Background & Significance: It's interesting to take note of Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner's influence on Doctor Who after his "supposed" departure from the show. (For those who don't remember, he was desperate to leave the show after "Trial" but only stayed on because his leaving the show would have resulted in Doctor Who's cancellation, as the BBC didn't want to replace him with anyone else.)
Anyways, you can tell that the work Nathan-Turner did after "Trial" was decidedly less involved and hands-on, opting instead to let other people steer the ship. There were other ideas, sure, but whenever I think of Nathan-Turner's influence on the McCoy era, I always imagine it as purely background. It's less about flashy Nathan-Turner who was once a blazing firebrand, hungry for work beyond just Doctor Who; instead, he was reduced to something akin to Murphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, trying to make it the best he could by stepping out and letting Cartmel steer the creative ship. Honestly, I'm rather glad he let this happen during Cartmel rather than Saward.
Oh wait. Nevermind. My bad.
But the point still stands.
"Greatest Show in the Galaxy" was meant to be the story after "Remembrance of the Daleks", but when Nathan-Turner demanded that "Silver Nemesis" air on Doctor Who's 25th Anniversary, the story became the season finale as opposed something stuck in the middle of the season. And honestly, I like that it's here rather than there. The originally intended season finale story ("The Happiness Patrol") wouldn't have made as strong an ending I don't think, and this way the season is bookended by this new McCoy Doctor at his absolute schemiest best, don't you think? Not only that, but it really dials into the so-called Cartmel plan, especially because it's a strong story for both The Doctor and Ace whereas "The Happiness Patrol" was good but nowhere close to ideal.
It's written by Stephen Wyatt who wrote "Paradise Towers" for Doctor Who's previous season, and I honestly think he did a lot to progress the perception of McCoy. I mean, "The Happiness Patrol" is fine for showing off McCoy, but this, man. Whooo doggy. This is a whole different ballgame, and one I happen to enjoy very much.
So let's get to it!
celebration of Sylvester McCoy at Den of Geek, writer Andrew Blair made a super interesting observation about the stories during this era, remarking that the show’s then-zeitgeist dictated that exposition take a back seat to ideas and concepts, saying “Right-on liberal politics and anti-establishment expressionism were in. Telling people what the hell was going on was out.” And thinking about the rest of the McCoy era I really think he hit the nail right on the head with the era as a whole, because how many of these stories are all about toppling those in power while never really making a point of explaining the expositional details of the plot.
It’s an apt observation, I think, and no less true than in this opening beat of this story. That’s not to say I don’t think this is an intrinsically complex story (that’s the thing about McCoy stories, they are, in fact, very simple, it’s just cutting through the window dressing and finding the slim story that’s the hard part for me) because there’s a lot of moving parts to it, but the first episode here really feels like… word vomit on the screen. Writer Stephen Wyatt is really attempting to get as many pieces as possible out in the open before we’ve even entered the circus.
That’s a good notion, I think. The first part really should show us all the parts that we’re about to spend three episodes playing with (there’s only one major thing they hold back on, and for good reason) and so this story does.
Indeed, the first thing we see is the Psychic Circus itself (establishing the whole evil circus thing right off the top), and we’re introduced almost immediately to our “MC” narrator guy, who’s really just a black dude who raps really horrible, almost late-80s white-people hip hop jams. (I’m not opposed to this, though. Not every brother can be gifted with the power of verse.) Most interesting, though, is that this character appears at the top and doesn’t reappear until the very end, and I think it’s great that he bookends the piece by appearing seemingly out of nowhere in the final moments and using his magic voice controller thing to silence Mags. It’s sinister and mysterious, which is exactly the sort of thing you want in this first part.
Wyatt also makes a huge effort to show us the world around the circus without ever entering it in the first part, be it the gypsy woman and her donkey caravan or the teleportation pad or the abandoned bus.
There’s a problem in these for me, though. As with other McCoy stories all these are are little mini set pieces that don’t quite cohere when you start to break it down. It’s almost like The Doctor and Ace are on this tour on locales on the planet and the actual structure of how they encounter these things is entirely fluid and nonspecific. That really just harkens into the general weak plotting of this era, I think. There’s a distinct lack of focus on structure and plot that’s rather problematic, and I know that they’re building towards the larger whole of what’s going on at this evil circus and us getting towards it, but there is no rhyme or reason to the order in which things happen. What does it matter when The Doctor and Ace meet the Gypsy woman or when they meet the biker or when they team up with old-timey-adventurer Captain Cook or when they go into the bus and meet the Conductor-Robot?
The order of these things doesn't matter. You can literally put them in any order, and while that might sound like something awesome and fantastic because it’s incredibly modular and modular stories are rather cool, I’d argue that unless said possible modulation has some impact on the story there really isn’t any point to a story’s modularity.
