Playthings of Sutekh: What’s the point of Doctor Who toys that stay in their boxes?

Since the summer of 1997, I’ve developed a peculiar habit. Every time I come across an upturned soft toy, planted with its head towards the floor, I’ll turn it upright. If I’m not in a hurry, I’ll even put it on a shelf or a bed where it belongs. Basically, I want it to be comfortable.

This is the sort of statement that usually lands you in psychiatric care, so let me elaborate: it’s all to do with Toy Story (but you’d probably guessed that) and the notion that toys are sentient beings that think and feel and that desire, above all else, to be used. The notion of toys that are not played with haunts the entire trilogy – pervading, in particular, the second part, in which Woody the cowboy starts to face up to the inevitability that one day, Andy will stop playing with him. The alternative – gift-wrapped by Kelsey Grammar’s sinister (but understandably disgruntled) Pete the Prospector – is life in a museum as a collector’s item. It’s left to Buzz Lightyear to bring Woody back to his senses. “Watch kids from behind glass and never be loved again?” he snorts. “Some life.”

It’s a metaphor for… something. I don’t really know what, even after all these years. But taken purely at face value it sums up something very important about my ethos when it comes to toys and collector’s items: I don’t see the point of them if they’re never opened or used.

A while back a friend sent me a link to an article written by a collector. There is one paragraph that caught my eye: “It’s made worse when you’re in the company of that one friend who smugly informs you that they still have all theirs, in their original boxes. Mine were in their boxes too.” Forgive me, Mr Anonymous BBC Magazine Writer. I’m still unpacking this (excuse pun). Did you retain the boxes just to keep your collection safe, taking the ‘PLEASE RETAIN ALL PACKAGING’ warnings literally? Or did you buy them with the intention of leaving them in there?

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Even if you didn’t, there are plenty who do. Perhaps I’m slow, but I genuinely don’t understand the mindset. It feels utterly pointless. I’d warrant that many people reading this will have shelves of DVDs they seldom watch, but what about shelves of DVDs that are never opened on principle, purely so that they can be kept immaculate? No, thought not. “But there’s a fundamental difference in intended purpose!”, you’ll reply. Well, yes. And no. DVDs are designed to be played. Toys – however you want to look at it – are designed to be played with. Except for the ones that specifically aren’t – the fragile ones, the ones you get in collect-the-set mail order deals, and they’re a whole other country that I don’t really want to visit. They’re the North Korea of collectibles; I’m not touching them with a barge pole.

It’s not just Doctor Who, of course – that’s the extent of my expertise, but Star Wars, Transformers and any number of other merchandise opportunities get similar treatment. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Leonard – in an ultimately futile attempt to get rid of his collection – manages to gain safe passage by threatening to open an unvisored Geordi LaForge action figure unless the others get out of his way. We laugh at this, just as we laugh at Sheldon’s reaction to Brent Spiner when he does exactly the same thing, partly because the behaviour of both is so uproarious, but partly because we recognise something of ourselves in what we see.

It works the other way too. I remember experiencing a sense of glee when I saw James May – in a BBC2 series he did on the history of toys – attending a Hornby auction, buying a suitably expensive model railway engine, and then ripping open the packet to examine the model, much to the horror of many of the other collectors. It’s the sort of moment that makes you want to cheer, because it encapsulates an entire concept in one swift physical action, in the same way that something fundamental about the Doctor is expressed at the end of Forest of the Dead, the moment he snaps his fingers.

Is this a parenting thing? I’d be naive to think it wasn’t a factor. But it’s more than that. I’ve known people without children who feel the same way. It feels as if the notion of unused toys gathering dust actively contradicts everything a toy is supposed to be. We don’t even call them dolls or action figures; we call them figurines. It seems somehow ridiculous to suggest that the value of something is determined by whether or not the sellotape is unbroken and whether or not those irritating plastic wire things that take ages to untangle are still in place. It feels dry, humourless, a life made of things for the sake of things. “A bomb,” explains Dennis Hopper to Keanu Reeves at the end of Speed, “is made to explode. That is its meaning. Its purpose. Your life is empty because you spend it trying to stop the bomb from becoming.”

