Friday, May 25, 2012

Time Can Be Rewritten 23 (The Nightmare Fair)

Right. So, a little over a year ago I had a blog that was just starting to get some attention. And I came upon a story that, well, kinda sucked. And the thing is, it was a story that had a surprisingly good reputation, but the story itself was really, really rubbish. Plus there were some really uncomfortable racial elements to it, and it was the second story in a row to have those, and I wrote an entry that tore the story to shreds. And writing it, I was getting a nice build-up going, so I went for broke in the conclusion and suggested that the story should be exiled from the canon on the grounds that it's racist and terrible.

So, funny thing, it turns out that if, right when people are just starting to take notice of your blog, you viciously slaughter a mildly sacred cow this rapidly becomes one of the things you're best known or. It's not actually one of my most read posts, which I'm fine with, but to this day if I see a link in my referral logs from something I haven't heard about before and I click through, over half the time it's someone citing my blog to say that the story is a bit racist. It is unmistakably the case that The Celestial Toymaker (or, really, the combination of that and The Daleks' Masterplan three entries earlier) is where my blog made itself. Because apparently nobody had really made the observation that The Celestial Toymaker was a piece of racist crap. (And it was. And it's deliberate. I didn't quote the novelization in the entry, but I'd like to point out the quote I've been pointing to since writing the entry: "The Toymaker was lounging in a black Chinese chair behind a laquered Chinese desk inlaid with mother-of-pearl and scenes of chinese life," and, its counterpart a few sentences later, "The Toymaker stood up, a tall imposing figure, dressed as a Chinese mandarin with a circular black hat embossed with a heavy gold thread, a large silver red and blue collar and a heavy, stiffly embroidered black robe encrusted with rubies, emeralds, diamonds and pearls set against a background of coiled Chinese dragons." Also, the Toymaker is Chinese.)

So you can imagine that it was somewhat comforting to open up Graham Williams's The Nightmare Fair and discover that someone actually had noticed this problem before me. After a bunch of referring to the Toymaker as a Mandarin, Williams, at about the halfway point of the book, drops all pretense and just becomes a wonderfully snarky jerk about the fact that watching Michael Gough pretend to be Asian is kind of horrifying. My favorite bit, for what it's worth, is "Stefan carefully tore off the printed sheet and made his way towards the Mandarin, who was standing, listening attentively to a technician in a white coat who looked distinctly as though he had the better right to the eastern style wardrobe the Mandarin favoured." Oh snap, as they say.

This concludes the race and racism portion of our program. I don't think the Toymaker should have been brought back, but he was. Given that, I'm at least pleased that his return openly acknowledged the most searing flaws of the original. And, more than that, it seems to attempt to address the more fundamental problems of the story, namely that there was nothing resembling a plot or a concept beyond "Michael Gough makes people play inane games." A problem that Graham Williams, who may have been many things, but who understood the basic standards of entertainment, would have noticed the problems with the surviving episode immediately.

Actually, let's look at the basic phenomenon here. We'll talk about the oddness of Graham Williams being brought back in 1985 next entry (or, at least, about a closely related topic), but let's look more broadly at the fact that this marks the second reversal of John Nathan-Turner's reluctance to use writers from before his time. The first, Robert Holmes, was largely down to Eric Saward's staunch advocacy of him, but it's difficult to imagine either Saward or Nathan-Turner demonstrating a deep and abiding love of Graham Williams's work.

It's telling to look at the planed scripts for Season 23 as a whole. Four of them featured clear returns of past story elements, but one of these - Mission to Magnus - was at least partially Philip Martin reusing his own idea. The other three - The Nightmare Fair, Yellow Fever and How to Cure It, and Gallifray - featured ideas created prior to Nathan-Turner's time. One (The certain to be renamed Yellow Fever and How to Cure It) featured a writer revamping his own concept, but Holmes writing Autons fifteen years after Terror of the Autons in a story that also had the Master and the Rani is clearly another example of the kitchen sink script that he dealt with in Season 22. The Bakers doing the Time Lords with Gallifray is odder, but that script, from what is known about it, looked set to heavily revamp the concept. Which means, in other words, that the two kitchen sink scripts in which a pile of pre-selected elements had to be cobbled together into a story were both given to extremely experienced Doctor Who writers.

