After the diabolical 'Silver Nemesis', the fortunes of Season Twenty-Four are restored by the superb 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy', a sinister and memorable story that entirely justifies Ace's dislike of clowns and features some fascinating imagery. It also works on multiple levels, boasting not only a great plot and excellent characterisation, but also rife with metaphors that reflect the status of Doctor Who as cult television and also act as a sombre foreshadowing of the series' impending demise.
'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' benefits from a combination of decent direction from the underrated Alan Wareing, some great design from David Laskey, costume designer David Laskey and make-up artist Denise Baron. The whole atmosphere is weird and creepy throughout, a result of the plot, which revolves around a sinister circus on an alien planet that has become a deadly trap for unsuspecting visitors, and the bizarre visuals. There is very much a feeling that 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' is striving to combine science fiction and fantasy, as we are presented with impassive robot clowns, a killer robot bus conductor, and ancient alien gods, juxtaposed with the circus setting, a stereotypical British explorer complete with pith helmet, kites that spy on people, and a hippy bus. The first appearance of the Chief Clown, face made up with full clown make-up but wearing a top hat and riding a hearse, is one of the finest shots of the era, enhanced considerably by Mark Ayers' atmospheric score that invokes both traditional circus imagery and eeriness as the occasion demands. Serendipitously, the discovery of asbestos in the studio in which this story was to be partly filmed led to the studio scenes instead being mounted in a tent in a car park, which unlikely as it sounds proves to be a bonus, as the "interior" scenes mesh with the location filming far better than in any other Doctor Who story. By Episode Four, 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' has cemented itself as a visual tour de force only to get even better as the disturbing image of the eye that has haunted the story from the start is explained and the Doctor faces the imposing Gods of Ragnarok in a claustrophobic stone amphitheatre.
In addition to all of this, 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' benefits from some great characterisation. Nobody is wasted, not even the belligerent Stallslady well played by Peggy Mount whose distrust of hippies and carnival folk is immediately recognizable. The point of which of course is that the Circus can claims as many victims as the Gods of Ragnarok want, because the locals don't care; anyone associated with or visiting the Circus is immediately dismissed as riff-raff, and their fate is of supreme disinterest, as long as the neighbours aren't disturbed. All of the other characters are well crafted too, and the acting is first-rate throughout. Nord, the vandal of the roads, is an obvious parody of hell's angels and although he doesn't serve a great deal of purpose to the plot, except to provide another victim for the Circus, he's very entertaining, uttering insults such as "I'll do something 'orrible to your ears", which technically is as unconvincing a threat as most of Ace's usual verbal diarrhoea, but is rather more amusing. The rest of the characters however serve far greater purpose.
Whizzkid is, famously, a parody of anally retentive Doctor Who fans, who collects Psychic Circus memorabilia and is a font of utterly useless knowledge about the show he is so obsessed with, telling Morgana, "I know all about the Psychic Circus you see. In fact, I'm your greatest fan". He also has terrible taste in clothes, is a textbook nerd and is so obsessed with his hobby that he is easily led to the slaughter in place of Captain Cook, who offers to let him enter the ring ahead of him. So excited is he about this that the thought of danger doesn't even cross his mind and he is promptly obliterated, or if you like, utterly consumed by his hobby. Reflecting the decline in the popularity of the series with the viewing public, he also gets to utter the immortal line, "Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it was, but I'm still terribly interested". He's basically a sad case who spends far too much time on what is, essentially, merely a form of entertainment, and who would be far better off doing something more productive with his time. I have now, incidentally, reviewed nearly every Doctor Who television story and have written at least ten times more words on the series than I did in the whole of my PhD thesis, including the references.
