Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannermen

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Back in 1987, the rock’n’roll stylings of Delta and the Bannermen seemed to be a quaint reminder of a far-ago age.  Yet more time now separates us from the original transmission (a shade under thirty years) than the gap between the first broadcast and its 1959 setting.  Funny thing time …..

Maybe it’s the retro setting, but time seems to have been pretty kind to Delta.  True, the story remains rather dreamlike and insubstantial, but it’s hard not to warm to it.  On the negative side, it’s a shame that Gavrok remains hopelessly undeveloped – he wants to exterminate the Chimeron race because he wants to – meaning that Don Henderson has to make bricks out of straw (Henderson has a nice line in simmering anger but little else, alas).  Delta herself, as portrayed by Belinda Mayne, is presented with a little more in the script to work with, but this is torpedoed by Mayne’s passionless performance.

I’ve also never been able to decide whether the fact that Weismuller can get straight through to the White House from a humble police box is supposed to be deliberately stupid or whether Malcolm Kholl just hoped nobody would notice.  But given that Weismuller and Hawk are given the job of tracking a satellite with the aid of a very basic telescope, I think it’s probably the former …..

But if the story is somewhat flimsy fare, then the performances more than make up for it.  Stubby Kaye is delightfully amiable as the bumbling Weismuller whilst Richard Davies brings to bear all his sitcom experience when delivering these sort of lines.  “Now, are you telling me that you are not the Happy Hearts Holiday Club from Bolton, but instead are spacemen in fear of an attack from some other spacemen?”

And there’s the rub.  If you believe that Doctor Who should be grim and gun-happy (like, say, Eric Saward) then Delta isn’t gong to appeal.  Otherwise, there should be plenty to enjoy here – although even I, unreconstructed Delta fan as I am, can’t sit through the honey/bees scene without squirming.  There should have been another way.

Had Sarah Griffiths toned down her “Welsh” accent then she might have made a very decent companion.  She certainly works well with Sylvester – the moment when a distraught Ray (miffed that the love of her life, Billy, is making eyes at the newly arrived alien lady) grabs the Doctor for an energetic dance is just one delight amongst many.

Always a pleasure to revisit this one.

Doctor Who – More than Thirty Years in the TARDIS

more than

One thing that the range of Doctor Who DVDs (from An Unearthly Child to the TVM) isn’t short of is documentaries.  Just about every release has a plethora of supplementary information – from story-specific features, interviews with people from both in-front of and behind the camera to more tangential featurettes (such as The Blood Show from the State of Decay DVD.  A twenty minute documentary on the use and meaning of blood in society?  No, me neither).

But back at the start of the 1990’s, things were very different.  The only British-made documentary screened during the series’ original twenty-six year run was 1977’s Whose Doctor Who.  Reeltime Pictures catered for the fan market during the 1980’s and 1990’s with the MythMakers series of interview videos, but these (like VHS releases of convention panels) were only preaching to the converted.  A mainstream documentary on BBC1 seemed like a remote possibility.

But 1993 was Doctor Who’s 30th anniversary and even if the show had been off the air since 1989, it still had a certain presence (thanks to healthy VHS sales).  Kevin Davies was keen to make a documentary celebrating the program and he had an impressive calling card – The Making of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – a popular straight to video documentary that mixed archive footage, outtakes and new interviews.

Thirty Years in the TARDIS was to eventually take very much the same shape – although prior to this format being agreed Davies made numerous other pitches which were rejected.  These included Tomb of the Time Lords which would have featured Ace searching the Doctor’s memory in the Matrix – which would have provided the excuse for a series of clips.  Another intriguing possibility was The Legend Begins, a drama-documentary about the creation of the series (Davies suggested Pete Postlewaite as Hartnell).  We would have to wait another twenty years, and Mark Gatiss’ An Adventure in Space and Time, for this idea to eventually hit the screen.

