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Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

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…

FILTER: - Television - Series 24 - Seventh Doctor