Doctor Who: The Greatest Show In The Galaxy REVIEW

Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred in Doctor Who's "The Greatest Show In The Galaxy".

Stuck in a quarry again...

Release Date: 30 July 2012
1988 | PG | 98 minutes | £19.99
Distributor: BBC Worldwide
Director: Alan Wareing
Cast: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, TP McKenna, Ian Reddington, Christopher Guard

Hey, you! Yeah, you with the intellectual capacities of a concussed budgerigar! Is that your face, or just a pile of tripe that’s been haphazardly nailed to a misshapen cauliflower? What… no, please, don’t throw your monitor across the roo…. Aaaaaaaaargh! Ouch.

Taking the mickey out of your audience is a risky business, as Who’s production team found out after transmission of this Seventh Doctor tale, centred on a deathtrap “Psychic Circus”. One minor character is the Whizzkid (Gian Sammarco), a tanktop and bow tie-wearing nerd who’s clearly a caricature of socially inept fanboys; he never saw the circus in the old days, but knows it’s “not as good as it used to be.” This little satirical jab wasn’t universally well received…

He’s just one of a crowd of cartoonish characters who converge on the circus. Their number includes pompous, pith-helmetted explorer Captain Cook (the wonderful TP McKenna); dim-witted biker Nord (Daniel Peacock, who seems to think he’s in a show aimed at the under-fives); and mysterious goth Mags (impressionist Jessica Martin) whose “big secret” is hinted at with such a bracing disregard for subtlety that she might as well be carrying it around carved on a stone tablet. All four eventually end up performing in the ring as three figures sit in judgement – a trio with even more sinister intent lurking in their inhuman hearts than Simon Cowell. A low score from the Gods Of Ragnarok – mysterious entities disguised as a typical ‘50s family – means instant obliteration by thunderbolt…

Many of the details of “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” are an absolute delight – it’s just a shame there isn’t something more substantial underpinning them. The sight of sinister clowns cruising around in a hearse, tracking their prey using remote-control kites, is deliciously eerie – a surreal comic book come to life. Similarly, the idea of a robotic bus conductor that cheerily pipes, “Hold tight please!” as it crushes your windpipe is gloriously oddball – even though there’s no particularly good reason for said robot to exist.

It’s the sort of story that evaporates into mist once you start to interrogate it, and its successes are generally triumphs of design or performance. The villainous Chief Clown, for example, is memorable because of Ian Reddington’s mannered portrayal (all Joker-ish grins and dramatic hand gestures); there’s very little on the page. And Mark Ayres’s melancholy score does far more to convince us that the circus’s decline from its idealistic heyday is a tragedy than the script ever manages.

The story is bulked out with the same old makeweight – rounds of capture and escape (indeed, there’s perhaps never been a Doctor Who story where it’s so ridiculously easy to escape) – still, at least it makes a change to see people running up and down billowing tent corridors rather than the usual kind. When the bored Gods wonder aloud if anything interesting is going to happen soon you have to give the writer credit for self-awareness, but may also find yourself wearily nodding in agreement.

After four episodes of rather laborious build-up, the big finale sees the Doctor playing for time performing a series of naff conjuring tricks, until a convenient solution literally drops from the sky at precisely the right second. The most charitable thing you can say about this climax is that it plays to Sylvester McCoy’s strengths.

If the Whizzkid was the production team’s rejoinder to fan critics, it backfired somewhat. Like all the best fools, his pronouncements have the ring of truth. In 1988 Who was experiencing something of a revival, but it still wasn’t as good as the show was in its pomp. Placing a fanboy parody on-screen to say as much only served to underline the fact.


The commentary conveys a strong sense of a team brought together through adversity; the rotating cast includes Sophie Aldred (Ace), writer Stephen Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel, composer Mark Ayres, and guest stars Christopher Guard (Bellboy) and Jessica Martin (Mags).

Half-hour Making Of “The Show Must Go On” is more absorbing than most, because there’s such an interesting story to tell – the discovery of asbestos at TV Centre nearly torpedoed the production (indeed, for a time it was technically cancelled), until someone had the brainwave of erecting a massive tent in the car park at Ealing Studios and shooting in that.

The latest instalment of What The Papers Say-style series “Tomorrow’s Times” (14 minutes) rounds up how the press reacted to the Seventh Doctor’s era – generally with withering scorn, if they weren’t ignoring it completely. You also get eleven minutes of deleted/extended scenes (nothing of great interest – mostly tiny trims); some unused model shots (the junk mail robot from the start of the story was initially going to be seen approaching the TARDIS); the music demos that got Mark Ayres the scoring gig (three minutes); a music video for a song about the story by Christopher Guard (brace yourself for some cheesy electro-pop…); and a piss-taking Victoria Wood sketch that’s symptomatic of the general disdain with which Who was viewed at this time.

Completing the package are the usual meticulous text commentary; an isolated score; PDFs of Radio Times listings, effects designs and storyboards; and an impressive photo gallery, which even includes snaps of the cast taking lunch in the canteen!

Ian Berriman

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