That’s not to detract from the fact that all of these things are incredibly strong, fun set pieces. Who doesn’t love Captain Cook and his awesomeness? And who doesn’t enjoy the over-the-top-ness of the biker, the super nerdiness of the super nerd, or the kinda badassness of Mags? These are not problems. But stories really work best when the ideas cohere and make some sort of internal logical sense. Why risk the quality of your episode by not developing a strong structure with a logical progression or whatever.
I also really like Alan Wareing’s direction here. There’s something about the flair that makes it look creepy and weird, not the least of which is what appears to be two silent clowns sitting next to each other, acting civilized and weird. Oh man. It’s like I’m watching some weird silent French art film, with sad clowns driving across empty barren wasteland in silence because they don’t like each other (also they kinda look like a couple so it’s got that air of “maybe these guys are a couple on the rocks, which plays even more into that foreign art film aesthetic). But anyways: the direction’s real good, I think, although a bit cramped and needlessy claustrophobic at times.
In the “I can’t decide what I think of this” camp, I’d put the story of Bellboy and Flower Child or whatever their names are. So far, this is the only thing in the story that isn’t really working so much for me, especially because it’s not really explained here. It feels like tone for tone’s sake, and I can’t say I’m a fan of that.
Also something that doesn’t really work for me is this first cliffhanger. I mean, I get why it’s a deal. It’s all based on Ace’s fear and the dramatic irony that we the audience know about how there’s something evil and bad going on inside the tent. But I can’t really tell where it’s supposed to be. I will applaud them for trying for the character moment and hooking it almost exclusively on whether or not Ace is going to face her fears and enter the Big Top, but it’s not exactly well utilized. I mean, I know it’s a byproduct of people knowing stories and story structure, but I can’t even imagine a five year old would be all “OH DAMN” at the question of whether or not Ace and The Doctor are going to go into the tent. That’s false stakes. Of course Ace is going to go into the story of the story. That’s kinda the point, yeah? So what’s the big issue? And making her face that fear in episode one and choosing to enter the tent robs the story of its possible eventual narrative arc of Ace learning to cope with her fear.
So really what we’re left with is a somewhat jumble of slopped together ideas you’d expect from a McCoy story. If these stories weren’t so god damn interesting or well-presented I think this would be a totally different conversation, but because I’ve gone with mostly praise and nitpicky conversations, I’ll go with a positive of this being generally good so far. And that’s a good thing, I think. Strong part one with a weak ass cliffhanger happens (again, have you seen “Snakedance”?) and sometimes it’s okay to have a story where the episodes just end. It’s not like you can win them all, and besides “Snakedance” is Kinda fucking really good.
See, Whizz Kid is something of an annoying little fanboy child, obsessed with the Psychic Circus and traveling a super mega far distance just to show up and participate in the action. Now, alone, that’s interesting, and fun, but when you look at him and realize that he’s just an allegory for Doctor Who fans, you realize that… well... there’s a lot more going on in this story than you’d originally realized, especially given what happens in part three.
This part is most interesting in how this episode develops and deepens the mystery and the story being told. Not the least important of which is the lone family sitting around in the stands.
It’s weird watching this story with the hindsight of knowing who this family in the stands is, because knowing our ending, it’s so blinkingly obvious. But even without that, just seeing the lone three audience members is something of a strong, jarring sort of image and one that feels distinctly strange and surreal, almost through the looking glass, I’d say.
And that sense of weird pervades every single aspect of this story. Knowing that there’s just a cage on the other side of the curtain from the ring and that this cell is completely makeshift, extending only from the ceiling or whatever adds to the strange, especially because Wareing (again, he’s quite good) takes the opportunity to utilize the cage’s space and shoot it well. There’s one great shot in this that’s from the other side of the cage looking in that I kinda love a lot. More than that, I don’t know what to say.
On a purely surface level, I love the almost instantaneous three dimensionalization of The Ringmaster and how he’s just a guy in a bad situation he doesn’t know how to get out of. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to because he certainly wants to (his ass is on the line), but it’s… it at least points to the fact that he’s not the bad guy in the story (which, given the mutey clicker thing you would be expecting, right?) and that in turn deepens the mystery at hand.
This allows her to meet with Bellboy and learn more about the circus itself, as much as Bellboy is willing to impart, anyways. She’s eventually recaptured, of course, by the increasingly creepy Chief Clown (who’s arguably the creepiest thing about this story) and locked away in a room filled with robot clowns. This, though, is good, and shows you the extent to which modern, psychologically rich characters and arcs and such were starting to take root in Doctor Who. Even though the clown thing doesn’t ever really get solved for her (or it does but it’s not exactly wonderfully executed as an arc) it’s a good attempt, so I tip my hat to that.
