❉ Was Who anticipating the future with Greatest Show in the Galaxy, or akin to a ‘leaky punk vessel’?
Some regard Greatest Show in the Galaxy as marking a point at which Who had successfully moved on from the ill-fated and lurid days of the Colin Baker era, true – the fuzzy pinkish orange colour schemes, lighting and overly am-dram costumes which seemed to dominate appear to be in decline; the clowns, the circus troupe and even Captain Cook, all are more ‘timeless’ iconic looks, clean bold lines, anticipating a ’90s sleekness.
However, focus again on the costumes of ‘New-Romantic-Popster’ Mags and ‘Punk-Biker’ Nord, they do still carry an awkward notion of pantomime, but reconsider them in terms of late ’80s fashion and sentiment.
In the March of 1989 Transvision Vamp would score a hit in the UK charts with Baby I Don’t Care, a spiky fusion of late ‘80s pop fashion and 1970s punk attitude, one might consider lead singer Wendy James’ look and persona as being inspired by notions of a love child between Mags and Nord. Was Who anticipating the future with Greatest Show in the Galaxy, or akin to a ‘leaky punk vessel’?
Transvision Vamp themselves was this just a noteworthy scream drowning in a rising tide of trashy points of reference and pop-culture inbreeding. On May 23 1988 sampling hit-makers the KLF (as The Timelords) would release and eventually go to number one in the U.K charts with ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’, its video memorably featuring a ‘battle-damaged’ late ’60s Ford Galaxy U.S police car kicking up dust on waste ground, evidence perhaps that rather than doing the sampling Doctor Who itself was in fact out there in that waste ground to be sampled – a much loved but cheap and dusty reference to the past.
As one half of the KLF Bill Drummond stated in an interview at the time: “we’re celebrating a very British thing here… you know, something that Timmy Mallett understands”. Timmy Mallet, almost a national buzz-word at the time as presenter of ITV’s Wac-a-Day children’s show, memorable as much for his lurid pick and mix dress-sense as his matching mallet.
There’s nothing to say this pick and mix approach wasn’t on trend, anyone who recalls both children’s and youth television of the time will be familiar with the slightly anarchic collage of post-war pop culture images, BBC repeats of 1930s Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe Flash Gordon and sound-bar/chewed video tape distortions which dominated this era. Sophie Aldred was already known to younger Who viewers of the time from CBBC’s questions and facts programme Corners – a show which also flirted with this visual aesthetic.
In one edition Aldred brought her own motor-cycle into the Corners studio, the ability to ride one being something apparently crucial to her casting as Ace, even though she never rode one in the series – somewhere in the development was Ace supposed to be a biker – a leather BSA jacketed ‘rocker’ like George Michael in 1987’s Faith video – another example of the post-modern snatch and grab cultural reference points of the age.
Referencing/recycling the past was a trend that would take us well into the 90’s and beyond, maybe the whole universe was going backwards. If so, Greatest Show in the Galaxy saw Who arrived at this assertion a good twelve months before Red Dwarf. If Doctor Who was on trend, perhaps this ‘anarchic-collage-of-old-and-new’ approach wasn’t going to be a long lived or one that would date well – what viewer doesn’t still wince at the Ring Master’s rapping?
One could argue that this leaves the Doctor, and the show, as mentioned earlier, rather like Dead Beat, a persecuted traveller wandering a wasteland where cheap pop-culture trends and clichés go to die.
However, what goes around truly does come around; later in the narrative Dead Beat is revived and returns as King Pin, a leader, not just a persecuted traveller then, but also a wise fool stuck in limbo only temporarily (ready for the Second Summer of Love). To recall narrative convention, a wise fool is one free from the barriers of social convention, like the Doctor himself, able to converse with ‘kings’ (the Gods of Ragnork) and ‘common folk’ (Peggy Mount’s Stalls-lady), one who can possibly greater anticipate and weather the hand of fate.
Read as a the season opener it was intended to be (moved to the back of the run after Seoul Olympic coverage delayed the broadcast schedule – producer John Nathan Turner keen to ensure Silver Nemesis’ broadcast coincided with the 25th anniversary date), Greatest Show in the Galaxy leans us toward the view that the show, rather like the Doctor, was setting out its own stall, well aware of the wasteland paths it had to tread, like Stańczyk, the 1514 painting by Jan Matejko, a jester, a wise fool troubled by a changing future as fickle as fashion and the T.V schedules.
Episode 4, broadcast on January 4 1988 saw 6.6 million viewers, McCoy’s highest, but more wisely regarded as a post-New Year fluke than any true ratings triumph. Wise indeed as unbeknown at the time, cancellation and a home video ‘underground’ loomed in the years before the series’ revival.
For a number of years only the less fashion conscious (or those ‘sub-culturally immersed’), those pigeon-holed as ‘Whizzkid’ types would seem to care. Whizzkid, it should be noted, played by Gian Sammarco, at the time recognisable as TV’s Adrian Mole, the angst ridden 1980’s teen who when asking school bully Barry Kemp why it was he was always being picked was told ‘..because you were flared trousers…it’s as good a reason as any’.
As Yazz and the Plastic Population reminded us with their hit single that year ‘…being on the bottom line sure ain’t no fun…’, perhaps no matter how it styled itself (or used the latest in branded washing powder) in 1988 Doctor Who was still looked upon as the bottom line, like a pair of flared trousers and a tank top in a jumble-sale.
But as we know fashions come and go, maybe Tennant and Smith’s Doctors thought they were playing safe with the skinny suit, likewise Capalidi with his hoodie style jacket, but then again, being in fashion can be just as dangerous as falling out of fashion…
❉ 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.