The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

The Greatest Show in the GalaxyDVDThis piece, from DWM #451, was a real struggle to write. That’s why, at a couple of points, I go a little off-piste looking at the outside forces that might have affected the realisation of The Greatest Show in The Galaxy

So what was my problem? Simply that I didn’t feel especially moved by this four-parter from 1988. I didn’t hate, I didn’t love it. I could kind of see where it was coming from, what its big themes were, but its concerns, viewed from outside the 1980s, didn’t feel particularly pressing anymore.

Thanks, then, go to pals Nick Setchfield, Tim Worthington and Adam McLean who all helped me with what follows – suggesting a few lines and letting me bounce some ideas off them. None of the trio, however, is responsible for this bit. In an effort to get the engine warmed up a little, I was originally going to open the review like this (but latterly saw sense)…

Now welcome folks, it’s no surprise to you
We’re at the start of another new disc review!
Doctor Who story that screened in ’88,
About a psychic circus which used to be great!
There are scary clowns that leave Ace a-smartin’
Plus guest turns from Mount, McKenna and Martin!
Because available now on good ol’ DVD
Is The Greatest Show in the Galaxy! (In the galaxy! In the galaxy! etc.)

DWM #451DWM #451DWM #451When The Greatest Show in the Galaxy aired in December 1988, your reviewer was 15 years old and a secret Doctor Who watcher. Among my peers the programme’s stock was rock bottom. That made me self-conscious as a viewer, every episode scanned for embarrassing bits, about which I’d compose a riposte in case I should be challenged at school the next day.

The Greatest Show begins with just such a thing. As soon as the opening titles clear, guest star Ricco Ross, in the guise of the Ringmaster, attempts a spot of… rap? Oh dear.

Earlier that year, as if contributing to a BBC-wide symposium on urban music in family drama, the 11th series of Grange Hill also dabbled in the form to equally toe-curling effect. “It really is time for some hip hop,” says Mrs McClusky at the end of term party. It really isn’t. Not in a mainstream BBC production. But here comes ‘Ronnie’ Birtles and Fiona Wilson in the guise of Fresh and Fly. Worse still, as if to draw a direct line between the scholastic serial and The Greatest Show, the duo deliver their rhythmical rejoinder to the General Collapse of Secondary Education while wearing bomber jackets festooned in badges. Or, in short, dressed as Ace. See for yourself on YouTube (search: ‘Grange Hill Fresh and Fly’), where you can also spot Mr Bronson in Captain Cook’s garb, pith helmet and all.

All of the above: resolutely un-wicked.

Those thoughts tumbled into my brain as Doctor Who – the show I’d publically aligned myself with for years – squeezed gamely on my embarrassment glands. In truth, The Greatest Show wasn’t the worst offender in recent history, but it did have a rubbish giant robot (thankfully half-buried), Adrian Mole being a total tool, Sylvester McCoy rolling his ‘R’s maniacally, Jessica Martin from Copycats and… even more rapping. Thank goodness for baddy the Chief Clown. Even to a paranoiacally cynical ‘super-fan’, that guy was a class act.

What I discover in watching The Greatest Show in the Galaxy nearly a quarter of a century on is those sensations still prickle – but only very lightly. Thankfully, I no longer feel the story’s got anything to prove…  and nor do I in my liking of Doctor Who. Thus, in the vein of Peace Pipe and Juniper Berry during the Psychic Circus’ heyday, I can let it all hang out. In fact, I might even be picking up some good vibes.

This is the tale of a travelling intergalactic circus that’s now ceased its wandering to pander to a sinister trio of sponsors, whose appetite for fresh acts proves deadly for those who fail to amuse. It has immediate resonance today – the comparison with TV talent shows is all too obvious, so let’s not make it. Instead, we can consider the pace of the storytelling, which, particularly in Part One, is as speedy as the modern series. There’s no time for breathers, as new characters are introduced seemingly in every scene. Here they come: the Ringmaster, Flower Child, Bellboy, the Chief Clown, the Bus Conductor, Nord the Vandal, the Stallslady, Captain Cook, Mags, Whizz Kid, Morganna – all trouping along in quick succession.

