Celestial Toymaker’s Audio Adventures at Big Finish (retrospective)

Written by Cavan Gilbey

So the Celestial Toymaker may very well be returning to the television; rumoured to be portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris, although previously played by Michael Gogh of the Burton Batman fame.

The debut TV story from 1966 is rough to say the least. With inventive scenery and world building, the whole thing is let down by a non-existent narrative and a plot with essentially boils down to the Doctor doing a puzzle book. Big Finish were naturally going to tackle the character at some point, and in 2009 they brought the character into the audio range.

The Toymaker feels like the perfect fit for the audio range, with his cosmic powers over reality the audio format really lets you capture the surreal and absurd nature of the character without the worry of set-design budget restrictions. To date, Big Finish have released three stories with the Toymaker across a few of their ranges and we’ll having a look back at them.

The first story featuring the character turned up as the beginning of a new Monthly Range trilogy for the Seventh Doctor and his companions, Ace and Hex, titled The Magic Mousetrap. And this is the oddest one to talk about in terms of how the Toymaker is presented; he isn’t really in the story physically. Sure this is a story where he is the villain, having had his body split apart into multiple people after losing in order to prevent him from gaining a corporeal body again. But he doesn’t really get a chance to his traditional material until the very final episode of this four part serial.

But when he does spring into action it is some of the most sinister stuff we have seen from the character. A real highlight would be the final game show sequence where a tacky 80’s studio is manifested for the chance for inhabitants to out against each other with deadly results. The sound design surrounding the Toymaker is the highlight here, the creepy chattering of his wooden mouth and his stolen voice makes this the most outright scary portrayal of the character.
I don’t really want to say much about this story as it’s one of those that is;

  1. Quite hard to explain due to it not being a very visual story
  2. Relatively contemplative and character driven so it is better to just go and listen

The second story Big Finish produced was a recreation of the planned television serial; The Nightmare Fair. And in all honesty this is the one I kind of dreaded having to go back over because it just isn’t a great story. You can tell why this one wasn’t brought to the screen because there is a lot of aimless running around a fairground and play an arcade game; things that just inherently don’t translate to non-visual mediums very well. I like the idea of the Toymaker creating a soul sucking arcade cabinet, it feels very in keeping with the character and suits the eighties setting perfectly but you never get a sense that Toymaker is that powerful in this story.
Sure he makes the machine, but spends most of the story in a force field not doing anything. He’ll occasionally act like a child, which also feels oddly out of character with the elegant nature of other portrayals of the character.

Not much to say on this one outside of the fact that it does a great character dirty by not really letting him show the full breadth of his comic ability. David Ballie is an inspired casting choice however and does do a great job capturing that petulant childishness.

The final entry in the Toymaker’s audio stories, Solitaire, breaks away from the traditional Companion Chronicle format and acts as a complete two-hander drama; think Regeneration Impossible, which actually is very similar to this story in that it is two characters in a room solving puzzles.
The story opens on a pretty eerie cold open where we see Charley trying to figure out where she actually is, as well as who she actually is. This initial amnesia perfectly sets the listener on edge from the beginning, an atmosphere furthered by the smarmy and condescending tone of The Toymaker. The setting itself creates a brilliant sense of unease with the uncannily nature of it all; the comforting setting of this quaint antique toy shop seems so wholesome and homely and yet it has doors that loop back in on themselves and dolls that wish to be killed when you talk through them. Charley’s slow discovery of what is happening and her growing annoyance at the Toymaker’s initial riddle about things having double letters raises the tension, the panic created from being in this utterly surreal situation feels palpable. One of the most unnerving aspects about this setting and set up is the voice of the game itself; it is monotone and booming and has this inhuman edge to it that makes it so unsettling. The reveal of the void outside yet still emphasises the terror of being in a world without rules; I’m a huge fan of The Mind Robber and the scene in the void reminded me so much of the first episode of that serial. The void feels organic with this slopping noise which slowly develops into a growl and then the horrific voice of The Game; its a brilliant soundscape.

Charley feels like she gets to utilise her intellect creatively here as she makes a magnet, sees through trick questions and red herrings and manages to become self-aware that she isn’t the real player here. It’s quite amusing seeing The Celestial Toymaker being the one who is duped and tricked here as we discover the game was made for him. However, when he discovers this and effectively wins he simply refuses that the game was for him at all and refuses Charley’s offer to save him simply because he is bound to a spiteful and completely childish code of honour and this accepts his fate.

Neil Patrick Harris joins Doctor Who

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