The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Target novelisation
Doctor Who - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Author Stephen Wyatt Cover image
Published 1989
ISBN 0 426 20341 0
First Edition Cover Alistair Pearson

Back cover blurb: CREEPY. That's what Ace thinks of clowns. But the Doctor insists on entering the talent contest at the Psychic Circus, the self-proclaimed Greatest Show in the Galaxy, on the planet Segonax. What has reduced Segonax to an arid wasteland? Why have the happy-go-lucky circus folk stayed here so long? And why are they no longer happy? Above all, what is the dreadful truth about the "talent contests" run by the sinister Ringmaster and his robot clowns? The Doctor and Ace need all their death-defying skills in the big top to uncover a brooding, ancient evil that has broken the spirit of the Circus and demanded the sacrifice of so many lives.


What happened? by Andrew Feryok 10/5/07

"Whatever you've seen, you ain't seen nothin' yet."
- The Ringmaster, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Overture, Page 9
I decided it was about time that I read and reviewed a Sylvester McCoy novel from Target. I had been dancing around these books due to the fact that McCoy is not my favorite Doctor and I only have two of his books by Target. Faced with either Remembrance of the Daleks or The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, I decided to go with the story I most like of Sylvester's television stories: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy! Now, I realize that while I have liked this story many do not share my love. In fact, when I showed it to a group of friends in college they retched at the sight of it and made me promise not to show them anything else from that era of the show. But I've never stopped liking the story. It's wonderfully surrealistic in the tradition of The Celestial Toymaker. Its story is easy to follow and it plays on people's natural fear of clowns. However, after reading the novelisation, the big question lingering in my head was "what happened?"

When I saw the smaller print size and the fact that it was being adapted by the original author, I thought this was going to be a much deeper version of an already great story. However, what results is a novel that follows the original television script and doesn't deviate at all. To make matters worse, Wyatt's prose style, which is clearly being aimed for a younger audience, totally ruins much of the imagery that made this story so good. In particular, Wyatt has a difficult time capturing such things as the Chief Clown. He tells the audience over and over how creepy he is and has Ace react to him many times, but he just can't get across the sheer creepiness that the original actor exuded from his smile and that weird gesture he would always make when he left an area. Some imagery does survive such as the lonely family sitting in the audience or Mags' fear of anything moon shaped. The only real addition to the story that I was able to find was the buried robot which Wyatt is able to make much more destructive and menacing than was realized by the BBC special effects budget.

The one area in which Wyatt was strong was in characters. Without the hinderance of bad actors, Wyatt's characters are aloud to develop into much more rounded individuals. While the Chief Clown's imagery did not come across, the coldness of the character did and he becomes the primary villain for most of the story. Morgana is shown as a person torn with her loyalties and ultimately gives in to evil. By far the best characters in the book were Captain Cook and Mags. Captain Cook is a thoroughly dispicable backstabber who would clearly kill his own mother if it would buy him a few extra minutes of life. Every time he betrays someone, whether it be the innocent Whizzkid, Mags, or the Doctor, it is felt in the story. Mags is even more interesting since she is the only character who takes an emotional journey. She starts off being very animalistic and unfriendly, but warms to the Doctor and everyone else when she realizes what her "friend" Captain Cook really thinks of her. The only thing that doesn't work with her is the fact that her being a werewolf is so obviously foreshadowed throughout the story in big neon signs and yet Wyatt tries to make it into a startling revelation which falls very flat.

The regulars come across decently, although Wyatt violates an unwritten rule with the Doctor in novels by making us privy to some of his thoughts. The result is that the Doctor's aloofness and the questioning of how much he really knows is totally lost. We know exactly what he knows and realize just how much he is making things up as he goes along and how out of control the situation is. And yet, while Wyatt is doing this, he shows everyone around the Doctor being suspicious of whether he knows more about what is going on than he is telling. One of the reasons why I liked the Doctor in this story originally was that he struck a perfect balance between the clown of Season 24 and the mysterious manipulator of Remembrance of the Daleks. But since the mysteriousness has been stripped away, we are left with just the humour. Ace is written extremely well. Wyatt knows exactly how a teenager speaks and acts. He only uses her weird slang a few times, but has Ace constantly worrying about her image with others and trying not to let people see her real emotions within. In fact, while reading Ace I imagined not Sophie Aldred but someone much younger and closer to what I think the character was originally supposed to be like.

The Gods of Ragnarok are one of my favorite one-off McCoy monsters. I don't think they would ever work as a returning villain, but they work enormously well in this story. The juxtaposition between a fun, family circus and ancient evil locked away in dark caves and ancient ruins is absolutely fabulous and comes across extremely well in the novel. They are clearly a force to be reckoned with and can kill instantly on a whim anywhere, and people's constant fear of them is very palpatable. And while their destructive powers are shown towards the end of the story, by far what makes them particilularly evil is the fact that they influence people around them. They eliminate all the joy and happiness from people's lives, turn close friends against each other, twist the lives and ambitions of those around them, and generally ruin people's day. They are the most evil kind of evil who don't kill you, but make you suffer for all eternity, not unlike the way the evil of the one ring exudes over people in The Lord of the Rings. In fact, Kingpin and others are said to have been lured to this spot with promises of riches and power by the Gods of Ragnarok which they never intend to fulfill.

Overall, while I liked the television story, the novel comes across as far less. It is not completely bad. It has some great characters and the story picks up speed towards the end as the power of the gods awakens and becomes active. But the book doesn't do anything different from the original episode and its small print simply drags the story out rather than making room for new and interesting descriptions or scenes. You are far better off seeing the television episode which moves faster and is far more engaging. Read it only if you are on a mission to read all the Doctor Who novels out there. 5/10