The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
|Dates||Dev. 14, 1988 -
Jan. 4, 1989
With Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred.
Written by Stephen Wyatt. Script-edited by Andrew Cartmel.
Directed by Alan Wareing. Produced by John-Nathan Turner.
|Synopsis: Ancient gods clamor for entertainment in a deadly circus composed of burned-out hippies, where all who fail to please are killed.|
A Review by Cody Salis 21/8/97
I liked this story not only because of a circus involved in the plot, but also because of the mysteries that the Doctor and Ace try to solve at The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. This story keeps you guessing as to the plot and what the characters are doing throughout this story.
Captain Cook, played with great panahce by T.K. McKenna, was my favorite villian in the story. While he was not the main villian, he always wanted things his own way. He always put down the Doctor saying that his adventures were more exciting. However, when it came time for him to perform in the ring, he came up with little games and/or excuses to get out of perfoming. It seemed to me that the Captain was full of hot air and no action. Finally he could not come up with any more excuses and so he performed with the Doctor and Mags, but at the cost of his life. He lets his ideas and speech go to his head, but is afraid of doing something that he knows he would get killed for.
The Main villians, The Gods of Ragnarok, are a unique trio of villians. The Doctor says when he meets them for the first time in the Dark Circus, "I have fought the Gods all through time!" Where did he meet them and fight them before? This was a loose end for me and I wish somehow they could have tied it up. The three actors playing the family and then the Gods did a good job of setting up the main plot of the story and keeping the viewers in suspense until the right moment.
A perfect end to a great season by Michael Hickerson Updated 6/8/99
Greatest Show in the Galaxy arose out of John Nathan Turner's desire to have a Doctor Who story that takes place at the circus. On the surface, the idea seems like one that Ace would call "Naff at best," but yet, succeeds in being the biggest surprise of season 25 and maybe the entire series as a whole.
Greatest Show is, simply put, utterly and completely brilliant.
Season 25 opened with a bang with the instant classic Remembrance of the Daleks. Surely, no one thought that the show could top itself. But Greatest Show, from it's opening moments teases you into thinking that it could just do that. Or as the Ringmaster says in his opening monologue, "What you've seen before, you'd best forget...because you ain't seen nothing yet."
And about five minutes into this story, you're literally sucked into a world that is like nothing in Doctor Who history.
Part of the charm and appeal of the story is Alan Waring's superlative direction. Waring takes the typical Doctor Who cliche of filming in a rock quarry and runs with it. Segonax feels like an alien planet, namely due to odd camera angles, different lighting (I love the way he uses the darkness and shadows for the circus ring while having the Gods of Ragna Rock's domain be light and open) and various camera techniques. Add to it that the circus feels like a circus due to a happy error (the BBC studios had to be cleared out for absestos and part of the story were literally filmed in a tent) and you've got one of the best directed stories of any Who era (perhaps topped only by Waring's work on Ghost Light).
Another element is the soundtrack, which is utterly and completely addictive and once it gets into your head will be stuck there for days. The tracks that take place the circus are appropiately light while the darker moments have an ominous feel to them that heightens the tension and atmosphere of the entire story.
But these are just two components of the whole story--namely Stephen Wyatt's brilliant script. It would be easy to dismiss Greatest Show out of hand knowing that Wyatt's previous offering was the much maligned McCoy offering, Paradise Towers. But to overlook Greatest Show on that basis alone would be a great disservice. Namely because in creating the world of Segonax, Wyatt offers up a briliant satire of the state of Doctor Who at the time the show was filmed.
You've got the American fan boy, brilliantly realized by the young fan. ("I've heard it's not quite as good as it used to be, but I'm still terribly interested..." sums it all up brilliantly.) You've got the head of the BBC as seen in the Gods of Ragna Rock--the Gods give the entertainiers such as the Ringmaster and Morgana (JNT and the rest of the production staff) less and less to work with but demand better quality entertainment to feed their needs. You've got the family (the British Who fans) who get bored in the long waiting between acts. Wyatt also takes pot shots at the old fans with Captain Cook who keeps babbling about the good old days (reminds me a lot of disucssion of such then lost stories as Tomb of the Cybermen) and everyone wishes would just shut up and go away.
And while satire is good, if it doesn't have a gripping, compelling story to drive it, it's not worth the time. Greatest Show does have a good story. Wyatt's script bustles along at an even pace, building the suspense and interest throughout the entire run of the story. The only glaring error is that the ending is a bit too pat--just how does the Doctor know that the medallion will appear at his feet at just the right time?!?
Of course, any review of Greatest Show would be remiss if I didn't note that McCoy (his walking calmly out of the tent as it blows up behind him is wonderful as is his reaction to the tarot card of the hanged man) and Aldred ("I'm not afraid of anything" still gives me chills) give their usual great performances. Ace's fear of clowns is nicely done by Aldred as is McCoy's darkness. Add to it a brilliant supporting cast, led by Ian Redding as the eery Chief Clown, and the McCoy years looked as if they couldn't get any better.
As a coda to season 25, Greatest Show is fantastic. As a well-rounded, well-realized piece of Who satire, it's brilliant. As an entertaining, well-directed, superbly-acted and all-around-great story, it's simply one of the best Who stories ever made.
Curiouser and curiouser by Mike Morris 11/8/00
There have been atypical Doctor Who stories before. The Celestial Toymaker, The Mind Robber and Warriors' Gate are the most frequently cited, and quite rightly too. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is one that belongs firmly in the atypical bracket. It's hardly recognisable as a Doctor Who story at all. It doesn't rely on the solid plotting of the early years, nor the set-pieces of eighties Who. There isn't really much of a story to it at all. There aren't any real characters... more a bunch of archetypes. And the Doctor's role in events is an odd one.
When I first saw Greatest Show, I was... umm... puzzled. I sat there watching it, scratching my head and wondering what the hell this was all about. It was a bit like my first experience of watching Monty Python (I knew it was funny, but I couldn't for the life of my figure out why). By the time the Doctor admitted that he'd always found circuses a little sinister, I knew I'd witnessed something important. Something that was about something. But I really didn't know what to make of it all.
Which is very much what Greatest Show tries to do. It isn't a story about explaining mysteries, more about establishing them. It makes great use of icons and symbols. We never really find out what the Gods of Ragnarok are, or why they do what they do. We've no idea how the Doctor defeats them. The finale, where the Doctor calmly walks away from a confrontation as a world collapses around him, comes tantalisingly close to explaining what the story's about. But it doesn't, not quite.
Maybe it's the lack of explanation that shows why this story, although mostly well-regarded, has been horribly received in some quarters. The magazine SFX panned it on the video's release, stating - quite rightly - that it fails to answer any of the questions that it poses. That's the point, would be my answer. Let's not forget that the same magazine has offered the opinion that 2010: A Space Odyssey is better than 2001, because it explains what the monoliths are and why Hal went mad. Missing the point that some questions aren't meant to be answered.
I'm going to keep the 2001 analogy going for a minute, because in many ways the stories are quite similar (although I'm not going to argue that Greatest Show is in the same league as one of the greatest films ever made). 2001 is as close as we've ever come to pure cinema. Greatest Show just pips Warriors' Gate as Doctor Who's best example of pure television. It's visually flawless. It establishes the notion that clowns are creepy by using a stunning introductory scene. It's perfectly episodic, rather than the ninety-minute film that Doctor Who stories had evolved into by the late eighties. And it doesn't really have much of a plot at all. It's big and baffling and makes no apologies for itself. To borrow a quote from a review I once read of 2001, Greatest Show isn't about things. It is things.
