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.
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.