This marks a change from past policy, when kitchen sink scripts were dealt with by relatively new writers like Saward, Grimwade, or Byrne. Given how poorly many of the past kitchen sink scripts had worked, the decision to use writers well versed in Doctor Who for them was eminently sensible, and it marks a real improvement from how things were done in past seasons.

Ironically, though, the turn towards an older and more experienced writer meant that the resulting story was less connected with the original source material than the kitchen sink scripts of past had been. This is not to say that any of the kitchen sink scripts of the past had been wholly faithful, but The Nightmare Fair is much more of an overt reboot of the Toymaker concept than, say, The Arc of Infinity was of Omega. There is, as I said, a clear sense that Graham Williams looked at The Celestial Toymaker, saw that it was nowhere near as good as people said, and began stripping the concept down until he found something that worked and went from there.

His resulting idea - Doctor Who does Tron - was timely, and the absence of an overt video games/computers story in the mid-80s is a strange gap for Doctor Who given that everything similar in the 80s did at least one, if not more. He doesn't necessarily have a huge number of new takes on it, but his ultimate resolution whereby the solitary nature of the lone video game protagonist fighting off waves of monsters parallels the Toymaker's isolation is genuinely clever.

The structure of the book also suggests a level of mastery over the 45-minute episode that so vexed many of the Season 22 writers. The video game stuff is largely in the latter half, with the first half being an insane evil carnival that satisfied the "set in Blackpool" requirement of the checklist Williams was handed and the second half being the actual plot. It's welcome, in part because it keeps Williams from dealing with video games for long enough to have time to make any of the endearingly embarrassing mistakes that characterized the subgenre of "mid-80s video game/computers episode." Instead there are two distinct concepts, both of which are right up Doctor Who's alley, and neither of which are set to outstay their welcome. And with the location filming in Blackpool set to make the nightmare carnival stuff relatively easy to do on a Doctor Who budget, there's a real chance that this could have been done well.

It's not, to be clear, revolutionary or brilliant Doctor Who. But the last piece of relatively straightforward Doctor Who to work well was Frontios, and even that aggressively broke the rules in places. The one thing that Doctor Who has been occasionally getting right lately is radial breaks from tradition and reconceptualization of what the show is. So to see that there was a real chance of Season 23 opening with what would have felt like good, solid, classic Doctor Who is heartening. And note that one of the big problems of last entry is alleviated here as well. This may not be an overtly political story, but the use of video games as a primary point of reference at least makes it directly relevant to 1986 in a real and cultural sense. This is Doctor Who that's about the viewer's world again.

The biggest problem, frankly, is the presence of the Toymaker. And not because of the racial issues, but just because, much like Arc of Infinity, the story clearly assumes that the audience is going to automatically care that this character from the past is there. Williams has necessarily had to reconceptualize large swaths of the Toymaker, giving him an origin story, establishing him on Earth, and changing what he does rather significantly. All of this is well and good, and the joke in which it turns out that the Toymaker hasn't been hanging around Earth to capture the Doctor, he's been doing it because he really likes Earth was, in particular, a delightful subversion of expectations.

But the point remains - what about this story would be made worse if it used a new villain? What's the argument against innovation here? Surely more of the audience is going to be perplexed as to why they're clearly expected to care about the Toymaker than is going to do so reflexively. And for all the reconceptualization it's notable that there isn't a scene in which the Toymaker is really well-justified as a threat. Not even his iconography works this time. Michael Gough in a Mandarin costume amidst a bunch of Victoriana was part of an overall aesthetic that was at least plausible effective. Michael Gough in a Mandarin costume in Blackpool, on the other hand, has little to recommend it. It's just a guy in a funny costume acting menacing. The good ideas this story has - nightmarish carnivals and evil video games - are good ideas without an obscure 60s villain coming back.

