The final episode of Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary specials, “The Giggle,” brings Neil Patrick Harris’ Toymaker into the mix. This character is new to many fans but not actually new to the Whoniverse. He previously appeared in the 1966 serial, aptly titled “The Celestial Toymaker.” It was mostly lost to time until recent efforts to animate it. In it, the Toymaker puts the Doctor’s companions through a series of deadly games that they must win, lest they want to be playthings forever. Of course, the Doctor gets the upper hand and wins the game while destroying the Toymaker’s world. But we now know that the Toymaker still exists and really loves the Spice Girls. While the Toymaker is fictional, the episode’s story about a dummy named Stooky Bill, the first TV image, and John Logie Baird are real.
How Does Doctor Who Tie the Toymaker Into Stooky Bill, John Logie Baird, and the First TV Image Ever?
In “The Giggle,” the Toymaker meets a man who comes in to purchase a doll in 1925. In their (very unsettling) conversation, the man reveals that he’s buying the dummy for his employer, John Logie Baird. The Toymaker recognizes Baird as a great inventor. The man reveals that his boss is creating some new thing called television. Baird says that they are about to make history with the doll. Apparently, the lights used to transmit the first TV image ever are far too hot for a human to stand, hence the dummy.
Stooky’s hair catches fire and his mouth drops open. This happens just as Baird claims he needs a moving image to prove that TV works. We hear the doll’s songlike chuckle and that sets up the later revelation that the Toymaker used Stooky’s image to control the world. (In case you are wondering how you know that tune, it is from Bach’s prelude in C major and used as a basis for many other songs.) He buried the image and every type of screen to sneak into humanity’s head. The Toymaker certainly plays the long game, right? Stooky’s puppet family later try to take Donna out but it is to no avail. It’s the classic Doctor Who way of marrying sci-fiction weirdness to real-life history by bringing in John Logie Baird, Stooky Bill, and that creepy first TV image.
The Real Life History of John Logie Baird, Stooky Bill, and the First TV Image
Let’s start our history lesson with John Logie Baird. He was a Scottish inventor and electrical engineer who did in fact create the world’s first live TV system. He began his experiments after moving to England in 1923, putting together a cacophony of items to make the first TV set. We’re talking a hatbox, scissors, darning needles, bicycles lenses, sealing wax, and eventually the Nipkow disc, among other things. He went through his share of troubles. Some of them include electrocuting himself and allegedly being deemed a “lunatic” by a Daily Express editor.
But Baird had the last, ahem, giggle on October 2, 1925 when he successfully transmitted the first TV image ever. It was a grayscale image of a dummy named Stooky Bill. (The name is sometimes spelled as Stookie Bill.) It’s not clear where he got the doll from but it made sense to use one versus a human. Stooky Bill’s brightly painted face had a higher contrast that would show up better on the screen. And if something went wrong, a person wouldn’t get hurt or worse.
Unlike the episode, Stooky didn’t do anything that Baird didn’t make him do nor did he catch fire. The following year, Baird took his system to the public and later invented the first color TV system. He is indeed the father of modern television, setting up the Baird Television Development Company Ltd. that transmitted some of the first BBC programs.
As far as Stooky Bill, the Bradford National Science and Media Museum featured him in a 2023 Halloween exhibit. We can assume that this doll head is the original one used by Baird for his experiments. The transmission image that Doctor Who’s episode uses of Stooky Bill is likely similar to what John Logie Baird saw decades ago in that first TV image.
Doctor Who weaving the Toymaker’s story into real-life history once again proves just how clever, and important, this series is to TV.