Thirty Years in the TARDIS was produced by The Late Show team and although Davies had been given a free hand, some higher-ups became concerned with the approach used.  Davies wanted to take the nostalgic route to try and pinpoint why Doctor Who had been such as success whilst The Late Show team felt that the documentary should have a more factual basis and so additional interview material was shot.

In the end, this made the transmitted version a rather uneasy comprise between Davies and his producers.  But even though it was a bit of a hodge-podge, there were still plenty of impressive moments (especially the drama recreations).  However, Davies still felt that there was a better documentary that could be made from the material and so in 1994 More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS was released on VHS.

Davies had free reign to re-edit the program to his wishes as well as adding an additional forty minutes (bringing the running time up to ninety minutes).  From the perspective of 2015 it’s just another documentary, but back in 1994 it was something rather special.

Although the pirate video network (see Cheques, Lies and Videotape on the Revenge of the Cybermen DVD for more info) was still flourishing at the time (which meant that some of the rarer material featured – studio outtakes, for example – were in circulation) not everybody had access to them.  So a major draw of the VHS were the snippets from studio sessions, including The Claws of Axos and Death to the Daleks , as well as ephemera like the Tom Baker/Lalla Ward Prime Computer adverts.  Even the end credits were fascinating, as they were packed with clips of studio off-cuts.

Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were interviewed, but Tom Baker and Peter Davison were conspicuous by their absence.  Tom did make an appearance via archive footage though and given that many anecdotes were already calcified by this time (yes, Jon Pertwee does mention Yetis in Tooting-Bec!) this probably wasn’t too much of a drawback.

One notable new section concerned the thorny issue about who exactly created the Daleks (was it Terry Nation, Raymond Cusick or Davros?).  This discussion was intercut with Jon Pertwee’s appearance on the Anne and Nick show where he disagreed that it was Terry Nation (much to the amusement of the studio crew!).

The DVD release of More Than is pretty much a direct port of the VHS master which means that many of the clips look rather grotty.  Along with the staggering number of special features, the amount of restoration work carried out the DVD releases is really highlighted when you see exactly how badly the stories used to look.

If you didn’t live through the 1990’s as a Doctor Who fan, then More Than is probably not going to have the same special appeal today as it did then.  Just about every scrap of interesting material can be found in a more complete form somewhere on the DVD range (you want the whole studio spool from The Claws of Axos? You’ve got it) but More Than does manage to compress twenty six years of history into an entertaining ninety minutes.

This obvious nostalgia apart, it remains a very decent documentary that does its best to explain the magic of the series and I’m glad it ended up on DVD.

Such a simple, brutal power. Just the power of tooth and claw. Doctor Who – Survival

survival

It’s often been commented upon that Survival was a story that pointed towards the style adopted by NuWho.  Like some of  the early NuWho stories, there’s a sense that the story is located in a real, definable modern location.  Other Who stories of the time (such as Silver Nemesis) were also set on contemporary Earth, but Survival takes us onto the streets and into the tower-blocks of contemporary London, a place where the series rarely ventured.

It’s also possible to imagine the story working very well as a 45 minute story (like the majority of NuWho).  Had it done so, then the majority of the first 25 minutes could easily have been jettisoned.  There’s some nice moments, such as Ace’s friend Ange who’s surprised to see her as she thought she was dead (“either you were dead, or you’d gone to Birmingham”) but far too much of the episode drags.

The business with Hale & Pace as well as the Doctor faffing around with the cat food is all pretty throwaway stuff.  But we do get to meet the arrogant Sergeant Paterson (“Have you ever heard of survival of the fittest, son, eh? Have you ever heard of that? Life’s not a game, son. I mean, I’m teaching you the art of survival. I’m teaching you to fight back. What happens when life starts pushing you around, son, eh? What’re you going to do then?”).  The constant repetition of “survival of the fittest” during the first episode is a far from subtle foreshadowing of what was to come.

It’s interesting that Survival is a very episodic story (The Keys of Marinus is another where the location would change from episode to episode, but I can’t think of many other examples from the original series off the top of my head).  Episode one takes place on Earth, episode two on the planet of the Cheetah People whilst episode three returns us to Earth.