And this gets at the real problem with this story as conceived. It demonstrates incremental improvement over Season 22, yes. But incremental improvement in 1986 would surely have been too little too late. The decision to hire an experienced writer to handle the hellish continuity porn brief is sensible, but we're still left with a program more interested in servicing 1960s nostalgia than anything else. We're still left with a program that's trying to polish the particulars of what it's doing in an era when the very center of the show was rotting.

It's unfair to expect the aborted Season 23 to be a radical reconceptualization of the show - incremental change is all that it's plausible that Nathan-Turner would have wanted to pursue. But equally, it's clear that something substantial was necessary and its absence implicitly justifies the need to put the series on hold. In the end, it's tough to miss these stories. That there were three stories planned that were bringing back concepts that hadn't been seen in over a decade is difficult to get excited about even if the writers were better. What we have here is mostly an argument for Graham Williams's skill as a writer - he makes something that works despite being sandbagged with a nightmarish assignment.

It's also, of course, worth reflecting on the fact that this is a novel and not a television episode. The novel works, but at least some of that is the fact that Graham Williams has a light and witty prose style. It's an open question whether the direction, which sandbagged no shortage of stories in Season 22, would have kept the story as lively as Williams's prose does. In the end about the best one can muster for this story is that despite being misconceived in some fundamental ways it could have turned out quite well.

34 comments:

  1. It's my understanding that Matthew Robinson (of Resurrection of the Daleks and Attack of the Cybermen fame) was slated to direct "The Nightmare Fair" and had actually started preproduction when Doctor Who was put on hiatus.

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    1. Tom Robinson's brother. Trying to think a joke along the lines of, "Sing if you direct Doctor Who", only funny.

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  2. I remember thinking how different this was from so much 80s Who before it. Not only was it (as you say) engaging directly with part of 80s culture but also it's markedly more whimsical and offbeat than the past 4 seasons. Nightmare far includes a friendly giant crab technician and a nostalgic broken cyborg warrior. How starved has 80s Who been of nostalgic cyborgs!

    Graham Williams also wrote a little known text adventure in 1985 Doctor Who and the Warlord, which also presents a much more eccentric take on 80s Who

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  3. Just to play Devil's Advocate, if you have a story about a malevolent alien whose M.O. centers around games and you have a preexisting character who is a malevolent alien whose M.O. centers around games, why wouldn't you use him? So long as the plot of "Nightmare Fair" didn't actually turn on some obscure plot point from 1965, it's really just an Easter egg for the devoted fans that goes over the heads of the casual viewers without confusing them. Sort of like Eleven name-dropping the Nimons in "The God Complex" -- why would you go to the trouble of coming up with a second minotaur race just to avoid a passing reference to a 30-year-old Baker story. Similarly, I thought "The Unicorn and the Wasp" missed an opportunity by not identifying the alien as a Wirrn. Old fans like me would have said "hey cool!" while younger fans would have just thought it was just another alien and the story wouldn't have been affected at all. The Doctor is constantly running into people with whom he's had prior off-screen contacts (the Rani is a good example) and no one gets confused, so why should it matter if the Doctor bumps into someone who HAD been in a prior episode if it's appropriate to the theme of the story.

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    1. Or the Macra.

      I agree in principle with the "why not?" argument, but it has to be looked at in the context of the show being attacked for recycling itself. Given that, having a reappearing villain would perhaps draw too much attention to how unoriginal the rest of the script was too.

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    2. I genuinely thought the captain from Terror of The Vervoids had been in a previous televised adventure, and it didn't affect my enjoyment.

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    3. [I]t has to be looked at in the context of the show being attacked for recycling itself.

