It isn't usually a good sign when your television programme opens with an embarrassingly dated rapper who talks about how wonderful the rest of the show is going to be, in a way reminiscent of a head-teacher trying to be as cool as their students. No doubt though that at the time, the dated rapper wasn't so bad in 1988, when The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was broadcast as the last story in the second series of Sylvester McCoy's era of the show. This era of the show is often considered when the show was finally getting its groove back, not only by the fans and the internet but also by the people who make the show today. And I think that it is safe to say that this era had the greatest influence on the modern show, when you look back there is a lot to admire, there is a lot of ambition, ideas and creative energy. Indeed, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a good example of this, showing how much of an improvement the show had made since the time of Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. But there is also an argument to be made against this, many people can't see this era of the show in the same light. And indeed it can come across as a little amateurish with good ideas being ruined by sloppy thinking, lame execution and some tacky gimmickry. And this story could possibly be one to make you feel embarrassed to be a Doctor Who fan with Exhibit A: The Rapping Ringmaster.
But with all that having been said, what were they doing right? Well, the sour and horrid worlds and views of the previous script editor, Eric Saward had gone and Andrew Cartmel's vision for the show was a lot brighter and fun. It was aimed to be something similar to the light hearted tone of the Fourth Doctor/Romana series' which was the last time the series had pulled in massive ratings. The show had also begun to lean more on the fantasy side of sci-fi and never-more-so is that apparent than here.
The other key in making Doctor Who fun again was in its portrayal of the Doctor. Instead of the incompetent and grating attitude of Saward's Sixth Doctor, Cartmel's and McCoy's Seventh Doctor was courageous and brave and came across a lot easier to like. But it still took them a little while to work out how to make that work. When he was first introduced, it seemed the Seventh Doctor was more than likely to fix a problem by mistake than anything else. But as time went by, the creative forces toned that down and gave this Doctor a much darker streak, he was an incarnation who was several steps ahead of his enemies and knew exactly what was going on before the show had even begun. And that is the same Doctor who appears here, even if his true colours aren't revealed until the final episode.
The Doctor, (Sylvester McCoy) and Mags, (Jessica Martin), find themselves behind bars.
The Doctor's plans begin to form when he and Ace are visited by an endearingly goofy-looking little Junk-Mail-Robot who shows them the advert for The Psychic Circus and its annual talent contest. The Doctor is up for it but Ace has to be coaxed into going. She is more intrigued by it than she cares to admit but is stuck in the horns of a dilemma: on one hand she thinks circuses are for kids but on the other she is terrified of clowns. But with a little cajoling from the Doctor and a dare from the robot, she is finally convinced to put her fears aside and immerse herself in her interest.
But of course there is something dark and dangerous lurking at the centre of the circus and it slowly becomes clear that the Doctor has known the secret all along, which only make those early scenes feel like a plot hole as the Doctor was just as in the dark as Ace was. But we'll believe that he was just pretending for Ace as a subtle way for her to do something that will be a learning experience. It won't be the last time he plays the fatherly figure for her and it might even been read into that he sent for the robot. He could have just landed the TARDIS and made it look like it was just like any other landing. But if you watch McCoy's performance as he talks with Ace in the TARDIS it is clear that the Doctor believes it is important for Ace to choose to go to the circus rather than be forced to go.
The planet Segonax, where the circus has stopped to put down its roots, is an awfully bleak spot, apparently consisting of miles upon miles of rocky landscape, which was probably the budgetary problem of having to film in a carpark and a quarry because the script refers to many times a city and outcrops where locals live. This does however allow you to focus more on the story unfolding around you since there isn't anything else to catch you eye. And Ace, it turns out, was right about those clowns. The talent contest is all a ruse, a trap to get contestants into the ring where they can be killed as sacrifices to some mysterious gods. All the acts are being judged by what looks like a family, a mother, daughter and little girl, all of whom are unemotional and bored. But if they don't like your act, they'll turn you to dust. The family themselves aren't part of the circus but the carnies devote themselves to pleasing them in fear of them being the next victims. And that means that procuring a constant source of meat is of paramount importance to the circus leadership - the creepy Chief Clown, the Ringmaster and the fortune teller, Morgana.
Ace, (Sophie Aldred), is menaced by the Chief Clown, (Ian Reddington).
The Doctor and Ace are quickly caught and caged and made to wait for their audience with the audience. Along the way they are joined by a line of other prisoners. We'll get to them in a moment as it would probably be easier to talk about the other weird thing about the circus first. It isn't just that they were killing people but the setup of the circus seemed reminiscent of the way television worked back in the day. This isn't accidental and it isn't hard to dig deep into Cartmel's allegory here. Cartmel and script writer, Stephen Wyatt have clearly set up the characters as metaphorical placeholders for various elements surrounding television production and more specifically, Doctor Who itself. In fact, it isn't hard to believe they were far more interested in making The Greatest Show in the Galaxy work more on a metaphorical level than an actual one that makes sense. However, this doesn't work too well as the characters suffer from it, they quickly become one-dimensional caricatures.
I've already mentioned some of the tale's main players, the strange family are clearly versions of bored fans and viewers at home, whose ratings are life and death matters for television programmes. The main trio of circus workers are the network executives, throwing anything into the ring in a hopes it will stick. They aren't the main creative forces and they rely on those lower than them to handle all of that. I'll get onto that point in a moment.
The most notable of the other talent is the blustering explorer Captain Cooke and his assistant Mags. It isn't hard to see who they are supposed to be as they mirror the Doctor and Ace in one shot. But they aren't parodies of the 1988 era TARDIS crew as much as they are of the previous regime of the bombastic Sixth Doctor and his constantly put-upon-companion Peri, whose relationship was always close to the abusive one that Cooke and Mags have. The Captain is a false and bad Doctor who has travelled through space and doesn't care about or notice anyone who might need his help. His stories are boring and endless and he sees his companion Mags, as little more than an animal. Mags, a werewolf though she is, is one the stories' more sympathetic characters and in a way, the Seventh Doctor makes up for the way his predecessor treated Peri in that he helps Mags escape the Captain.