It’s a delightful cavalcade, but a bit bewildering. As the info-text accompanying the DVD release makes clear, this jumble is mainly due to the vast number of cuts performed in the edit suite afterwards. While that lends the story an unusual vigour, it also kills any sense of geography. It’s as if all bridging moments were considered surplus, and so we jump from the Doctor and Ace dawdling at Captain Cook and Mags’ lakeside encampment, to the whole party in a completely different location, now investigating an abandoned hippy bus. Does this matter? Normally, yes. But The Greatest Show is as offbeat as they come. While such an approach can never really be condoned – it hobbles the following season’s The Curse of Fenric – here, it kind of buys into the ethos.

In addition, the choppiness is offset by the story’s uncommon effectiveness in world-building. With a ringed planet hanging potently over Segonax’s lovely low horizon, such a strong visual helps everything cohere. This is coupled with a weird, but very sound, internal logic – a mix of the mundane and the fantastic. Playing in front of the alien sky, the clowns use ordinary-looking kites to hunt down runaways, Whizz Kid arrives riding a BMX and the Gods of Ragnarok take the guise of a crisp-munching 1950s family. And then there’s a giant eye residing at the bottom of a well…

These juxtapositions have the flavour of a modest, very shot-on-VT brand of surrealism that’s indicative of the more experimental edges of children’s TV drama in the late 1980s. Not that I’m saying Doctor Who is a children’s drama – let’s not get into that. But think of serials like haunted house tale The Children Of Green Knowe (1986), witch-burning thriller Shadow of the Stone (1987) and Welsh mystical fantasy The Snow Spider (1988). Plus, there’s the hyper-real Billy’s Christmas Angels, in which – since you asked – celestial beings come to Earth in the form of The Mint Juleps performing a cappella versions of chart hits. As if to hammer home our thesis, this one even aired between Part Two and Three of The Greatest Show, and, guest-starred Daniel ‘Nord the Vandal’ Peacock.

Something was in the air. And behind the drapes at the Psychic Circus, you can imagine its main architects, writer Stephen Wyatt and script editor Andrew Cartmel, becoming heady as they imbibe those fumes.

This is a story absolutely informed by the 1980s. It’s bold, it’s conceptual, it also has the sense of a – what was the term that came to prominence back then? – oh yes, ‘graphic novel’. In much the same way superheroes were being used as a kind of colourful and iconic front-of-house in increasingly sophisticated and gritty tales, we have comic-strip characters like Nord or the Ringmaster titillating the viewer in the foreground, while the story’s dark themes gather.

The Chief Clown is the most successful distillation of this approach. Although the part doesn’t look much on paper, actor Ian Reddington clearly understood what the game was. He’s a brilliant cipher for the story and the idea there’s a hell of a lot more going on backstage. With his hand flourishes and looks askance, he’s superficially welcoming, but won’t meet your eyes. This duality even informs his vocal performance, as he moderates his tone depending on whether he’s in showman mode or getting down to business. The calculated insincerity of the character makes him one of the most successful Doctor Who creations of the 1980s.

The story also works well for the Seventh Doctor. It’s arguably here Sylvester McCoy really proves he has the stature to portray the heroic side of the Time Lord – notably, engineering the story’s final bout of pyrotechnics and then suavely strolling from the wreckage. But better than that, he also brings a very particular humility to the role, countering the slickness of the Ringmaster’s patter with his awkward show of delight when picked to perform. Plus, there’s that sublime moment in Part Four when we cut back to him facing off against the Gods and he’s somehow conspired to be hanging upside down in a straitjacket, trying to pull off a very tatty escape routine. Yes, it’s true, that final conjuring sequence is utter nonsense and full of muddled allegory (the stuff about the gladiator’s sword) but it’s totally Sylvester’s party. I can’t imagine any other Doctor utilising a pair of magician’s ‘lean’ shoes for their end-of-adventure confrontation with the big baddy.