Also, the Nord getting vaporized thing is good, but it’s… it’s not something I want to talk about just yet. But it’s a good point, I think, and one you might enjoy. Likewise the cliffhanger to this part, which is… fine, but not something to sing home about. It just sorta happens, doesn’t it? With Captain Cook teaming up to tip off the clowns to The Doctor’s location after he escaped with Mags.
As stated at the top of the last part, Whizzkid makes this story eminently analyzable as a thing and looking at it from the perspective that this story is a self-commentary (meta-commentary?) on the show’s current situation, it’s fun (and interesting) to see how the story functions in terms of the roles assigned to the characters and how they relate to the people in the real-life, real-world behind the scenes of the show. I mean, between your principal characters of The Ringmaster (the black guy with the hip hop), Moraga the fortune teller,the family in the audience (although I don’t want to go into them just yet), and the Chief Clown there’s plenty to talk about…
Starting off with Whizzkid: he’s killed in this episode. I’m sorry. I know. I’m the bearer of the bad tidings or whatever, but if you’d watched this episode you would know. Anyways, yes. Whizzkid is easily the easiest-to-decipher metaphor in this, so blatant it is that he’s a massive giant mega fan of Doctor Who. And no more blatant is it than when he says “I’ve been a fan of the show for years and years and it’s not quite what it used to be but I still really enjoy it”. I mean, come on. That’s straight out of Nathan-Turner’s nightmare book. What was it he said? “The memory cheats” or whatever? And that was the criticism leveled against him at the time.
But if Whizzkid is the blatant reference to Doctor Who why isn’t Whizzkid absolutely adoring of The Doctor and Ace? I mean, that’s the clear and obvious choice, isn’t it? Why not make the fan of the show a big cheerleader for The Doctor. No wait, he doesn’t recognize The Doctor as the adventurer (and rightfully so, as I’ll explain later). He recognizes Captain Cook (of all people) as that person, the one with the adventures.
So really, Captain Cook is the allegory for The Doctor and Mags is the allegory for “The Doctor’s Companion” (she even teams up with The Doctor in this to go on an adventure) in this big grand allegory going on, meaning that The Doctor isn’t even really that big a part of it, or at least, not yet he’s not. And that’s interesting because this Captain Cook guy? Yeah. He’s a pretentious asshole who doesn’t seem to care for anyone around him. And he’s dressed in the Davison tan color. So… he’s kinda like a discussion/critique of Colin Baker’s Doctor or the Doctors preceding McCoy? I mean, he’s willing to sacrifice everyone else in the story to save his own hide (which, while not being accurate of the 6th Doctor, is certainly the most oft-heard critique).
It’s also interesting that the ending of this episode features The Doctor teaming up with Captain Cook and Mags in an attempt to put on a really great show for “The Powers that Be” as they were, resulting in Captain Cook taking complete advantage of Mags’s werewolfiness and using a special light to turn her against The Doctor. It’s chilling, honestly, to see “The Doctor” have such callous disregard for his companion (not so unlike the perceived disregard/hatred between The 6th Doctor and Peri (what with all their bickering) if you ask me) and to see her used in such a way. It really calls into question the relationship between the past two Doctors and their relationship with their respective companions.
Nord almost represents the Sawardian influence on the show if you ask me. He’s a tough, hardcore, biker badass, someone who attracts Ace (child of the 80s), and who does nothing but speak in that excessive badass macho hyperbole talk that was the zeitgeist at this time that we saw so much in stuff like “Earthshock” and “Resurrection of the Daleks”, and indeed his feat of talent in the ongoing, eternal talent show of the Psychic Circus is the feat of strength that ultimately means nothing, especially because it’s just grizzle without bite because he can’t tell a god damn joke. That sounds like critique of the 80s to me. What about you?
This story also sees not only the continued expositionizing by Bellboy, as he’s the one who builds and fixes the robots of the circus (so he’s the production designer on the show? Meh. Whatever. Not everything has to be an allegory), but also his suicide, as he commits it rather than serve the circus any longer. It’s a dark, grizzly scene that’s totally fantastic if you ask me, especially because it does a sweet cutaway and leaves the actual mechanics of it to your imagination, the situation too much for The Chief Clown, who shrugs it off and moves on.
Totally dark, but totally awesome. Great, great stuff.
This final part sees a lot of totally awesome stuff happen. We find out what happened to the Psychic Circus, why everyone’s been kind of a callous asshole, who the audience is (the Gods of Ragnarok, which is a totally badass awesome move in my opinion, but I’ll talk about that in just a bit), witness the unjust deaths of the Ringmaster and Moraga, the fall of the Circus, and the ultimate triumph and badassness of The Doctor (which, again, I will explain at the end).
