❉ First broadcast on this day in 1988, this marked a fresh and modern style for the classic series.
One of the toughest lessons I learned as a Doctor Who fan was forsaking the Sylvester McCoy era of Who before it had really found its groove. I had started secondary school, puberty had just kicked in, and supporting Doctor Who through the death throes of Seasons 22 and 23 had given me fan fatigue. The fact that, when it came back in 1987, it looked like Galloping Galaxies didn’t help.
I didn’t experience the majority of the Seventh Doctor and Ace’s adventures until I’d shaken off those adolescent affectations of ‘maturity’ and returned to the well as a result of BBC2’s Doctor Who Night and those UK Gold weekend morning repeats. I began filling in those gaps in my Who-education, with great joy as I was surprised to discover just how fresh and modern the McCoy era’s style of storytelling felt in the early twenty-first century. It had not only arrested the terminal decline of the show’s mid ’80s creative inertia, but also turned the whole show on its head, with postmodern games and meta-narrative, a clear debt to the new wave of British comics, opaque and conceptual stories once again to the fore, and of course a winning Doctor and companion combo.
The Greatest Show in The Galaxy was the last of those missing jigsaw pieces for me to complete, as late as 2005. And what a revelation! This reinforced what I had already witnessed in stories such as Paradise Towers, Remembrance of the Daleks and Ghost Light – that this Doctor had his eye on the prize, making deliberate trips to such diverse locales as Terra Alpha, Windsor, Shoreditch, Maidens Point or Perivale, as part of a bigger game of cosmic oneupmanship with dark, preternatural forces, agents of chaos threatening the balance. And so it is, as he whisks his clown-averse proactive chum Ace to Segonax, for a confrontation with the Gods of Ragnarok, although not before there’s time to fit in some smash hits from the erstwhile Sylveste’ McCoy‘s fringe cabaret routine (no ferret/trouser interfaces or nasally-inserted nails, alas).
Granted, the first episode is shadowed by the ghost of Doctor Who Season 18, where our heroes take precisely 23-and-a-half minutes to arrive at their designated locale, but there’s some humour in seeing the TARDIS invaded – not by a spooky bloke in a chair, or the jackal-faced visage of Sutekh – but Spam! Junk mail! and the sight of the Fourth Doctor’s massive, iconic scarf draped over Sophie Aldred, casual as you likeis a nice reminder that the show’s kisses to the past are being worn more lightly, unless there’s a 25th anniversary story afoot!
The opening episode sees the Doc and Ace slowly make their way to the Psychic Circus, prior to encountering a rogue’s gallery whose number includes TV’s Adrian Mole (Whatever happened to Gian Sammarco?!) and sitcom gorgon Peggy Mount. As with the interminable road trip sequences in the utterly ridiculous and joyful Silver Nemesis there is a certain innocent fun to be had in this padding, as for the first time since Doctor Four and Sarah Jane, it’s a pleasure to spend time in the company of a TARDIS duo who rub along together so comfortably, and we, the viewer, feel included in that.
The story gets underway in its own sweet time, as one of the notable qualities of the McCoy era is whereas stories are a bit weak on coherent structure and narrative, they fizz with ideas and invention. I’m a big fan of exploratory drama that doesn’t bother with such mundane ideas as plot beats, but just takes ideas for a walk in the park, and this is something the McCoy era excels at, purely because each story has an abundance of themes and ideas to capture the imagination. Watertight, A to B plots are for Midsomer Murders, this – as has been mentioned before – is TV for the VHS and DVD age, where non-linear storytelling gets a free pass due to the availability of repeated viewings.
You may not be able to quote chapter and verse on the details of the story, but you’ll surely have the Chief Clown’s hearse gliding through the desert, the robot bus conductor (Kerblam! anyone?),
Bellboy being crushed to death by his mechanical men, the exploding tent, or a kite emblazoned with a third eye trailing an azure sky imprinted into your memory. It’s a story of snapshots and motifs, a tone poem, something designed to evoke a melancholy, dream-like impression of a small world of failed dreams, decadence and artifice, and lost hopes. This is the world of the Psychic Circus. Does it represent the failure of the flower power era’s prophecy of the Age of Aquarius to come to fruition? Is it a metaphor for Doctor Who’s status in the 1980s (we’ve mulled on this ourselves)? As with any non-linear texts, all readings are equally valid…
In this case, the plot – such as it is – is secondary to the world of the denizens of the Psychic Circus, its enigmatic overlords, its rag-taggle band of doomed visitors and the Circus’ hippy-ish outcasts. They all represent something but it’s left to the viewer to do the heavy lifting, returning us back to an age of mainstream TV drama where the viewer was encouraged to level up rather than dumb down. And it’s brilliant.
Here Doctor Who is, as it would frequently do during the McCoy era, playing with tropes, archetypes and symbols – there’s even a quest for an amulet, reinforcing the Fisher King/Holy Grail motif of such disparate bedfellows as Battlefield, Remembrance of the Daleks, Silver Nemesis and The Curse of Fenric. And remember – the resolution of the very first McCoy story, Time and the Rani, depended on the substance Loyhargil. Why that’s an anagram of… How interesting!
We could talk about the skilful performances of McCoy and Aldred, finding their feet as a perfectly-paired twosome, Jessica Martin as the vulnerable vulpine Mags, veteran thesp TP McKenna’s grandstanding turn as an intergalactic colonial, and ’90s EastEnders bad boy Ian Reddington’s chillingly still, Bowie-esque pierrot, not to mention fully committed contributions from the likes of Christopher Guard, Daniel Peacock (Ray Bloody Purchase’s older brother) and a pre-Lovejoy Chris Jury; or indeed the ingenuity of the production team under the auspicious resourcefulness of John Nathan-Turner, determined not to have a Shada Mk II on his watch, getting the story made after an asbestos scare saw the show forcibly decamped from TV Centre.
But we won’t, because these conversations have been had many, many times before. I am here to sing the praises of a story that, budget limitations aside, looked modern then and feels modern now. A new mode of storytelling for Doctor Who, part of its late blooming reinvention. Sadly this was too late to save the series’ ailing fortunes in the eyes of the general public and the indifference of the top floor of the Beeb, but it’s a legacy we enjoy to this day, in the 21st century series, its original fiction, and its audio dramas – including a Doctor/companion pairing so memorable they continue to enjoy original adventures in print and audio to this very day. The greatest show in the galaxy? It well might be.
Lastly, the Greatest Show In The Galaxy gave us one of the most iconic Doctor Who ‘hero’ shots, in a galaxy where the word ‘iconic’ is overused to redundancy… BOOM!
❉ James Gent is a writer, graphic designer, social media manager, and editor of We Are Cult. He has contributed to a number of magazines, websites and books including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die.