Then we have Captain Cook. Veteran actor T. P. McKenna is perfectly cast as Cook, and gives a memorable performance, but it can't have hurt that the scripted character is so well crafted by writer Stephen Wyatt in the first place. The Discontinuity Guide postulates that 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' is a metaphor for the production of Doctor Who itself, with Captain Cook representing Star Trek, presumably because he is a rival explorer. I don't really agree with this particular example, but it did get me thinking and I suddenly realised whilst watching the story on this occasion that Cook is a pompous windbag with a colossal ego who talks endlessly about his own exploits, has a young female companion whom he manipulates for his own ends, and is motivated purely by selfishness, telling the Doctor at one point that "We experienced explorers know all about making the most of our discoveries". As such, he is almost a twisted reflection of the Doctor, a man who has name-dropped since the series began, and is increasingly tending to manipulate Ace. On a less metaphorical level, he's a great villain because he is a complete and utter bastard. He starts off merely obnoxious, but as the story progresses his ruthless dedication to his own survival becomes increasingly obvious, as he declines the chance to escape with Mags and the Doctor, only to follow them almost immediately with the clowns and drag them back to the cage, citing "survival of the fittest" as his reason. He also sacrifices Whizzkid, and once in the ring, he exploits Mags' true nature as a werewolf in an attempt to kill the Doctor and thus impress the Gods of Ragnarok, despite her fear and hatred of her bestial side.
The various members of the Circus are equally well utilized, and can be broadly divided into two groups. On the one hand we have those who have rebelled against the Gods of Ragnarok, with generally disastrous consequences. Deadbeat, formerly Kingpin, has been left with his mind in tatters, the price he paid for leading the Circus to Segonax in the first place. More touchingly, we also have Bellboy and Flowerchild, and they clearly represent the decline of the hippy movement of the nineteen sixties, both of them a picture of lost innocence. Christopher Guard conveys the loss and tragedy not only of Bellboy but of the entire Psychic Circus in Episode Three, as he tells Ace about the old days and mourns Flowerchild's death, which he learns of from the earring pinned to Ace's jacket. His eventual suicide, a result of the destruction of everything he used to love, is heart-rending, and the sense of loss is perhaps summed by the sadness with which he tells the murderous Chief Clown, "You were a wonderful clown once, funny and inventive".
On the other hand, we have the Circus members who have, for one reason or another, aided the Gods of Ragnarok in their endless quest for entertainment. Of these, the Chief Clown is the most overtly evil, telling Ace, Kingpin and Mags in Episode Four that he expects to be rewarded, and witnessing the carnage throughout with an air of considerable glee, such as when Morgana and the Ringmaster finally fall prey to their masters and he smiles and waves a hand at their deaths. Ian Reddington gives an deeply sinister performance here, almost stealing the show, which is especially impressive given that he has to compete with T.P. McKenna's Captain Cook. Morgana is another servant of the Gods of Ragnarok, but is rather less willing. She is obviously too scared to actively rebel, but tries to dissuade visitors from entering the Circus, albeit in a fairly half-hearted way. Somewhere in between these two, we also have Ricco Ross' Ringmaster, who is obviously unhappy with his lot, but dare not rebel either. He is however, a rather more active participant than Morgana in leading victims to the slaughter, introducing each new act with a cheery rap introduction.
Finally, we have the regulars. McCoy provides one of his finest performances as the Doctor in 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy', continuing to deliver the darker persona established in 'Remembrance of the Daleks' to great effect. His foreknowledge and manipulation of events here is kept rather less obvious than in either 'Remembrance of the Daleks' or 'Silver Nemesis', with only vague hints that he has planned to visit Segonax knowing precisely what forces have taken control of the Psychic Circus until Episode Four, when he greats the Gods of Ragnarok with contempt, but also recognition and total lack of surprise. It becomes clear in retrospect that his persuasion of Ace of face up to her fear of clowns in Episode One was carefully calculated; as she says at the end, "It was your show all along, wasn't it?" But in addition to showcasing this aspect of the Doctor, 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' also revisits the clown of Season Twenty-Four, as the Doctor is forced to entertain 'The Gods of Ragnarok'. McCoy appears to enjoy these scenes enormously, and although the Great Soprendo coached him in the magic tricks that he performs towards the end of Episode Four, his background in light entertainment actually proves useful here and stands him good stead. Oh, and the way in which the Doctor strolls nonchalantly away from the exploding circus at the end is a nice touch, especially given the fact that the fireball apparently nearly burnt the back of McCoy's clothing away whilst he was wearing it; the fact that he kept is coolly is genuinely impressive. About Ace, I have very little to say, except that Aldred gives one of her better performances here and manages to sound genuinely scared when she is surrounded by advancing robot clowns in Bellboy's workshop.