The first episode is... well... odd. We're told about the existence of the Psychic Circus, but we don't actually reach it. Instead the Doctor and Ace loaf around in the TARDIS for a while, which that season was something of an oddity in itself. When they finally arrive on Segonax, they wander around an alien world meeting weird people. They waste time eating some gooey melon thing, and bump into a rough-looking biker. Then they stroll off and have two rather unexplained brushes with death. They meet more people, and then stroll off again. They finally arrive at the circus, and the Doctor - in a spectacularly poor cliffhanger - asks Ace whether they'll go in or not.
Let's try transposing this to another story to see its ludicrousness. Imagine the Robots of Death episode one; The Doctor and Leela arrive in a desert and meet some weird desert-scavenger types. Something nearly kills them. At the end of the episode, the Doctor asks Leela if she wants to go into the sandminer or does she want to go somewhere else. It's not classic stuff, is it?
And yet, somehow, epsiode one works. It works because of the way it builds up the presence of the Psychic Circus without us actually seeing what goes on there. It works because the characters we're introduced to are so downright weird that they hold our attention. It works because it produces the best alien world that Doctor Who has ever created. By the end, we've been sucked into the atmosphere, and we know a few things. We've been introduced to the main characters; we know that the Psychic Circus is, on the whole, not a nice place to visit; we've seen clowns driving around in a hearse, and so we know they're bad as well. And I, for one, couldn't wait for episode two to start.
As such, episode one is the whole story in microcosm. A perfectly evoked setting. Strange, disturbing characters. Icons that are clearly important in some way (we know there's something important about the bus, just as we later begin to realise that the symbol of the eye is crucial). And there's something oddly choreographed about the whole thing, an underlying sense that everybody bar the Doctor is dancing to someone else's tune.
A word about the script. In truth, it's got more similarities to Paradise Towers than it's generally given credit for. Paradise Towers also boasted strange, inhuman characters; the Caretakers, Pex, the Kangs. It took place in an odd, decaying world. It featured carefully-choreographed action; witness the Doctor's first meeting with the Kangs. And it had a carefully built-up menace lurking benath the surface.
Paradise Towers didn't really work. As a script it asked a lot of the director, and Nicholas Mallett wasn't quite in tune with the whole thing. Paradise Towers has a slightly uncertain feel to it.
Alan Wareing, on the other hand, clearly wasn't uncertain. He goes for the weirdness with his teeth, and the result is a serial whose excellence (and dominance) of direction is only rivalled by Warriors' Gate.
The scene where Ace and Bellboy talk in part three is nothing short of stunning. But imagine it in a dull little caravan, with a not-too-good actor carefully delivering his lines to a mute actress. It would be awful, boring. After all, Bellboy doesn't really say much at all. But the scene's transformed by the direction; the result is an eerie setting where Ace and Bellboy are surrounded by unfinished clowns, Bellboy trying desperately to express what he's lost, Ace looking on and not quite able to understand, the sun streaming through a louvered window and casting shadows across Bellboy's face. It's a masterpiece.
That's just an example of how good Wareing's direction is. There are no filler scenes, no meaningless chatter in corridors. The staple diet of the Doctor Who quarry is transformed into a hugely convincing world of sand that seems to stretch on for miles. The clowns move with unnatural litheness and achieve an unparalleled menace (I've never liked clowns anyway). When the Doctor bursts through to the domain of the Gods of Ragnarok, the sudden explosion of colour is simply breathtaking. Wyatt's script relies on extraordinary direction. It gets it.
Speaking of the script, its status as a satire on Doctor Who production, even television in general, is without question, and it's excellently dissected in Michael Hickerson's review above. Personally, it's not something I like to dwell on, because it ties the story to our own, boring, humdrum world. Greatest Show works far better as something otherworldly, a window into a universe that we just can't hope to understand. Sure, Deadbeat can be seen as a metaphor for Blake's 7; trying to push SF television in a new direction, but not quite able to handle what it stumbled on without support, and ruthlessly abandoned by the powers-that-be. But I'd rather think of him as that down-beaten guy with the broom, shuffling around and humming pathetically to himself, who is somehow given back his senses and emerges as the leader he always was.
Greatest Show shouldn't be judged on any terms but its own. For four brief episodes we're given a window into some other world, and we see great things happening there. We don't understand them all, but that hardly matters; it's enough that we see what we did.
Do I have to say it's magnificent?
"I know it's not as good as it used to be" by Will Jones 21/8/00
So, then. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. A tale with a decent reputation, a tale that has been well received by everyone else who's reviewed it so far. An 'oddball story', true, but one which commands far more respect within fandom than, say, Delta and the Bannermen. A difficult story to attack, one would say.
But really, it's tripe, isn't it?
OK, that's not entirely fair. 'Tripe' is a strong word, and it isn't one I'd attach to any Doctor Who story. But if I was forced to, really forced to, Greatest Show is without any doubt the one I would choose.
It's a shame, really, because it boasts some excellent features. Mike Morris above mentions the direction (at some length), and fair point, it's a well directed tale. Also you've got the great advantage of Sylvester McCoy, by now at the top of his game, as the Doctor. In this story he's as good as ever. One of the things I love about Sylvester is the way he can transform a mundane line into something special. Listen to him in Episode One where he delivers the line, "it's just a promotional device trying to get us to go." 99% of actors would have simply read the line, passed over it in a hurry to get to better material. Sylvester gives it everything, putting those McCoy-patented tones of sadness into his voice and completely altering the line. Wonderful.
So these are two good points about this story. But neither of them are the best. The best thing about this one is the Chief Clown, and to a lesser extent the other clowns. Ian Reddington delivers a wonderfully sinister performance in a role that could have descended into Batman-style camp. He's one of the most menacing figures in Doctor Who history - the smiling (well, sneering) face paint concealing a deep seated malevolence. And the clowns in undertakers' raiments and a hearse work very well.
So yes, these are all plus points. But there's a downside, an aspect of this story which should be seen as the enemy of fandom, if you will. I call this enemy "the script". It's frankly diabolical.
I could attack the tedious cartoon characters which pepper the tale (Nord, Fanboy and the annoying woman on the stall) but that's far too easy a target. It would be better to look at the plot and its development in the tale. But unfortunately that's rather difficult to do, as nothing makes any sense. I'm aware that Mr. Morris above described criticism of this rather glaring deficiency as "missing the point", but I disagree. The script isn't, as he contests, deliberately not making sense. In writing it, Wyatt seems to feel that he's explained everything. Sorry, Steven, but I've still no idea what's going on. What really happened to Kingpin? No idea. Why would a bunch of hippies have owned a psychotic machine dressed as a bus conductor? No idea. Who the **** are the Gods of bloody Ragnarok?!? No idea whatsoever. Stop being so opaque, Wyatt, and sort it out.
Another problem seems to be with Ace's characterisation. Compare the portrayal of Ace here to Marc Platt's in Ghost Light, which dealt with a similar theme (Ace's fear). Ace isn't interested in the circus due to her strong dislike of clowns, so Wyatt uses the age-old and boring device of having the advertising drone ask if she's 'scared'. At which she immediately wants to go to prove the machine wrong. This is broad-strokes characterisation, dull and horribly unsubtle. In Ghost Light, Ace feels like a real human being with many different shades to her character - in this she is nothing but a stereotype of herself. (Another note - the "not scared, are you?" device is unbelievably repeated later in the same episode – this time, unforgivably, the Doctor of all people says it. In fact he says "oh, you're just making excuses because you're scared of clowns." He refuses to listen to Ace's well founded fears. This is not the sensitive Seventh Doctor we know – it feels more like Colin Baker. Awful scripting.)
The acting in this one is a very mixed bag. McCoy and Aldred are good as ever, despite the script, and as I have said Ian Reddington is superb. However, the MC is wooden, and TP McKenna as Captain Cook bored me - I know this was the point of the character, but it's a golden rule that boring characters should never bore the audience. The old woman selling food is simply unspeakable.
In essence then, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is arguably the worst Doctor Who story I've ever seen. It's not only got no depth - it's got no width, no breadth and indeed no dimensions of any sort. Over-written, over acted twaddle.
