The Doctor and Ace receive some junk mail inviting them to the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ on the planet Segonax. On their arrival, they meet fellow visitors and performers, Cook, Mags and Nord, and discover that the circus is run by the villainous Chief Clown for the Gods of Ragnarok.
Before I’d ever watched The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, there was a part of me that always thought that it was a case of the show trying just a smidge too hard to blow its own trumpet. Throw in the fact that it comes in the late 1980s, in the same season as the absolute garbage that is Silver Nemesis and I didn’t feel too optimistic when I pressed play. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement, as I was swept along by an interesting and inventive story with some truly engaging characters. It certainly feels with this story that Doctor Who had regained some of its swagger over the course of its twenty-fifth anniversary season, although with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how this confidence might be seen to have been misplaced.
That’s not to say that this story is not without flaws. The rap that starts the story (see above) is pretty cringeworthy, a problem that 80s Who seems to suffer with in abundance when it is trying to be cool. I’d be interested if anyone liked it at the time, but in 2020 it is laughable. Amongst the strong band of characters introduced in this story, we have Nord and Whizz Kid, both of whom are very one-dimensional. Nord is a pretty stereotypical biker type, whilst Whizz Kid is a blatant attack on a certain section of Doctor Who fans who ‘never saw the early days, (but I) know it’s not as good as it used to be’. He is ultimately forced into the ring and ultimately his death by Captain Cook by playing on his fandom For the show to attack sections of its fan base in such a fashion is remarkable, but not unexpected considering John Nathan-Turner’s ‘the memory cheats’ comments about this type of fan.
That being said, the rest of the guest cast are pretty decent here. Jessica Martin, T.P. McKenna and Ian Reddington particularly stand out as Mags, Captain Cook and Chief Clown respectively. Martin plays the werewolf Mags with innocence that means that the eventual reveal is good, despite the story insisting on dropping clues to the audience that mean that the audience reach the conclusion before the Doctor does. I’d be interested in listening to Jessica Martin’s Big Finish adventures as I think she would have potentially been quite an interesting companion for the Doctor. Then we have T.P. McKenna, playing an almost anti-Doctor explorer figure, more similar to a certain Star Fleet captain than the renegade Time Lord. Captain Cook is an explorer of some renown, but it is perhaps his sense of detachment that stands out most of all and McKenna plays it beautifully. He is of course, horrible to his companion Mags, who is free of his influence by the end of the story. The real star is Reddington, who does so much with so little. I wouldn’t say that clowns are something that I am afraid of, unlike Ace, but I do find them ever so unnerving, thanks largely to the efforts of the portrayals of the Batman villain The Joker by Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger. The Chief Clown does not have a lot of dialogue, but it is delivered largely in such a sinister fashion that he is excellently creepy. When things start going off the rails, his voice becomes deeper and more menacing. Reddington’s smile is pretty creepy and the make-up team deserve credit for helping achieve this effect.
I would like to take a moment to discuss why The Greatest Show in the Galaxy feels so different in this season. We have had two stories that have traded (with varying degrees of success) on the show’s past glories in Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis, and a political attack in the shape of The Happiness Patrol. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy uses the Psychic Circus as a metaphor for Doctor Who, with Wyatt showing how the circus started in a similar hippy fashion to the 1960s on Earth, with characters like Flowerchild and Bellboy, and somehow lost its way over the years. The Chief Clown’s decision to sell out to the Gods of Ragnarok, who are desperate for entertainment, can be seen to be a parallel to Nathan-Turner’s attempts to sell the show overseas by bringing in companions from the United States and Australia, with the overall result being the same: viewing figures for both Doctor Who and the Psychic Circus are tumbling. It is almost critical of the show for wanting to try and survive, despite the original vision being compromised to a point that it is no longer recognisable as the same entity. It’s a strange choice to close a season, but it is perhaps this that makes it such an interesting story.
You have to hang up your wandering shoes and stop wandering sooner or later, don’t you?
So I’ve been told. Personally, I just keep on wandering.Morgana and the Seventh Doctor
This is a key story for the Seventh Doctor. The serial opens on the Doctor juggling, whilst reading ‘Juggling for the Complete Klutz’, amusingly losing one of his balls in the process and playing the spoons, more in line with his character in the previous season. However, by the end, we are in no doubt that we have a Doctor Who is one or more steps ahead of his foes, the Gods of Ragnarok, something that would become a theme going into his final televised season and later appearances in other mediums. McCoy does pretty well here, managing to carry off both sides of the character with necessary aplomb. Ace also has a lot to do here in this story and has some good character development. Like the repeated rap, Ace’s continued use of 80s slang (which doesn’t sound as if it was even cool at the time) is a bit grating but we do see her overcome her fear of clowns and operate independently of the Doctor for long stretches of the story. Aldred again does well and I really do enjoy this pairing – they seem to be having a lot of fun together and they have great chemistry.
