Sunday, December 10, 2023

Review: Doctor Who: The Giggle (2023)

Whoah!  There's a lot to unpack here. The third and final of the David Tennant/14th Doctor Specials for this year, 'The Giggle' promised a rematch with the Toymaker, who first appeared way back in 1966 in the story 'The Celestial Toymaker'. He was played by Michael Gough then, as a suave, controlled presence ... a supremely powerful entity, bored, and existing to play games ... he existed in his own realm, and if you beat the Toymaker, then the realm was destroyed, but the Toymaker existed on ... creating another realm.  If you played his games and lost, then you became one of his toys ... doomed to spend an eternity playing his games.

And we'll come to the Toymaker.

Let's look at the other aspects of the story first. I think there's so much going on that the show is in danger of imploding. Compare this with pretty much any story from the Jodie Whittaker era and the difference is marked. They were for the most part one-note moralistic pieces, designed to deliver a 'message' ... and on the whole they did that very well, though the adventure and incidentals were lacking. Here though we have multifaceted complex pieces, where the characters all spin around each other ...

Take UNIT for example. Rather than being a secret organisation as in the seventies, here they are an up front and obvious military presence, with a base on top of a huge tower block in London. They have access to alien tech - the strange robot thing Vlinx - which actually added nothing to the story. Likewise the Doctor's old companion Mel is here ... but why? She adds nothing to the story. Take her away and the story is unchanged. They even get the little details wrong: Mel was not the first redhead to travel with the Doctor ... what about Turlough? Or even Vicki (the actress Maureen O'Brien seems to have had red hair in in her younger days) or even Liz Shaw? Then there's Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, still in charge, and still back-referencing her dad at every turn.

The devices they wore to ward off the effects of 'the giggle', this Zeedex thing ... In 1968's 'The Invasion', when the Cybermen invasion began, people avoided being impacted by the Cyber-control signal by wearing neuristers on the back of their necks, and UNIT took a supply of them to Russia and elsewhere to stop the people there being affected. So why couldn't UNIT ensure that at least the heads of government were supplied with and wore the Zeedex devices - despite the very familiar anti-news propaganda about them?

This was the very clever element of the episode: turning a spotlight on ourselves as fans, and asking the hard questions about society in the 2020s. They even addressed the fact that UNIT scientific adviser Shirley Bingman could stand, even though she used a wheelchair ... something that some quarters of fandom complained about as well after her appearance in 'The Star Beast'. Russell T Davies must have been silently cheering when fandom took against elements like this, when he had already covered/predicted it in the forthcoming episodes!!

And the idea that everyone thinks they're right. Acutely explaining the total lack of empathy that so called 'leaders' like Trump and Johnson have, and that their followers mindlessly exploit ... 'I am right and therefore you must be wrong' ... endlessly repeated through online posts, blogs, comments and texts without any come back or actually having to say the same to real people. Keyboard warriorism at its most toxic.  And THIS is what Doctor Who has always done: held a mirror up to real life and asked 'What If'. Recently the series Black Mirror has become the primary touchstone for 'What If' storytelling, but in Doctor Who terms reference the threat from the rise of technology in 'The War Machines' and 'The Tenth Planet', world food shortages in 'The Seeds of Doom', global Ice Ages in 'The Ice Warriors', pollution in 'The Green Death', the Common Market in 'The Curse of Peladon' and the miners strikes in 'The Monster of Peladon'. Also soulless high rise buildings in 'Paradise Towers', happy happy Conservatism threat in 'The Happiness Patrol' and even the issues of diesel cars and air pollution in 'Gridlock' ... it's riddled through the history of Doctor Who and is nothing new.

These are all great elements ... and they make UNIT seem more cohesive, even if Mel and the unexplained alien robot thing are totally surplus to requirement ...  But where is Torchwood in all this? They seem to have been conveniently forgotten.

And now ... to the Toymaker, as promised.

Bringing back old enemies has not been the forte of Nu-Who. They tend to screw them up and get them wrong at every turn, inventing new ideas and story for them, and often ignoring or forgetting what made them great and memorable in the first place. Cybermen became Cybus-Men, robot people created by Lumic in an alternative universe. Silurians lost their third eye and most of their culture (female reptiles with breasts?). Sontarans were reduced to comedy fodder. Ice Warriors were de-armoured, de-hissed and reduced to troops for a new queen (in all fairness this happened too with the Daleks once Davros was introduced) ... so there's not a good history with bringing old enemies back into the show. Even the Master came back as some lunatic madman rather than the quiet evil presence he had previously been.

And sadly the same happens here. Rather than the rather serene and noble Gough, a bored immortal entity getting his kicks from playing games, and almost quite enjoying when he lost, we have Neil Patrick Harris playing some batshit mad character. His cod Germanic accent was perhaps acceptable at the beginning, but he was MUCH more threatening when he dropped it to a flat English accent. Less is far more in this case.

Also, once the Doctor knew his identity, why bother continuing the charade of being a German Toymaker? There was no point ... he should have reverted to playing it straight and quiet. And being a calculating, amoral threat, looking for the next game, and the next, just to keep him from being bored.