Not as good as it used to be? How right he is.
What might have been by Gareth McG 15/5/02
It's generally agreed that the McCoy era only started to get the ingredients right when it was too late i.e. in Doctor Who's final season. Indeed many would say that the circus in this story was a good analogy for the show at the time of its broadcast. My own memories of late-80's Who are quite vivid but in all honestly I watched only out of loyalty because it was the same show that had given me so much pleasure during the Davison era. Each week I recall coming away from a McCoy episode feeling less satisfied and even more confused. I wanted to like him and desperately wanted to understand what was going on but it was rarely easy. Probably the most perplexing story was The Greatest Show In The Galaxy and so upon discovering this video in a bargain bin a few days ago for only £2 I decided that it would be interesting to examine whether the programme was too advanced for me at that point or if indeed it was a load of nonsense.
To a certain extent I enjoyed the story from an adult's perspective. Aldred and McCoy compliment each other wonderfully even if I find the latter impossible to warm towards. He's just too much of a mixture of Blackadder and Baldrick and he's a poor actor but it's meant as a compliment when I say that he is like a hip if slightly annoying father to Ace. I also liked the idea of having the ultimate circus that attracts acts from right across the galaxy and particularly liked the notion of turning something that is generally light hearted into something that is dark, sinister and quite disturbing. That contrast is very interesting in the sense that the clowns - guys that are supposed to make people laugh - are doing anything but. It reminded me of the John Gacy murders as serialised in To Catch A Killer. The killer audience is also a very effective if pretty simple concept harking back to the days of the thumbs up, thumbs down policy of the Coliseum in Ancient Rome.
But despite all these great ideas, The Greatest Show In The Galaxy doesn't really work even though it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why. You can't say that it looked better on paper than it did visually because it is an extremely atmospheric piece of work that evokes some beautiful imagery. It just doesn't seem to have a very strong pulse. The whole thing plods along far too much and only really starts to make sense at the end. Fans will no doubt say that's its attraction but I have little doubt that it is also the reason why many people like myself were losing interest in the show at the time. For example the motivation behind the characterisation of the bored family lies unexplained for too long and for the most part they just seem like another middle class family having a rather dull holiday in Blackpool. Doctor Who needs to move faster than this, things need to be explained to us pretty quickly and we need nerve-wracking cliffhangers to look forward to the next episode. This story doesn't serve those functions. Indeed the conclusion to the first episode, when The Doctor invites Ace into the tent, must be one of the worst in the programmes history.
The characters too could have been so much better when one bears in mind that the Psychic Circus is supposed to be the most legendary in the galaxy. They should have been heroic entertainers but instead turn out to be a pretty pathetic bunch. The nerdy youngster, particularly in the context of parodying an obsessive Doctor Who fan, was a big mistake. As a casual fan I'm not one to take this kind of thing personally or anything but I just think that it's sad when any programme insults its viewers. There's also the impression that this satire is a veil behind which an uncertain writer can hide when he's being criticised. The clowns are quite good but again could have been a lot better. As a kid watching this I couldn't decide whether there was real malice in them or if they were in fact just in pantomime. It would only have taken The Chief Clown to kill somebody in cold blood to leave a lasting horrific impression to rival the Autons from years earlier but the producers seemed to regard that as too obvious a move.
So while I'm happy to say that The Greatest Show In The Galaxy has garnered some renewed respect for the McCoy era on my behalf, it also saddens me to say that it probably contributed to the death of the series just as much as did Ken Dodd, The Kandy Man and Bonnie Langford. As perverse as it may sound, I feel sad that I was able to follow the whole thing so much more clearly as an adult compared to as a kid. That's not to say that Doctor Who shouldn't have been written for adults, it is simply to say that children were the show's priority audience and they should never have felt alienated by it. I've already criticised Resurrection of the Daleks for being too confusing for its own good but at least as a kid I knew that The Doctor was the good guy and The Daleks were the bad guys. That's all I really needed to know at that age. It's a pity that the same distinction between good and evil wasn't as clear in this story. The saddest thing of all is that The Greatest Show In The Galaxy had the potential to be a real Doctor Who nugget but beyond the initial ideas it went quite spectacularly wrong. There can only be one conclusion drawn from that. Even beneath a story that engaged in self parody and even beneath McCoy's constant bouts of idiocy was a programme that had started taking itself far too seriously and had as a result become a rudderless ship.
A Review by Rob Matthews 16/6/02
Like its neighbour Silver Nemesis, Greatest Show is one of those highly divisive Doctor Who stories that, as the ageing chestnut goes, you 'either love or hate'.
In fact, that's probably not the case. I bet there are loads of fans who quite like it, are mildly irritated by it, or are completely indifferent to it. I personally think it's flawed but enjoyable, good but not great.
Its detractors tend - not unreasonably - to use earlier periods of the show as points of comparison. Tellingly, the previous negative reviewer Gareth McG (who made some excellent points) mentioned that it was only his enjoyment of the Davison years that kept him watching the show through the McCoy years, and, unsurprisingly, some critics have adopted Whizzkid's 'It's not as good as it used to be" comment .
(with which the show's makers really shot themselves in the foot, because by trying to forestall such criticism, they ensured that it came back more virulent)
For me, the criticism isn't a a particularly good one because it's too vague. Doctor Who was - or at least should have been - an eclectic show with room for all kinds of stories, so it's difficulty to point to any 'good old' story without discovering there's a pretty bad story sitting next to it. City of Death may be a 'good old' story, but Destiny of the Daleks is, well... not.
In the same vein, a couple of people who liked Silver Nemesis made comments along the lines of its being a return to the 'good old days' (which I personally refute - see my review), again demonstrating a desire that the show be in some way like it was in its past . The problem I have with this attitude is that 'the past' is a more plural concept with Doctor Who than it is with most shows. It could refer to the innovation of The Deadly Assassin, it could refer to the asinine sexism of The Time Monster.
In any case, I think it's inherently negative to review a story based on what it it isn't. The best stories our little show produced benefit more from comparison to literature and movies than to other Doctor Who stories. Mike Morris's comparison of Greatest Show to 2001: A Space Odyssey is more apt than any comparison to other Doctor Who, even though - as he admits - it's nowhere near as good as that. Gareth McG complains about the show taking itself too seriously, but Greatest Show stands alone and apart from the lore of the series. That is to say, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy doesn't take Doctor Who seriously; it takes The Greatest Show in the Galaxy seriously. Whether it does so to too great a degree is a matter of personal taste and I've never been able to figure out my own stand on the matter - after all, no matter how seriously the show takes itself, it's still limited to that glowing box in the corner of the room. If a fantasy story takes itself very seriously, isn't that in the name of making it convincing for dramatic purposes rather than merely whimsical? Doctor Who's about imagination, so why not lose yourself in it for twenty-five minutes? Don't worry, the real world will still be there when you get back.
The main sore point with Greatest Show is how the viewer deciphers its intentions. Is the story trying to be mysterious and iconic and succeeding brilliantly? Or does it think it explains everything when in fact it's incoherent nonsense? Most of us would acknowledge the direction is superb, and that the chief clown is chillingly acted, but is style blinding us to paucity of substance? Mike argues that the script deliberately poses questions it has no intention of answering, while Will Jones argues that 'Wyatt seems to think he's explained everything' in his script. Short of Wyatt ending the story with an irritating 'twenty questions' like Paul Magrs did with The Blue Angel, I find it difficult to say what his intentions are. But there are definite themes to be teased from the story, even if there's no definite plot. It could be about the vampiric quality of entertainment, it could be about the nullity of postmodernism, or the betrayal of friendship in pursuit of personal glory. Or an indulgently inverted myth where the 'real' stands in for what is symbolic instead of symbolic standing in for the 'real'. The strongest image I took from it was of that deadened and bored family, a truculent middle class that wants to grind down individuality and make everything as banal as they are. Undoubtedly that's a subjective reaction to the story and yours is probably very different, but I like this story for being so thought-provoking. Dare I say it, it's more fun to talk about than to watch.