The Doctor's actions have explosive consequences in one of the most badass moments of the show.
And if there is one trait that the Captain and the Circus share it is that ruthlessness in getting anyone else into the ring. That is particularly bad news for the newcomers. Whizz-Kid is a nerdy child with Harry Potter glasses who has somehow travelled halfway across the galaxy on a bike with squeaky brakes. He has come not so much because he wants to participate in events but because he is huge fan of the Circus and of Captain Cooke. He is their greatest fan and just like the Captain is a look at the Doctor, Whizz-Kid is a rather stereotypical look at a Doctor Who fan of that time. He is a well-meaning dope who obsesses over decades old arcana in performances that no one else remembers, keeps track of millions of facts concerning the show's continuity and mythos and then writes long essays about it on the Internet! But he also a bit of a hopeless cause. Both the Circus and the Captain treat the boy like an irritating little twerp whose value can be trickled down into what they want him to do. He isn't a villain, just annoying and pitiable in his enthusiasm - he collects all manner of memorabilia, bases his opinions on what the circuses older shows were like and gushes praise that is unknowingly laced with backhanded insults.
The whole point of Whizz-Kid becomes a lot clearer when you consider that the production team at the time was suffering from the actions of the BBC only a few years prior when the show had been cancelled for eighteen months. They were all a little defensive when fans would tell them that the show was never going to be as good as it had been in the decades before. Producer John Nathan-Turner would often say that the memory cheats and in that spirit, it is hard to see Whizz-Kid as anything other than a strawman for Turner's insistence that rubbish like, The Twin Dilemma, Timelash and Time and the Rani are worthy successors for An Unearthly Child, Inferno and Genesis of the Daleks. And that is surely why the Captain is constantly telling dull and dreary old stories: the whole setup of the circus-as-TV was to make a case for Cartmel's and Turner's bold new vision for the show meaning that Captain Cooke was a fossil to be left in history.
So then, it is a little ironic that the story's other thematic running through it was an elegiac lament for the death of the dream of Woodstock and the 60s hippie communalism. In fact, this point flips the whole Captain Cooke/Whizz-Kid dynamic on its head as in this thread, the people who reject the past are evil and those who can't get with the programme are the good guys. If the Chief Clown and Ringmaster are cold-hearted killers and hypocrites, then there is a little life left in the circus's remaining ties to its previous life. There is the kite making Flowerchild and her boyfriend, Bellboy and the cleaner Deadbeat, a damaged casualty of the circus who wanders around mumbling to himself. None of them fare very well in the new layout for the circus and they are all still living in an era that has flown by them. The Doctor gradually realises that the hippies aren't outmoded but the others sold out the dream. Deadbeat was once the leader of the circus and used to be called Kingpin back when they flew around in something of a psychedelic bus. And both Bellboy and Flowerchild were the only creative talents as they made the kites and robotic clowns. One of the real tragedies of their sell out was that their beautiful creations were debased into items of destructions. Bellboy says, "They took everything that was bright and good about what we had, and they buried it where it can't be found." Ironically, as his mumblings imply, it was Deadbeat's fault that the circus became the evil, predatory hunting ground when he made a deal that cost him his sanity. It didn't cost him his soul however as at the end, he goes off to form a new circus after both Bellboy and Flowerchild are killed.
The Gods of Raganrok wait to be entertained.
If the Captain Cooke and Whizz-Kid sections are a little sour and wrongheadedly defensive, the lesson embroiled in the circuses old guard is a lot easier to swallow: creating some that beautiful and unique is a worthy goal and most certainly, the worthiest of goals. It is certainly worthier than chasing fame and ratings. And that is the thread that is picked up in the final act when the Doctor finally faces the true villains of the piece, that strange family. The sell out Chief Clown, despite the dark and disturbingly brilliant performance from Ian Reddington, is just the sideshow. The real danger is who he sold his soul too, the Gods of Ragnarok, who are essentially the embodiments of the consumer and destroyer, unimaginatively and ultimately unappreciative of what they are feeding off. They are the kinds of people who watch NASCAR hoping for a fiery crash or reality television in a hopes someone might be murdered or OD. The Doctor puts it perfectly when he says, "You're not interesting in beginnings. Only in endings." More to the point though, they feed on creativity but don't really understand it. To fight them, brute force is less effective than leaps of the imagination and so the Doctor duels them in a magic act, the polar opposite of the grim statues who lack the joy to appreciate and understand it.
Unfortunately, all this is more interesting in its concept rather than its payoff. For one thing, there is the rather sloppy attempt to make the Gods of Ragnarok more than your average baddie in their design that don't make them look like every other creature the Doctor has fought. And that's problematic. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense for the script's this-is-all-about-television metaphors because they represent the real force that can kill a television series, the viewership. Bore them and your show gets killed. Entertain them, fickle though they may be and you get to live to fight another day. It is a clever concept and it is a shame that the story didn't take it any further than that. But telling us that the Gods of Ragnarok have been on the Doctor's radar all through the established history of the show is a hard pill to swallow as we haven't heard of them before. It would have taken a narrative genius to pull something like that off in 1988 but there isn't a Cartmel era story that doesn't have trouble with handling some of the overzealous ideas - no matter its achievements. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is jam packed with ideas and interesting concepts, as are many of the other stories that pre-date the cancellation of the show in 1989. But the story still has an amateurish vibe to it and its lavish new villain isn't all that impressive when everything is still one-dimensional and thinly written...