The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Celestial Squire: "The Celestial Toyroom"/"The Hall of Dolls"/"The DancingFloor"/"The Final Move" [The Celestial Toymaker]

It's funny that I referenced Squire Trelane's parents in the last entry, because here we get a story that predates The Squire of Gothos (aired January 12, 1867) by eight months with a rather Trelane-like character (These episodes ran from April 2 through April 23, 1966). Also, in a small milestone, I was born the day after "The Dancing Floor" aired. So while my first encounter with Doctor Who is still decades off, we are now discussing a world I inhabit, and as we go on, the cultural referents the show draws on will increasingly be to the matrix (sorry!) that formed me.

In short, the backdrop I'll be increasingly looking at is the familiar, not the unknowable except for at second hand.

So, the main discussion about the story arc called The Celestial Toymaker nowadays is whether Phil Sandifer (and others, but Sandifer makes the best case) is right when he dismisses this story arc as irredeemably racist, and expels it, and The Ark from canon. Now, I admire Sandifer's work immensely--I've bought all of the TARDIS Eruditorum books he published, and in fact was a Kickstarter backer of the first three. But I have a few questions about his analysis on these two stories.

With The Ark, Sandifer describes the Monoids as "minstrel characters," pointing to Dodo's description of them as "savages" and describes the story as "a sickening, vile piece of racism and neo-colonialism that, while not wholly out of step with its times, was reactionary and nasty in 1966, and is only worse in 2011." Sandifer goes further and argues that in The Ark:
They're [the Monoids] incompetent because the whole point is that savages like them can never actually run a country, and we'd be fools to turn one over to them.

In fact, even being nice to them - giving them more power like speech and weapons - is wrong. The Monoids deserve to be a race of servants, because that's all that savages like them are good for. And when, at the end of the story, the humans are ordered to make peace with the Monoids, one does not sense that it will be a peace of equals, but rather the return of the Monoids to being a well-treated servant class.
I have to say, I don't see the story quite this way. Dodo is clearly wrong when she calls the Monoids savages--they are able to communicate with the Guardians, albeit not by voice, and they mourn their losses with dignity, and don't join the revenge seeking crowd of Guardians out to kill the Doctor, Dodo and Steven. The Commander tries to ensure that they are treated with respect, and their second-class citizenship reflects poorly on the Guardians, who are riding for a fall. The Monoids in the latter two episodes are corrupted by power, and overweening and overconfident--just like the Guardians in the first two episodes, they are riding for a fall. The thing seems to me more a reflection on the corrupting influence of unchecked power--we see that the Commander's efforts to retain some equality between human and Monoid will not outlast him, but that's because the younger generation of humans lacks his understanding of its importance. It's more Planet of the Apes than The Birth of a Nation.

The Toymaker, though--what about this character? Sandifer is right about the double meaning of the word "Celestial" to refer to Chinese people as well as its more common meaning of or pertaining to the heavens, In his Anno Dracula, Kim Newman appropriates Fu Manchu under the title "the Celestial." So, yes, that and the robes support the designation of the storyline as racist. But Michael Gough does not play him in any kind of "yellow face" makeup, or change (as far as I can see) his normal clipped tones in playing the part. The Toymaker, a bored, alien immortal, has adopted a persona that amuses him--not unlike the ersatz Trelane, the Squire of Gothos. (I wonder if Lafcaido Hearn was in the mind of the writer, as well as Fu Manchu?) Just as the Doctor has adopted the persona as a Victorian gentleman-scientist, when in fact he is an alien, of unknown origin in either time or space--he and the Toymaker are presented as opposite numbers, enemies who are only now squaring off against each other.

Of course, none of this stops the Toymaker from being at least in part a racist caricature--while John Dorney commented on Sandifer's post, he wrote one of the Big Finish revivals of the Toymaker, and was "ashamed to admit that I wasn't aware of the double meaning of the word 'Celestial' and had just thought of the 'cosmic' meaning. Oddly, in the script the character was simply named 'The Owner' throughout (Charley was also listed as 'The Girl') and the word 'Celestial' never appears (he does refer to himself as 'The Toymaker' at the end, as does the Doctor). Although this is not done as a result of any delicacy (as I'd no knowledge of the dual meaning," the original episodes aired in a period when the last Fu Manchu novel was less than a decade old. So it might have been intended, just as it was decades later by Newman, to signify or at least suggest, Chinese and not cosmic.

Neither the Monoids nor the Toymaker, any more than Trelane, are human. Sandifer may well be right--the Monoids could be a neo-imperialist parable. Or they could be a study in the corruption of power, as the Guardians themselves are. Or--and here's a thought--it could all be a refinement on the Eloi and the Morlocks in Wells's The Time Machine, but in less extreme form (which could, of course, be a point in Sandifer's favor--are the Eloi and the Morlocks racist? Or are they, as Wells seemed to intend, a depiction of mutual degradation through a class system? Note that, in Wells, both are decaying--the beauty of the Eloi is undermined by their physical and mental fragility, the Morlocks are increasingly debased over time as well.

Fiction bears the hallmarks of its age, though, and both stories could well be racist despite better intentions than Sandife sees in either.


The Celestial Toymaker is not good Doctor Who, I'm afraid whatever it's racial politics. The games are tedious, especially the waste of the Doctor on the silly "trilogic” game. But it's not as bad as Sandifer suggests in its storyline because of a feature he neglects: Dodo's mercy. This is a story in which a seemingly all-powerful being will keep the Doctor unless Steven and Dodo win their games, arbitrarily set up by the Toymaker before the Doctor wins his "trilogic” game. The competition liven up things a bit; Steven and Dodo are first set against the Clara the Clown, the Queen of Hearts, and Mrs. Wiggs (Carmen Silvera, of 'Allo 'Allo fame) and the Joey the Clown, the King of Hearts, and Sgt. Rugg (Campbell Singer). Silvera is especially good, and Singer has some funny moments. But that's not what got me. In each case, Dodo's compassion is moved--these are, she believes--and the narrative supports her--victims of the Toymaker, who have become dolls, playing cards, whatever the Toymaker wants them to be, by losing when, like Steven and Dido now, they first arrived in the Toymaker’s domain. Their efforts to win, and obtain their freedom move her, making her less ruthless than Steven in the competition. Stevrn denies this, viewing them as mere constructs of the Toymaker, and yet, as Dodo points out, each time they lose it’s because of a human weakness. She pities these souls lost to the Toymaker. It's the one thing that adds a frisson and a feeling of risk to the story. They could be as we are, the playing cards and dolls seem to say.

There is, if you squint, a ghost story in The Celestial Toymaker, and only Dodo sees it. And the ghosts may be hungry, but they are also tragic.

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