Us audiences are very hostile to things that don't make sense. We see it as a failing. But think about it - left to their own devices, our very own brains spew up loads of things that don't make sense. How many dreams have you had with coherent narratives? I'm very over-analytical (no, really!) so I like the odd bit of art that I just can't get a foothold in. I think Kafka's a great artist because I have no clue on an intellectual level of what he's saying. There are loads of Doctor Who stories that make perfect plot sense, and only a very occasional Mind Robber or Warrior's Gate to offer something very different.
Okay, I've decided. We shouldn't be like the Gods of Ragnarok. We shouldn't pick on this for being unique. You can take this stuff or leave it, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind here. But I think it's interesting enough to justify its existence as a Doctor Who story. If McCoy wasn't on Slightly Dodgy mode for this one, I might have rated it a bit higher.
"You're just an ageing hippy Professor..." by Joe Ford 12/7/02
Nobody I know likes Greatest Show in the Galaxy and I know quite a few Doctor Who fans. I will concede that it is a unusual story but then I’m not so straight laced that I can’t enjoy the show unless it has big monsters threatening to take over the world. What I will admit is that the script aside from being a brilliant satire on the state of affairs of the show at the times is a little choppy and childish and does take its comedy and horror to extremes. However despite these criticisms the show is elevated to instant classic status thanks to the talents of one very great man… Alan Wareing.
I cannot think of a show that relies so much on its director (the two Graeme Harper stories both had great scripts). There are so many touches, so many little nuances and sparkling scenes, wonderful bits that are glossed over with stunning FX, inventive camera work and brilliant characters (the actors perfect in their roles no doubt inspired by Wareing’s clever work). I am the last person that would watch a film/TV show on visual levels alone but when direction is this GOOD I have to give in to the beauty of it all. Instead of blustering on about McCoy, Aldred, the location work, the twisty plot, blah , blah I shall merely mention some of those cool direction moments that left me so impressed:
1) I love the way the scenes lead into each other, especially in episode one, partly by Mark Ayres' music but Wareing's choice of where to start and stop chopping scenes is masterful giving the impression of a flowing storybook than a television show.
2) His use of slow motion isn’t gratuitous but actually very effective. I love the way the bus conductor blows up slowly and McCoy lifting his hat in SM as the arena collapsing around him is one of the most effective scenes of the era.
3) Even scenes that go on too long he never misses a chance to surprise or knock the wind out of the audience. The Mags as a vampire works to an extent but when things are getting a little goofy (especially McCoy’s hysterical Tarzan moment!) he turns things really creepy with that harsh blue lighting silouhetting Mags and the Doctor as he begs her not to kill him and the close up on the little girl with the green eyes is unexpected and powerful.
4) I know everybody says this but the scenes with Ace creeping along the corridors of the circus tent are very memorable. How many companion walks down the corridors scenes has Doctor Who thrown up? Two million? Three? Well right at the end of the show's run we are clearly in good hands because these should be as bland as ever and as it goes they are gripping.
5) There are two similar scenes between Morgana, the Ringmaster and the Chief Clown where they assess the situation and get quite tense with each other over the capture of the Doctor. They are filmed with similar shots and dialogue but the second is highlighted by being the more dramatically acted highlighting how urgent things have been become near then end. Hardly worth mentioning but it’s these subtle parallels and thoughtful moments that make a good director.
6) The cuts back to the three characterless family giving astute comments about the show was an excellent idea. Having them eating snychronised ice creams, crisps, etc was a stroke of genius.
7) Even the effects overload finale is littered with brilliant touches. The Captain’s “I am my dear…I am” is sick but really scary. The Doctor walking out of the tent as it explodes without a flicker of interest or surprise is great. The final shot of the tent collapsing with all that pink mush spewing out is an enduring image.
I really really like Rememberance of the Daleks but I think Greatest Show in the Galaxy achieves more and as such takes the crown of the season. I can’t think of the story without images of the emotionless, grinning clowns or the silky spoken Chief Clown… and it really gives me goosebumps! I know I said I wouldn’t but I feel I should mention McCoy and Aldred who are quite splendid and have reached a level of chemistry that matches Doc4/Sarah and Doc 6/Peri. And makes it that much more watchable.
Circus Maximus by Andrew Wixon 15/8/02
It quite amuses me that, when talking about the overtly political story of Season 25, it's The Happiness Patrol that everyone refers to. Because it seems to me that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is every bit as politically informed, and what's more it's able to make its points in a subtler, less blatant way. And, of course, the subtext isn't the whole point of the story as sometimes seems to be the case with the earlier tale: like all the very best DW this works on a number of levels.
As well as a marvellously dark, witty, non-naturalistic story about a corrupted circus and the beings caught in its orbit, this echoes the fate of any small, idealistic venture that made the fatal error of fraternising with big, vested interests - the Psychic Circus could just as easily be the Glastonbury Festival or any small concern, the Gods of Ragnarok (or Rrragnarrrok, as McCoy insists on calling them) any oppressive corporate sponsor. The condemnation of the Captain's survival of the fittest approach to being in the cage anticipates the more explicit use of the same theme in Survival. The edict 'entertain or die', with the performers' lives dependent on them getting a good rating from the audience, is especially ironic coming from a TV series undergoing ratings problems of its own. And there's something deliciously spiteful about the series finally laying into its most dedicated supporters, in the form of the painfully accurate Whizzkid.
But it is a great tale even without this angle, stuffed with marvellous performances from a cast which, while not out-and-out famous, contains more than its fair share of familiar faces. The videotaped exteriors continue to rob those sequences of any atmosphere, but the score is eerie and evocative. Thank God for the EastEnders studio car park, or we might have been robbed of one of the finest stories not only of this era, but of the series as a whole.
Incomprehensible mess or oddball classic? by Terrence Keenan 18/11/02
On the surface, it's a strange, loosely plotted, caricature-filled, not very subtle parody of Doctor Who and its fans and the behind-the-scenes-politics of the time.
If you dig deeper, it's a strange, loosely plotted, caricature-filled, not very subtle parody of Doctor Who and its fans and the behind-the-scenes-politics of the time.
It's also one of the most visually interesting serials ever. A happy accident allowed most of the interiors to be filmed in a tent. The exteriors are shot in a way that increases the otherworldliness needed for the story. There are undertaker clowns driving a hearse, spy kites, strange crystal balls with Masonic all-seeing eyes glaring out of them, and the creepiest family you'd ever laid your eyes on.
Don't even think about explanations, because you won't get them. I don't think it matters all that much. If you create the right scenario, then explanations are not needed.
So, are the Gods of Ragnarock really gods or just super-intelligent aliens who like to call themselves gods. What is the meaning of the well? Is everything based on real magic or is all just one big conjuring trick like the ones McCoy performs in episode four?
As I said, it doesn't really matter. Between Stephen Wyatt and Alan Wareing, GSitG is more interested in the symbols and archetypes. Whizz Kid is the ultimate Fanboy. Captain Cook is the critic who puts every one down because he doesn't think there's anyone smarter than him. He's also the ultimate bore and pedant, talking about his glorious adventures and crapping on all others as not real or exciting or proper (Pertwee?). Mags is the enlightened savage, hold back her animal instinct. The surviving circus stars are sellouts, coasting along on their reputation -- the big bloated rock band trying to play to its selective audience one last time before it all falls apart because they don't want to believe the dream is dead -- and dragging their fans down as well. GSitG is about these thoughts and ideas, but is also only limited to what the viewer wants to picture as the serial's meaning. And I don't think you can find an equivalent in the long run of televised DW. Whether or not this was planned, or came about as an accident is unknown, and probably best to stay that way.