I have been criticised in the past of reviewing based on what I think the show should have done rather than what it did do, so let me say I loved what it did do ... it's just that (and this is in common with so many of my reviews of Russell T Davies' episodes in the past), he misses a trick, doesn't do things which would - in my view - have been so much better and satisfying as a story.

The original Toymaker story had the companions playing a sequence of games to try and 'win' the TARDIS back against some of the Toymaker's trapped previous opponents. Whereas the Doctor had to win at the Trilogic Game (being made invisible for some of it to boot), with a final kicker, that when the Doctor made the final move, the Toymaker's world would be destroyed, and the Doctor along with it - but if the Doctor was not in the world, he couldn't make the move. A neat little final conundrum that the original story found a neat and satisfying way around.

Similarly, rather than the running around through corridors of doors with Donna (and them getting split up was just stupid - we shouted at the screen at that point!) we could have had a different puzzle/game in each room that they had to win to progress. But then the final game ended up as a game of catch. That for me was too simple. It should have been something designed by the Toymaker to be a win win for him, but which the Doctor (or two Doctors) finds a loophole and wins instead. That would have been far more satisfying a solution. But that's not what we got. It was replaced with the Toymaker dancing his way through UNIT HQ to the sound of the Spice Girls singing 'Spice Up Your Life' and turning bullets into flower petals, and then a game of catch ...

We had all this explanation in the story as well: as to how and why Baird's assistant got turned into a puppet ... and indeed the implication that the Doctor was the Toymaker's puppet all along ... not sure how though. The idea that the Doctor sprinkling salt and evoking superstition at the universe's edge (in 'Wild Blue Yonder') somehow brought the Toymaker to Earth in 1925. But what was Stooky Sue and her bairns doing there? Were they people who had become trapped as well? And that scene was stolen straight from the film Barbarella, where Jane Fonda is attacked by an army of biting automated dolls.

After all this, the Toymaker is defeated. And the Doctor says he's banished 'from existence forever' which actually means he never existed, ever, so the battle/episode could never have taken place, and the Doctor never bigenerated. Be careful with your words Doctor as they have power! But I think the show takes this to mean that we'll fold him up, pop him back in his box, and keep the box somewhere forever. Hmmm.

Except of course for his gold tooth, in which the Master is apparently trapped. Then, in exactly the same way as with his ring in 'Last of the Time Lords', a mysterious female-presenting hand picks up the tooth at the end ... so are we building to another Master regeneration in the new series at some point? Might this be the character played by the drag artist Jinxx Monsoon? Time will tell!

And so this brings us on to the much-vaunted regeneration. And it's like nothing we've seen before. Here the Time Lord literally splits in two, leaving the 14th regeneration with all the angst and baggage and damage and pain and exhaustion of 60 years (show time, many billions of his own personal time) of constant running, and creating a 15th incarnation which is free of all that. Whole again. New. Renewed. Its a smashing idea and is really well handled by the script and the cast.

Ncuti Gatwa, from the second he appears on screen, owns it. He even overshadows David Tennant! But this is I feel a massive complement to Tennant's portrayal, that he can pull back the Doctor to a quiet, tired, exhausted Gallifreyan, and allow Gatwa to take full reign of the charisma and dynamism that the part demands.

Even Gatwa's smile lights up the screen. Who cares that he's wearing only half the Doctor's costume and wins out playing catch in his underpants! It's the sheer joy of seeing him which floods from the screen. What a superb choice of actor from Davies ... shrewd, clever, forward thinking, and with endless possibilities. I loved it!

In a coda we see that the 14th Doctor has decided (sort of) to settle down with his new family: basically Donna's family, with added Auntie Mel (still not sure why she was included. Great actress, dancer, singer though she is, they gave her nothing to do!). And the Doctor is still sneaking off to Mars with Rose, and New York with Mel ... so there are more adventures happening ... more perhaps to be seen. Do I detect a potential spin off working it's way in ... maybe. Is the cynic in me wondering that this might be an escape valve for if the Gatwa adventures don't work out ... that we can revert to Tennant again? Or is this Disney insisting on the development of a MCU-style approach to Doctor Who, with lots of spin off shows and potential avenues for exploration? Or maybe both or all or none. I have no inside knowledge.

As a PS: I looked up Stookie Bill. It's the genuine name for a genuine vents doll that Baird used for his trial television transmissions. And yes, the story about it being too hot for humans, and the dummy head catching fire are also true! 

In addition, 'Stookie' in Scots has various meanings ... here's what a page I found said (

Other meanings for stookie/stooky:

  • A plaster statue
  • A slow-witted, dull person
  • Standing motionless
  • To hit hard
  • Headbutt (This isn’t in the Dictionar o the Scots Leid, but it was a common meaning when I (the writer of the blog) was a kid.)
  • Stookies: A game where you have to stand like a statue while others prod, pull, and tease you into reacting. I (the writer of the blog) also remember a version where we ran around until the person who was “it” told us to freeze, and the first to move became “it.”

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