November 29, 2023

Doctor Who - The Nightmare Fair


In this unpublished article from a couple of years back I examined the script to see what the unmade Toymaker story `The Nightmare Fair` might have been like.

 Five years after leaving Doctor Who, Graham Williams was due to return to the programme with the story `The Nightmare Fair`. Scheduled for the pre-hiatus version of season 23 it was ultimately never made though there have since been a couple of audio adaptations and Williams himself novelised the story. As producer he’d been subject to certain restrictions including budgetary cuts and a directive to tone down what had been seen by some as gratuitous violence. Ironically his return came at a time when Doctor Who was again under scrutiny over its more extreme content. As far as is known the story never reached the casting stage but studio dates were booked to start in May 1985 and arrangements made to shoot some location footage in Blackpool itself. 

There is a sense that `The Nightmare Fair` represents Graham Williams creatively unleashed, freed of the restraints that had led to his producership being seen by fans and beyond as “silly”. The humour in his period has been over stated though and you don’t have to look far to see concepts equally as grim as anything Philip Hinchcliffe and co dreamed up so that aspect of Williams’ Doctor Who work was always lurking. He had a sense of the menace a good tale requires and this story is home to several characters who might easily have come from later eras of the show albeit sketched rather more broadly than they would be these days.

Like a lot of classic Doctor Who it’s not a story with a massive moral core though the Doctor’s dissatisfaction with his own resolution to events is an unusual take that plays pleasingly against the brusque character we saw on screen and is closer to modern Doctors. Colin Baker’s idea was always to gradually soften his interpretation and this story seems to see that process starting – he even has fun when on the various funfair rides. Williams also plays into that era’s increasing on screen references to its own past so there are mentions of Magnus Greel, Jamie and even Duggan.

The story seems to have been influenced by some of the work other writers brought to his producer’s table notably Douglas Adams. Williams’ explanation of the Toymaker’s background and his endless, restless life is a very Adams- like concept. Williams knew how a good Doctor Who script ebbs and flows and using a limited cast manages to balance both action and tension together. Visually you suspect that the more imaginative elements of the script will always seem better to us than they would have been had the show been made. The programme in the Eighties was very afraid to turn down the lights so there are many stories with unconvincing monster costumes whose flaws are all too visible in a bright studio environment. How would the production have fared with the subterranean passages described here? You also wonder what the video game finale would have been like- as a former producer Williams must have received scripts that would just be impossible to make so presumably was aware of what to include.  

Interviewed in the md Eighties, Williams said that the offer to write for the series again had come out of the blue; “I was asked to write for the next season and told what it would be about in the same telephone conversation! Eric just phoned me up and asked would I like to write another story for Doctor Who and if I would, would I like to set it in Blackpool, and if I’d like to set it in Blackpool, would I like to use the Toymaker?”

He seemed relaxed about the brief “I didn’t mind it as after all we had written to quite severe restrictions on the three stories I had been involved in the writing of. It didn’t do them any harm!” He admitted however he knew “little or nothing” about the prospective villain; “except for the photographs of Michael Gough, and so I got Eric to get the camera scripts out of the archive, and watched the only remaining episode of the programme, and phoned back and said yes there was a story to be told, only because the original story told so little about the Toymaker!”

A fairground has never really been used to its full potential in the show and reading the script dated 15 January 1985 suggests this could have been the story to do it. It was hoped that Mathew Robinson would direct this story and you can see how he might add considerable atmospherics. The first episode would have opened at dawn panning around the silhouettes of an empty fairground with the camera homing in on the ghost train as a middle aged man, looking fearful and breathing heavily emerges pursued by a red glow that becomes a person about seven feet tall. He staggers towards the arcade watched covertly by a character called Kevin. There is a scream but when Kevin runs to see what has happened finds only dust in the wind. Now that is what you’d call a suitably engaging start to a story.

In the script Williams seems to effortlessly capture the slightly arrogant wit of this Doctor- his first scene involves him waxing lyrical about something we imagine to be one of the wonders of the Universe but turns out to be Blackpool! This sort of thing was something at which the fourth Doctor excelled so it’s no surprise to find it leaking into Williams’ interpretation of the sixth. One thing that came across to me from the script is how well this would have suited Colin Baker whose performances to that point had been somewhat lacking in warmth. Not his fault but given a script like this he would have been able to develop a more even tone. Some actors have a reputation for giving loud performances but when they speak more intimately are hugely effective and Baker is definitely such a performer. There are occasions when Williams’ dialogue for Peri suggests Romana. I’m not sure the Peri we had become familiar with would say “Your attitude towards self-determination could be called pragmatic”. I’m actually not sure anyone would say it!

The aforementioned Kevin is described as “about twenty two and pleasant enough” and we find him being interviewed by an Inspector Truscott over what he’s seen. Seems he’s been a regular reporter of strange events featuring “a mandarin” figure. We later discover Kevin has been keeping a lookout for his missing sixteen year old brother though the police response seems unduly harsh- “we are not a missing person’s bureau” Truscott tells him. Williams gives the officer a cynical air and he tells Kevin if he sees any more red giants to send them “up to Preston North End!” A rather neat idea sees the Doctor and Peri examining a mechanical mandarin before we cut to the real thing in his lair!