The performances are all at a high level. Like The Seeds of Doom, you have actors who are having fun with archetypes and giving it all they got. Yes, Nord is annoying, but he's supposed to be, as is Whizz Kid. T.P. McKenna steals the show as Captain Cook, which is the meatiest role in the serial. Jessica Martin is also deserving credit with the way she portrays Mags as both human and monster.
GSitG is both Syl and Sophie's best outings. There's a nice, balanced mixture of both clown and hero in the Doctor, although Syl can't play angry to save his life. Sophie actually underplays Ace for once, and sparkles throughout. Her best moment is the touching scene with Bellboy in episode three as she coaxes information about the Circus out of him.
I used to hate GSitG with a passion. I don't anymore. It's one of McCoy's most watchable and enjoyable stories, even if it might be an incomprehensible mess, or an oddball classic, depending on how you see it.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) by Antony Tomlinson 7/5/03
Like Ghostlight and The Curse of Fenric, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a bit stupid. For like these later stories, it creates a great sense of menace with its suggestion that there is a dreadful evil lurking behind the scenes, and then blows it all by revealing this incredible evil to have laughable motives and rather lame plans. So, Fenric was revealed to be a chess-obsessed gourd, Ghost Light presented us with a biologically ignorant Glam Rock star and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy gives us three rejects from the Star Wars trilogy, who are looking to be entertained by bad cabaret and children's pantomime (something that Doctor Who was rather adept at by 1988).
However, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy has an excuse for being ridiculous. For the fact is, this story is nothing more than a remake of David Bowie's 1980 video to the funky pop tune, "Ashes to Ashes".
Like the Bowie video, the main image of the story is a Pierrot clown, standing in an alien landscape that looks a bit like a quarry (wonderfully realized by Ian Reddington). While this clown is wandering the dunes, a lunatic is sitting alone in a darkened room, gibbering to himself (in the Doctor Who version, this is Christopher Guard's Bellboy).
While this is unfolding, the lyrics of the song are echoed by the story's symbolic references to drug addiction - manifested by the way characters lose their personality through contact with the Eye - while the song's nostalgia for more guiltless times is also recalled: the circus looks back to its innocent heyday, just as the cocaine-blighted Bowie harks back to "...such an early song".
Given these musical origins, then, it really is no wonder that this particular Doctor Who story turned out to be such a load of old twaddle.
Despite this, however, perhaps the BBC should have tried turning other great pop videos into Doctor Who stories - maybe Ah-ha's "Take on Me" with its Mary Poppins-like split between reality and a cartoon world. Or perhaps The Cure's "Close to Me", where the protagonists are locked in a cupboard and then kicked brutally off a cliff. For whatever had resulted from this approach, it sure as hell would have better than the half-baked crap that was actually served up over the course of 1989.
The television industry in a nutshell by Tim Roll-Pickering 27/7/03
Television has become an ever more ruthless industry, with channel controllers seeking to appease their audience's demands for more good entertainment, quickly disposing of perceived failures the moment they falter. To parody this on television is a daring move, but that is precisely what The Greatest Show in the Galaxy does, and does it in style. Less obvious now is the particular way in which the Whizzkid is a wonderful parody of late 1980s Doctor Who fans, badgering the production team with numerous questions and openly denouncing current performances as being inferior to earlier efforts that he admits he has never actually seen himself. Needless to say when he is given the chance to perform himself and show how it should really be done he rapidly fails and is disposed of himself. There is also a strong criticism of the entire hippy movement, showing how the movement failed and left only bitter memories and broken dreams.
Amidst all this is quite a daring story that sees the Doctor confront a mystery and try to survive in an environment that should be friendly and comforting. Stephen Wyatt clearly has something against circuses and anecdote tellers, parodying both of them mercilessly. Each of the main characters is carefully constructed to be subtly different from the others, ranging from the Chief Clown who serves his masters loyally and denounces any hope of rebellion to the Ringmaster who sees himself as strong enough to survive, to Morgana who is driven by her conscience about what the Psychic Circus has become but is unable to resist it enough. Even Bellboy has his doubts and eventually decides that suicide is better than going on living after he has lost Flowerchild, a rare sign in the series of absolute defeatism. Captain Cook is one of the story's most memorable characters but he is deliberately written as a total bore and so rarely generates much tension though T. P. McKenna gives an excellent performance. Amidst all this it would be easy to overlook the character of Mags but Jessica Martin gives a good performance and carefully conceals the character's secret making the cliffhanger of Part Three truly shocking. The story undoubtedly benefits from having all its interiors recorded in a real tent and the model work helps by clearly resembling the interiors.
Sylvester McCoy has a lot to do in this story, ranging from the Doctor's long solo performance for the Gods of Ragnarok to his search for the truth behind the circus, but rarely does he fail to give less than his full effort. Sophie Aldred also gets some good material as Ace, who for once seems genuinely afraid due to her fear of clowns but still shows her strengths. The location work is strong and well directed by Alan Wareing who succeeds in handling the bizarre elements of the story, such as a clown dressed as an undertaker, come together and truly seem menacing. There is a true sense of creepiness throughout the story but at the end there is also a sense of hope as the Doctor walks away from the destruction of the circus, still living. A wonderful metaphor for the series at the end of its twenty-fifth year, it is a tragedy that such survival did not last for long. 9/10
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 25/9/04
Not only does The Greatest Show In The Galaxy end the twenty fifth season of Doctor Who with some style it also paves the way for the twenty sixth season. The scripts combine elements of both fantasy and science fiction, resulting in a memorable story, thanks to great direction, largely excellent effects, strong performances, a coherent plot and effective incidental music. Presented with such a surreal mix as robot clowns, kites that spy on people, a stereotypical British explorer, a hippy bus and a circus setting, the story achieves the right balance of being both entertaining and sinister. Throw in the Gods Of Ragnarok and the Doctor and Ace into the mix, and you have a recipe for success.
This is partly down to the atmosphere created here and kudos to director Alan Wareing on this front. This aside the acting is still particularly great on all fronts, with Ian Reddington`s Chief Clown stealing the show, although mention should also be made of T.P McKenna`s Captain Cook. As to the regulars, Sophie Aldred arguably gives one of her best performances as Ace, conveying a sense of fear of clowns into the character, whilst Sylvester McCoy shows the darker side that his Doctor would reach, which is complimented by his entertaining in the ring. In short,then The Greatest Show In The Galaxy lives up to its name.
It shouldn’t work but it does! by Charles Tuck 25/6/05
A circus, robot clowns and a robot bus conductor? As I said in the title, I shouldn’t work but it does! When I first got this video, I thought: ‘Yet another crappy idea, like The Happiness Patrol and Paradise Towers.’ I was wrong.
There is something about robot clowns and a killer circus, something creepy. The whole story has a creepy feel to it, the ‘Hold tight please’ line and the part where Bellboy commits suicide. It’s all quite chilling. The reason episodes like this, The Celestial Toymaker and The Empty Child work is because you really don’t expect something that you can relate to, to be so frightening. Clowns are supposed to be funny but here they are emotionless (because they are robots.)
By far one of the best parts is where the robot bus conductor kills Flowerchild; the conductor’s voice reminds me of D84 in The Robots of Death, which brings back memories of the one of the best episodes ever.
There is one thing that lets the whole story down is the cliffhanger at the end of part one. It’s not really that good compared with most (especially the end of episode 3 in The Caves of Androzani.)
Overall this is one of McCoy’s best stories and a good plot too.
Roll the dice by Thomas Cookson 6/12/07
Back in 1988, Doctor Who was in trouble. The show was being driven into the ground by Michael Grade who invoked ridiculous scheduling that succeeded in alienating much of the popular loyal audience of the show. It's very easy to kill a show off if you want to.
