Stephen Wyatt’s “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” is one of the high points of what turned out to be the beginning of the end of the original ‘classic’ series of DOCTOR WHO starring Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor; it’s the moment when script editor Andrew Cartmel’s postmodern comic-book vision for the show finally gelled in a completely satisfying way for the first time, producing something that was just about as good as the series was able to be at that point, given the limitations and conditions it was still having to be made under. This production made it feel like an authentic artistic renaissance was imminent for a series which had at last begun to regain its footing and its confidence after too many fallow years of neglect and creative misjudgement. When viewed again over twenty years later, this is a story which in particular stands out as a sort of experimental sounding-board for a lot of the more playful elements possessed these days by the modern incarnation of the series and its various spin-offs, all of which frequently shimmer with the same visual cues and ideas which had actually first occurred in this rather freeform fashion amid an abstract, Jackson Pollock approach to fantasy sci-fi drama -- with its crazy cast of supporting characters, alluring psychedelic colours and the sprawlingly diverse imagination behind the serial’s striking design style.
Broadcast right at the end of a sometimes controversial but on the whole successful 25th season (though with poor ratings still becoming an increasing cause for general concern behind the scenes), this serial actually had a typically torturous and convoluted route to the screen marked by frequent re-writes and conceptual re-thinks, and a scare over asbestos at BBC Television Centre which almost led to its cancelation altogether in what threatened to turn into a rerun of Douglas Adams’ unfinished swansong “Shada”-- which also had its studio recording abandoned (in that case because of a strike) after the location shooting had already been completed.
But in retrospect, these trials and tribulations only seem to have improved the finished spectacle and inadvertently contribute to the story’s particularly unique flavour. It’s true enough that the plot becomes confused and diffuse to the point of unfathomable incoherence by the final act; yet so rich in imagination and colour is the finished product (in terms of the quality of its guest performances and the general narrative interest they generate, as well as the story’s style-conscious visual palette) that dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of internal plot logic hardly feels like a necessity in this case. Cartmel’s vision of McCoy’s Doctor as a kind of all-knowing cosmic wizard, besides anticipating the timey wimey plot contortions of your average Steven Moffat script, provides a narrative get-out-of-jail-free card, whereby it can always be assumed that this manipulative, conjuring Doctor just knows all the while what is really going on, even if we as viewers can never quite corral all the pieces of the puzzle into making a fully meaningful picture from the remaining fragmented elements.
This was writer Stephen Wyatt’s second story after the patchy but promising “Paradise Towers” -- the first story Cartmel commissioned for the previous season. Once again we can see Wyatt’s penchant for political and social allegory coming to the fore in an amusing and offbeat form, just as it did in “Paradise Towers” when the Doctor found himself part of a Ballardian high rise dystopia, inside which warring tribes of street kids attempted to survive graffiti-strewn corridors and murderous cleaning machines while all the while placed at the mercy of the dictatorial whims of a troop of ‘caretaker’ guards presided over by a zombie Richard Briers and some cannibalistic tower block tenants! This time Wyatt’s cultural commentary is slightly more obtuse and playful but the bizarre imagery has an extra hallucinatory mix to it that’s rich in surrealism: the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) are first brought to the Psychic Circus, on the surface of the desert planet of Segonax, after running into a ‘junk mail robot’ – a kind of space-faring spam-bot (in the days before that reference even had any meaning!) which materialises inside the TARDIS control room and projects an advertisement for the Greatest Show in the Galaxy onto its viewing screen. Even space is full if junk-mail according to the Doctor, but that doesn’t deter him from setting out for a day at the circus all the same, despite Ace’s childhood dislike of clowns. He of course, has his own hidden agenda all along.