Episode two is probably the best of the three.  The Cheetah People’s planet is very well realised, with subtle video effects used to change the colour of the sky, etc.  It’s certainly a good deal more effective that the garish Paintbox effects on Mindwarp.  I also love Dominic Glynn’s music here – so it would be nice if SilvaScreen restarted their release programme of Doctor Who soundtracks with stories like this one.

And the Master’s back! Although his interpretation wasn’t to everybody’s taste, I’ve always had a soft spot for Anthony Ainley (and considering how the New Series has treated the Master, Ainley is a model of restraint).  Survival is probably his best Doctor Who appearance as the Master (although his best appearance overall as the Master can be found on the links of the Destiny of the Doctor CD-ROM game).

For once, he has no grand scheme – like everybody else he’s just fighting for survival.  But once he returns to Perivale, things do fall apart.  The sight of the Master recruiting a gang of teenagers from the local Youth Club is bizarre, to say the least, and his motivations at the end of the story seem confused.  At one point, he tells the Doctor that he has control over the power and that he’ll use it to destroy him.  In the very next scene, the Master and the Doctor are back on the planet of the Cheetah People and the Master’s attitude has completely changed – now he wishes to die, as he doesn’t want to live as an animal.  As happened so often, script editor Andrew Cartmel seems to has overlooked plot-holes like this, which would have been easy to fix.

Although it’s not really visible, the Master’s murder of Karra (Lisa Bowerman) is quite vicious and serves as a reminder that he could be ruthless when the situation demanded it.  Karra is the Cheetah Person who forms a strong link with Ace.  And Ace’s prominent role in the story is another link to NuWho, where the companion is often more important to the story than the Doctor (although Survival is not unique in this respect – and in fact this is the last in a loose trilogy which put Ace to the fore).

Whilst Ghost Light was the last story from the original run to be recorded, Survival was the last to be transmitted and it’s really the end of an era.  Doctor Who would survive – initially as books, then a one-off TVM, then audios and then finally the relaunched series in 2005 which achieved levels of success (in the UK and also worldwide) both commercially and critically that the original series only enjoyed somewhat intermittently.

Dangerous undercurrents. Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric

curse

The Curse of Fenric is a bleak, cynical story.  So it’s hard to believe that, for many people at the time, Doctor Who was still seen very much as children’s television – although some of the performances, which we’ll come to later, did have a feel of “children’s tv” about them.

One of the interesting things about Fenric is how it portrays the British during their darkest hour.  The government are seen to hatch a plan which will cause mass slaughter in Russia at some unspecified point in the future.  It doesn’t go as far as to say that Churchill knew about it, but the implication is there.

MILLINGTON: Just think what a bomb full could do to a city like Dresden or Moscow.
DOCTOR: It’s inhuman.
MILLINGTON: It could mean the end of the war.
DOCTOR: And Whitehall thinks that Moscow is careless enough to let you detonate one of those things inside the Kremlin?
MILLINGTON: Oh, that’s the beauty of it, Doctor. We won’t detonate it. They’ll do it themselves. They’ll use the machine to decrypt our ciphers, but Doctor Judson has programmed it to self-destruct when it tries to decrypt a particular word. And, once the political climate is appropriate, we will include the word in one of our ciphers.
DOCTOR: And the word is?
MILLINGTON: What else could it be, Doctor? Love.

As the above extract indicates, there’s a little confusion in the scripting.  At one point, Millington (Alfred Lynch) discusses how the chemical weapons could signal the end of the war – but he plans to use them against the Russians, not the Germans, so how is this possible?

Faith is an important part of the story.  The Reverend Wainwright (Nicholas Parsons) doesn’t have faith any more and it proves to be his undoing.  I remember the outcry amongst a certain section of fandom back in 1989 when Parsons’ casting was announced – it seemed that another Ken Dodd comedy turn was expected.  But Parsons was wonderful as the conflicted Wainwright (not that this should be a surprise, since he had plenty of acting experience).  He has some lovely moments in the story, such as this scene with Ace.