Resultantly, the McCoy era was a brand of Doctor Who that was far more niche and less populist than what had gone before. The show had a surreal, clownish and comical strangeness that seemed to suit its cheap, rough cut feel as the program was reduced to a kind of minimalism. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy in many ways is the best product of that period. It literally is a circus show with clowns and magic acts.
This is a Doctor Who episode that is far closer to outright fantasy than science fiction. The early 80's had seen perhaps the last years of the golden age of British science-fiction, with Blakes 7, Sapphire & Steel, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy now over. British science fiction was becoming unpopular or was otherwise being buried as a trend by the dictators of the mainstream. Fantasy fiction on the other hand was emerging as the new vogue, with roleplaying games, Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and The Neverending Story and Labyrinth.
This is my favourite story of the McCoy era. It's often described as the strangest Doctor Who story alongside The Mind Robber. In many ways, it sums up the spirit of Doctor Who for me better than most other stories. It captures, for want of a better word, the 'soul' of Doctor Who. The Doctor and Ace land some miles away from the circus and have to walk a journey there. They come across other eccentric travellers and belligerent locals, Ace picks up a few clues to a murder, and they come across incidental threats that initially function as red herrings for the Doctor's sixth sense of something evil being in the air. Once the incidental threats are beaten, he thinks it is safe to carry onto the circus, seemingly unaware of the evil that awaits him there.
The rather plotless journey basically sums up the characters of the Doctor and Ace and how they live: as rootless travellers, eager to meet others and with an insatiable fondness for the bizarre and the dangerous. To me, this sums up the soul of Doctor Who just as effectively as the Doctor's speech to the insular Time Lords on the evils of the universe he has fought alone while they did nothing, or where the Doctor's morality prevents him from destroying the Daleks as he contemplates how "out of their evil must come something good".
This episode also plays a part in stripping down some of the layers of Ace's character and, like Survival, it is probably one of the more accessible examples of Ace-introspection. Ace has always been the rough and hot-headed kind of teenager in need of a parochial and principled chaperone like the Doctor, and this episode is probably one of the first to really explore Ace as being damaged goods with a lot of sadness in her life. She is shown here to have had an unhappy childhood and there are hints of repressed memories. In her interactions with other characters, it is made gradually clear that she is someone always looking for belonging with people and a bit too eager to get emotionally attached to people very quickly; that beneath the hard exterior, she is actually quite fragile. In a story where most of the people she meets are far more emotionally damaged than she is, some being aggressive, some too wrapped up in self-pity or even suicidal, she finds herself getting hurt quite often. It must be said that here Sophie Aldred pulls off a flawless performance as a more sensitive Ace, showing a particular talent for good facial acting, wearing her good nature on her sleeve and making her infectious and endearing as a character.
Also I must point out that I can't help but see aspects of Susan in Ace, and to me Susan's line in The Dalek Invasion of Earth "I've never felt there was any time or place that I belonged to. I've never had any real identity" seems to me like a perfect precedent for Ace's "Sometimes I travel so fast, I don't even exist". By the time the series ended, we felt like we knew Ace better than any companion before her.
But more than that, in an era where Doctor Who's budget was getting sliced, it manages to give us a vast and strange alien world, intense suspense, some genuinely frightening sequences and, all in all, it completely defies conventions of what is possible on TV when Doctor Who is on the cheap even by its own standards.
It is the surreal style of the episode that allows it to take massive liberties in its rocky presentation. In a normal piece of television, it would seem really short-sighted for a story that is set in the future to feature modern vehicles and to have characters who look like they stepped out of safari in the 1930's or a public school from the 1950's, but here it works somehow as naked and recognisable caricatures. Similarly, most TV shows would have had viewers turning off instantly after the leading man, Sylvester McCoy makes such a poor delivery of the "It's a trap, I've fallen into a trap", or after seeing the Doctor and his companions knock the robot guards unconscious with a few light blows from juggling clubs. And yet, something about this episode prepares you for the inherently silly and makes those moments wholly appropriate, and still holds your interest with its intrigue and sheer confidence of its momentum.
It relies on overblown caricatures. Whizzkid was, of course, the stereotypical anorak of Doctor Who fandom; after all, this episode came out in the same era as Spitting Image. In the less popular days of the show, this was how the fanboy was stereotyped. Followers of the show were no longer thought of as the everyman British public who loved watching Tom Baker.
There is also Deadbeat who appears to be mentally gone, initially, who represents the kind of unreachable misfit of society, his mind seemingly regressed to that of a newborn, only ever speaking in babbling imitation of others. Through the story we find out how his mind became broken by his encounter with the powerful evil that now controls the circus. He is a lost-soul character that we would expect to be killed off for being too much baggage at some point, but he survives the story's progression in an unexpected and uplifting manner, much like the story Kinda. A seemingly lost soul counts for something important in the plot, and in a way which actually makes much of the 70's era of the show seem cold-blooded in the way it frequently treated the hypnotised minions of the evil Master as immediately being hopeless causes and dead weight beyond saviour.
There are characters like Nord and Whizzkid who are merely cartoon caricatures, fitting the stereotypes of punks and geeks alike. Flowerchild and Bellboy by contrast are very much the soul and pathos of being the misfit outsiders who have lost their place in the world- they very much represent the hippies of the 1960's, even when it comes to their sad tales of how it was in the old days when they were part of a subculture and had a sense of belonging and could somehow bridge internal conflicts in the group with debate and understanding.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy shows one of the things the McCoy era did best, which is to make some quite-ahead-of-its-time social commentary. Specifically, the dialogue of Bellboy seems to very much echo the view that society was once a strong, kind and co-operative place but that after the 1960's, things became more conservative and reactionary and society has become a far meaner place to those who wish to be non-conformist individuals, forcing them to stand alone and be downtrodden and victimised. It's the kind of topical content that would show up later in Mike Leigh's masterpiece film Naked. Indeed the Doctor's later charge at the sadistic Gods of Ragnarok "You're not interested in beginnings, only endings" could almost be a precedent for David Thewlis' classic rant in that film about the apathy of modern popular culture.
"That's the trouble with everybody - you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to you and you're bored with it. You've had the living body explained to you and you're bored with it. You've had the universe explained to you and you're bored with it. So now you just want cheap thrills and plenty of them and it doesn't matter how tawdry or vacuous they are"
Since the popularity of the New Series, the media and fandom has often come to describe the Old Series as an emotionally vapid one by comparison, an attitude that really irks me and brings me to the defensive, especially when I have to deal with obnoxious cliquey posters on the internet who notice my tendency to be critical of the new series and so see fit to be sarky and to tell me what kind of Doctor Who I want, i.e. one that like the old series has 'no emotional impact whatsoever'. Of course, the old series had a soul, that's what got me into the series in the first place. Doctor Who is about compassion, morality and spiritual well-being and health and about the clash of humanist virtues, good and bad. No-one can tell me that either the pathos of the Waterfield family in Evil of the Daleks, or the doomed Petra and Greg on the dying parallel world in Inferno has 'no emotional impact whatsoever'.
The Doctor doesn't so much develop as a character. But he changes as a character from one regeneration to another, and each Doctor says much about the period he was written in. The first four Doctors can be seen as a product of the countercultural decades of the 60's and 70's, and Peter Davison and Colin Baker can be seen as portraying contrasting examples of the crisis of masculinity in the 80's. If there's one thing that was big in the late 1980's amongst the youth, it was the role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and the Simon and Schuster adventure game books. If you look at Sylvester McCoy's era, the Tetraps, the colour-coded Daleks, including Special Weapons variations, the colourful soldiers of Delta and the Bannerman, Morgaine's Knights and her ability to conjure chaos demons, the chess pieces in Curse of Fenric, you're seeing the perfect iconography of a role-playing game, right down to the backdrop of outstretched cliffs and castles.