This initial jokey satire on junk mail feels a bit Douglas Adamsy to start with, but the strikingly original tone that’s soon skilfully established once we reach Segonax’s planetary surface, thanks to the combined expertise primarily of director Alan Wareing, designer David Laskey and costume designer Rosalind Ebbutt, belies the fact that Wyatt was plundering large chunks of his content wholesale from Charles Finney’s 1935 novel ‘The Circus of Doctor Lao’, and immediately banishes all thought of the series’ history -- apart for the realisation that Wyatt’s thematic concerns are now being made subordinate to an overridingly whimsical mode of English surrealist fantasy, the likes of which had not really been seen on the show since the mid-sixties, in stories such as the Lewis Carol-inspired “The Celestial Toymaker” or “The Mind Robber”. This time the psychedelic, Alice-in-Wonderland, LSD-laced outlandishness of it all is given a strikingly bold, full-colour eighties make-over: the sight of an eerily silent hearse gliding across a desert landscape and turning out to be driven by an evil-looking harlequin clown; or the planet’s fizzing pink sky -- dominated by the ringed image of a Saturn-like gas giant, which looms above a classic Victorian-era big top tent based on Gerry Cottle’s famous circus -- are images that look like they’ve been sprung from some previously unseen David Bowie video from the beginning of the decade -- except that the special effects are now much better than anything Bowie had to play with back in the days of Ashes to Ashes!
From the director’s inspired choice of using the faux desert, lake-adorned, Warmwell china clay pit quarry in Dorset as a backdrop for the surface of Segonax (going against the script’s ‘verdant countryside’ specification) to Mike Tucker’s amazingly realistic miniature circus big top tent model, which was seamlessly combined with the atmospheric quarry location imagery in post-production, the first episode sets up what is perhaps the most convincingly rendered alien locale in the whole of the series’ history up to that point, and then peoples it with an diverse array of fabulously evocative grotesques and eccentric supporting characters. These seem to have been brought together from various early drafts of Wyatt’s script, during which the story underwent a gradual metamorphosis as the themes and ideas they were originally created to embody were altered beyond recognition, until Wyatt eventually hit upon a single central theme which comes to anchor the hallucinatory outlandishness of the completed episodes: that is, the death of the sixties countercultural dream, and how the former hippies and radicals of yesteryear eventually sold out to become the prime architects of the corporate materialistic nihilism of the yuppified eighties. Built around this idea is another amazingly prescient storyline about a dazzling but vacuous talent show which attracts performers from all over the galaxy to try their luck in the centre stage of the Psychic Circus’s big top – a site which is merely a front for the exploitative vices of a race of pan-dimensional god-like aliens. There’s even a snarky side swipe at the dangers of obsessive fandom here, which appears in the form of a character that many at the time took to be a dig at what producer John Nathan-Turner had once termed the ‘barkers’, and whom Russell T Davies later nicknamed the ‘ming-mongs’ – i.e., that hard-core element of fandom which obsessively pours over and criticises every aspect of its favourite show, and is usually to be identified by its unvarying rallying call: ‘it’s not as good as it used to be!’
The Psychic Circus is populated with a diverse and bizarre collection of backstage vaudevillians who hawk their inter-galactic extravaganza around the known Galaxy looking for the host planet’s greatest entertainers to come and take to their big top stage. The gaudy, barbershop-stripped Victorian tent is also home to an unnerving gaggle of brightly dressed but scary robot clowns who juggle and perform freestyle acrobatics at a flip of a switch in their backs. There’s a glitzy showman of a ringmaster (played by “Aliens” star Ricco Ross) who introduces each act with his (now) dated late-eighties ‘Derek B’ idea of what constitutes cool rapping patter; a sinister chief clown (Ian Reddington) in glittery harlequin uniform, who utilises creepy mime to tempt passers-by into the inner recesses of the big top to try their luck in the sawdust ring; and the gypsy tarot-reading fortune teller and ticket vendor Morgana (Deborah Manship), whose crystal ball seems to provide a communications portal for an unseen intelligence. If proof were needed that something is not quite right with this set-up (other than the fact that clowns are inherently creepy as hell) then it is the realisation that the various unsuspecting ‘performers’ who eventually end up under the Psychic Circus’s centre- circle spotlight, also find themselves confronted by a sinister audience of three, sitting in the darkness of the stalls and made up of a quintessentially 1950s nuclear family but with eerie green-glowing eyes -- ‘Dad’ (David Ashford), ‘Mum’ (Janet Hargreaves) and their ‘little girl’ (Kathryn Ludlow). The trio sit impassively munching crisps while waiting to judge each act with score cards they hold aloft at the end of every performance. Any unfortunates who find them-selves facing this tough panel soon also end up being vaporized if their act doesn’t come up to scratch!
