❉ ‘You remember the summer of ‘88…’ Well, do you?
‘We’re celebrating a very British thing here… you know, something that Timmy Mallett understands’. – Bill Drummond, The KLF, 1988.
Broadcast last in the 25th Anniversary year, Sylvester McCoy adventure The Greatest Show in the Galaxy perhaps divides opinion and still sits lower down in the pecking-order than near-twin stable-mates Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis. Many will be aware of the phrase ‘events of the past were once in the future’, but, originally intended as the opener to a season which saw Doctor Who take stock of its quarter-century, watching it now it also serves as a reminder that events of the past were once very much in the present. Directed by Alan Wareing from a script by Stephen Wyatt, production code 7J was so 1988 its anticipation of the Second Summer of Love still hurts.
What goes around comes around – right? To quote a Persil liquid advert from the autumn Season 25 began, ‘…you remember the summer of ‘88…’ Well, do you? Even if the viewer doesn’t, by accident, design, zeitgeist – or some combination of all three, the, what we will call, ‘cultural aesthetics’ of Greatest Show in the Galaxy remain as a window turned ‘acid-flashback’ into both 1988 and Doctor Who’s place in the pop-cultural landscape of 1988.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t a piece directly assessing and interpreting the narrative events in politicised correlation to the show’s standing at the BBC at the time, a show still ‘on trial’, although some examples here perhaps fuel this understanding further. Neither is this an overtly socio-political retrospective, The Happiness Patrol provides us with enough food for thought on those matters.
The Doctor and Ace’s arrival on Segonax, a dusty, desert-like planet can be understood as the show’s arrival in a waste-land dumping ground for cultural reference points, fashions and sub-cultures apparently past. Is this Doctor Who facing the fact it might be out of fashion?
The first thing the viewer sees on the planet is, the appropriately named, Bell-Boy wearing a pair of flared trousers – a huge 1980’s fashion no-no – a fashion trend which, not unlike Dr Who, rose to prominence throughout the 1970s. As Leon Hunt observed, ‘the 1980s conditioned us to disregard the 1970s’ – flared trousers seemed to take the brunt of this ‘reconditioning’.
Examine Bell-Boy’s costume even closer, he combines his leg-wear faux-pas with yellow military style band jacket and shaggy hair cut – not unlike the Beatles on the Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. Dressed like that he’d be on trend at a Jimi Hendrix gig in the late-60’s – except he isn’t. It might be hard to believe now but there was a time when the 1960’s, flower-power, hippies and all the associated cultural clichés were barely even a valid point of reference, as Tegan (Janet Fielding) remarked in the Who adventure Time-Flight a few years previous “No one does flower power anymore, Doctor”. So when Bell-Boy encounters Flower Child, the audience can be forgiven a groan or a wincing grimace at their star-crossed lovers/hippy stereotyping.
Next we see their yellow bus – not unlike the one in Beatles outing, The Magical Mystery Tour. In this instance the bus is battered, near derelict, it appears half submerged in the dust – it has run aground, its journey at an end very much as the ‘60’s dream’, a factor writer Chris Wyatt has stated as wanting to evoke. Later on we encounter the wasted and vacant expression of ‘Dead Beat’ (Chris Jury), another character who serves as a nod to tired cliché, this time the perils of rock and roll/psychedelic excess – a forgotten casualty, a joke reminder of a heady-age now past.
As Morgana remarks to the Ring Master of the Psychic Circus ‘we have lost our way’. All this imagery is surely intentional then? Derelict buses and LSD victims, is this Dr Who coming to terms with its own mortality, was the show now like the Doctor himself wandering a waste land dreamscape, a persecuted traveller, like Dead Beat forever lost in a form of dated low budget pop-culture purgatory. However, perhaps there is far more here than just a dumping group exclusively for the 1960’s dream.
Cultural references from the show’s previous twenty-five year lifetime strike like acid flashbacks. Nord, a not miscast Daniel Peacock, links with the actor’s various ‘delinquent’ roles of the late 1970s/early ‘80s.Combine this with the character’s custom trike and ‘in-yer-face attitude’ and Nord represents a mix of aggressive Punk and Biker/Metal sensibilities, once the subject of many press inches but rather passé sub-cultural stereotypes by 1988. Acts such as The Krankies, Russ Abbott and Little & Large were doubtless making much mirth from these as comedy short-hand on a Saturday evening on BBC1 – Doctor Who’s traditional time slot.