ACE: Funny church, this, isn’t it?
WAINWRIGHT: I was just remembering when I was a child. My father was the vicar here then. It seemed such a warm, friendly place in those days.
ACE: Things always look different when you’re a child.
WAINWRIGHT: Now I stand in the church every Sunday, I see all the faces looking up at me, waiting for me to give them something to believe in.
ACE: Don’t you believe in anything?
WAINWRIGHT: I used to believe there was good in the world, hope for the future.

ACE: The future’s not so bad. Have faith in me.

But sadly he didn’t have faith in her or anyone else, so he meets his end at the hands of Jean (Joann Kenny) and Phyllis (Joanne Bell).  They’re two of the weak links in the story – they’re not particularly impressive before they’ve been taken over, but afterwards they’re somewhat diabolical.  Maybe it’s the fingernails or the stilted delivery, but it’s not good.

There’s better acting elsewhere though.  Dinsdale Landen has a nice touch of humour as the wheelchair-bound Judson and is even better when taken over by Fenric in the last episode.  But it’s a pity that episode three didn’t end on a close-up of him, rather than a shot of the Doctor looking mildly worried (but it’s not the first cliff-hanger of the era to end on a limp shot of the Doctor by a long chalk).

Fenric was always a story that didn’t quite work in its original broadcast format and both the VHS and the DVD had different edits which benefit the story by including various scenes that had to be cut out due to time restrictions.  There’s possibly too much plot in the story for the episode count – the Haemovores, the Ancient One, Millington’s agenda, the Russian’s plan to steal the Ultima machine, the return of Fenric, it’s certainly all going on.

Losing a few of these threads (particularly the Haemovores who contribute little to the plot) would have tightened things up a little.  And episode four, whilst it has some great drama (especially when Sorin has been taken over by Fenric) can’t help but feel like something of an anti-climax.  It is a little hard to take Fenric that seriously when he wants to drop everything to pick up the game he was previously playing with the Doctor.  Yes, I can see that chess is a metaphor – but it’s a somewhat clumsy one.

The scene where the Doctor attempts to destroy Ace’s faith in him is nice though – and it’s either a skillful weaving together of plot-threads from various stories during S24 & S25 or an opportune scramble to explain some of the plot-holes from those same stories.  I’ll leave you to decide.

SORIN: The choice is yours, Time Lord. I shall kill you anyway, but if you would like the girl to live, kneel before me.
ACE: I believe in you, Professor.
SORIN: Kneel, if you want the girl to live!
DOCTOR: Kill her.
SORIN: The Time Lord finally understands.
DOCTOR: Do you think I didn’t know? The chess set in Lady Peinforte’s study? I knew.
SORIN: Earlier than that, Time Lord. Before Cybermen, ever since Ice World, where you first met the girl.
DOCTOR: I knew. I knew she carried the evil inside her. Do you think I’d have chosen a social misfit if I hadn’t known? She couldn’t even pass her chemistry exams at school, and yet she manages to create a time storm in her bedroom. I saw your hand in it from the very beginning.
ACE: Doctor, no.
DOCTOR: She’s an emotional cripple. I wouldn’t waste my time on her, unless I had to use her somehow.
ACE: No!

I’ve never quite understood how Ace never twigged that the baby was her mother.  Did she not know her maternal grandparents or did she just think it was a strange coincidence that Kathleen and her husband had exactly the same names as her Nan and Grandad?  And the less said about the “Sometimes I move so fast, I don’t exist any more” scene the better, I think.

Not a perfect story then, but there’s enough going on to make it a worthwhile, if sometimes flawed, watch.

You are endlessly agitating, unceasingly mischievous. Will you never stop? Doctor Who – Ghost Light

ghost light

Ghost Light is definitely a story that’s bursting with ideas, although it could be that there were simply too many ideas and concepts for three episodes – as over the years many people have complained that the script is incomprehensible.