Some of the Circus’s own staff appear to be having second thoughts about such strange goings on here: the dashing ‘Bellboy’ (Christopher Guard) is the circus’s young robot clown-maker but he appears to have gone AWOL with ‘Flowerchild’ (Dee Sadler), creator of the show’s extravagant and colourful eye-themed kites: both of them set out, as the story starts, across the Segonax desert dunes, aiming to escape the dystopian carnival they’ve helped create, fleeing in a brightly painted hippy bus which unfortunately turns out also to be home to a murderous robot bus conductor – one of Bellboys former creations that’s now been turned against him in the cause of perpetuating the circus’s evil schemes. Here perhaps the story’s allegory, concerning the original aims of the hippy movement and the eventual undoing of the counter-culture of the late-sixties and seventies after the once-idealistic baby boomers who initiated it proceeded to screw over the next generation for profit, makes itself obvious -- the rainbow psychedelic bus becoming perhaps the serial’s most obvious clue as to where all this madness is coming from by providing a clear visual reference to writer Ken Kesey (author of ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’) and his Merry Prankster movement. We learn that the circus supposedly started off as an outlet for pure creative expression and mind-expanding experimentation, but has since been made subject to what amounts to an alien-backed corporate takeover that occurred after its founding leader, Kingpin (Chris Jury), brought the circus to Segonax in search of a great power, but subsequently ended up a mumbling acid casualty (re-named Deadbeat) after his brains were fried during his encounter with the planet’s mysterious forces. The Chief Clown, the Ringmaster and Morgana took over the operation, happily hawking a compromised version of their big top show, which in actuality now serves the voracious needs of the Gods of Ragnarok: powerful beings from another reality who look like robed stone sentinels with Grecian facemasks and who preside over a gladiatorial stone amphitheatre -- their reality intersecting with ours through a bottomless well out of which gazes an all seeing single eye, like the one on Flowerchild’s kites and the ancient memorial stones which continue to surround the big top centre stage … freaky!
Deadbeat, Bellboy and Flowerchild are the (hippy) idealists who become casualties and victims of a change in zeitgeist because of their unwillingness to compromise their original ideals; while the Chief Clown, Morgana and the Ringmaster are the lackeys of the Gods who feed off the adrenaline of the cheap entertainment which the Circus now scours the Universe to provide, programing Bellboy’s macabre robots in order to aid their deadly cause. That entertainment turns out to come from a hodgepodge of oddball characters that end up as small-time fodder for the Gods of Ragnarok (the name is a reference to Norse mythology), such as the comically moronic motorbiker Nord (Daniel Peacock) or tank top and bow-tie wearing Whizzkid – a character conceived as a geeky computer games fan in an earlier draft who, played by young actor Gian Sammarco, becomes a callow, easily-manipulated superfan of the Psychic Circus modelled after Sammarco’s TV portrayal of Adrian Mole -- a schoolboy character originally created by author Sue Townsend for a series of comic novels that chronicled the inner life of a frustrated schoolboy adolescent into early adulthood. Whizzkid is shown pursuing various members of the Psychic Circus throughout the story, thrusting his autograph book beneath the noses of the bemused antagonists but eventually being tricked by his hero, the pith-helmeted explorer Captain Cook (who has also earlier been tricked into the big top by the Chief Clown) into taking his place on the big top stage and accordingly paying the price for such fannish naivety.