In light of the crisis of masculinity that characterised his predecessors, it is worth bearing in mind that participating in role-playing games can be very character-building (a perfect antidote to a young male populace that has lost its sense of identity to feminisation and the Generation X theory) and can allow people to experience revolutions in their character and bring out personality traits that they didn't even know they had. In that way, it makes sense that this Doctor, who is playing a role-playing game with us as the toy soldiers, should start as a clumsy, self-depreciating imbecile and then transform through the game into a very confident, cunning, manipulative and formidable force of nature. Likewise, we can see much of what surrounds him as being an effect of the role-playing game.
People like Deadbeat can find their old personality as spontaneously as they lost it, Davros believes more passionately than ever that he is a god in waiting, Commander Millington is playing the role-playing game by trying to get inside the head of the enemy, and by the end of the adventure he has actually become a Nazi. Fundamentally, Ace represents that defiant youth generation doing the unexpected and making home-made explosives. It is somehow fitting that a stereotypical 'yoof' character like Ace should exhibit something so untypical like a pyromaniac side to her.
The horror aspect of the story is wonderfully done. As I said, episode one features a long stretch of journey material as the Doctor and Ace travel miles of sand dunes and open roads to get to the circus. But even in these moments, the evil of the circus is felt as a far-reaching one. The bright summer's day and wide stretches of land making the characters feel like they stand out to preying eyes, vulnerable to the far-reaching menace with no escape in sight.
The episode is actually very beautiful to look at - in fact, it is gorgeous - but everything about the circus has its savage undercurrent. The malignant-looking clowns are a jarring image of familiar circus iconography somehow coming to represent irrepressible and utterly predatory sadism. The scenes of the clowns hunting in a jet-black hearse gives the chase a distressing air of inevitability; likewise, the fluorescent kites become an unnerving sight when we realise that the kites are the eyes of the evil, hunting for victims and also that they have alluring hypnotic powers of tempting its victims.
Once we get into the circus itself, things get rather more terrifying and vivid: people are put into the ring and killed and the Doctor is selected to be next, and the horrific moments are actually conveyed by what we don't see. In a story where naturalism can meet high farce and shadowy horror, the terror of the situation can be summed up in Captain Cook's sardonic "No, but you last longer".
The program makers had had their wrists slapped in the mid-80s for an increase in violent content and, as such, they were forced to tone the violence down for most of the McCoy era. To me, the episode says as much on the topic of voyeurism and sadism as the Reality TV satire story Vengeance on Varos did, and says it far better. As a Doctor Who story, Vengeance on Varos was a clever and potent idea on the negative power of the media and violent entertainment (more potent than ever, today) but its theme was let down by padding, plotless running around and gratuitous violence. Here, the handling of violence is a lot less messy; it uses cutaways and the power of suggestion to horrify the audience rather than splattering us with images of blood and burning; similarly, the chases down corridors don't feel like time-killing but actually feel relentless and dangerous.
This story ultimately stands as Sylvester McCoy's most horrific story - a story in which a lot of people die in nasty ways and in which the nastiest characteristics of people and demons are raised to the fore. It presents us with some of the most frightening sequences in Doctor Who when Ace is being chased down corridors by robot clowns, and is eventually cornered by them in a locked dark room; the scene where Ace is being attacked by the bus conductor is one of the most intense scenes in the old series.
I'd say also that this story must have been particularly taken up as an inspiration for surreal black comedy shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The League of Gentlemen, and boy does this one stand up as being fresh as ever today. Between all the motions of horror, farce, pantomime and the more soul-felt moments, the story takes us on many unexpected turns, but concludes by virtue of following up enigmatic plot devices introduced early in the story. This is the 'gun in act one must be fired by act three' clause; the resolution is so ingrained into the early stages of the plot that it is inexplicably but deeply satisfying.
I find this an incredibly refreshing viewing, it's got great momentum and irresistible gusto, and it's also very multilayered; each time I rewatch it I discover something new about it. With each repeated viewing it gets better and better.
There's much in the New Series that seems lacking when compared to this era of the show. The spirit of Doctor Who, the daring and the unconstrained freedom of it. John Nathan-Turner might have a reputation as the guy who tried to fix the series when it wasn't broke, but to me he ensured that the spirit of the show was still there, that it was still an adventure series, not Footballer's Wives. Look at the McCoy title sequence depicting the big bang and formation of the galaxy on speed, really bringing home the danger of the universe, the chaos, the chain reactions, and even the very idea that the universe is boiling before us.
The John Nathan-Turner era kept going no matter what, and it dared to be embarrassing, tacky, violent, but simultaneously it also dared to be strange, it dared to be out there and adventurous and dangerous and to stick out from the norm. It took a knock but it refused to yield and it died fighting against its sea of conformity and it didn't care as long as it stayed true to itself. I'm unfortunately left with the sense that the more conformist New Series won't allow itself to be intelligent or challenging anymore because it is so wrapped up in a restricting sense of staying 'cool'.
Anyone remotely interesting is mad by Hugh Sturgess 21/7/16
One of the fun things about McCoy-era stories is their thematic richness. Stories like Remembrance of the Daleks and Survival are clearly dealing with concepts like racism, Thatcherism, Social Darwinism and feminism, but in truth every story in this era has a thematic depth that puts every other era of the show's original run to shame, even when those themes don't entirely make sense. Perhaps it is a mark of Andrew Cartmel's youthful enthusiasm that the series seems to have ingested the moral equivalent of Ritalin. Every story is bursting with opinions, subtexts and resonances that invite a rainbow of critical and analytical readings. Is The Happiness Patrol consciously condemning the colonial treatment of Aborigines, the sociopathic attitudes of economic rationalism, the plight of the international working class under dictatorships in Latin America and the state of gay rights in the era of AIDS, or are these just a random grab-bag of left-wing grievances that critics have spun into an argument? The only theme that is treated coherently is an extended critique of Social Darwinism, which is present in virtually every story of Seasons 25 and 26. Whether these themes were deliberate in their use or not, it makes for extremely rewarding viewing.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is where that habit of piling signifiers and subtexts on top of the text sort of breaks down. So much is heaped onto the story, and yet there is no coherence. Everything clearly means something, but what exactly I have no idea. The elements are clear enough. It is hard to look at the Psychic Circus and not see a parable of '60s radicalism betrayed. Not merely did the Psychic Circus embody the ethos of the counterculture, not merely is there a character named "Flower Child", and not merely does Ace explicitly namecheck hippies - the script goes out of its way to include names like "Peace Pipe" (the only marijuana reference in the series?) and "Juniper Berry". These idealistic hippies sold out to big sponsors, abandoned all their principles and turned on each other. It's not subtle. This is paralleled by Captain Cook's machinations to keep himself out of the ring, explicitly citing the survival of the fittest - and we all know what (or who) Cartmel is getting at when he uses that phrase.
Then there is Captain Cook himself. In name and appearance he explicitly recalls Britain's colonial past, and is depicted as a greedy and selfish scoundrel. There seems to be little way of reading this other than as an indictment of Britain's imperial heritage of some kind, but how does it fit with the sold-out-'60s thread? Perhaps T.P. McKenna plays him as too much of a loveable old rogue for the critique to be biting, but, significantly, Cook is given the "survival of the fittest" line, along with the injunction to "look after number one". He too is seeking the power of the Gods beneath the Circus, so presumably Cook is there to make the point that the sociopathic pursuit the hippies sold out to is an old one, the same force that motivated British imperialism and exploration. It seems a straightforward Marxist linkage of capitalism and colonialism, which we also saw in The Happiness Patrol.