For me, whilst there are holes in the plot (although it’s hardly a unique Doctor Who story in that respect) the main thrust of the story and the performances have always been more than enough to draw me back to it.  And often when re-watching, I’ll pick up on another aspect that I’d previously overlooked.

There are other Doctor Who stories from the original run which can be said to have rich subtexts buried under the visible plot-lines (Warriors’ Gate and Kinda for example) but these were pretty much the exception that proved the rule – generally Doctor Who stories from 1963 – 1989 operated on a very linear level.

Ghost Light doesn’t always adhere to this.  Most of the answers are there (although you sometimes have to read between the lines) but some questions remain unanswered.  For example, if we accept that Josiah was one of Light’s specimens who managed to escape from the stone ship in 1881 and sent the house’s owner, Sir George Pritchard, to Java, how has he managed to evolve so quickly?  The evidence indicates that he was barely humanoid when he emerged (the husks) so it’s difficult to understand how he could evolve into a Victorian gentleman in a matter of a few short years.  And how could Nimrod have evolved from a Neanderthal into the perfect butler during the same short space of time?

Some of these points probably explain why Ghost Light has remained a frustrating experience for some, but for me the first rate cast more than makes up for these unanswered questions.

It’s probably the best-cast McCoy story.  Ian Hogg (a familiar face at the time from Rockliffe’s Babies) is wonderful as Josiah, managing to turn from menacing to pitiful at the drop of a hat.  Sylvia Syms has more of a one-note character for the majority of the story, although she does have a moment of tenderness in episode three (ironically just before Light deals with her).  Katharine Schlesinger has a very fresh-faced appeal as Gwendoline. Although she and her mother were both under the control of Josiah, the Doctor delivers a rather chilling verdict about her, “I could forgive her arranging those little trips to Java, if she didn’t enjoy them so much”.

Gwendoline
Gwendoline

Michael Cochrane, Frank Windsor, Carl Forgoine and John Nettleton all add to the overall quality of the cast and the demise of Windor’s Inspector Mackenize gives us one of the great sick jokes of the series (“The cream of Scotland Yard”).

Sharon Duce is, interesting, as Control.  It’s certainly a performance that’s somewhat at odds with the rest of the cast, but although she’s initially off-putting it does work better after a few re-watches.  John Hallam is surprising fey as Light, but as with Duce it’s an acting choice that, after the initial surprise, does work.

Following Battlefield which didn’t do McCoy and Aldred any favours, they’re both back on top form in this story.  With the Doctor deciding to take Ace back to the place where the ghosts of her past linger, this does put the spotlight on Aldred, which she’s more than able to deal with.

Maybe it was the studio environment or possibly the good actors around him, but McCoy’s at his best here.  The clip below shows just how good McCoy could be.  It’s slightly frustrating that he was rather inconsistent from story to story, but when he was good, he was very good.

If Light is defeated a little easily at the end (an occupational hazard of portraying powerful figures – the more powerful they are, the more of an anti-climax when they’re dealt with.  See Sutekh for another example of this) it’s possibly more important that the Doctor has cured Ace of the lingering trauma she felt about the events of 1983.

From the moment we met her in Dragonfire, it was clear that Ace was something of a damaged character – and this is another example of the Doctor subtly sorting out her psyche.  See also The Greatest Show in the Galaxy where he cured her fear of clowns and more seriously the upcoming Curse of Fenric where he attends to the tricky problem of her mother.

It’s possible to argue that the Doctor shouldn’t really be doing this, and it’s certainly not something he’s done before, but then he’s never really had a companion with quite so many problems as Ace.  And her journey is all the more remarkable when you consider that Aldred only appeared in 31 episodes.  Many companions have enjoyed far greater episode counts but few had the sort of character development enjoyed by Ace.