Ace fares well too. For once, her dialogue nearly sounds real. “This thing had better work, or I’ll kick its head in!” she declares when trying to turn the half-buried robot into a weapon. However, her whole aversion to clowns is very oddly played, as if it’s evidence of something profound and deep-rooted. Despite cliff-hanging Part One on those fears, the investigation into Ace’s psyche never really gets going. We’d have to wait until next year for that.

Ancillary characters also impress. TP McKenna is having a whale of a time as the unimaginatively named Captain Cook. A colossal colonial bore who one could imagine haunting Edwardian gentlemen’s clubs, he’s a dark mirror to the Doctor. In contrast to the wandering Time Lord, his incessant travel tales put himself squarely in the picture, no matter what the backdrop, while he refers to his travelling companion Mags (Jessica Martin, really giving it her all) as a “specimen”. “Everything’s a specimen of something!” declares the Captain to a horrified Doctor. What a jaundiced worldview. It’s fair to assume that back home, this stuffed shirt presides over a huge collection of stuffed heads. How the amoral Cook navigates through the rest of The Greatest Show is one of its main delights.

Bellboy is a different proposition.  The excellent Christopher Guard imbues him with passion, helped by the fact he gets that rarest of things in Doctor Who, a snogging scene (Mark Ayres’ incidental music at this point straying into the opening chords of some power ballad). It only serves to make his subsequent bad trip all the more tragic. By the end of the story, Bellboy’s doped out of his brain and clinically depressed. That his suicide is played out as a valedictory moment is extraordinarily bleak. Did this really happen? In a 7.35pm slot on BBC1 on a Wednesday night? Just before Dallas? No wonder even the Chief Clown feels compelled to look away.

In contrast, Whizz Kid remains a terrible idea. Although, over the years, many involved with The Greatest Show have pointedly failed to acknowledge the joke, it’s clear what the gag is. Created, I’d guess, to amuse producer John Nathan-Turner who’d suffered at the hands of Doctor Who’s ‘barkers’, this caricature of a super-fan may have been broadly accurate – cut back to the 15-year-old me who’s cheesed off that right now Doctor Who isn’t exactly what he wants it to be – but it’s completely lacking in warmth. Even a speck of affection would have saved him from looking mean-spirited. Earlier that year, when some overly critical aficionados had intruded upon the filming of Silver Nemesis, production manager Gary Downie reportedly sent them packing with the sizzling pay-off, “You hate us? Well we hate you too!” Whizz Kid embodies that low sentiment, and it’s horrid.

But let’s not dwell on that. Instead – forgive me – but there’s one other, very of-its-time, concern this four-parter absolutely obsesses over and I can’t ignore it… although I did back in 1988. It completely passed me by! Maybe I was too young to see it, or perhaps it was hiding in the subtext. However subtlety in TV drama rarely ages gracefully. Watching The Greatest Show now, you can’t escape its endorsement of the notion the Peace and Love generation sold out their ideals in the 1980s. Clairvoyant Morgana is the primary mouthpiece, bemoaning that nowadays it “feels like we’re part of a machine” whereas before “we were all really into personal expression.”

This reappraisal of the ‘60s is very much a post-Live Aid phenomenon, coming to the boil around 1987, with the 20th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the original Summer of Love. As popular culture latched onto, and regurgitated, the ethos of yesteryear, it precipitated the Acid House-fuelled second Summer of Love in 1988. Prompted by that, we caught up with some of the icons from the ‘20 years ago today’ era. Like counter-cultural publisher Felix Dennis. For he who’d once soused David Frost on TV with a water pistol was now situated right in the heartlands of conformity, working in the world of computer magazine publishing. Coo, what a let down. Meanwhile, Richard Branson had become an airline mogul and former Yippie Jerry Rubin had turned Yuppy. “It’s gone,” says Bellboy in The Greatest Show, “the fun, freedom of being what you want to be.”