      Was it being attacked on that basis in 1985? I thought the primary point of attack was simply how shoddy it all looked due to limited budgets, shortened film schedules, and overly ambitious special effects demands that were not realistic for 1980's BBC. Granted, Phillip makes a compelling case that JNT et al that that bringing back old monsters and villains would be enough and that good stories and productions values didn't matter, but I don't think it would have been fatal to have brought back old monsters and villains in well-written and directed stories that were feasible on a BBC budget. Certainly it wouldn't have been enough of a problem to lead to the cancellation of an otherwise successful program. IOW, "Warriors of the Deep" wasn't bad because it brought back the Silurians and the Sea Devils; it was bad because it brought them back cheaply and ineptly.

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    4. I think Phil's point in the long arc of his criticism is that the production team's motivations in bringing old monsters back was a key stumbling block to those stories being well-written. The monsters were returning out of a sense of nostalgia, and being understood through the perspective of nostalgia makes the monsters superficial and one-dimensional. All the other aspects of the story become superficial as the nostalgic perspective dominates not just the handling of villains, but the handling of all the characters and the structure of the stories themselves.

      The best stories of the new series demonstrate how returning monsters and villains can be handled multi-dimensionally and with nuance of character.

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    5. What, like the Master? How is that nuanced? RTD was "slash"ing, by the end of it! :-P

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    6. I tend to agree. The returning monster episodes usually bore me. The revived Daleks, Cybermen and Master have all been less compelling to me than the Angels, the Vashta Nerada, and the Silence, and the Sontarans were brought back mainly to make jokes about how crap they were. I also thought the returning Silurians were a bit of a let down, but then we got the kick-ass, crime-fighting, samurai-detective Lady Vastra, so I guess it's just a matter of trying to do something original.

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  4. the absence of an overt video games/computers story in the mid-80s is a strange gap for Doctor Who given that everything similar in the 80s did at least one, if not more

    I think you can argue that Vengeance on Varos is close enough to being an overt video games story that it scratched that itch.

    Not even his iconography works this time. Michael Gough in a Mandarin costume amidst a bunch of Victoriana was part of an overall aesthetic that was at least plausible effective. Michael Gough in a Mandarin costume in Blackpool, on the other hand, has little to recommend it

    Yes -- I think no matter how Williams tried to handle it, the racism would have been a more obvious problem here. At least in The Celestial Toymaker the overall aesthetic was one of Victorian kid's surrealism, and having a random talking Chinese doll as the main villain comes with that territory. Here -- here's Chinese? Really?

    . So to see that there was a real chance of Season 23 opening with what would have felt like good, solid, classic Doctor Who is heartening.

    Or it might have felt like a show that didn't have any new ideas... as illustrated by the fact that this comment of mine is recycling two of my previous comments.

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    1. Gallifray is how the title was reported as being spelt in several handbooks and reference guides (Several of the alien planet titles are misspelt on production notes)

      However when Richard Bignell recently dug up the original 1985 paperwork for this episode it was correctly spelt Gallifrey.
      More interestingly this was in response to Ian Levine's statements that Saward was going to write this episode. You can see all this on Gallifreybase's Dimensions in Time Thread

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    2. Philip Sandifer: "radial breaks from tradition"

      I think this is an actual Eruditorum typo, but I rather like it anyway! It conjures up images of cracks spreading outwards as the tradition of the show fractures...

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    3. I thought Gallifray was wordplay. As in Time Lord culture has become corrupted and frayed. Corny, but possibly effective. Maybe the corruption on the High Council in Trial of a Time Lord evolved from the treatment for this story?

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    4. I had a thought, like it was a battle, you know, "in the fray"; hence, "Gallifray", a Gallifrey caught in the fray of war.

      Also, apparently the story was to deal with its destruction... wonder how long in planning this story was before the cancellation, because were this a season closer, it would've had ramifications beyond the end of the season; at the very least, it'd have to be tied up at the start of the next one, if not addressed so it can continue through the rest of the season as a plot thread...

