Doctor Who - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $24.98 // August 14, 2012
Review by John Sinnott | posted August 22, 2012
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The Show:
Writer Stephen Wyatt wrote two Doctor Who adventures, both for Sylverster McCoy.  The first was Paradise Towers, a story that I really disliked, though I would be remiss to fail to point out that the adventure has some ardent fans.  So I was a bit apprehensive about screening his second tale, the wretchedly named The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (in Wyatt's defense, producer John Nathan-Turner came up with the moniker).  A definite improvement over Paradise Towers in both conception and execution, this story is a surrealistic romp that takes a bit of getting used to, but has some great concepts and a creepy villain.
While The Doctor practices his juggling and Ace digs through old clothes in a closet looking for her backpack, a robot materializes inside the TARDIS and announces that the Psychic Circus, the Greatest Show in the Galaxy, is currently on the planet Segonax.  It's an advertizing robot, of course, and though Ace has a fear of clowns and a general dislike of circuses in general, The Doctor sets a course for the planet.

Once there the two travelers meet an unusual assortment of people who are also going to the Psychic Circus.  These include a tough biker, Nord, an older space explorer who keeps dropping mentions of his past adventures, Captain Cook, and his companion Mags, and a bespectacled, sweater vest wearing fan of the Circus, Whizz Kid, who travels across space riding a bicycle.
Everything isn't well at the circus however.  Two of the performers, Bellboy and Flowerchild, are trying to escape from the show and they're being hunted by the Chief Clown.  He eventually catches up with them both, and while the woman is killed, the circus has need of Bellboy's electronic knowledge and takes him back to be punished.

The Doctor and Ace eventually arrive at the venue and are curiously allowed to enter for free, and though they heard the roar of a crowd, there are only three people in the stands.  The small audience watches the jugglers, clowns and the rapping Ringmaster (who is black, of course).  When the Ringmaster turns the spotlight on The Doctor and announces that he'll to be the next performer, things go from odd to sinister quite quickly.


I think part of the reason that I've never fully embraced Sylvester McCoy's incarnation of The Doctor is because I've always screened his stories by themselves rather than one after the other.  The stories that the show was churning out at this time was markedly different from what had come earlier.  Possibly in an attempt to combat the falling ratings, the show had become more surreal and didn't spend a lot of time worrying if things made sense, as long as the plot moved forward and the setting was unusual or different.  The change in style takes a bit to get used to.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a good example of this.  Like a circus itself, the story is colorful, dynamic, and has a lot of style, but doesn't have an engaging plot.  A lot of cool stuff happens and it looks interesting, but these events aren't really tied together very well.  There's a mystery surrounding the circus, but the resolution is almost an afterthought.  The APE (All Pervading Evil) that is behind the scenes is incredibly generic and the same can be said of the weakness it possesses.  A lot of the events don't make any sense when looked at from a distance.  A hippy circus performer makes a giant killer robot?  A private bus has a ticket collector?  Someone designed a robot that would blow up if you pressed a single button... that's large and on the top of his head?  No one notices that anyone who goes into the Psychic Circus never leaves?  They advertise by sending robots into the vacuum of space and hope it can latch on to a passing ship?  The villain who his and has guarded his only weakness doesn't know what is or does?

There are a lot of nifty images though, from a robot shooting lasers out of his eyes to The Doctor walking out of a building as it explodes without flinching the whole serial does have some cool scenes, if that's what you're looking for.
That's not to say that the script is all style over substance.  There are some interesting ideas... and some not so great ones thrown into the mix.  My favorite aspect of this story is the nature of the circus itself.  It started out as a bunch of hippies who, as one of members explains, each had one talent or skill that could be used in a circus.  They got together in a self-painted Partridge Family style bus, and toured the cosmos.  Then something happened and things changed.  After a while the circus wasn't about being free and bringing people joy, it had turned sinister.  What a great metaphor for Western culture and how it changed between the 60's and the 80's.  From 'free love' to 'greed is good.'
Another idea that was a lot of fun was having The Doctor cross paths with another space explorer who also has a companion.  That is brilliant.  While Captain Cook plays a more self-absorbed (not to say ruthless) version of The Doctor, it's an interesting concept and I enjoyed seeing that alternate version of The Doctor.

