change from past policy, when kitchen sink scripts were dealt with by relatively new writers like Saward, Grimwade, or Byrne. Given how poorly many of the past kitchen sink scripts had worked, the decision to use writers well versed in Doctor Who for them was eminently sensible, and it marks a real improvement from how things were done in past seasons.
Ironically, though, the turn towards an older and more experienced writer meant that the resulting story was less connected with the original source material than the kitchen sink scripts of past had been. This is not to say that any of the kitchen sink scripts of the past had been wholly faithful, but The Nightmare Fair is much more of an overt reboot of the Toymaker concept than, say, The Arc of Infinity was of Omega. There is, as I said, a clear sense that Graham Williams looked at The Celestial Toymaker, saw that it was nowhere near as good as people said, and began stripping the concept down until he found something that worked and went from there.
His resulting idea – Doctor Who does Tron – was timely, and the absence of an overt video games/computers story in the mid-80s is a strange gap for Doctor Who given that everything similar in the 80s did at least one, if not more. He doesn’t necessarily have a huge number of new takes on it, but his ultimate resolution whereby the solitary nature of the lone video game protagonist fighting off waves of monsters parallels the Toymaker’s isolation is genuinely clever.
The structure of the book also suggests a level of mastery over the 45-minute episode that so vexed many of the Season 22 writers. The video game stuff is largely in the latter half, with the first half being an insane evil carnival that satisfied the “set in Blackpool” requirement of the checklist Williams was handed and the second half being the actual plot. It’s welcome, in part because it keeps Williams from dealing with video games for long enough to have time to make any of the endearingly embarrassing mistakes that characterized the subgenre of “mid-80s video game/computers episode.” Instead there are two distinct concepts, both of which are right up Doctor Who’s alley, and neither of which are set to outstay their welcome. And with the location filming in Blackpool set to make the nightmare carnival stuff relatively easy to do on a Doctor Who budget, there’s a real chance that this could have been done well.
It’s not, to be clear, revolutionary or brilliant Doctor Who. But the last piece of relatively straightforward Doctor Who to work well was Frontios, and even that aggressively broke the rules in places. The one thing that Doctor Who has been occasionally getting right lately is radial breaks from tradition and reconceptualization of what the show is. So to see that there was a real chance of Season 23 opening with what would have felt like good, solid, classic Doctor Who is heartening. And note that one of the big problems of last entry is alleviated here as well. This may not be an overtly political story, but the use of video games as a primary point of reference at least makes it directly relevant to 1986 in a real and cultural sense. This is Doctor Who that’s about the viewer’s world again.
The biggest problem, frankly, is the presence of the Toymaker. And not because of the racial issues, but just because, much like Arc of Infinity, the story clearly assumes that the audience is going to automatically care that this character from the past is there. Williams has necessarily had to reconceptualize large swaths of the Toymaker, giving him an origin story, establishing him on Earth, and changing what he does rather significantly. All of this is well and good, and the joke in which it turns out that the Toymaker hasn’t been hanging around Earth to capture the Doctor, he’s been doing it because he really likes Earth was, in particular, a delightful subversion of expectations.
But the point remains – what about this story would be made worse if it used a new villain? What’s the argument against innovation here? Surely more of the audience is going to be perplexed as to why they’re clearly expected to care about the Toymaker than is going to do so reflexively. And for all the reconceptualization it’s notable that there isn’t a scene in which the Toymaker is really well-justified as a threat. Not even his iconography works this time. Michael Gough in a Mandarin costume amidst a bunch of Victoriana was part of an overall aesthetic that was at least plausible effective. Michael Gough in a Mandarin costume in Blackpool, on the other hand, has little to recommend it. It’s just a guy in a funny costume acting menacing. The good ideas this story has – nightmarish carnivals and evil video games – are good ideas without an obscure 60s villain coming back.
And this gets at the real problem with this story as conceived. It demonstrates incremental improvement over Season 22, yes. But incremental improvement in 1986 would surely have been too little too late. The decision to hire an experienced writer to handle the hellish continuity porn brief is sensible, but we’re still left with a program more interested in servicing 1960s nostalgia than anything else. We’re still left with a program that’s trying to polish the particulars of what it’s doing in an era when the very center of the show was rotting.
It’s unfair to expect the aborted Season 23 to be a radical reconceptualization of the show – incremental change is all that it’s plausible that Nathan-Turner would have wanted to pursue. But equally, it’s clear that something substantial was necessary and its absence implicitly justifies the need to put the series on hold. In the end, it’s tough to miss these stories. That there were three stories planned that were bringing back concepts that hadn’t been seen in over a decade is difficult to get excited about even if the writers were better. What we have here is mostly an argument for Graham Williams’s skill as a writer – he makes something that works despite being sandbagged with a nightmarish assignment.
It’s also, of course, worth reflecting on the fact that this is a novel and not a television episode. The novel works, but at least some of that is the fact that Graham Williams has a light and witty prose style. It’s an open question whether the direction, which sandbagged no shortage of stories in Season 22, would have kept the story as lively as Williams’s prose does. In the end about the best one can muster for this story is that despite being misconceived in some fundamental ways it could have turned out quite well.