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  6. "Graham Williams, who may have been many things, but who understood the basic standards of entertainment, would have noticed the problems with the surviving episode immediately."

    He did! From a 1985 DWB interview:

    "Eric sent me the original scripts and what survives of the tapes. Watching the programme made in 1966 it was alarming to think you could fill half an hour of television with a fellow and a girl and another fellow playing hopscotch - you couldn't *dream* of getting away with that today!"

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    1. Reminds me of the Daleks episode which is mainly comprised of a sequence of people trying to swing across a gorge.

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    2. Yet the sequence of people trying to swing across a gorge is one of my favourite parts of "The Daleks." We're used to seeing people swinging across abysses like it's no thang, and that sequence really portrayed the reality of it -- it takes time, it's difficult, someone's likely to fall -- in a way that I thought made it powerful and suspenseful.

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    3. I'm with BerserkRL on this. That particular episode - The Ordeal - is one of my favourites of serial B, and the gorge-crossing sequence is an important part of that. Though it has to be watched episodically, as I comment on in my review.

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  7. Philip Sandifer:
    "What we have here is mostly an argument for Graham Williams's skill as a writer - he makes something that works despite being sandbagged with a nightmarish assignment."

    Kinda sums up Seasons 15-17. Which may explain why I enjoy Seasons 15-17 more than anything JNT did until Sylvester came along.

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    1. Seconded, though I might nitpick on Season 15 (I find it very hard to see how anyone, no matter how talented, could have made "The Invisible Enemy", "Underworld" and "Invasion of Time" work).

      Seasons 16 and 17 though, in my opinion, are at their best incredibly groundbreaking, innovative and thought-provoking and at their worst entertaining. I find it very hard to condemn that.

      Seeing how well Williams handled this brief from 1985 just reminds me how underrated his tenure is in my opinion and how ungrateful and disrespectful Nathan-Turner was to him when he first took over. How ironic then to see he would have turned to him to help dig Doctor Who out of the hole it had dug itself into.

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    2. Gotta agree.

      While the Williams' era is hit or miss, it wasn't Williams himself that got the series dug into the situation JNT would remove it from in 1980.

      And "The Nightmare Fair" (as with "The Ultimate Evil") are two of my favorite novelizations, so while I am digressing, I will get back on track and agree wholly that Williams' return did bring in a good script. It's a true shame it never got made.

      The audio BF release is very solid as well...

      Season 16 is Williams' highlight.

      Season 15 tries to add lore (hit or miss)

      Season 17 just gets too silly, even if more than half the stories present some solid ideas.

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  8. Via Wikipedia I see that there's an audio version of this as well. (Two versions, actually, one fan-made and one with Colin Baker.)

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  9. Will Ben Kingsley be playing the Celestial Toymaker in Iron Man 3?

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  10. Yes -- I think no matter how Williams tried to handle it, the racism would have been a more obvious problem here. At least in The Celestial Toymaker the overall aesthetic was one of Victorian kid's surrealism, and having a random talking Chinese doll as the main villain comes with that territory. Here -- here's Chinese? Really?

    I think he could have addressed it with an exchange like the following:

    Celestial Toymaker: So Doctor, we meet again!

    Doctor: So we have, so we have. And I see that you're still dressed like a patently offensive caricature of a Chinese mandarin.

    CT: Indeed, I -- wait, what?!? I'll have you know, sir, that my appearance is perfectly attuned to the milieu and ambiance of Victorian gamesmanship. I don't recall you complaining when last we met.

    D: Last time, I was preoccupied by not getting blown up by your insipid exploding checkers game or whatever it was to take note of your shockingly poor taste.

    CT: You're one to talk!

    D: Anyway, the Victorian era ended seventy years ago! Why are you still manifesting like that?

    CT: (sniffs disdainfully) Your primitive mind cannot hope to comprehend either the complexity of my designs or the glory of my true form. However, if it offends your dainty sensibilities so much ...