It’s a moot point as to how many viewers in the mid Eighties would have recalled the Toymaker (how many knew him when his current return was announced?). His sole appearance in the show had been nearly twenty years earlier but the script introduces him early in episode one seated in a large carver matching a desk upon which is a large crystal ball. He uses the latter to control a screen and on it he is observing the Doctor and Peri. So even if most viewers would have no clue who it was they know he’s up to no good. He has a lackey too called Stefan described as “mid-thirties and saturnine”.  Stefan himself has a lackey as well called Shardlow who seems a rather pitiful man. It’s unusual for Williams to populate a story solely with male characters as a hallmark of his producership was an increase in significant female roles.

Episode one is set up very much as the Doctor and Peri meandering about the fairground while the Toymaker watches. A sense of battle being drawn comes in a neat moment when the Toymaker recognises the Doctor and speaks his name whereupon we cut to the Time Lord who replies “Yes” confusing Peri. This hints at a telepathic link and you imagine Colin Baker’s expression changing suddenly to one of concern.

Visually the script offers rich possibilities. The Toymaker has constructed a subterranean labyrinth that seems to evolve from modern day to a Victorian look and there’s some sort of monster lurking too- we see a large claw grabbing piles of meat left by Shardlow. In the open air there’s scenes of the Doctor and Peri on a rollercoaster and amusingly the former goes into some sort of catatonic state though still beaming from ear to ear! Afterwards he says it was more “magnificent” than many of his outer space escapades. We also see a montage of them enjoying every ride on the fair which, while fun for the actors, may have made a televised version drag a little though soon afterwards the Doctor senses “there’s something wrong here”. The Doctor and Peri follow what the script describes as “an audio scent” and the two are pursued by Kevin.

The trail leads to the Space Mountain attraction which Colin Baker had actually opened in real life. Here the Doctor is spirited away while Kevin and Peri (that sounds familiar!) end up in the hands of `security`. The Doctor is being led by guards underground. Williams gives Peri some initiative as he has her feign fatigue so she can grab a spanner while Kevin gets a gun and starts firing it with abandon allowing their escape.

There is a sense that the story is marking time at this juncture - why does the Toymaker make the Doctor wait so long before seeing him?  This was an issue with the fifty- minute episode format making it awkward to stretch out the lead up to the big mid story cliff hanger. Peri and Kevin’s adventure seems more interesting as they find unexpected things like a steam organ and a replica of a ride called Gold Mine. Touches like this give the story a macabre feel. In a very Doctor Who moment after they pass one of the miners it turns its head.

Meanwhile, stuck in his cell the Doctor seems to be communicating with someone else by tapping on a pipe. While these scenarios are not new Williams is building a  slow burn type of story in which very little happens but does so with an atmosphere that keeps viewers watching. Assuming Mathew Robinson would have exploited the script’s rich visual possibilities at this juncture the story is shaping up to be a strong one.

The Doctor and Toymaker finally meet as the former’s cell door seems to vanish revealing the latter. Williams opts for a civil exchange weighting both the Toymaker’s menace and the Doctor’s defiance in polite enough terms- the Doctor declaring that if the Toymaker has harmed Peri “then you and I should fall out”. The Toymaker, saying that the games have hardly started, introduces the Doctor to “your opponent”- the thing with the giant claw. This turns out not to be what we might expect which is probably wise given examples like the Shrivenzale. The script describes it as over six feet tall, clad in `alien like` leather, black hair, no mouth, one human hand and one giant claw hand. It sounds rather similar to the Morbius monster. On the cover of the novelisation it has two claws and only a passing resemblance to this description so perhaps it was to be altered. It is rather difficult to visualise what is described here. In part 2 it becomes known as `the assassin`. Episode one ends with this creature throttling the Doctor with it claw...

The resolution to the cliff-hanger is quite neat in that the creatures’ claw seems to be the tapping noise the Doctor heard earlier and in repeating it on the pipe he is able to stop his assailant, wittily the Doctor says “See, you can talk your way out of anything.” Yet the Toymaker seems to have anticipated this would happen. I had thought that for an antagonist like the Toymaker to resort to such a basic method of action seems unlike the character with his penchant for games so it’s pleasing that there is more to it than it seems. Their subsequent conversation actually allows the viewer some information about Stefan whom the Doctor gets the Toymaker to casually insult while the henchman is listening. It also clears up the idea that the Toymaker was just waiting for the Doctor to “drop in”. Meanwhile Kevin and Peri’s exploits in part one ramped up the action with the miners’ figures coming alive to hurl rocks at them, one of which knocks Kevin unconscious. She tangles with the miners for a while before Kevin appears suspiciously recovered.