And her journey, central to this story, is one of the reasons why Ghost Light remains an outstanding example of late 1980’s Doctor Who.

doctor and ace

Whenever this Doctor turns up, all hell breaks loose. Doctor Who – Battlefield

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After the success of Remembrance of the Daleks it was inevitable that Ben Aaronovitch would be asked to contribute another script.  Battlefield began life as a three-parter which was later expanded to four episodes, although Aaronovitch was to express his dissatisfaction with the story as it appeared on screen – feeling that it too obviously a three-part story with an extra episode bolted on.

But whilst there are script problems, there are also some rather dodgy performances which do drag the story down.  It’s probably (apart from Time and the Rani) Sylvester McCoy’s worst Doctor Who performance.  He’s all over the place and far too many times his line delivery is very poor (“There will be no battle here!”, ” If they’re dead”, etc, etc).  Comparing this and Ghost Light back to back is particularly instructive.  He’s at his best in Ghost Light (restrained and still) and very much at his worst in Battlefield (ranting and over-expressive).

Sophie Aldred has her poor moments as well (“Boom!”) whilst Christopher Bowen’s turn as Mordred is on the ripe side, to put it mildly.  Angela Bruce settles down as the story progresses, but she’s also not especially good to begin with (“Shame!”).

The start of a beautiful friendship?
The start of a beautiful friendship?

It’s not all bad though – Marcus Gilbert has a nice comic touch as Ancelyn and James Ellis is always watchable.  His Tennyson ad-libs (“ Thou rememberest how, in those old days, one summer noon, an arm rose up from out the bosom of the lake clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, holding the sword“) work very well and it’s nice that Michael Kerrigan allowed him some space to indulge himself.

The main guest roles were filled by Nicholas Courtney and Jean Marsh.  Marsh manages to bring out the contrary nature of Morgaine, as she’s someone who is more than capable of destruction but also has her own moral code (observing remembrance for the dead and restoring Elizabeth’s sight).

Ben Aaronovitch was quite clear that bringing back Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT was something of a fannish indulgence.  In many ways this undoes some of the good work from Mawdryn Undead.  It would have been the easy option in 1983 to have the Brigadier back with UNIT and fighting monsters, but instead they went for a more interesting story with a retired and somewhat broken-down figure.

"Ware this man. He is steeped in blood"
“Ware this man. He is steeped in blood”

Here, it’s pure fannish wish-fulfillment to have the Brig back in his old uniform and in charge (albeit temporarily) of UNIT.  It’s hard to believe, to be honest, that any military organisation would reinstate a retired soldier like this, so it may have been more credible to have had him along as a civilian advisor, due to his knowledge of the Doctor.  Courtney’s always good value (especially when facing down the Destroyer in the last episode) but after Mawdryn, this can’t help but feel like a little bit of a let-down.

As with many stories script-edited by Andrew Cartmel, some interesting material never made the screen (although it was restored for a special edition of the story when it was released on DVD).  Chief amongst the cuts was the disdain that Ace has for the Brig, something that is totally absent from the transmitted story.

The story is a little incoherent with various plot devices (a stranded nuclear missile convoy is introduced in the first episode and then forgotten about until the last ten minutes of the final episode) not used particularly well.  And the reason for Morgaine traveling to this universe is never made clear – has some catastrophe affected her own, maybe?  The plot is a little wooly at times, it’s made clear that Morgaine knows she’s traveled to another dimension, but at another point in the story the Doctor maintains that the Earth will be a battleground for a conflict that doesn’t belong here – implying that Morgaine is unaware she’s no longer in her own universe.

The reveal of the Destroyer at the end of the third episode does give the story a little more impetus and it has to be said that the design is wonderful.  Some seven years earlier, the Terileptils in The Visitation were able to curl their lips but that’s nothing compared to the lip-curling that the Destroyer indulges in.  It’s a good indication just how animatronics and technology in general had evolved over the course of seven years or so.

Flawed though Battlefield is, it’s still enjoyable – but it’s very much the weak link in S26.  And a special mention must go out to the closing scene.  Keff McCullough’s comedy tune as the girls leave is perhaps a fitting ending to a real curate’s egg of a story.