    (There is a shimmer of light, and the Toymaker's Mandarin costume fades away to be replaced by something equally garish but more thematically appropriate to a videogame parlor in Blackpool.)

    CT: Satisfied?

    D: (rolls eyes) It'll do, I suppose. So anyway, back to your insane scheme...

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    1. Excellent -- but I think C.T. should get a few more digs in about Colin's outfit. Mutual assured destruction.

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    2. Or at least mutually assured distraction.

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  11. "All of this is well and good, and the joke in which it turns out that the Toymaker hasn't been hanging around Earth to capture the Doctor, he's been doing it because he really likes Earth was, in particular, a delightful subversion of expectations."

    What's the betting that this would have been the first thing changed by Saward in the script-editing process?

    The problem with these Missing Episode novels is that they are the writer's original work, which is almost never what appears on screen; it has to pass by the script-editor, producer and director (and sometimes the actors!)

    I haven't read this since it was published, so I don't really remember the story, I just remember reading the video game scenes and thinking 'they could never have done this on their budget and on their production schedule, they would have messed it up'.

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    1. Not in this case, I don't think. According to InVision, Nightmare Fair had already been script edited by Saward. They point to very few changes- mainly just the cutting some of the action. One notable addition of Saward's was to have the Doctor stop for a minute to look at a ventrioloquist's dummy and tell Peri how it reminded him of his adventures with Weing Chiang in Victorian London

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    2. A passing reference to Weng Chiang? That's a perfect illustration of continuity porn. The problem with the show at this point is that there's no ongoing character development. (Not that anybody ever learned anything from Weng Chiang in the first place.)

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  12. I found it a bit insulting myself.

    "Peri! Look! This reminds me of that Robert Holmes story, you know the one, when Hinchcliffe was in charge before that got that awful undergraduate humerist to take over..."

    Actually, having properly got the actual rehearsal script for TNF, I have to say Saward didn't do that bad a job. The main change was the loss of SB the nostalgic cyborg, the Macra-like Mechanic turning into Edward Scissorhands, and an interesting adjustment to the denoument.

    The Toymaker is suicidal.


    Saward's added scene (handwritten):

    Doctor: You can prattle all you like, Toymaker... I'm winning.

    Toymaker: I hope so, Doctor, I truly hope so! Linked into the machine is a psycho-relay. My OWN psycho-relay set to YOUR alpha-waves. If you win, the psytronic energy it releases will send me into blessed oblivion.

    Doctor: What, kill you? If that absurd score is beaten, you die? I don't believe you. You were always a poor loser - but you're the vortex as well! If you die you'll turn time inside out! This whole section of the universe - billions of light years across - will be crushed!

    Toymaker: Which will be no longer my concern. Twenty three thousand, Doctor. Only two thousand to go. You can do it!

    Doctor: It's a trick - another of your tricks!

    Toymaker: As you wish, Doctor. There's only one way to find out!


    It puts an interesting slant on the story, whereas the original basically had the Toymaker whinge life's hard being a god and no more was said.

    IMO, of course.

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  13. So... the book turned a racist caricature played in yellowface into a commentary on racist caricatures and yellowface?

    Ben Kingsley really did play the Toymaker in Iron Man 3!

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  14. I'm probably being overly generous here, but I keep coming back to the phrase "dressed as" in the quote from the novelisation. Because if you say someone's "dressed as" something, this implies they're not actually that thing. ("Ace, dressed as a 1980s teenager in leggings and a bomber jacket covered in badges..." just doesn't sound right.)

    So maybe Gerry Davis and Alison Bingeman recognised the problem (belatedly in Davis's case) but weren't as confident in pointing it out as Williams was.

    Or maybe I'm reading too much into two words.

    (The other interesting thing I noticed when looking up who wrote the novelisation of The Celestial Toymaker is that it was published during the Seasonish, presumably to tie in with this non-existent story.)

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