The Greatest Show in the Galaxy *****

"Is there no end to you weirdos?" Peggy Mount growls, as the Psychic Circus comes to town

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy *****

Season 25 – Story 151

“Is there no end to you weirdos!?” – the Stallslady

Storyline
A junk-mail probe penetrates the Tardis advertising the Psychic Circus and the Doctor makes haste to visit – despite Ace’s sense of foreboding. A big top and tour bus have become stuck on the planet Segonax, while the hippy troupe running the circus are in thrall to a mysterious family – their only audience. The Doctor and Ace befriend an assortment of misfits who have also been lured to the Psychic Circus, unaware that it’s now a trap for killing visitors. Exposing the family as the statuesque Gods of Ragnarok, the Doctor crosses into their time-space dimension to entertain them and conclude a longstanding feud…

First UK transmissions
Part 1 - Wednesday 14 December 1988
Part 2 - Wednesday 21 December 1988
Part 3 - Wednesday 28 December 1988
Part 4 - Wednesday 4 January 1989

Production
OB recording: May 1988 at ECC quarry, Warmwell, Dorset; June 1988 in a tent in the car park at BBC Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, Herts

Cast
The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Ace - Sophie Aldred
Captain Cook - TP McKenna
Mags - Jessica Martin
Ringmaster - Ricco Ross
Stallslady - Peggy Mount
Chief Clown - Ian Reddington
Morgana - Deborah Manship
Bellboy - Christopher Guard
Whizzkid - Gian Sammarco
Nord - Daniel Peacock
Flowerchild - Dee Sadler
Deadbeat/Kingpin - Chris Jury
Bus conductor - Dean Hollingsworth
Dad - David Ashford
Mum - Janet Hargreaves
Little girl - Kathryn Ludlow

Crew
Writer - Stephen Wyatt
Designer - David Laskey
Incidental music - Mark Ayres
Script editor - Andrew Cartmel
Producer - John Nathan-Turner
Director - Alan Wareing

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
The Greatest Show? Not sure – but this is undoubtedly the Weirdest Show in the Galaxy.

Clowns, yes, they’re weird. Everybody knows they're sinister and desperately unfunny. And the Psychic Circus of Segonax has plenty of them, mostly robots. But also on the Showbill is a procession of other weirdos that wouldn’t shame The League of Gentlemen or Psychoville decades later...

Roll up, roll up for a rapping Ringmaster! For Morgana and her crystal ball and mittel-European accent! For Deadbeat, the retard who used to be circus Kingpin! On the hippy side, there’s Flowerchild (Dee Sadler: waif-like, pretty and intense in a flowery, floaty dress) and Bellboy (Christopher Guard: dusty, pretty and intense, displaying his bod in a distressed Sgt Pepper’s tunic). And a deadly mechanical conductor mans their psychedelic bus.

Unwitting punters include: Daniel Peacock as Nord, a sort of gurning biker/Mad Max reject. TP McKenna dons a pith helmet as insufferable windbag explorer Captain Cook. Gian Sammarco (fresh from Adrian Mole) plays Whizzkid, a speccy nerd in bowtie and tea-cosy sweater, blatantly a “barker” (JN-T’s disparaging term for Doctor Who fans). And impressionist Jessica Martin is Mags, a lovely woman and green-haired Goth/punk who happens to be a werewolf.

OK, so it’s getting frightening now… Peggy Mount, an East End truck driver among battleaxes, plays a gravel-voiced stallkeeper obliging passers-by to eat slop that would make a mule sick. Ian Reddington (before his long stints in EastEnders and Coronation Street) is really freaky as the Chief Clown. He may say little but he casts an eerie pall over his every scene with a cold stare, leer and inappropriate hand flourishes. 

Most alarming of all is the sight of the “Mother” in the audience. Yes, it’s Janet Hargreaves – otherwise known as Rosemary Hunter, ex-wife from hell and gun-toting motel maniac from ITV soap Crossroads (“Tell me you love me, David!”). Do a search on Youtube and enjoy!

Alongside this lot, the seventh Doctor and Ace suddenly seem quite normal. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is Sylvester McCoy’s finest hour. John Nathan-Turner dreamt up the story title – and what a very JN-T title! – largely to capitalise on McCoy’s talents as a showman. He juggles, pops eggs from his mouth, fannies with a rope, wriggles from a straitjacket, rotates from the ankles at a low angle like a silent-movie comic. It adds up to a lot of fun, even if such interludes feel more like The Sylvester McCoy Show than Doctor Who.

Sophie Aldred looks her most comfortable yet as Ace. Free of her rucksack, armoury of bombs and St Trinian’s-style insults, she achieves a happy blend of gumption, wariness and empathy.

Weirdest Show or Greatest Show, it’s a wonder this particular big top ever went up. After the quarry location work was completed in spring 1988, BBC Television Centre was virtually shut down by an asbestos scare. Many programmes, including Doctor Who, were shelved or needed to find alternative studios. 

Of any producer, JN-T was the most able and likely to “put on a show right here”. He must be praised for getting the other half of Greatest Show made. On the BBC DVD, designer David Laskey claims credit for the idea of erecting a tent in the car park of BBC Elstree (home of EastEnders). Miraculously, a lot of the studio work was to be under a big top anyway, but the Tardis control room and Ragnarok arena scenes were also staged here, under canvas.

Stephen Wyatt (who wrote the flawed Paradise Towers the previous season) delivers a tight but freefalling script, with oodles of incidental detail worthy of Robert Holmes. There are highly unusual cliffhangers and he peoples the drama with a procession of vivid characters (Peggy Mount’s “weirdos”), who have their moment in the limelight and are missed when they’re gone.

In earlier Whos, we’d have witnessed more gruesome deaths. Here the Psychic Circus participants expire off screen, with a bang, a flash and a distant scream. The fuddy-duddy mother, father and daughter are the circus’s only audience. They munch crisps, impassively observe the acts, holding up score cards with either three 0s or three 9s. It's a coded message about “family viewing” at a time when restrictions were imposed on Doctor Who.

The origins and threat of the Gods of Ragnarok are left vague. Likewise, the significance of the Evil Eye (a motif on kites and on Deadbeat’s medallion, and seen expanding at the bottom of a well) is never explained. The opacity of Wyatt’s scripts leaves you surmising, puzzling, keen for answers – which in this case is a bonus.

Alan Wareing, predominantly a soap director, is in total command of the wacky material, with interesting angles and carefully composed shots. There are spectacular explosions ­– of the bus conductor and of the big top, a fraction of a second after Sylvester McCoy has strolled clear. And composer/fan Mark Ayres provides more evocative music than we’ve heard of late.

This really is one of the most accomplished and imaginative "shows" of the 1980s. The Psychic Circus is definitely – unexpectedly – on my must-visit-again list. 

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Greatest

Radio Times archive

RT billings  part one  part two  part three  part four  RT picture

gallery of rare Radio Times images taken on location in 1988

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Available on BBC DVD

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