Carnival of Monsters

Episodes 4 How can such a small toy cause so much trouble?
Story No# 66
Production Code PPP
Season 10
Dates Jan. 27, 1973 -
Feb. 17, 1973

With Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning.
Written by Robert Holmes. Script-edited by Terrance Dicks.
Directed and Produced by Barry Letts.

Synopsis: The Doctor and Jo land aboard a mysterious cargo liner, trapped inside a portable zoo and caught in an endless repetitive cycle.

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A Review by Harry O'Driscoll 7/9/15

Carnival of Monsters is an odd one. Everybody seems to like it, and I've never heard anyone say a bad word about it. And yet, when people talk about the all-time classics, this is often curiously absent.

What's interesting is that it is very much a small story. It's entirely self-contained, which is rare for the Pertwee era. There isn't much of a sense of jeopardy until the final episode; arguably that's the story's weak point, as the climax with the Drashigs feels very much tacked on. The Doctor has now formally returned to just freely wandering about the universe. It lays it cards on the table right from the start: "Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse." On the surface, there is not much to make this stand out.

And yet, it is immensely entertaining in a very unpretentious way. The scenes with Vorg trying to blag his way to the officials' on Inter Minor are marvellous to watch. It's typical of Robert Holmes to make an enemy of bureaucracy. Here the Bureaucrats are petty, self-serving, literally grey-faced and don't understand the concept of entertainment. Brilliant! The distinctive performances and Holmes's knack for dialogue really elevate what is essentially a carnie arguing with a bunch of Jobsworths to being the highlight of the story.

Initially, it's unclear what connects the scenes on Inter Minor to the scenes on the SS Bernice. The first episode teases the audience that something is amiss as a Plesiosaurus suddenly terrorises the ship; the crew re-enacting the same conversations over and over again; mysterious panels that none of the crew can see. Doing what Doctor Who exists for: presenting the audience with something ordinary, and then pull the rug out from under their feet. The first cliffhanger, Vorg's giant hand reaching out to take the TARDIS, is a wonderful moment, tying the two scenes together.

The concept of the Miniscope is genius, and the Doctor and Jo climbing around the circuity is great. I particularly liked it when the Doctor compared it to walking around inside a wrist watch. Quite a few people have picked up on the subtext of it being a television. Literally watching people inside a box for amusement. Holmes makes endless post-modern winks at the audience as Jo is horrified at the idea that people could be watching them entertaining, or when Vorg comments on how so many species look just like humans.

Of course, if we were watching the story from just the perspective of the Doctor and Jo, we'd probably think the people in charge of the Miniscope were completely evil and all powerful. Someone is kidnapping people from different worlds and keeping them as attractions, even manipulating their behaviour for their entertainment. But of course we know that really the person doing that is just a harmless entertainer who doesn't really even understand his own machine.

But then Vorg really is the Doctor. A rogue who makes his own way around the universe and comes up against the establishment. Vorg even believes the Doctor to be exactly like him at first, just to make it clear. And notice how he sells the Miniscope as a carnival of monsters, just like Doctor Who.

There's a sense of scale here, whole worlds existing inside one box (not unlike the TARDIS, another parallel with the Doctor) as the Doctor compares humans in the Miniscope to collecting goldfish. The idea that humans are to other species what animals are to us... but this is debunked when Vorg is clearly just making things up as he goes along.

Incidentally, it gets a lot funnier when you get older and understand more of the jokes. "Give them a hygiene chamber and they store fossil fuel in it." "The generators were built by the old Eternity Perpetual Company. They were designed to last forever; that's why they went bankrupt." I could go on and on. There are so many funny moments here that the passengers' going through the motions eventually becomes almost farcical.

Fundamentally, it is just superb entertainment. Despite being surprisingly intelligent and multi-layered, it's also one of the most accessible Doctor Who stories, in that anyone can dive into this and find something entertaining. Doctor Who can be so tedious when people need to watch it with crib notes. Something like Carnival of Monsters is what the show was always for.