The crazy, illogical, dreamlike narrative of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” doesn’t sound too convincing on the page, but as a set of vignettes drawing together many amusing, over-the-top and sometimes downright scary performances and held in tow by some wonderfully directed sequences which actually benefit from the serials forced ejection from BBC Television Centre because of the asbestos scare, it rates as one of the greats. Rather than succumb to yet another “Shadaesque” cancellation situation, John Nathan-Turner green lit designer David Laskey’s ingenious solution to the problem of the unavailability of the TV studios, which was to erect a real-life circus tent in the car park at BBC Elstree Centre and film the interiors there. Free of the usual stultifying rules which governed studio lighting at the BBC (which had always made many of the programme’s sets look flat and lifeless because of a policy of relying on unvarying and direct overhead lighting for videotaped studio recording) the story takes on the appearance of a dark and phantasmagorical LSD nightmare instead -- full of evil candy coloured clowns, clunky killer robots and assorted oddball characters – an extra scene-setting element which would almost certainly have been lost if the serial had been shot in a studio as originally intended. Billowing tent corridors, looming shadows and the authentic Victorian circus atmosphere provide the perfect backdrop to some memorable guest cast performances, particularly from Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown. T.P McKenna also gives a lovely performance as the charming but completely conniving and selfish explorer Captain Cook, while his companion Mags (played by comedienne and impressionist Jessica Martin) is the centre of one of the series’ scariest ever sequences when the Goth girl Sidekick has her hidden Lycanthropic tendencies exposed in the circus ring during an outré transformation sequence that, when accompanied by Mark Ayres’ synth-based prog rock incidental music, feels like it comes straight out of Lamberto Bava’s campy mid-eighties cartoon euro-horror favourite “Demons”, or its follow-up “Demons 2”!
Add to all this an enjoyable cameo from veteran actress Peggy Mount as a hippy-hating battle-axe local stallslady (grumpily touting her gunky, alien vomit fruit vegetable wares, which the Doctor and Ace memorably have to guzzle down in order to ingratiate themselves with her at one point) and Sylvester McCoy’s now-settled persona as the ‘dark Doctor’ of Cartmel’s devising -- complete with vaudevillian conjuring act which he eventually uses to distract the Gods of Ragnarok (before defeating them with a bewildering combination of amulet laser power and incomprehensible Arthurian-style sword magic) and we have here a true classic whose magic is only tarnished by a cluttered and confused final act which disposes of its greatest asset, the Chief Clown, in a derisorily offhand manner. Ace still comes off as an increasingly well-rounded companion here, though, despite the surrounding madness; Sophie Aldred is particularly convincing in delineating Ace’s brief friendship with Bellboy in the creepy environs of his robot workshop, just before his premeditated suicide. Ratings for this serial climbed steadily throughout its four week run and reached the highest figures the series had seen for some years by the final episode. It’s a fitting adventure for the Sylvester McCoy years’ representation on DVD to bow out on and a much needed reminder that the series was still capable of generating surprises right up to the date of its unfortunate cancelation.
The disc comes with an excellent cast and crew commentary moderated by Toby Hadoke and featuring Sophie Aldred, Jessica Martin and Christopher Guard, along with writer Stephen Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel and composer Mark Ayres. There’s also the usual ‘making of’ documentary as a supplement to the commentary anecdotes, which is entitled “The Show Must Go On”, where actor Ian Reddington, director Alan Wareing, designer David Laskey and special effects designer Mike Tucker join Cartmel, Aldred and Martin to reminisce on an experience which was gruelling but rewarding for the togetherness in adversity it generated during the shoot. Other extras include deleted and extended scenes; some unused model effects shots which were cut from the finished show because they didn’t fit the style established elsewhere by Wareing; and a music video created by producer Mark Ayres and re-mixed especially for this release, featuring Christopher Guard (who wrote the song) on vocals along with a special contribution from T P McKenna! The next instalment of “Tomorrow’s Times Today” features Anneke Wills casting her eye back over how Sylvester McCoy’s tenure was treated by the popular press in the late eighties as the show struggled to find vocal support in the media and even its own fan-base took to hurling brickbats at seemingly every opportunity. There’s a short but amusing sketch from the BBC’s “Victoria Wood Show” which just about sums up popular attitudes at the time towards the programme, representing it as a kitschy, old-fashioned relic of the past with Jim Broadbent playing a Doctor who appears dressed in a costume which is an amalgamation of past Doctors’ uniforms, Ironically, this was broadcast just as the programme was at last finding its feet again, as the subject of this DVD release now clearly demonstrates. There’s the traditional photo gallery, an isolated music score option, PDF Radio Times listings and the usual comprehensive production subtitle notes to round off what is a truly excellent release, well worth becoming acquainted with if you’ve previously dismissed the McCoy years as a creative backwater.