The flashbacks like the trip may not always be pleasant, Captain Cook, the boorish safari suited explorer harking back to the days of the British Empire (a possible pre-cursor to themes within Ghost Light, the following season) another dated stereotype who lived on into the late ‘80s, albeit slightly anachronistically, in frequently repeated and often parodied 1950s British war movies. Cook, like his namesake explorer Captain James Cook, links with the regrettable chapters of history such as colonialism and slavery.
Who’s Cook even has his latest ‘acquisition’ in tow, Mags, a green tinted spiky haired, kohl-eyed young woman in a costume contrasting black with near fluorescent ‘floaty’ green shaded bits. Mags’ make up, hair and costume combination bear comparison with Post-Punk, New Romantic or even Goth fashion sense, one might even draw similarities to New Wave/Pop acts such as memorable one hit wonders Strawberry Switchblade (minus the polka-dots – they left the TARDIS with Bonnie Langford’s Mel – but do notably make a fleeting appearance at the start of episode one).
By the time Greatest Show in the Galaxy was in production all these were pop-culture trends that if not necessarily of the past were no longer in the forefront of fashion. Furthermore, Mags, whom it transpires is a werewolf complete with long hair and teeth, provides another well-worn short-hand linking with the likes of Hammer horror. Hammer, before their steady reappraisal were at this point, rather like Doctor Who itself, loved by fans but regarded as low rent, reserved only for the ‘midnight movie’ timeslot. Lest we forget that Hammer’s low culture doppelgangers of this era were the Carry On films, who for a time in the 1980’s also played in the Saturday evening timeslot. Another player here in this wasteland arena is Whizzkid, of course based on the stereotypical Who fan and general geek. His name, a phrase better associated with the start of the decade and the rise of the home computer (audiences had seen the climax of this with Matthew Broderick in 1983’s War Games). Whizzkid also commits another 1980s fashion faux-pas – the tank top.
The clowns who form part of the circus, a traditional form of entertainment that by the 1980s faced changing attitudes and rival sources of entertainment; perhaps like Ace audiences were no longer afraid to admit that maybe they found clowns creepy. Morgana the fortune teller in an age of the microwave and the fax-machine seemed, to paraphrase Michael Grade’s comments regarding Who, ‘outdated and to have lost its [her] magic’. This leaves the rapping Ringmaster himself as master of nothing.
Even the ‘circus audience’ are represented as a dated 1950s image of mother, father and child, complete with Brylcreem and formalities. The clowns patrol this wasteland in a hearse like a funeral procession awaiting a death, another purgatory, the ‘Gods of Ragnorok’ and a time of judgement/battle (as in Norse Mythology) loom. Notably the hearse and top-hatted funeral imagery are also visually similar to 1960’s films such as Billy Liar and the video for the Kinks’ Dead End Street, the clowns’ painted faces amid this landscape extend this comparison to Pink Floyd’s beach bound, masked and tall hatted video for Arnold Layne.
There are genuine elements of social history here also, the Bus Conductor, once common place on British streets but redundant by the 80’s, or if the audience wishes a nod to Bob Grant’s character in one-time TV ratings winner On the Buses. All evidence of events and glories and fashions in the past, one might disregard some of these ‘flashbacks’ as akin to nothing more than a desperate rummage at a village hall jumble sale, old LPs and ex-rental Betamax in a box under a clothes rail.
However, there is much here to suggest that Greatest Show in the Galaxy reveals Doctor Who as anticipating the zeitgeist, so much so, like an unfolding event it is difficult to make accurate comment or truly recognise it until it has passed. 1988/89 would become known as the ‘Second Summer of Love’, the rise of rave and acid house would see a ‘revival’ of psychedelic 1960’s sensibilities and eventually fashions. Acid house beginning from the parties and DJ sets organised in abandoned warehouses and waste ground, it seems apt that the Doctor and Ace find the Psychic Circus located in just such an area (Silver Nemesis would feature an equally post-industrial location) – in truth the shift of production to a real tent in a car-park at Elsetree studios owing to issues with asbestos seem to come as a factor fated to aid this observation. Bomber jacket adorned with numerous sew on patches, Ace appears dressed ready to attend an all-nighter, one could say that this indicates late ’80s McCoy Who as being akin to the second summer of love, an underground movement, post-industrial, post-modern, on the nerve – something ‘wicked’ – as the kids used to say. This is no random jumble sale rummage, Doctor Who is ‘sampling’. However, there is the question, if it was underground – was it emerging toward the light or burrowing further under?
Click here to find out whether Doctor Who was anticipating the future with Greatest Show in the Galaxy, or akin to a ‘leaky punk vessel’…
❉ George Cromack is a writer and tutor working in H.E and Adult Education, he is currently working towards his film based PhD examining the Folk Horror film genre. George writes fiction, non-fiction, prose and script for screen.