'I find circuses a little...sinister'. Spoken by Sylvester McCoy on 4th January 1989 at the conclusion of this serial, I'm sure that statement strikes a chord with many in the audience. It could be partly due to the creepy circus being a genre staple for donkey's years but the whole notion is thoroughly mined in one of McCoy's best stories. The release of the last remaining Seventh Doctor story brings us very close now to the end of the classic Who edition. As a newcomer to McCoy's Doctor I found watching this a strangely familiar experience - a social institution harbouring a sinister secret, a dreamlike setting, menacing automata, distinguished elderly character actors popping up, jokey secretive Doctor, gung-ho young female companion, fractured narrative etc. Tonally and structurally this could easily be a modern Eleventh Doctor story. In fact most of the stories from the Seventh Doctor/Ace period would fit very neatly into modern-day Who, in my humble opinion. Well, perhaps not Silver Nemesis but the remainder certainly could.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy sees the Doctor and Ace responding to a robotic flyer for the Psychic Circus on planet Segonax. They soon find themselves in the company of a motley collection of characters, some converging on and some attempting to escape from the big top. These include old-school explorer Captain Cook (T P McKenna) and his young companion Mags (Jessica Martin). Sullen goth Mags has A Dark Secret and it soon becomes apparent that this circus is not all that it appears to be. It is, in best Who tradition, a touch on the deadly side for anyone foolish enough to step inside its big top. I find the pairing of Cook and Mags form an interesting counterpoint to the Doctor and Ace. Both are couples consisting of mature adventurers with a young woman in tow. However, unlike the Doctor and Ace's warm father/daughter relationship it becomes apparent as the story progresses that Cook is cruelly exploiting Mags.
This is a complex narrative with many characters and strands that require attention to keep up with. I found that watching this is a bit like looking through an old kiddies' kaleidoscope. There are so many brightly-coloured elements all jostling for attention but each phase of the narrative arranges them into a coherent pattern that changes with each turn. If I could pick out particular elements the strongest would have to include David Laskey's terrific production design which was beautifully put together against all the odds. The planned studio recordings took place instead inside a marquee in Elstree's car park because TV centre was shut down for asbestos removal. The unusual lighting and billowing canvas that resulted add much more to the exotic atmosphere than a boring old TV studio would have. The other strongest element is Ian 'Tricky Dicky' Reddington's very fine turn as the Chief Clown. Scary clowns have, with weird circuses, always been a genre staple and this is one of the best. The makeup and costuming are stylish, even beautiful and his menacing performance complete with weird vocal delivery are a treat to watch and make him one of the creepiest Who villains ever. There are, as always, some weaker elements to contend with and here I would have to pick out, from a large roster of characters, both Nord (Danny Peacock) and Whizzkid (Gian Sammarco). I find them both underwritten and completely superfluous to an already complex story. It's difficult to fault the actors though. Both Peacock and Sammarco were high profile TV actors at the time and this was definitely luxury casting. They just don't really add anything to a busy story. I also have to pick on Mags' 'werewolf' transformation which at the time would have scared many a child shitless but now looks more like one of Hot Gossip's dodgier routines with added fangs.
This is definitely one of the stronger and more imaginative Seventh Doctor serials and much in it looks ahead to 21st Century Who and even the Sarah Jane Adventures. It's interesting to see how The Greatest Show illustrates how TV trends tend to go in cycles. As already mentioned, I find the general tone and style to be very similar to modern Moffat-period Who but Moffat, of course, has bigger budgets and a lot more cachet with the BBC than John Nathan-Turner could ever dream of. At the core of the story we also have three judges in front of whom members of the public perform and upon whose scores their fate depends. Ultimately the Doctor saves the day by performing conjuring tricks for the three Gods of Ragnarok before destroying them. It all sounds very familiar in 2012 but in 1989 the show was just riffing off the format from the 70s talent show New Faces which, in turn was riffing off the panel game format beloved of 50s telly and which, today, Simon Cowell has appropriated for his own sinister ends. Prior to reviewing these Seventh Doctor releases I was a McCoy virgin but have come to realise his tenure was unfairly maligned and, in fact, JNT and Andrew Cartmel were pulling the show into a new creative phase against tremendous odds and an actively hostile BBC establishment. A friend of mine whose opinion I value told me that he feels that 'new Who' started not with the Ninth Doctor and Rose, but with the Seventh Doctor and Ace and I can see what he means here.
The four 25-minute episodes are presented on a single disc. The picture is as good as you can expect for a late-80s series shot entirely on video. It is presented, as always, in the original 1.33:1 ratio with some of the extras in 1.85:1. Audio comes in the original stereo or a new 5.1 remix with an isolated score option. We've come to expect Who puts every other archive release to shame and this disc is more than usually bulging with extras. On the rotating door commentary track moderated by Toby Hadoke we have varying combinations of Stephen Wyatt, Sophie Aldred, Christopher Guard, Jessica Martin, Mark Ayres, Andrew Cartmel etc. There is a respectable making-of - The Show Must Go On - lasting 30m 17s. The usual suspects are brought to bear but we are sadly lacking any input from McCoy. We also get to see the could-have-been-so-much-worse accident that befell Ian Reddington when a metal gate was dropped on his head. He appears to be very sanguine about it now. There are some deleted and extended scenes lasting 11m 10s including one of Whizzkid being the ultimate fan geek. Lost in the Darkness (2m 8s) examines the discarded opening effects shots with the junk-mail robot. The Psychic Circus (3m 53s) is best described as a pop video using footage from the serial produced to a song written and performed by some of the cast including an unassailably camp T P McKenna. Remembrance 'Demo' (3m 24s) showcases two demo scores submitted by Mark Ayres to sequences from Remembrance of the Daleks. In Tomorrow's Times - The Seventh Doctor (14m 31s), the ageless Anneke Wills introduces extracts from press coverage of McCoy's tenure. We then finally get to see one of the best piss-takes from the 80s with Jim Broadbent as The Doctor in a sketch from Victoria Wood...as seen on TV . It's so on the mark that it could be an excerpt from many mid-80s episodes. There is a stills gallery lasting 7m 20s and a Coming Soon for Planet of Giants. As far as PDF materials go we have the original Radio Times listings and some design sketches. Phew.