The Greatest Show In The Galaxy

Written by:
Stephen Wyatt
Directed by: Alan Wareing
Starring: Sylvester McCoy
Year: 1988/9
Video Availability: Try

This episode is class. It's so much better than Battlefield* in virtually every way. Just little things, like not being directed by Michael Kerrigan and not having incidental music by Keff McCulloch.
* A reference to the fact that I'd been asked to do a positive McCoy review on a Who forum straight off the back of slating said story. Of course, taken out of context it makes no sense whatsoever. Oh well…

From the opening moments it's brilliant. The incongruity of rap in Doctor Who instantly unsettles, especially when Ricco Ross's expression is a mixture of desperate fear and hostility. His final stare direct into camera chills. There are many great images like this - the kites, the strangulation and Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown.

The story probably has more Tardis scenes than any other McCoy (weird to think that, behind the scenes, Sophie was holding back tears for her Tardis shots as Gary Downie had shouted at her).

This is also one of the few stories where I bothered to read the Target novelisation. It wasn't great, but I can anorakkily reveal that the buried robot talked in the book. Only Nord disappoints as Daniel Peacock plays the character too broadly and forces it into caricature. His plastic helmet doesn't help. The Doctor describing him as a "hard case" further showcases McCoy as the first working class Doctor. It contains the best of the McCoy spirit by satirising working class concerns. You wouldn't get a Pertwee story where a killer robot is a ticket inspector, for example. He even encourages Ace to play "finders keepers."

The cliffhanger would have been slightly better with a final shot of Mags after the "Well, are..." line, but a slightly underpar cliffhanger is no major crime, is it? This is a funky, fun and disturbing episode.

The tale is probably not to everyone's taste. It's light on the surface (almost Hitch-Hikerish at times, particularly the dialogue) and is, of course, a cheap SF show shot in a quarry. But I think it's brilliant.

TOP SATIRICAL MOMENT: "What sort of costume do you call that? And hers is no better.".
* * * * ˝

The triumvirate of Ringmaster, Morgana and Chief Clown works extremely well, a sinister edge made all the more striking by them being superficially light.

The hanged man "Would you like to see the future?" "Not just yet" Tarot prediction is quite a chilling moment. It refers to the final episode, though could as easily refer to Sylvester's forthcoming cancellation. I always get goosebumps at that bit. This is a fun script for McCoy. Instead of being out to save the world, he's just here to join in with a circus show. Entertaining.

TOP SATIRICAL MOMENT: "I know all about the Psychic Circus, you see. In fact I'm your greatest fan.".
* * * *

Like most episode threes, this one is not without padding. The previous cliffhanger saw the Doctor being told he was due on stage. Twenty minutes later and he's only just gone on. However this is not unnoted by the satirical pen of the writer, who gives us: "I don't think much of this, father." "Nothing's happening, is it?" "Not that I can see." "Mum, mum." "What is it?" "I'm bored." "There's no point in going on, dear. We're all bored. Something has to happen soon."

However, Sylv reveals he knows more than he's let on in this instalment, and, as with the best Doctor Who, the padding makes the story. Colourful characters, menacing music and killer robot clowns - it's all great stuff.

Greatest Show feels relevant by having a subtext. While the subtext is the programme itself, this is infinitely better than Battlefield beating you over the head with unsubtle diatribes on war. It's original, too, and accessible to all - just like Who should be.

Afficionados of accidental spitting in Who might like to play close attention to Ricco Ross's "look, I've got an empty tent" line. Look out too for Sophie looking momentarily phased as Slyv ad-libs after her "You're just an ageing hippy" line. (What does he say, though?)

I'd quite forgotten Jessica Martin wasn't an actress per se, as she's quite good in this, despite the fact she used to be nasty about the lovely Glynis Barber. Her vampire routine sees her contribute to making this one of the scariest Doctor Who stories of the 80s.

TOP SATIRICAL MOMENT: "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.".
* * * *

TP McKenna's expression and the robot clown putting its hand over its mouth when the Doctor calls him a "crushing bore" is top. Showing that Mags has killed Cook by having a spinning spotlight also shows why Alan Wareing was the best director of Who's last four years.

Slyv's more passive Doctor works well here. Can you imagine Colin letting the story lead him in this way? Only Troughton could really work in this story out of all the previous Doctors. Pertwee'd Venusian Karate chop the Gods of Ragnarok and have UNIT blow up the Circus for him.

This is the weakest of the four episodes though. Slyv's magic tricks and rolling Rs are a little embarrassing, and the cheap (but often effective) narrative device of the Doctor knowing what's going on all along doesn't quite gel this time around. It's too vague, too abstract. It also feels a little anti-climatic. I didn't at first realise that the Ringmaster and Morgana had been destroyed - I thought the Chief Clown was helping them escape and appease the Gods by making it appear part of a magic trick. His death at Ace's hands is also worrying, as it makes her a murderer. Saying "I've never liked clowns" can't justify her cold-blooded killing. I did laugh at her "This thing had better work or I'll kick its head in" line though.

More outright horror is wrought by the zombie Captain Cook, and although this doesn't capitalise on the promise of the first three episodes, it's still a good slice of Who.

TOP SATIRICAL MOMENT: "You are on the brink of destruction, Doctor. We want something bigger... something better."
* * * ˝

"Entertain us... or die." One of the four best McCoy stories, this really is a good tale on many different levels. Its mild sense of anti-climax detracts little from what is a smashing set of episodes.
* * * *