As a sidebar, I wonder how much this theme resonated with Sylvester McCoy, who gave up working in insurance to join the loopy Ken Campbell Roadshow. “I sold the tickets,” he’d later recall in interview, “because I was a hippy who could count”. I don’t think Sylv ever sold out – I mean, on an ideological level – and neither did his Doctor. In Part Three of The Greatest Show, Ace even refers to the Time Lord as an “aging hippy”. In response, he gives the Peace sign, happy to still be associated with that spirit, despite its rough reappraisal.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is not only the last of Sylvester’s stories to appear on DVD, it also boasts the highest ratings of his run, with Part Four winning 6.6 million viewers up against Coronation Street. That’s a huge achievement. Why such a peak in viewers? Who knows, but a blisteringly scary cliffhanger the week before, featuring Mags transforming into a werewolf, surely helped. Certainly 15-year-old me looked forward to the next day at school with much less trepidation. Really, upon reflection, Season 25 had been pretty solid all told. A great Dalek story, certainly. A credible and interesting companion in Ace. And the Doctor finding his Doctorishness again… So, actually, what was my problem? Doctor Who was getting back to its glory days, and the best was yet to come. Provided, of course, the BBC Gods continued to be amused by it.

DVD extras

It was a disaster that sent the production of the BBC drama Shadow of the Noose off to a warehouse in Bristol, and exiled The Russ Abbot Show to Birmingham. It was the great BBC asbestos scare of 1988, and it shut down production at Television Centre for some weeks. The incident hangs over most of the extras on this DVD, which reveal how the brouhaha – some say imbroglio – fundamentally shaped The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

“All of us started to realise quite what an asset John was to the programme”. So says visual effects assistant Mike Tucker in the making-of documentary The Show Must Go On. Refreshingly for a DVD feature, this one takes time to credit Doctor Who’s producer John Nathan Turner with having the sheer pluck not to give up on this story when its studios became unavailable. Instead, the interior scenes were, famously (to us fans at least), shot in a tent erected in Elstree Studios’ car park, thanks to designer David Laskey’s connection with the place, having worked on daytime quizzer Going For Gold. Next time you catch a rerun of that show on Challenge and Henry Kelly asks, “Who am I?” feel free to answer: “The inadvertent saviour of Season 25.” Further tales of calamity abound, such as the one where a fire alarm interrupts filming and results in an impromptu photo session with the 999 crew and the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo. There’s also a truly shocking outtake in which a metal jail door is inadvertently brought down hard on Ian Reddington’s head. The actor – whose back teeth were crushed in the accident –tells the story, prefacing it with an assurance he’s not looking for some kind of financial redress.

The air of adversity, it seems, only strengthened the cast and crew’s loyalty towards the production. On the commentary track, sitting tenant Toby Hadoke is joined by Sophie Aldred, Jessica Martin, Christopher Guard, Mark Ayres, Stephen Wyatt and Andrew Cartmel, all of whom have nothing but warm memories. While Jessica proudly and pointedly declares, “I created and played the role of Mags”, Stephen talks of how they all felt the story represented the series coming back to life. However, it’s Christopher who seems the most enthused, sharing his theory that JN-T “cast his friends” and recalling with delight Gian Sammarco (Whizz Kid) spending much of his downtime writing “angry punk songs”.

By the way, that fact I mentioned, about Russ Abbot and Shadow of the Noose? I nicked that from Richard Bignell’s info-text, which does a reliably excellent job of guiding us through the many nips and tucks applied to this adventure. Favourite facts uncovered include the snippet that Nord’s helmet enjoyed a bit of a purple patch on TV, going on to appear in The Mary Whitehouse Experience, EastEnders and the remake of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Plus, there’s the revelation an earlier draft of the script included a ‘Yuppie mutant’ and Flowerchild was originally named ‘Female Friend’.

Tomorrow’s Times, hosted by Anneke Wills, looks, as ever, like a hostage tape –but the content therein is fascinating… and depressing. Reviewing press coverage of the Seventh Doctor’s era, Anneke tells us this was the show’s “most sustained period of hostility from newspaper critics”. While The Times’ Chris Petit cites Sylvester McCoy as “a thin man’s version of Robert Morley”, the cruellest cut comes from Doctor Who Appreciation Society whizz kid Andrew Beech, who writes in The Daily Mail: “There’s something radically wrong… Doctor Who (as a popular television show) is slowly but surely being killed”.