'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' not only ends Season Twenty-Five in style, it also paves the way for what would eventually transpire to the final season of Doctor Who. Not only does it continue to show the Doctor as a darker, more manipulative figure than in the past, it also sees him fighting gods, metaphorical forces, and ancient evils rather than more conventional monsters and alien invaders, a pattern that would remain in place, to different extents, in the last four stories of the series. The last word on 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' should go to the Gods of Ragnarok, beings with an insatiable appetite for entertainment who will not tolerate boring or uninspiring performances. They order the Doctor, "Entertain us…" …" or die!" , ominous words that reflect BBC executives attitudes to dwindling audience figures. And in that regard, more than any other, 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' ushers in Season Twenty-Six…
With a new series about a 1940’s circus entitled ‘Carnivale’ currently airing in America at present, consistently gaining favourable ratings and reviews now seemed like a good opportunity prior to this series eventual arrival here in the UK some time in 2004 to re-evaluate a story possibly similar to a slight degree in style that was used to close out the twenty-fifth anniversary season.
After all these years this modestly titled story still has the same magical atmosphere conveyed by the characters, costumes, plot and incidental music that captivated me when it was originally transmitted. This might be surprising that it succeeds so well in its objective to entertain when you remember that the recording of this story was disrupted due to an asbestos scare at the BBC TV Centre resulting in the use of tents being erected in the Centre’s car park. Despite this, rather than detract from the production, I felt that the use of tents further added to the magic of the Circus interior.
It stars off harmlessly enough with the invitation to visit the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. The light hearted appeal of this tourist attraction conveyed by the ‘junk mail advertisement’ transmitted onto the TARDIS console screen by the little robotic device clearly wins over the Doctor. In particular he expresses an interest in entering the Circus talent contest though thankfully we are not treated, once again, to his spoon playing as featured in the largely forgettable (apart from enjoyable establishing seventh Doctor persona and costume change scenes) ‘Time and the Rani’. However, as is so often the case the reality is quite unlike the glossy advertising, something similar to the enjoyable ‘Paradise Towers’ story. Instead of lush green countryside they find on arrival that Segonax is an arid dustbowl.
Although, as we later discover there is a malevolent entity at work deep below where the Psychic Circus has pitched its tents I find that the stories characters can effectively be broken down into three distinct groups. The first group of three characters are clearly under the control of the entity of which appears to be, from what we learn during the story, the remaining members of the original eight people who initially ran the Circus presumably prior to their arrival on Segonax.
The towering figure of Ian Riddington’s Chief Clown decked out in silver fabriced clowns outfit, neck and wrist frills topped off with pointed hat is clearly the main protagonist of the story. Even in the early scenes with his clown finery covered by undertakers coat and hat, riding in the old fashioned hearse (equipped with the latest scanning equipment) the prevalent ghostly white face flecked with the occasional black brush strokes and traditional clown’s red lips convey a sense of cruel intent. It is therefore understandable that Ace finds clowns creepy if they are all like this person! Although this Chief Clown character conveys a public friendly, laughing persona, his real evil personality and objectives are never far from the surface. This is never more evident when he later temporarily halts Ace’s attempt to leave the Circus arena, hungry to know where she found the circular spiral patterned earring pinned to her jacket.
Ricco Ross’s Ringmaster character is a streetwise American (possibly with a New York accent) who puts in an entertaining rap act into his introducing acts. The third key member of the Circus team, Morgana (played by Deborah Manship) is clothed as a typical circus gypsy, telling fortunes through crystal ball readings and tarot cards in addition to supposedly selling tickets. Although they seem to have fairly equal status in the running of the circus it is clear that the Chief Clown sees himself superior to the these other two, especially bearing in mind that he is in charge of the Circus’s contingent of robot Clowns.
