Doctor Who Showrunner Explains 'Racist' Origins of Neil Patrick Harris Toymaker Villain Decision

By Sam Hargrave Posted:
Neil Patrick Harris in Doctor Who

Doctor Who Special 3, "The Giggle," introduced Neil Patrick Harris as the Toymaker, a villain with an apparent racial history going back 57 years.

Best known for How I Met Your Mother and A Series of Unfortunate Events, Neil Patrick Harris made his Doctor Who debut as the Toymaker in "The Giggle," bringing back a reality-bending villain from the show's classic era.

Is Neil Patrick Harris' Toymaker Racist in Doctor Who?

Doctor Who Neil Patrick Harris Toymaker
Doctor Who

During the latest episode of Doctor Who's behind-the-scenes show Unleashed, showrunner Russell T. Davis addressed the racist elements of Neil Patrick Harris' Toymaker which date back as far as the villain's 1966 debut.

The showrunner was clear he was aware of the "history of racism" surrounding the Toymaker, who was once known as the Celestial Toymaker. However, the term "celestial" was dropped from his name for his modern-day comeback as the term has been known to "mean of Chinese origin, in a derogatory way:"

"It is said, and I understand this, that there was a history of racism with the original Toymaker, the Celestial Toymaker, who had celestial... And I did not know this, but 'celestial' can mean of Chinese origin, in a derogatory way."

These unfortunate racial suggestions are only furthered by how the Toymaker "dressed up as a Chinese Mandarin" while being a white character. That said, Davis stated he was unsure "how much of that was unconscious at the time:"

"It also means from the sky. But it can also mean Chinese, and in a kind of imperial way, in a British Empire sort of way. And there's a lot of debate about why was the original Toymaker, who was a white man, dressed up as a Chinese Mandarin? Why? And that's not the actor's fault. I'm not blaming the actor at all. He was just... I don't know how much of that was unconscious at the time."

Doctor Who Michael Gough Toymaker
Doctor Who

Despite the character's oriental costume, which has come to be considered cultural appropriation, the role was played by British actor Michael Gough, best known for playing Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton's Batman movies. 

The showrunner continued how, in 1966, the Toymaker "was a recast character," and as such, he felt they had to "[acknowledge] that in some way:"

"I think you have to do it, because I can absolutely guarantee you, on transmission, people will pipe up, saying, in 1966, this was a racist character. And if we haven't acknowledged that in some way, we look ignorant, I'm very, very aware of it and it's baked into him."

Davis went as far as to state the Toymaker's racial actions were included as one of the "terrible things" he does in the episode, being a villain after all:

"And that's part of the reason bringing him back. He's a villain, of course he's going to do terrible things, and that's one of them."

Doctor Who Neil Patrick Harris Toymaker
Doctor Who

In the special's opening, set in 1924 London, Charlie De Melo's Charles Banerjee entered the toy shop where he was faced with a racial comment from the owner. 

As Banerjee purchased the Stooky Bill doll, the Toymaker stated he "must be used to sunnier climes" based on his brown skin tone, to which the man responded how he was "born in Cheltenham" (an English town): 

TOYMAKER: "I really must apologize for the rain. You must be used to sunnier climes."

BANERJEE: "I was born in Cheltenham."

Doctor Who Neil Patrick Harris Toymaker Charles Banerjee
Doctor Who

Harris' Toymaker utilized various accents across "The Giggle," including British, American, and German, which Davis explained came as part of a decision to have him "playing with race" and "using it as an attack:"

"I did not want to whitewash the Toymaker then, so I gave him this side of putting on accents. He's a murderer. He's a mass murderer. So, I like the fact there's that very slight thin thread of him playing with race, playing with voices, playing with accents, using it as an attack."

Davis also addressed how the Toymaker came to be the villain of "The Giggle," 57 years after his first and last on-screen appearance with the 1st Doctor in 1966.

He revealed the process started when he "came across Stooky Bill," the terrifying puppet featured in the episode who, in the real world, was used by John Logie Baird in his early experiments to transmit televised images

"First of all, I came across Stooky Bill. I was writing a drama in Manchester called Nolly about Noele Gordon, the soap star, who was the first woman on Earth ever to be put on color television by John Logie Baird. So I read up on John Logie Baird and then I discovered Stooky Bill, and I literally just sat there and went 'Well, that's a Doctor Who monster. Look at that."

Doctor Who Stooky Bill
Doctor Who

Davis went on to explain how he wondered whether a puppet could be a fulfilling villain, leading him to include a puppet master in the episode, and "the next thought along from that [was] Toymaker."

"And then after a while of that, I thought, 'How long can you sit and watch a puppet being evil on television for?' And, 'Are you going to get big speeches off the puppet?' I don't think so. So I literally thought, 'Well you need a puppet master.' And the next thought along from that is Toymaker."

Believe it or not, this isn't the first time Davis has spoken up about making major changes to a classic Doctor Who villain to update them for modern times. The showrunner recently explained the decision to take the villainous Dalek creator Davros out of his familiar wheelchair for the Children in Need 2023 Special.

Doctor Who Davros Change 60th Anniversary
Doctor Who

Discussing Davros' return for the five-minute charity special on the Unleashed behind-the-scenes show, Davis revealed the team took issue with "associating disability with evil," noting how there is a "very long tradition" of the pairing:

"We had long conversations about bringing Davros back, because he's a fantastic character, [but] time and society and culture and taste has moved on. And there's a problem with the Davros of old in that he's a wheelchair user, who is evil. And I had problems with that. And a lot of us on the production team had problems with that, of associating disability with evil. And trust me, there's a very long tradition of this."

He went on to say how "when the world changes, Doctor Who has to change as well," leading to the decision to remove Davros' facial scarring and take him out the wheelchair - which the showrunner confirmed will apply for another further future appearances too:

"I'm not blaming people in the past at all, but the world changes and when the world changes, 'Doctor Who' has to change as well. So we made the choice to bring back Davros without the facial scarring and without the wheelchair – or his support unit, which functions as a wheelchair."

The Toymaker's Classic Doctor Who Story Explained

Unfortunately, as is the case with several of Doctor Who's early releases, three episodes of 1966's four-part "The Celestial Toymaker" are lost and cannot be viewed anywhere. However, the BBC recently announced it will be releasing an animated reconstruction of the tale at some point next year.

Doctor Who Celestial Toymaker Animation
Doctor Who

As was somewhat referenced during "The Giggle," the Doctor and the Toymaker came head-to-head during William Hartnell's era leading the show where he was joined by his companions Steven and Dodo.

To summarize, the Toymaker separated the Doctor from his companions to play the Trilogic Game, meanwhile, Steven and Dodo were forced to win a series of childish yet deadly games to be reunited with the Time Lord at the TARDIS.

Ultimately, the Doctor, Steven, and Dodo overcame the challenge and came out victorious, destroying the Toymaker's world and banishing him, until, of course, he made a comeback just recently for "The Giggle."

Doctor Who's 60th anniversary specials are streaming now on Disney+ in most territories and exclusively on BBC iPlayer in the UK & Ireland.

- About The Author: Sam Hargrave
Sam Hargrave is the Associate Editor at The Direct. He joined the team as a gaming writer in 2020 before later expanding into writing for all areas of The Direct and taking on further responsibilities such as editorial tasks and image creation.