There are acts that are cool and acts that amaze. Some acts are scary and some acts will daze. Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

greatest

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was originally slated for S26 as a studio-bound three-parter.  It was brought forward to form part of S25 and the episode count was upped to four – with an allocation for location filming.

Although the location work took place in a quarry (not an unusual location for Doctor Who) – Warmwell Quarry in Dorset was something special.  Visually, it looks stunning and the production was fortunate to have good weather, which along with the setting really helped to give the early part of the story an epic feeling.

When the planned studio sessions had to be cancelled due to an asbestos scare, the production set up shop in the car park at Elstree studios. It wasn’t always easy, but there was a feeling that this story was something special, so nobody wanted it to go the way of Shada.

There are two main themes that Stephen Wyatt develops across the tale – the first is that clowns are somewhat sinister and the second is that you should never trust a hippy. By his own admission, Wyatt was never a free-spirit during the 1960’s and his distrust for the “free-love” generation is clearly on show.  And what is Deadbeat, if not a warning about what happens if you do lots of drugs?

The founders of the Psychic Circus (including such far-out characters such as Flowerchild, Peacepipe and Juniperberry) had a dream to forge a real workers collective. According to Bellboy, “We had such high ideals when we started. We shared everything and we enjoyed making people happy. If we had a problem we’d all just sit round and talk it through. Oh, we were so happy. At least, I think we were”.

But something went wrong. Somehow the Gods of Ragnarok infiltrated the circus and it became a killing machine for their personal pleasure. Are the Gods (with their constant cries of “entertain us”) designed to parody the television audience or are they poking fun at the BBC management who seemed to be increasingly indifferent to Doctor Who?

Whizzkid (Gian Sammarco) is another meta-textual character – designed (although Wyatt was later to dispute this) as an archetypal Doctor Who fan. But when he has lines such as –

Although I never got to see the early days, I know it’s not as good as it used to be but I’m still terribly interested.

It’s hard to see how anyone could possibly dispute this, as by the late 1980’s it was common practice for the majority of Doctor Who fans to hark back to the glory days of the 1960’s and 1970’s and despair of the direction the current series was taking. As an aside, I love the comment on the audio commentary when Jessica Martin asks if any fans were offended by this character and Toby Hadoke responds that Doctor Who fans have a default setting of being offended!

Whizzkid isn’t the only odd character drawn to the circus. There’s also Captain Cook (T.P. McKenna) and Mags (Jessica Martin). The Captain and Mags seem to have been written as a pastiche of the Doctor and Ace – another aspect of the story which is feeding off itself to create story ideas. McKenna gives a lovely turn as the amoral, boorish explorer and Martin is very appealing as his side-kick. A definite Doctor Who companion that never was, I think.

I think the Captain is about to launch into another long-winded anecdote
I think the Captain is about to launch into another long-winded anecdote

Greatest Show has some lovely imagery (the clowns driving in a silent hearse, for example) and a strong guest cast. There’s nice cameos from the likes of Peggy Mount and Daniel Peacock whilst Ian Reddington shows exactly how clowns can be creepy.

Given that S25 generally portrayed the Doctor as a cosmic schemer, this story is very much the odd one out. He fails to sense that there’s anything wrong at the end of the first episode (whilst Ace can hear Mags’ screaming) and he also doesn’t pick up on the signs that Mags is a werewolf. As Captain Cook says, “You really were extremely stupid this time, Doctor”.

Although there’s plenty to enjoy in Greatest Show, it might have been better off as a three-parter after all.  The story virtually grinds to a halt in episode three and episode four is also a bit of a disappointment.  The resolution happens very quickly, so it probably would have been better to have a more coherent ending and slightly less of the Doctor’s conjuring tricks.  It was no doubt good fun for McCoy, but the finale should have been a little more involving than simply some business with eggs, rope and straightjackets.

But even though the story rather dribbles away, the visual sweep, performances and the story ideas make up for the limp ending.  The Greatest Show in the Galaxy?  Mmm, at times I’d probably say it was.