More commonly noted is the obvious (and obviously intended) parallels between the Psychic Circus and the series itself, made apparent most clearly through the character of the Whizz Kid ("I know it's not as good as it used to be") and the double meaning of the story's title. Once one goes looking for parallels, it is hard to ignore the clear similarities between the Doctor and Captain Cook, both name-dropping English-sounding explorers who travel with a younger female assistant. (Cook even explicitly compares Ace with Mags, who is paired with the Doctor throughout.) How far the analogy goes is unclear, but even a cursory reading finds the series passing a bleak judgment on its own fallen state: explicitly acknowledged as being past its prime, "the greatest show in the galaxy" is left playing to a non-existent audience, selling its soul in desperately trying to hold off oblivion.
This makes the role of the Whizz Kid much darker than it initially seems. While he is broadly played for laughs, there is no suggestion that his death is a comedy moment or that somehow this is a comeuppance for being so annoying. Indeed, it's rather horrible watching the guileless boy being tricked by his hero Cook and hearing him scream in agony as he is murdered. He dies because he is betrayed by the things he loves: Captain Cook and the Psychic Circus, which turn out to be selfish and venal entities undeserving of his admiration. This means, following the analogy the author(s) clearly intended, that the series betrays its own fans (i.e. the people watching this story) and is unworthy of their love. Together, these subtexts add up to some very unflattering comments by the series about itself.
But maybe there is a redemptive way to read this analogy, too. Viewers have attempted to equate every character with a real person or entity, so that the Gods become the BBC/the viewers and the Chief Clown (a wonderful performance by Ian Reddington) becomes John Nathan-Turner (a worn-out shell of a once-talented man). The most bizarre equation is Deadbeat = Blake's 7, which is either a cruel joke or based on some inside knowledge I don't have. What if Deadbeat is Andrew Cartmel himself - or, more metaphorically, the spirit he brought to the program? He, too, was introduced to fans of the series as a shambling, giggling, brain-damaged idiot (if the initial and abiding fan reaction to Season Twenty-Four is any guide) who suddenly, as if by magic, was transformed into an artistic genius who revolutionised the series and brought it back to its roots. The old order has been corrupted by playing to the gallery, and the series can only be saved by putting it in the hands of the idealistic radicals. This would be a rather self-important story for Cartmel to tell, but it's another interesting reading to a story that doesn't just encourage subtextual readings, it practically is just a bunch of subtexts.
But this is where it breaks down. The subtexts don't make sense. Captain Cook never gets his comeuppance. He dies not because of his selfishness or his greed, but because Mags has to kill someone and doesn't want to kill the Doctor. He is revived seemingly because his is the nearest dead body to Kingpin. Furthermore, the analogy of the Circus to capitalism-red-in-tooth-and-claw is never developed anywhere near enough to be compelling. The contestants are barely shown "competing" with each other. Cook mentions grasping the power residing in the Circus, but it is never explained what he thinks it is and what he intends to do with it (unless this is about accumulation for accumulation's sake?). Without this, these interesting subtexts are just cries de coeur sprinkled randomly over an unrelated plot.
The entire Circus scheme is poorly thought out. The Gods of Ragnarok explicitly desire to be "entertained", so why does the Ringmaster give them such dreadful acts? The Gods are impressed by Nord's feat of physical strength, yet the Ringmaster cuts his act (and his life) short by ambushing him with a request for stand-up. Surely even an idiot would be able to guess that Nord is unlikely to be much of a comedian, and the scene is pitched as the Ringmaster deliberately sabotaging him. At the time, it looks like he's trying to get him killed, but later we learn that the acts are the Ringmaster's way of keeping the Gods from consuming him too. Does he put so little value on his own life that he doesn't care that the Whizz Kid won't last a second? The Gods spend the entire story bored out of their minds, and yet the Ringmaster never reckons that his routine needs some adjusting.
The story is filled with surreal imagery, most obviously the Circus itself in the middle of the desert with a ringed gas giant in the sky. Some of these images have been designed to be as weird as possible, above and beyond the needs of the story. The hearse trawling the desert for prey, driven by clowns dressed as undertakers, is instantly arresting, but it is ultimately a gimmick. The story seems to be revelling in weirdness for its own sake, as though Stephen Wyatt and Andrew Cartmel were little boys excitedly piling more and more cool things into the story. ("Let's put in a robot bus conductor! Let's put in a hearse filled with clowns!") Those things are startling, inventive and unlike anything else you normally see on the screen, but, like the confused subtexts, the viewer waits for these disparate elements to resolve into a coherent plot and they never do.
Just what is so important about the eye medallion? Who removed its iris and hid it in the wrecked bus? If it was the good circus folk, why would the bad guys put the conductor on guard? If the baddies knew it was there, why not bury it in the sand or lock it up or throw it into one of the lakes we see on Segonax? How did the bus get wrecked? (Fair's fair, I wasn't asking myself that while watching, but I struggle to explain it without handwaving. Maybe the buried robot did it. The Chief Clown does say it was "Bellboy's greatest mistake".) And most of all, the Doctor arrives in response to some junk mail and spends the first few episodes trying to figure out what's going on, then suddenly knows everything and heads off for a confrontation with his old enemies the Gods of Ragnarok.
That last point is particularly stark when the story is watched in a single viewing. The most obvious explanation is that the Doctor was lying about being just a tourist. He arranged the junk-mail-bot and feigned his utterly guilelessness and all along knew the Gods were behind it. To this I ask, why would he bother? Why lie to Ace about the danger inside, since this would make her drop her guard and potentially get her killed? (Unless the Gods would be able to sense the knowledge in her mind. It is a psychic circus after all.) The Doctor comes across as a smart-arse who answers "I knew that" to everything he learns. His defeat of the Gods is famously handwavey, too, and even though it has the excuse of taking place in a slightly unreal "time space", it is rather unsatisfying.
The Doctor's sudden change in motivation actually makes me think of only one explanation: history, at least the Doctor's personal history, has changed. Lawrence Miles wrote about multiple contingent lives encoded into an individual's "biodata" in Alien Bodies (Dark Sam, etc), which is how this felt to me. Once the Doctor has been drawn in to the affair, his narrative role changes. He is rewritten until he has always been fighting the Gods of Ragnarok, as part of the same "secret history" in which he fought Fenric and found Nemesis.
This has resonances with the consistently unusual relationship between memory and time in the series. The most relevant example for my purposes is at the end of Day of the Doctor, in which the Doctors acknowledge that their past selves (Hartnell through Tennant) will lose the memory of saving Gallifrey because "the time streams are out of synch". However, in order for the climax to work, the Doctor must be working on the calculations to save Gallifrey throughout his lives; it's as though the Doctors remember a whole new "secret" set of memories when their time streams are "out of synch". This "other life" comes to the fore when it is needed. To link this back to McCoy, one story earlier, in Silver Nemesis, the Doctor is "reminded" of the Nemesis, and suddenly an entire complicated plan pops into existence.
Frankly, this reads like a first draft. In fairness, maybe it was. Doctor Who never had the luxury of time to iron out every script problem, in this era particularly. Sometimes, this was a blessing in disguise. Outside factors forced this story out of the studio and into a car park to film the scenes under the big top, which clearly was a serendipitous miracle. The world of this story is a billowing, womb-like canal, glowing in bright primary colours that either tint everything or turn the characters into silhouettes. It's a void unlike any other we've seen in the program.
Most times in this story, however, it is a curse. It feels as though Wyatt had an arresting idea - a circus on an alien planet haunted by a terrible, arcane power - and he and Cartmel rushed through the execution to get it on the screen. Some people might say that if Cartmel spent less time making agitprop and more time doing his job as script editor, this story might make more sense. Fair enough, but Cartmel's political agenda makes this era probably the most intellectually rich in the show's history. If you despise his politics and think Margaret Thatcher was the best thing since sliced bread, then I understand why this sticks in your craw, but he is actually paying the ultimate compliment to the series. He is treating it as a vehicle for serious, real-world social change, as something that could, if he made the point often enough, bring down the government. Furthermore, given the choice between a version of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy that makes sense but lacks the subtexts, and this hot, fascinating mess, I'll stick with the latter.