John Bensalhia’s review, which is totally fantastic and a total inspiration for this post), constantly hungry for strong, round-the-clock entertainment.
That alone is a genius and totally prophetic discussion, especially given the round the clock youtube internet television possibilities in terms of how we as a society digest entertainment (again, thanks to Bensalhia), so that is really, really cool and totally badass, kinda like reading The Dark Knight Returns and realizing that it was written in the 80s and how the “Talking Head” version of television and news hadn’t even started yet but it was coming and coming in a big bad way (I mean, that’s all the news is nowadays). So that’s super awesome.
It’s ruthless and shows the callous disregard the BBC had towards its loyal Doctor Who fans (as represented by Whizzkid) at this time. Fans weren’t ratings. They weren’t growing. They were just there to be disposed of. Likewise the Saward stuff (Nord) was great from fitting into the macho, “hoo-hah” zeitgeist of the time, but when it came to that network note of “comedy”, the Saward stuff failed because Doctor Who was taking itself way too seriously at the time (and it was).
The Clowns become the window dressing, bridging the bureaucracy between the talent and the BBC themselves, with the Chief among them being Michael Grade, the bully responsible for kicking poor Doctor Who around, hunting those involved in the show and making sure that everyone behaved and that those who didn’t were fired (if only he’d killed Captain Cook this would be totally epic, but alas Cook was “killed” by Mags, so… there you go). They had to hunt down Ace, but she ultimately defeats them because she has a giant cool robot who’s cool and exactly the sort of thing Doctor Who does really well. So… Ace fights the bureaucracy! Yay!
So now that you have the picture I’m painting (or rather they’re painting; I’m just the messenger?), what about the rest of this story? What about the ending? How do you explain that? The thing with The Doctor traveling into the realm of the Ragnarok and facing off against them, the gods he’s “been fighting for a long time, through the centuries and across time and space”, this faceless enemy? The BBC, that’s demanding he entertain them because he is theirs and that is what he must do?
The brilliant thing is in the actual execution of how this whole thing goes down. See, The Doctor plays their little game. He does the silly, mindless magic tricks they expect him to do. He does the performance. He puts on a show. And McCoy does a great job of portraying the out-of-his-element thing The Doctor’s needs to do, because it is so much about the distracting of the Ragnarok for long enough for Ace to steal back the medallion and give it to him so he can fix the situation and end the Ragnarok’s reign of terror.
And this is why it’s awesome.
No one else can destroy the Ragnarok. Only The Doctor can. The Doctor’s the guy who takes them all down, who turns their power against them and shifts from a silly rope trick magician (thereby playing the clown they wanted Saward to contribute) into a sword-wielding, medallion-reflecting badass mother fucker who tears them down and walks away without even turning around, destroying the oppressive regime with a big ol’ middle finger as if to say “I will defeat you. I am The Doctor.” And he is, right? Isn’t this whole era basically turning the ship and saying “This is our Doctor now” especially because this was supposed to air after “Remembrance of the Daleks”, meaning that we showed The Doctor take down the Daleks, so now we’re going to watch The Doctor take down the entire institution that was holding him back so nothing is. Not Nathan-Turner, not Cartmel, not Saward, not the die-hard, useless fanboys, not previous incarnations or companions, not Michael Grade, not the BBC. No one.
He’s The Doctor, dammit. He’s going to perservere and he's going to win and he’s going to do it nonchalantly, because he's The Doctor. This fight against tyranny and injustice? This is what he does.
It also doesn't hurt that buried in here amongst the ideas is a pretty kick ass story (even if it does suffer from the sort of plot issues that the Nathan-Turner years routinely suffer from) with The Doctor kicking ass and taking names and some cool action and some cool music and some cool ideas all wrapped into a sweet sweet package. It's got some great performances, and bringing it out of the studio for all four parts really gives it a different feel even though it's not really that different from how it would have been, what with the endless tarps and the big ol' big top. But still, there's great realization of the place by director Alan Wareing, who's totally great at capturing the creepy and claustrophobic feel of the place and the story, even the weirdness and the design. It's all just here and here in spades, I think.
Totally badass. Totally memorable. I'd gush more, but I'm spent. It's just a story that's aged well through no mean feat of its allegory and sci-fi propheticness. Total shining gem of the McCoy era and a total beacon of the endless possibilities of this new Doctor Who and the way in which the show would be new and different and awesome. Because... well... I mean... I'm not even a fan of werewolves and this werewolf thing got me, man. This was awesome.
Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Earth! Little village! Terry Nation! Possible awful! The Return of Harry! ROBOTS! And did I mention the possible awful? "The Android Invasion"! Coming Next Tuesday!