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On the other hand, I can recall with vivid clarity the afternoon I came home and found that one of my children – the one with high-functioning autism – had, in the space of a single day, made the leap from obsessively lining up our figure collection in chronological order to actively playing with them, acting out little skits, doing voices. It sounds so inconsequential written down, but it was one of those heart-in-mouth moments. It’s Tony Curran embracing Bill Nighy. It’s Rory cutting off his pony tail. It probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d left that eleven Doctors figure set inside its fold-out TARDIS box. I would, of course, still have the First Doctor’s cane. But at what cost?

So our Doctor Who toys come out of the boxes as soon as they arrive in the house. They get played with. They get lost, and found again, and then lost again. They’re used in ridiculous photo gags, and, a few years back, a full-blown (well, three and a half minutes) recreation of The Wizard of Oz. All this comes at a price. I can’t find the Seventh Doctor’s umbrella, which really screws up a crucial scene in Dragonfire. Morbius’s leg has never really been quite right, and the ‘raggedy’ Eleventh Doctor is missing his left arm (which is fine, he’s still in the first few hours of regeneration; he can grow a new one). “Children,” rants Prospector Pete, “destroy toys”. Usually they don’t mean to. Sometimes they do, and I have to go and put myself in time out to calm down.

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But that’s fine. Because the fact is I’d probably be doing this even if I were childless. I’ve given up pretending I bought new figures “for the kids” – no one believes me, particularly my other half, who was in any case the only person I was actually trying to convince. One day our Doctor Who collection will be gathering dust, and I will pass them on so that someone else can enjoy them. They’ll never make the final cut of an Antiques Roadshow, but any smugness I’d have felt at owning immaculate, unopened figures that go for a song on Ebay is usurped at the sense of smugness I feel that we’ve used them perhaps as Character Options intended – for entertainment and amusement, and not just something to be stuck on a shelf.

Of course, they don’t climb out of the crate and have adventures and stuff when we’re not looking. That would be silly. Even the idea is silly.

Isn’t it…?

(This article originally appeared on Kasterborous.com, November 2015)

  • Dr. Moo

    I echo your sentiments James. What’s the point of buying something and never using it? You don’t see people applying this approach to anything else but for some reason with toys, comics, etc. it is considered ”wrong” to actually use it for the thing it was made for. I don’t get the idea and if it was done with anything but nerdy ”collectables” then people would be sent in to help them with their hoarding problem.

  • TimeChaser

    I’ve only ever kept one figure in the box, and that’s my silver sparkly Dalek. Buy I played with my toys as a kid, and played hard. I played with them in the dirt, in the bath… I know I ruined a lot of toys that way, but who cares? When you’re a kid, you get them just for that purpose.

    Of course, my vice is books. I love to read, but I have so many Doctor Who books sitting on my shelves unread because I don’t like to ruin them. This comes out of having mangled the first two Target novelizations I ever bought, and since they’re not so easy to replace nowadays, I try to not crack spines, or bend covers or pages. But then again, it’s a long time til the next season, so I may have to finally dive in to the oasis and read some things this year.

  • JOHNBOY!

    You can drop the last five words from that title I think… but the answer is the same: There’s no point to them!

    • TimeChaser

      Oh, I don’t know. It depends on your perspective. When I was a kid, I had to play Doctor Who using whatever I could get my hands on: LEGOs, Star Wars action figures, etc. I would have killed to be able to have actual Doctor Who stuff to play with. I suppose in that sense my imagination just had to work a bit harder, so perhaps it was more special than having real Doctor Who toys, but still. It would have been nice.

    • Dr. Moo

      Kids watch this show, remember?

  • FrancoPabloDiablo

    Thought I’d read this article before then noticed the little disclaimer at the end saying it was originally posted on Kasterborous last year. Thank god for that – thought I was either going mad or having a major case of Déjà vu!!!