Appellate Judge James A. Stewart still wants to run off and join the circus, just not a lethal one.
"Are you scared to come to the Psychic Circus?"
Strangely, there seems to be a common thread between "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" and "Spearhead from Space," the two serials from the classic series I've been reviewing for DVD Verdict. In both cases, production problems took the episode out of the studio. In the case of "Spearhead," a Jon Pertwee story, it was a strike that sent the show out into the cruel world of locations. With "Greatest Show," it was asbestos concerns. Since it was a circus-themed show, they just put up the tent and put on a show in the parking lot. And some people thought quarries were lame.
Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy brings the 1988-89 serial (part of the series final year) to DVD, with bonus material detailing the parking lot production.
Facts of the Case
The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is taking a reluctant Ace (Sophie Aldred) to "The Psychic Circus," at the same time two young people are fleeing the spectacle, chased by an evil clown. The Doctor and Ace soon meet fellow galactic travelers Captain Cook (T.P. McKenna, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Mags (Jessica Martin, Spitting Image), and experience run-ins with robots. Eventually, they make it to the big top, where The Doctor is asked to enter the ring. It's a talent show, but those who don't make the cut…don't make it out of the ring alive!
There's a bit of prescience here. If you've ever been annoyed by online spambots, you might be tickled by the spambot that pops up in the TARDIS—an actual advertising robot telling The Doctor and Ace about the Psychic Circus.
Another thing that struck me as interesting was T.P. McKenna's performance as Captain Cook, an intergalactic explorer who has his own younger female companion in Mags (Jessica Martin, who also voiced The Queen in David Tennant's episode "Voyage of the Damned"). You'll notice the Captain has The Doctor's gift of gab, but uses it to put other people into danger rather than save them. He seems to be The Doctor's evil twin. Later, the goth Mags turns out to have a secret that could make her Ace's nastier double. Chris Jury (Lovejoy) also makes an appearance, helping The Doctor and Ace unravel the mystery of all those deaths in the ring. (The alternate trivia track points out that Jury was one of the finalists to play the Seventh Doctor).
Presented in standard definition 1.33:1 full frame, the visuals are surreal and cartoonish, full of bright circus colors. It all takes place somewhere out in space, but they somehow have Earth cars and buses, which doesn't suggest too many concerns about credibility. The Doctor's first moments under the big top may be scarier than in 1988, since a childish voice in the darkened space oddly evokes an image from the new Doctor Who (more prescience). There's also an oddly psychedelic effect employed that comes off better than you might think. Audio arrives in two forms, an enhanced Dolby 5.1 Surround mix, and the original 2.0 Stereo track, with option English subtitles for non-Anglophiles.
In terms of bonus features, we get a commentary track featuring Doctor Who uberfan Toby Hadock moderating Sophie Aldred, guests Christopher Guard and Jessica Martin, composer Mark Ayres, script editor Andrew Cartmel, and episode writer Stephen Wyatt. There are inevitable comparisons to Britain's Got Talent, a great deal of laughter, and Martin suggestion this episode needs to be redone as a graphic novel. A featurette, "The Show Must Go On," talks about production problems and gives Aldred a chance to share anecdotes, including her ride on a motorcycle. The aforementioned trivia track points out small flubs, like The Doctor asking directions while standing in front of a huge can't-miss-it sign, and offers tidbits like "The Death Circus on Segonax," the German TV title for this story. "Tomorrow's Times: The Seventh Doctor" features 1980s reviews (mostly pans) of Sylvester McCoy episodes. We also get the show's cancellation notice, deleted scenes, missing model shots, a photo gallery, a comedy sketch mocking the show's scientific explanationing, a music demo, and a music video with voices from the episode's cast. In addition to original Radio Times listings, there are image galleries featuring storyboards and visual sketches. An Easter Egg, to the left on the first special features screen, turns out to be a Ceefax promo for a Doctor Who episode.
Though Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is strange, kind of silly, and far from hard science-fiction, it's still a solid episode run. The pop-art imagery may dominate, but it's the deteriorating relationship between T.P. McKenna and Jessica Martin as a sort-of mirror-image Doctor and Ace that makes this experience worthwhile. If you're looking for a vintage hide-behind-the-couch story arc, this is not it…unless you're afraid of clowns.
Not the greatest show in Doctor Who history, but Not
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
Review content copyright © 2012 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.