Rounding out the release are some deleted and extended scenes (Captain Cook banging on about “electronic dogs’ heads submerged in mud” on some distant planet), a pretty witless Victoria Wood Doctor Who spoof, which nonetheless lent us a useful synonym for ‘super fan’ (“But Doctor, we haven’t got the ming mongs!”), Mark Ayres’ audition piece when trying out as a Doctor Who composer (previously available on a flexidisc free with DWM#167) and the original, abandoned footage of the junk-mail ‘bot stalking the TARDIS through space.

Finally, there’s Christopher Guard’s own The Greatest Show-inspired pop opus, The Psychic Circus, included with a brand new 1980s-styled video. Sure, some of the lyrics are a bit hokey – “The Psychic Circus is coming to town/Doctor take a look around” – but it’s worth a listen just for Jessica, on guest vocals, singing in the mode of the time about “physical attract-shuan!” Besides, the very fact it exists is testament to how fired up Christopher and co had become by this story. You never got Howard Cooke writing verse about Pex did you? Although, considering the obvious rhyme, maybe that’s not such a bad thing…


4 thoughts on “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

  1. “I didn’t hate, I didn’t love it. I could kind of see where it was coming from, what its big themes were, but its concerns, viewed from outside the 1980s, didn’t feel particularly pressing anymore.”

    Glad it’s not just me. It’s a disjointed work which has a bizarrely high reputation and it’s not just this.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that the many years of the 7th Doctor’s spin-off adventure’s led to a rose tinted reappraisal of the television seasons. When the production team say, we thought we were doing well and then they cancelled us, I can never entirely agree with them. It’s a plastic, videoy confection which in that state could never be the crowd pleaser that was required to keep the all important general audience happy.

    McCoy’s Doctor’s inherently dislikeable with his cosmic manipulation tactics and few of the stories have that “grounded” element which keeps the viewer involved, even something like Survival which is held up as being the moment the show embraced realism which is entirely busted by the panto acting from the PE teacher bloke and the fake cat on the wall.

    Thanks for letting me get that off my chest after all these years.

    • You’re very welcome. Thanks for posting it here!

      I think I would have had a better time reviewing some of McCoy’s other stories. Silver Nemesis was quite fun to write about ( and I would have loved to have done something on Ghostlight (I think it’s great). So I don’t have a problem with his stuff per se, but I do agree, I don’t really see some huge renaissance there.

      • I remember that. The final paragraph demonstrates that lists can be just as biting and succinct as a few thousand words.

        For the record, the high points (for me) of the McCoy era are Ghostlight, Battlefield, Remembrance of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric but only in its extended dvd version with added Parsons.

        I have a soft spot for the Rani story but only because it’s so inept it almost comes back the other way. For all the casting and production difficulties, the fact that script even went into production as the 7th Doctor’s introduction shows what was wrong in that period.

        While I’m here congratulations on the JNT articles. I love that DWM’s is now confident enough in the franchise’s identity that in the months that the new edition of the show is on television its capable of publishing something like that and issues which seem mostly to be about classic Who.

  2. The Nerd (Whizz Kid) is a let-down to be sure. But as far as let-down interpretations of “geek” go, he’s still not nearly so bad as Urkel on Family Matters (U.S. sitcom).

    I had the luxury of being able to watch this without worrying too much about being made fun of for it as I live in the U.S. and until fairly recently almost nobody in this country even knew Doctor Who existed. Those that did already understood the show didn’t exactly have a Hollywood budget and either respectfully chose not to watch it for that reason, or else embraced it flaws and all.

    This has always been my parents’ favorite adventure. Probably because they are hippies themselves. So, I guess, never-mind the careful analysis, this adventure wins based on that. That, and of course the cool explosion scene at the end.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

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