Doctor Who: The Greatest Show In The Galaxy by Stephen Wyatt (DVD review)

I have to confess I was confused by ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’ when I saw it back in 1988. I’m still not sure watching it now. The Doctor (actor Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (actress Sophie Aldred) get an invite advert-bot appearing in the TARDIS to see the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. The Doctor is willing but Ace is reluctant and has an obvious fear of clowns. The TARDIS doesn’t deliver them to the circus some way away and they meet various people along the way. The Stallholder (actress Peggy Mount) doesn’t like anyone going to the circus. Motorcyclist Nord (actor Daniel Peacock) doesn’t like anyone. Explorer Captain Cook (actor T.P. McKenna) and his apprentice, Mags (actress Jessica Martin) seem odd and duplicitous when all four of them encounter a coach with a deranged robotic money collector and they are left to it as they flee. Oh, Whizzkid (actor Gian Sammarco) is just a fan although don’t know any better.

At the circus, the Doctor and Ace are invited to participate in a performance in the Big Top. Ace escapes and the Doctor is imprisoned with Cook, Mags and Nord. The latter is taken back to the Big Top to perform and his failure results in his death. Cook is happy to sit and drink a cup of tea while the Doctor persuades Mags to help their own escape. Oh, did I say there are villainous clowns?

Working out what is going on is still confusing and over the last two episodes even more confusing and just as spoiler. Let’s say that leadership of the circus is restored but there are so many throwaway characters, I mean that in it literal way. The whereabouts of Bellboy (although there is some clarification in the audio commentary), the Ringmaster and Morgana still don’t make any sense. Having watched Stephen Wyatt’s previous story where he did things on the fly, I do wonder if he did a similar thing here. I’m still puzzling where the Doctor met the Gods of Ragnarök before and why do these three want to be entertained and surely some must have done or equally the Doctor’s parlour tricks here. Mind you, perhaps they were taken by surprise by someone able to perform.

The musical chairs of audio commentary starts off with host Toby Hadoke with actors Sophie Aldred and Christopher Guard, writer Stephen Wyatt, composer Mark Ayers which was his first on the show. Aldred makes a point that she was only shown inside the TARDIS three times in her tenure. The coach was a paint job for the same coach that was in ‘Delta And The Bannerman’. Stephen Wyatt said this story developed out of 5 plotlines, fear of clowns and a title from producer John Nathan-Turner, who also did some directing in the first episode. Choosing recognised names for guest stars was to encourage press coverage. With the discovery of asbestos in the BBC Studios also resulted in the story being almost canned but a mixture of outdoor filming and using Elstree’s car park for tent interiors rather than elsewhere because of insurance issues. With episode 2, actress Jessica Martin joins in and explains her selection was a need for someone who could tolerate the make-up and be turned into a werewolf. Just in case you didn’t know, actor Rico Ross (the Ringmaster) was Private Frost in ‘Aliens’.

With episode 3, we lose Mark Ayers and gain script editor Andrew Cartmel and a reveal that making Deadbeat and Kingpin a dual character came late in story development. With episode 4, Christopher Guard and Stephen Wyatt are gone and Mark Ayers is back and explains he did 3 scores for this period of ‘Doctor Who’ and this was his favourite. The robot clowns faces are based off chief clown actor Ian Reddington’s face. Some of the clowns taught the actors in the stage play of ‘Cats’ so were able to help Jessica Martin with her own performance.

As I said above, watching the story in the background, it does bring a puzzle. It’s pointed out that Bellboy is killed by the robot clowns he turns back on and what is in the coach. Thing is, Ace in this episode goes in the same coach and seems to miss the fact that the clowns have moved, let alone Bellboy’s body. Then again, just what were the clowns doing going around in a hearse. Tying up loose ends is really poor in this story.

The extras start with a 30 minute ‘The Show Must Go On’ with information from crew and cast. The big top was based off Gerry Cottell’s Circus and the sand quarry is in Dorset, along with the coach sunk in the sand. That’ll give some archaeologists some thoughts one day. Sophie Aldred reveals the fact that she could really ride motorbikes explains why she became a companion and not Sara Griffiths from ‘Delta And The Bannermen’. Seeing how the Big Top model was done as a foreground effect on location should make you think. Equally, the problems at BBC Studios with asbestos and their relocation which was lucky because none of the other shows in the season could be done in a tent. I’m still puzzled why the director didn’t just crank the film speed to improve the gate speed and avoided the problem when it crashed on Ian Reddington’s head.

The 11 minute ‘Deleted And Extended Scenes’ does explain why the advert-bot wasn’t shown outside the TARDIS although it was a shame we didn’t have the next scene showing the Doctor emptying his pockets for technology to examine it inside the TARDIS. Another missed opportunity to show the sonic screwdriver and say it wasn’t functioning.

‘Lost In The Darkness’ has special effects whizz Mike Tucker explaining the main reason why the advert-bot outside the TARDIS wasn’t used. The title gives it away.

I do think ‘Psychic Circus’ with music and lyrics created by Christopher Guard a bit wasteful. Then again, the same could be said of the ‘Victoria Wood Sketch’ that is performed but she isn’t in it. ‘Remembrance/Demo’ are two pieces from ‘Remembrance Of The Daleks’ where composer Mark Ayers had produced some sample background music.

Of more significance is ‘Tomorrow’s Times -The Seventh Doctor’, running at nearly 15 minutes with Anneka Wills going over the newspaper/media footage for Sylvester McCoy’s footage. Oddly, only Janet Street-Porter and Alan Coren had anything good to say about it. Journalists and even the head of the ‘Doctor Who Appreciation Society’ gave it a good kicking. From my perspective, the real problem was not only leaving it opposite ‘Coronation Street’ and with the final season at the end of summer, far too bright to be sinister.

Finally, a 7 minute ‘Photo Gallery’, ending up showing the Gods of Ragnarök in construction. Drumroll. Send in the clowns. Close curtain.

GF Willmetts

April 2021

(region 2 DVD: pub: BBC. 1 DVD 92 minutes 4 * 25 minute episodes with extras. Price: about £ 5.50 (UK) if you know where to look. ASIN: BBCDVD3481)

cast: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, T.P. McKenna, Jessica Martin, Christopher Guard, Dee Sadler, Ian Reddington, Deborah Manchip, Rico Ross, Chris Jury, Daniel Peacock, Peggy Mount and Gian Sammarco

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