The Doctor is taken to a room where there is someone else lying on the bed- it is Kevin. Handled well this could be a strong reveal given we’ve seen what is ostensibly this character somewhere else with Peri. In the other scenario the script describes the fake Kevin as momentarily shimmering and half fading out. There isn’t a lot of detail about Kevin who features more than anyone except for the Doctor and Peri and at times behaves more like a teenager than the twenty something he is supposed to be. It’s a role an actor would no doubt have made his own.

The Doctor does his camera trick creating a looping image of them as he did on the corridor in `The Sunmakers`. There’s an amusing line as the Doctor tells Kevin about the Celestial Toymaker. “Variety act is he?” asks the latter. The lighter tone continues as they each empty their pockets and the Doctor bemoans the lack of items the other man has, “When I was your age I had enough stuff in my pockets to build a Holo field scrambler in five minutes flat”

The video game machine is a hologram that appears solid to the touch and that’s not the end of the revelations in what is one of the story’s most concept heavy scenes. We also discover that Shardlow is hundreds of years old and having lost a backgammon game was, the Doctor surmises, “being given the gift of immortality” albeit for an endless servitude. These things emphasise the power the Toymaker appears to have at his disposal. Meanwhile Peri rumbles fake Kevin- though how does she know he sold out his brother?

The Doctor has been using bits of the machine to make some sort of device. At this stage the viewer might have been second guessing the storyline thinking that the Toymaker knew he’d do this but I suppose the latter has been distracted controlling fake Kevin. I have to say that this does play into something of a familiar tv fantasy idea- the super villain with seemingly limitless power who nevertheless indulges in awkwardly detailed plots. And it seems he gets his way by cheating; there’s a scene where he refers to a “high score limiter” on one machine.

According to the Doctor Who Wiki, Michael Gough had been persuaded to return to the role of the Toymaker though other sources dispute this. When Big Finish later produced an audio version David Bailie played the part.  It is definitely a role given more gravity than The Master had at this time, as portrayed in the script the Toymaker remains calm, collected and deadly serious.   

Williams introduces some background on the Toymaker who existed “before Time Lord records” and they got bored of trying to track his games. “Time Lords aren’t very good at handling things,” the Doctor says, “Especially themselves.” Later when playing the final game the Doctor describes the Toymaker as being “not from this Universe….from another Time and Space.” Hurled from his own Universe the Toymaker is being pushed into living for millions of years. “Your own Universe is receding so fast,” says the Doctor, “it’s pushing your time back as it goes.” Almost chucked away this is a big concept worthy of perhaps a little more attention from the narrative though there’s a great speech in which the Toymaker rues his choices.

Shardlow is the sympathetic character in the midst of all this- the Doctor’s arrival means he must play his final game of backgammon yet he also reveals that Kevin’s missing brother is here as suspected working for the Toymaker.  The Toymaker’s mixture of associates also runs to what is called a humandroid which seems to have a very human speech pattern to the point of politeness reminiscent perhaps of Marvin from Hitch Hikers. These characters are his toys nowadays but one by one the Doctor wins them round to the idea of helping him.  This is a more proactive sixth Doctor than we had seen thus far on screen.

Matters culminate in the Doctor and Toymaker sitting down for a contest after some verbal fencing first in which the Toymaker discusses humans’ penchant for games, some of them brutal. “My little pranks pale in comparison,” he suggests.  So as the two play what is essentially an arcade video game bringing the scenario up to date at the time, Peri and the others are busy in the cell. Yet the Doctor ends up revealing the chinks in the Toymaker’s armour by focussing on his never ending loneliness- “the isolation of aeons” as he calls it and the Toymaker eventually concurs suggesting he yearns for a release.

He lists his evil accomplishments, each of which he got bored of after a while. When the Doctor states the Toymaker is losing, the latter says “I hope so.” Is it another trick? With fast edits to and from the cell which are indicated this sequence had the potential to be quite powerful and tense.

The Doctor stops short of achieving the score he needs to win, wary of another ruse and he’s right, the game really being one that feeds on souls and can create monsters.  A huge alien emerges from those in the game though this one is real and it seems to be Peri’s amplified scream that confuses the alien enough for it to choose the Toymaker as its target. This gives the Doctor enough time to trap him in the confines of his own holofield.  The Doctor seems depressed that he had to do this- a marvellous direction in the script says `he really is an old gloomy boots about the whole thing`. 

The impression the script gives- and it is plausible that some of this would have been altered in later rewrites –is of a very atmospheric first episode and a more talky second which contains its best surprises in the final quarter. The almost last minute focus on the Toymaker’s history seems too rushed though we have to remember that the classic series didn’t take as much time to go into the psyche of antagonists the way the modern series does. I suppose it’s a progression that the subject was raised at all back then.

What is definitely apparent is that this story is a level above what was being transmitted when it was being drafted and more pertinently the revamped season that would eventually follow in 1986. I wonder why this and the other `lost` stories were not carried forward as they seem home to more inventive ideas than the `Trial` season and it seems a waste for a story like this to be thrown away. Perhaps the show had the season it needed in front of it all along?



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