|Big Top Time Lord! The Seventh DOCTOR WHO (Sylvester McCoy) is in danger, in THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY- now on DVD. Images: BBC.|
DOCTOR WHO: THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY
Starring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, and Sophie Aldred as Ace.
Written by Stephen Wyatt
Directed by Alan Wareing
Available on DVD from BBC CONSUMER PRODUCTS
Reviewed by Scott Weller
Despite the colour and fun showcased under the big tent from which they project their talent to regular delighted audiences, I’ve always been very wary of circuses in general, finding them somewhat sinister, especially the varied clowns and their ability for unpredictable behavior plus their overall physical appearances: ingredients in my mind that have always been ripe for dark re-imagining within the worlds of inventive sci-fi ad horror, so it was nice to see DOCTOR WHO incorporate some of those personal primeval concerns of mine within the final story of the shows landmark Twenty-fifth season, now starring Sylvester McCoy as the paisley tied, question mark overkill jumpered Doctor, ably assisted by the loveable nitro-nine wielding, in yer face heroics of Ace, the series version of a St. Trinians girl made good, as played with explosive charm and unbridled enthusiasm by Sophie Aldred.
And, as usual, it’s always the Doctor’s curiosity that gets the better of him-perhaps deliberately so this time- as he becomes enthused by the mysteries and Avant-garde qualities of the long running Psychic Circus and its legendary talent contest stationed on the desert dune world of Segonax. Pushed into the trip, Ace isn’t so enthused, however, and her weariness around the clowns follows the same path as mine once distant screaming can be heard from the approaching big top. Soon all the fun of carnivale is lost, and it isn’t long before the duo, mixing with a wide variety of unusual characters in the process, find themselves in a deadly nightmare cabaret-a life and death struggle against an eons old enemy, who want their victims to entertain them to the very last atoms of their disintegrated existences!
Trailer: Doctor Who - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - Coming Soon Trailer (COPYRIGHT BBC AND 2 ENTERTAIN) - YouTube
|Dicing with death: the Seventh Doctor outside the Psychic Circus.|
Continuing the shows pen chance and strength for taking the reasonably safe and familiar and turning it upside down into dark fantasy, Stephen Wyatt, in his second and so far final script for WHO builds on his intriguing work for the previous seasons quirky high rise dangers of killer robot cleaners and cannibalistic elderly residents at PARADISE TOWERS. He’s no Robert Holmes, granted, but Wyatt continues that writers fine trend for introducing varied and colourful characters to his stories, and mixing humour and horror within big central ideas, egged on in his scenario storytelling by his fellow mischievous partner in crime, potential anarchist-in-waiting Script Editor, Andrew Cartmel. The history of the space-hippy like Circus members and some of their characterizations are a little bit sketchy but the overall concept of the circus is better handled than I thought it would be for its time, which was a relief after the bumbling antics of the mix and match quality of Season Twenty-four. It may ultimately have worked better as a leaner, meaner three-parter, but the overall story for GREATEST just about stretches to its on-screen four-part duration.
Then newcomer director to the series, Alan Wareing, does a better job of grasping the delicate balancing act and fusion of Wyatt’s story within the WHOniverse and its realization than PARADISE TOWERS, alongside some great location filming which would have looked even better if made on film. There’s an all round creepy and prevailing atmosphere, particularly in the first two episodes, that’s well established. Wareing is also fortunate to have a fine and subtly menacing incidental music score from another newcomer, Mark Ayres.
|Danger at The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.|
And there’s certainly some classic and surreal moments for the director to have gothic fun with: the funeral hearse riding the deserts in search of its prey, the wrecked hippie tour bus of the no longer innocent Psychic Circus troop, the murder of the Romeo and Juliet-esque Flowerchild (Dee Sadler), followed by the suicide of her on the brink of madness and self destruction boyfriend, Bellboy (Christopher Guard), and bringing out the worst in the aforementioned circus and its nightmare servants- I’m surprised it all hadn’t been done before in WHO’s long past.
Despite some irritating gurney expressions here and there and the annoying rolling of his r’s, Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy now feels more assured in his role as the quirky Doctor, whose early traits of dark manipulation gain firmer foundation here, alongside an also more confident Sophie Aldred as Ace, in this second filmed story of the former’s second year. (Though ultimately held over in transmission as the final tale of the season due to the BBC’s Winter Olympics coverage. It would be thankfully saved from almost cancellation-due to an asbestos scare at the Corporation’s Television Centre base- by having a lot of its circus interior footage filmed within a giant tent erected at the Elstree Studio’s legendary car park-a brilliant piece of inventiveness from then producer John Nathan Turner and story designer David Laskey.)
|Smile or die! Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown.|
Of the fine guest casts that form such a part of Eighties WHO, later EASTENDERS star Ian Reddington is the prime standout of this story as the Clown Prince of Thugs to the eventual shape changing, stone statued power machinations that are the Gods of Ragnarok, and proves to be one of the series most distinctive and memorable baddies, aided by his equally colourful robot partners in pursuit of our heroes. (Super costume and make-up design of a fine standard throughout by Rosalind Ebbutt (who had prior fun with the previous Peter Davison historical BLACK ORCHID), and Denise Baron).