I am going to finish with some final aspect to praise about an episode that I thoroughly enjoyed The first are the Gods of Ragnarok and the Family that are the sole audience members of the Psychic Circus. The family are particularly eerie, stony faced whilst watching the entertainment and dishing out their ratings. When the Doctor comes face to face with the actual Gods towards the story’s conclusion, I was impressed at how good they looked – I completely bought into their costumes and thought that they looked real and in a season that has also contained the Kandyman, that’s high praise indeed. The second aspect I wish to praise are two cliffhangers, coming at the end of Part One and Part Three respectively. The Part One cliffhanger is particularly effective, intercutting between the Doctor and Ace outside the circus tent and Captain Cook and Mags inside it, with Mags reacting to Bellboy’s torture, which we don’t see but her scream is more than enough to tell us about the horror inside the tent. The Doctor is unaware of this, although Ace hears something making her uneasy, and he gives her the option of going in or not. It is a very effective cliffhanger, and again gives the audience the benefit of more knowledge than the Doctor, something which is similar to cliffhanger to Part 3. This gives us the confirmation that Mags is a werewolf, something which the audience would have previously suspected. The effective thing here is how memorable her transformation is, which feels like vintage Classic Who. Thirdly and finally, I really like the junk mail advertising the Circus at the beginning – it is a fun way of imagining what junk mail could be like in space.
Verdict: A story which is perhaps notable for not being sentimental about the past, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is an excellent story, combining good performances and writing in equal measure. 9/10
Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), T.P. McKenna (Captain Cook), Jessica Martin (Mags), Ricco Ross (Ringmaster), Ian Reddington (Chief Clown), Peggy Mount (Stallslady), Gian Sammarco (Whizz Kid), Daniel Peacock (Nord), Christopher Guard (Bellboy), Deborah Manship (Morgana), Chris Jury (Deadbeat), Dee Sadler (Flowerchild), Dean Hollingsworth (Bus Conductor), David Ashford (Dad), Janet Hargreaves (Mum) & Kathryn Ludlow (Little Girl).
Writer: Stephen Wyatt
Director: Alan Wareing
Behind the Scenes
- Up until the release of The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe, this story had the longest episode name for a televised story.
- Due to the discovery of asbestos in BBC Television Centre, the story was nearly cancelled after the completion of location work. The story’s cancellation was prevented as arrangements were made to put a tent in the car park of BBC Elstree.
- Sylvester McCoy was coached in magic by Geoffrey Durham (stage name The Great Sporendo) for the sleight of hand magic, marking the first time since The Talons of Weng Chiang that a magic consultant had been involved.
- The rap song in this story was the first original song commissioned for the series since The King’s Song in The King’s Demons. The next would be Song for Ten in The Christmas Invasion.
- The explosives placed in the arena in Part 4 were overrigged and the blast was much larger than anticipated, catching McCoy in the heat blast and setting fire to his clothes. McCoy continued walking away, knowing that a second take would not be possible.
- The first appearance of the TARDIS interior since Dragonfire and the only appearance in Season 25. It is the final appearance of the console room set introduced in The Five Doctors, but the console would appear one last time in Battlefield.
- The final televised appearance of McCoy’s cream coat, which would be replaced by a darker brown one in the next story, Battlefield, depicting the change in persona for the Seventh Doctor.
- Dean Hollingsworth had previously appeared in Timelash.
- Jessica Martin would go on to reprise the role of Mags for Big Finish, as well as making an audio cameo as Queen Elizabeth II at the end of Voyage of the Damned.
- Ian Reddington would reprise his role as the Chief Clown for Big Finish in The Psychic Circus and has also appeared in A Death in the Family.
- T.P. McKenna was previously considered for the part of the Chief Caretaker in Paradise Towers.
The Doctor’s unflinching walk away from the Circus Tent as it explodes.
Enjoying the show, Ace?
Yeah. It was your show all along, wasn’t it?The Seventh Doctor and Ace
Previous Seventh Doctor review: Silver Nemesis