Then there is Whizz Kid.  He's one of those slap your palm against your forehead what-were-they-thinking?!? characters.  Obviously he's inspired by obsessive Doctor Who fans.  "Although I never got to see it in the early days I know it's not as good as it used to be' he recites as he rambles on about having collected all of the posters and program guides.  So what did they do with this ultra-fan?  Made him a geeky, dress-by-his-mother, dullard with no social skills, and that's before his ignominious end.  What a way to bite the hand that feeds you, especially after catering to those exact same fans earlier in the season in Remembrance of the Daleks.  That serial was sprinkled with references to the show's earliest days with a wink and a nod to the hardcore fans.  Whizz Kid was pretty insulting and a surefire way to alienate the few fans they had left.  
The acting was very good in this story however.  Ian Reddington does a fantastic job as the Chief Clown.  He doesn't have a lot of lines, but he does look menacing every time he's on screen and his seemingly innocent hand gestures are really sinister.  That's one eerie clown.
Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred have really grown used to their parts by this time and their banter is fun and enjoyable.  A circus is the perfect setting for McCoy, where he can ham it up to his heart's content (as he does in the final episode) and not be accused of overacting. 
The DVD:

This four-part series arrives on a single DVD.
The original stereo soundtrack is included as well as a much appreciated DD 5.1 mix, both of which are very good.  It's clean and clear with no hiss or background noise to take away from the story.  The dialog is easy to discern and the background music and effects are never overpowering. 
The full frame video has been cleaned up by the Restoration Team and looks fine.  The image is clean, the lines are sharp, and the colors are bright.  If you've seen the other restored McCoy era stories, then you'll know what to expect.
The extras start off with a commentary track with actors Sophie Aldred, Christopher Gerald, Jessica Martin, writer Stephen Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel, composer Mark Ayres and moderated by Toby Hadoke as usual.  There's a lot on background information and anecdotes about the creation of this adventure and Toby keeps the guests on track and talking.  That's followed by a nice making-of featuette, The Show Must Go On, which covers the production and spends a good deal of time on the way this installment almost ended up like Shada.  After the location work was finished the cast and crew discovered that they couldn't use the BBC studios (asbestos was discovered and it was being removed) and so they filmed this circus story in a large tent.  It's a pretty interesting story. 
There's also an assortment of deleted and extended scenes, running 11-minutes in all, and some models shots that were cut from the show (which should have been included).  Other video extras include a music video, a short sketch from Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV which mercilessly makes fun of Doctor Who. It takes a lot of cheap shots and wasn't really funny. 
One of my favorite bonus items on this disc was Tomorrow's Times - The Seventh Doctor where printing reviews of Doctor Who from British newspapers of the time are quoted.  It's interesting to note that reviews become rarer as McCoy's tenure goes on to the point where his final season was largely ignored.  It's a sad ending to a great show.  
The story also comes with an optional pop up trivia tracks that's filled with information.  Some of it is minutia, the date the episodes were filmed and ever the time that the shoots wrapped, but also background info on the supporting and incidental characters and it points out on screen gaffs.  These are wonderful.  There's also a photo gallery, the Radio Times listings (in .pdf format) and an isolated music track too. 
Final Thoughts:
If you liked Paradise Towers, you'll likely enjoy this Doctor Who adventure as well.  Written by the same scribe, this story comes off better and has some interesting ideas that make it worth rewatching.  There are a lot of problems with the plot and the basic story, but as long as you go in knowing that it's a stylistic, surreal adventure you won't be disappointed.  Recommended.    

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