|T.P. McKenna as Captain Cook and Jessica Martin as Mags.|
There’s also Chris Jury, best known as LOVEJOY’s young aide, playing Deadbeat: the brain zapped simpleton with the final clue to defeating the baddies: Deadbeat, Irish character actor T.P. McKenna entirely convincing as the ultra boring and greedy space explorer Captain Cook, who is well partnered on the acting front with Jessica Martin, then known primarily for her comedy and impressionistic talents, who gets a chance to shine as his “companion,” Mags. (The pair almost the antithesis of the Doctor/Ace duo, in fact). With her big hair, jagged skirt flaps and fishnets Mags looks like she’s walked off the set of BLADE RUNNER or another type of steam punk sci-fi. Both Martin and her character may have made a very interesting companion to the Doctor, had there not been an Ace around, what with her unique lycanthropic talents.
Alongside the creepy clowns, there’s some fun cameos from the likes of Daniel Peacock as Nord, an intergalactic Hells Angel of the galaxy and “vandal of the road!”, Peggy Mount as a roadside fruit and veg seller with a hatred of off-world “weirdoes”, and ADRIAN MOLE star Gian Sammarco’s character of Whizzkid, presumably created at the time by the series production team as a deliberate insult to young and picky WHOvians watching the series at the time, who proves exceedingly annoying as the Psychic Circus’s critical super-fan. (With friends like him who needs enemies?) There’s also ALIENS star Rico Ross as a fine rapping ringmaster to the life and death proceedings.
|No place for laughter. The Captain and The Doctor surrounded by foes.|
As events build, and the curtains of death rise and fall, additional plot elements linked to the final revelations of the true evil force behind the circus emerge, whilst the Doctor finds a possible ally becoming an enemy with a very fixed survival of the fittest mentality. The story’s cliffhangers to the developing drama are competent enough, but episode three, leading into this particular plot strand, is the standout, revealing Mag’s shocking secret to the Doctor in a sequence that remains effectively done and very memorable.
Beyond big bangs, the special effects for this story are generally very good, too, mixing model and electronics work favourably. The only weak point, probably included to boost the monster quota, and in the process being an intriguing historical relic, is the Psychic Circus bus conductor robot, brought to life in WHO like a killer toy-a demented creation determined to slay anyone without a valid ticket. An interesting idea that isn’t quite as well pulled off as it could have been…
|Simon Cowell's role models: the Gods of Ragnarok!|
As the show reaches its end game, Sylvester McCoy gets to show us some of his other talents linked to playing the Doctor, notably using magic tricks to entertain his God-like Ragnarok foes (their creation based on the ancient Viking legends/Norse mythology of doom and disaster at the end of the old world), operating from within their other worldly Rome pillared style stadium of death. It’s here that things get a little too comedic for my tastes, but the explosive finale, with McCoy almost unblinkingly walking away from a massive big finish explosion, is a genuine corker moment of CLASSIC WHO- so impressive, in fact, you could see how it could very nearly have killed him if he had mistimed it. Such a quality moment ends the story on just the right high note.
On the extras side of things, there’s a great Making ofdocumentary-titled The Show Must Go On- from DVD range producer Chris Chapman (which talks to Aldred, Reddington, Cartmel, Wareing and Laskey, and goes into detail about how the production team only just saved the story from cancellation), backed up with an interesting commentary that also includes Mark Ayres, Jessica Martin and Stephen Wyatt, some nice to see if not truly noteworthy deleted scenes, a look at the story’s unused opening scene, a short scene/vocal suite for the story that’s of mixed results, and a look back at the audition piece music Mark Ayres did for the story REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS (which landed him his first TV work on GREATEST.) Plus, a bitingly funny Victoria Wood TV spoof sketch on WHO, starring Jim Broadbent, which is also slightly painful to watch, a look back to the Seventh Doctor’s controversial era in the world of the printed media, as revealed in TOMORROW’S TIMES (hosted by Anneke Wills), a dramatic Coming Soon trailer for the next Black and White adventure of William Hartnell's Doctor, PLANET OF THE GIANTS (in what will be a very special new release), plus the usual informative info text, PDFs and photo gallery.
|Onto their next adventure: The Doctor and Ace (Sophie Aldred).|
It may have been considered too way out and boundary breaking for it’s own good with certain critics of the time, but THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY has the kind of early template characteristics that would be rich pickings if used now in today’s modern series interpretation, probably becoming a better conceived and more audience sophisticated, appreciated product in the process. Nonetheless, what’s on display here as part of the Classic Era of Eighties WHO remains highly commendable and very entertaining in it’s own right, part of a time in the shows history when it was regaining its storytelling confidence and carving out a bold new identity, whilst also retaining solid ratings up against ITV’s formidable mega rival super-soap CORONATION STREET- no mean feat there. It’s a fine release for the DOCTOR WHO range that also brings Sylvester McCoy’s completed era on DVD to a memorable and respectable close.
KOOL TV OVERALL RATING (story and bonus features): 4 out of 5
Get hold of the story here: Doctor Who - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy DVD 1988: Amazon.co.uk: Sylvester McCoy: Film & TV