Our second group includes the rebellious young couple whom we see at the start of the story, frantically running across the barren sandy landscape of Segonax. Bellboy and Flowerchild are heading towards an ancient disused bus located some distance from the Psychic Circus. With it decked out in hippy graffiti it is puzzling to wonder about the history of this vehicle and why it is so far away from the site of the Circus. We later hear about former colleagues Peacepipe and Juniper Berry who had some connection to the Circus but had died under mysterious circumstances presumably in the Circus ring. As to why both Bellboy and Flowerchild had discovered what was going on and made the decision to escape that is something we can only guess at. It also becomes clear that each member of the Circus staff has a specific skill, for Bellboy this is being a skilled robotic engineer. Clearly his absence from the Circus cannot be tolerated hence the pursuit instigated by the Chief Clown utilising Flowerchild’s yellow and blue coloured kites which all bear a menacing eye motif in the centre. This symbol crops up throughout the story, in Morgana’s crystal ball, the artefact guarded by the robotic conductor at the bus and at the bottom of a deep well located under the site of the Circus.
On Bellboy’s eventual capture and return to the ring we learn that he has some resistance to whatever evil pervades the Circus ring which no doubt must have come as a frustratingly unexpected annoyance to the resident trio. Having remained resilient to the effects of the force in the ring he is taken away and tied up whilst they consider what next to do with the wayward, but clearly essential, robotic engineer.
The scenes where Bellboy (played well by Christopher Guard) is a nervous prisoner interacting with Ace are extremely memorable. The first scene opens with Ace, having been captured by the Chief Clown, being thrown into the darkened environment filled with many inert robotic clown figures in various states of dress. Then, suddenly they slowly start to move threateningly towards her. The tension of the scene is sustained for the sufficient amount of time before finally dissipated just as they are closing in for the kill by Bellboy. This leads to the conversation she has with the nervous robot maker which fills in most of the background to the Circus. Also memorable is the later scene where Bellboy, realising there is no escape and finding he has no alternative, sets his own creations on himself. As he dies by their hands the cruel upward tilt of the hand combined with a sick smile further enforces the Chief Clown’s cold unfeeling personality.
The third member of this rebel group, had however not been as fortunate in his attempts to escape. Now reduced to little more than a gibbering idiot the aptly named Deadbeat conveys the aspect of a drugged 60’s hippy fit only for sweeping up the Circus. We later learn that the malevolent force had, finding him to be the most dangerous of those working at the Circus, wiped his memory, stored it on an eye component and rather than destroy it had elected to store it on the bus, stationing a robotic conductor there to guard it. It is puzzling why they did not simply destroy this and leave him mindless but the reasoning behind this is something more to ponder over. Maybe this component had other latent powers and was constructed of a material impervious to attack. Regaining this persons memory and his real identity (an impressive character transformation for actor Chris Jury), that of Kingpin (possibly once the Circus manager) his role in relationship to the eye component was a key element in defeating the evil entity of the story.
The third group are the visiting tourists and they are certainly an interesting bunch with some having colourful backgrounds. This however cannot be attributed to the loud uncouth figure of ‘Nord the Vandal’. Wearing a helmet with large bat wings sitting astride a noisy three wheel yellow coloured motorbike equipped with Viking horns he portrays the archetypical ‘Hells Angel’ figure. Whilst, as we later discover, possessing great strength, his intelligence does not rate that highly. Gian Sammarco’s inclusion as an annoying fresh faced clean cut ‘Whizkid’ character could possibly be detrimental to the story as most casual viewers seem to, inaccurately, attribute most ardent Doctor Who fans to fit this persona. However in the context of the story it seems suitable as the Psychic Circus had gained quite a favourable reputation up to this point. Additionally his inclusion was fairly brief and there is possibly a sense of satisfaction to viewers when he later meets his end in the circus ring.
