Doctor Who and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
1988, Dec 14 – Jan 4
The Doctor urges Ace to confront her fear only to find a greater evil than he could ever expected on the planet Segonax. Under the big top of the Psychic Circus lays a sinister force that demands to be entertained.
Throughout the 1980’s, Doctor Who had become formulaic and predictable, each plot very similar to the last in an attempt to recapture the magic of the hey-days of the 1970’s and introduce something modern and new. In 1988’s 25th anniversary series, Doctor Who was in the midst of redefining itself as a program. The Doctor was again an explorer and champion of justice, facing his enemies head on. While it was mainly a pantomime show in its 24th series, the 25th saw a return of not only classic monsters but high quality scripts and unusual ideas. With only four adventures throughout the year, the series was split between the straight forward action dramas Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis and the off-beat stories Happiness Patrol and Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
This may be the a controversial statement, but I think that the mixture of pantomime and absurd adventure was the greatest strength of the 7th Doctor. With bright colors and cartoonish characters, the adventures appeared to be a children’s program but underneath were darker concepts, fairy tale violence and sinister monsters. It was a post-modern tale on the concept of Doctor Who modernized for TV audiences, giving the BBC what it wanted on the surface while also producing some of the most sophisticated plots that viewers had seen.
Trailer by biggerbaddaddy
I hate to apologize so early in the review, but in my opinion any Doctor Who program is an uneven experience. Quality varies, the plot gets lost, special effects get sloppy and the acting is over the top in one place only to be far too under-stated in the next. Doctor Who was a program that was created with very limited resources, time (ironically) being one of the least abundant. In crafting the 25th series, script editor Andrew Cartmel brought back one of 1987’s better script writers, Stephen Wyatt.
Wyatt’s script for Paradise Towers was innocent and bloody all at once, featuring a cast of characters who seemed straight out of a children’s book and situations that were both weird and wonderful. A less than impressive cast, poor direction and bright lighting that removed any attempt at mood somewhat ruins the finished effect of Paradise Towers, but it was still deemed good enough to warrant a return.
The plot involves a famous circus that has gotten tired and desperate to attract audiences. Operating from the back water planet Segonax, they are drawing customers in with the added bonus of making them part of the show (how ahead of its time is that?). The Doctor is hardly impervious to this offer and yearns to show off his skills in the ring. Ace, however, is less enthusiastic and admits to a fear of clowns, a quality that drives her through nearly the entire adventure as she is determined to prove she isn’t scared of anything.
On their way to the Psychic Circus, the Doctor and Ace meet an array of colorful characters, from Nord to Captain Cook and Mags. The Captain is clearly a caricature of the Doctor, an egocentric wind bag who looks at others as specimens under glass. It soon becomes apparent that there is some evil force operating under the big top, an entity that the corrupt performers have vowed to serve. But no sooner does the Doctor realize this threat than he becomes one of the performers himself and has to fight for his own survival.
Wyatt’s script is full of these moments where the program makes reference to itself, from the Captain to Whizkid, and even the very plot in which escape from the center ring is impossible, only a longer life is granted as reward for entertaining the audience. These ideas are a bit overbearing at times, however. Whizkid’s diatribes are a bit distracting as it is obvious that when he talks about the Psychic Circus being much better in the old days, it is clear the program is taking a stab at itself on the audience’s behalf.
At this point in time, Doctor Who was still soul searching after the loss of both Tom Baker and Peter Davison and while in my opinion it was onto something here, hardly anyone was watching anymore. Doctor Who had been placed against much more successful programs such as Coronation Street and its ratings suffered greatly.
Doctor Who was known as a program that had family appeal, weird visuals and memorable monsters. Additionally, it featured some of the sharpest scripts on TV from time to time only to be undone by some of the worst. Operating as a 25 year-long program with various script editors, producers, actors, etc can of course introduce a variation on what the program is about and result in a schizophrenic idea of what the program is about.
No matter what else has been said about him, many have stated that producer John Nathan-Turner was a magnificent showman and skilled at promoting Doctor Who. Even so, it was clear that he was becoming weary of the mantle of producer after eight years. Along with other members of the production crew, JNT had essentially given Andrew Cartmel free reign to find out where Doctor Who could go in the future in 1988 and this is one of the steps he took on that journey.
Greatest Show in the Galaxy was beset by problems, most notably an asbestos scare that force the production into filming on the actual parking lot of the BBC, a move that frustrated the crew and talent to the point of numerous outbursts. McCoy himself was said to erupt into fits when a take was ruined by the sound of passing traffic. As such, the performances are mixed, with McCoy himself varying greatly from magnificent to downright woeful. However, the innovation led to the filming taking place both on location and inside of a massive big top which lent to the atmosphere of the adventure.
This story is also memorable for its ‘creepy clowns,’ an army of robotic creations all bearing painted variations of the Chief Clown’s face. I imagine that this was a massive hit at the time for viewers and robbed many children of sleep for weeks.
The guest actors are mainly young and nominally experienced in dramatic
performance, a common trait in 80’s Who, with two exceptions. Both T. P. McKenna as Captain Cook and Ian Reddington as the sinister Chief Clown absolutely shine in this story.
McKenna was already a well-known actor from his performance in the 1967 adaptation of Ulysses and his various appearances on TV in anything from the Avengers to Blake’s 7. It is said that guest actors in Doctor Who have trouble gauging their performance and that is clearly the case here. With a larger than life cartoon character such as the Captain, it must have been difficult to know where to draw the line as to what could be ‘over the top’ and McKenna does cross it at times, but he gains back his credibility in the final episode where he delivers some notably villainous lines. It’s a shame that this was his only appearance in Doctor Who.
Former musician and RSC alum, Ian Reddington was voted as one of the most sinister villains of Doctor Who in a fan poll. His role of Chief Clown is bitingly sharp and dangerous, the actor’s face becoming both frozen and animated at key moments, hinting at a heart of darkness beneath the white face paint. When a character is torn to bits by marauding robot clowns, Reddington seems horrified to immobility only to breal from the spell and smile his showman grin, waving a welcoming hand, ‘the show must go on!’ he seems to say.
The late 80’s was a time of rebirth and redefinition for Doctor Who, but it all came too late some say. Greatest Show in the Galaxy is hardly a top notch story due to its many flaws and its seeming difficulty in finding a strong dramatic tone, but it remains one of my favorites. Still unreleased on DVD, it is one of four remaining McCoy adventures still unavailable from 2 Entertain. When it is released, make sure to give it a viewing.
Previously available only as part of an exclusive and rare Dalek set, the 7th Doctor wearing his cream-colored jacket will be released on his own in action figure form this month. To pre-order in the US, click on the image below: