Will Egan has ringside seats for The Greatest Show In The Galaxy.
Considering the amount of children who suffer from coulrophobia (fear of clowns) it’s somewhat surprising that it took Doctor Who quite so long to make these ‘terrifying’ entertainers the focus of a story. When they finally appear, the show uses them to its full advantage creating one of the scariest episodes of 80’s Doctor Who.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is somewhat overlooked, with Remembrance of the Daleks often receiving all the plaudits in season 25. This is rather unfair, as while the story does suffer from some big flaws, it’s still one of the most imaginative slices of Doctor Who from its later years. Coupled with one of Sylvester McCoy’s best performances in that white Panama hat, it still makes for a highly enjoyable watch 28 years later.
There is one major aspect dragging the story down and it’s part one. The story was originally conceived as a three parter and it somewhat shows in an episode that’s significantly weaker than the following three. There are a few nice moments in the story’s opening (Galactic junkmail!) but the quest just to get to the circus seems to drag on, with the cliffhanger being a particularly underwhelming moment. Once inside the circus, the story rattles along nicely with the fear factor being successfully cranked up.
Due to an asbestos scare in the BBC studios, quick-thinking John Nathan-Turner instead erected a real tent outdoors in the BBC car park to shoot all the circus scenes. Circuses and clowns are creepy places at the best of times but they reach new levels of terror here. This is mainly down to Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown who gives a wonderfully macabre performance complete with quite possibly the most terrifying grin ever shown on a television screen. The other members of the circus are less developed-the Ringmaster with his interesting ‘rapping’ and the somewhat clichéd fortuneteller don’t leave a great impression, although their demise is wonderfully chilling.
The guest characters in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy are a decidedly mixed bunch. Much has been written about the character of Whizz Kid, a rather blatant parody of the more obsessive and critical members of the Doctor Who fan base-“I know it’s not as good as it used to be but I’m still terribly interested.” Not the production teams greatest moment to be quite honest, although if it had been done more subtlety it may have made a nice little joke. Daniel Peacock as Nord is wildly over the top but the episode also produces two great guest characters in the form of Captain Cook and Mags. Despite his unimaginative name, T.P McKenna gives a great performance as the ‘bore’ Cook, endlessly going through his exploits on his travels. Everybody has a friend like this so Cook really rings true. Jessica Martin (who later appeared as the Queen in Voyage of the Damned!) does a good job as Mags, with the twist over her character being a genuinely surprising and scary moment.
The escaping circus performers seem to be left-overs from the ‘Summer of Love’ hippie era with the names of Flowerchild, Kingpin and Bellboy supporting some people’s ideas that the story is a farewell to those more ‘innocent’ days. There are some surprisingly dark moments in the story here- Kingpin goes mad becoming the empty-looking ‘Deadbeat’, while Bellboy commits suicide. If you were expecting this to be a light-hearted battle between the Doctor and a bunch of robotic clowns you may be in for a shock as there’s some serious bleakness in this tale.
This story also showcases an almost ‘transitional’ Seventh Doctor between his ‘clown’ persona and the dark, mysterious character of season 26 rolling a ludicrous amount of r’s. The scenes of the Doctor distracting the Gods with a huge amount of magic tricks is done with aplomb by McCoy, and the scene of the Doctor getting excited for being chosen to perform is lovely. There are some pieces of wide-eyed madness when discussing the evil behind the circus and the famous scene of the Doctor strolling nonchalantly away from an exploding tent stands up well. Sophie Aldred is great (as always) playing Ace, although the characters fear of circuses seems somewhat unexplored after part one.
The ‘big bad’ of the tale are the Gods of Ragnarok one of the better-realized villains of the McCoy era. Having a bunch of Gods who rely on being entertained is a great idea and their imaginative design means they leave an impression on the viewer. The hammy, almost childish villains of season 24 feel a long way away indeed.
Reviewing The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is difficult as it reflects both the best and worst of late 1980’s Doctor Who. Sure, some of it is plain stupid, the guest cast is a bit dodgy and the rapping is quite frankly laughably bad, but it’s still a fascinating story mostly well created. For me, there is more going right in this tale and it's certainly one of the best from the McCoy era, paving the way for the superb stories of season 26. In fact this was by one count the most popular of McCoy’s tenure gaining its highest ratings for part 4 with an impressive 6.6 million against Corrie.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is still well worth a watch to show just how imaginative 80’s Doctor Who could be.
Studies archaeology by day, frees the universe of evil, injustice and
cold tea by night. Will walks in an eternity of cult BBC science fiction
series and Big Finish. Follow him on twitter.