The pairing of intergalactic explorer Captain Cook and his travelling companion, the mysterious Mags were the most welcome characters from this story. Noted actor T.P. McKenna makes a welcome appearance as the well travelled figure decked out in pith helmet, khaki shirt and shorts who seems, in my opinion, to have an almost unhealthy addiction to drinking tea. As a ‘crushing bore’, relating tales of his many and varied explorations he also has a keen interest in his own survival over all others. His companion Mags (played by comedy actress Jessica Martin) has a much more checked and mysterious past. Appearing humanoid in appearance, her long black hair contains faint streaks of green and, wearing a black vamp-type outfit, she appears ill at ease, which later we find, is with good reason. Exposure to the moonlight causes her to transform into an uncontrollable snarling beast complete with claws and fangs. Most notably this is used by the Captain as a way of attacking the Doctor later in the story. Apparently, for some reason, the Captain rescued Mags from the planet Volpana where she was about to be shot, with a silver bullet, by the locals.
When the Doctor and Ace do eventually make their way up to the Circus (a classic establishing shot of the large dark blue and red tented structure set against a light coloured empty sky broken only by a large giant ringed planet) they find only three individuals in the stalls sitting around the main circus ring. These figures, masquerading as a typical family group (Mother, Father and Child) are infact manifestations of the evil that is controlling the circus.
Having, as it were, eventually got to the bottom of things in the fourth episode, through an imaginative temporal corridor the Doctor emerges into a sandy covered ring. As he gets to his feet, turning away from the high walled surround, he looks up and proclaims without any sense of surprise ‘The Gods of Ragnarok’ on seeing the three stone figures seated in a raised area similar to that which might be found in a Roman arena to house the ruling classes who watched Gladiatorial combat. It is here that these beings instruct him to entertain them, to which he replies ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’ which seemed, I felt, rather reminiscent of the slightly overweight American comic W.C. Fields. Now Sylvester McCoy, the consummate entertainer, seems well suited to performing the magic tricks that blend seamlessly from one to the other. It brings to mind his brief crooning in this season’s earlier, fairly average ‘Happiness Patrol’ story. With a casual manner he drifts through seemingly simple rope tricks, rope into circular container, candle lit by second hand, sets light to circular pan, places lid to extinguish fire, opens again to find snake, turns snake into umbrella before using said umbrella to shield himself from the rain instigated by the Ragnarok Gods.
There is one character who does not fit into the three distinct groups whom I haven’t mentioned yet but her brief performance although welcome is not central to the plot. As a wandering native Stallslady well known comedy actress Peggy Mount conveys the locals resentment of the Circus admirably. Her contempt for the Circus people and any tourists planning to visit the attraction is conveyed well. Even the Doctor has a tough challenge on his hands in pacifying her distain towards himself and Ace despite some of the amount of clearly foul produce which she is attempting to sell from the back of her horse pulled stall.
Another classic moment of the story that I recall is when, with the Ragnarok Gods ultimately defeated and the Circus about to blow up, McCoy calmly and resolutely walks away from the explosion. The manner of his measured departure from the scene coupled with his use of his question mark umbrella as a walking stick is certainly reminiscent of William Hartnell which can only be in McCoy and the series’ favour at a time when the shows future was far from certain. Obviously each actor who comes takes the part of the Doctor brings something to the part as well as drawing on previous incarnations. Although I agree with something ‘the Brigadier’ said (‘Splendid fellows, all of them’) with Sylvester you can certainly see a closer similarity to the late, great, Patrick Troughton without whose impressive relaunch of the series in 1966 would have meant the series might have concluded way back then.
It certainly seems that the Circus is gaining a resurgence of interest at the moment. I’ve already made a passing mention to the ‘Carnivale’ series currently airing at the moment, but let us not forget pop/rock group Debbie Harry’s Blonde featured a circus in their rather bizarre video for their recent song ‘Good Boys’. Personally the Circus is not really my entertainment taste, the cruelty to animals aspect I guess but of course there are ‘animal free’ circus but it all seems a rather low tec form of entertainment in this twenty-first century. Having said that ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’ is an entertaining spin on this form of live entertainment with an alien planet/lifeform twist which certainly works in its favour. At the core of this story is an engaging plot told well and I can certainly heartly recommend it for anyone looking for an enjoyable form of escapist cult television entertainment.