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DVD Review: Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

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From 1987-1989, Sylvester McCoy portrayed the seventh incarnation of the Doctor in the final three seasons of the original (1987-1989) run of the classic Doctor Who series. Every actor brought something unique to the role, and  McCoy had a special flair. Over the course of the four-part The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, he is given ample opportunity to show his stuff. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy originally aired from December 14, 1988 – January 4, 1989.

The Doctor and his young female companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) land on the planet Segonax, to see the Psychic Circus. The situation is a strange one from the moment the two step out of the TARDIS, as a fellow named Nord (Daniel Peacock) races past them on a motorcycle. Ace hates clowns, and the Doctor’s idea was to try and help her get past this. It may also have been him just exercising his sometimes macabre sense of humor. In any case, these are clowns to be feared. Their makeup, and the way they act is unsettling to say the least.

When the Doctor and Ace first meet Captain Cook (T.P. McKenna) and Mags (Jessica Martin), it is if they have met their doppelgangers. Captain Cook fancies himself “The eminent intergalactic explorer.” Early on, he calls the young female Mags a “unique specimen.” It is an interesting comment, which the Doctor mentally files.

As it turns out, the Psychic Circus is made up of formerly “good” circus folk, who have come under the spell of the evil inhabitants of Segonax. To keep them entertained, people are continually brought to the ring, where their deaths soon follow. The discovery of what has gone so horribly wrong, and how to stop the madness is the aim of the Doctor. Of course, he and Ace are also being chased as fresh meat for the “show.”

The story was a little confusing for me, at least until the second two episodes, when things began to make a bit more sense. I have to say though that the visuals may have been one of the reasons for this. They are so wonderfully over the top, I feel like I may need to watch it again just to catch any nuances in the story I might have been distracted from.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is is the most “80s” Doctor Who serial I have ever seen. The first view of Nord on his bike was like seeing a character out of The Road Warrior (1982). And the “unique specimen” Mags (who turns out to be lycanthropic) looks almost identical to Siouxsie Sioux – certainly the sexiest Goth who ever appeared on a Doctor Who series. Then there is the rapping Ringmaster (Ricco Ross), which really threw me. Add to all this the Miami Vice-style pastel clothing of some of the other characters and you kind of get the idea.

In the end of course, the Doctor is able to figure out the bizarre situation, and discover the true source of what is behind the outrageous “show.” I found it interesting that once things are put right (as it were), Mags plans to return to the circus life. Her assurances that she can keep her werewolf tendencies under control seem less than 100%, but the Doctor and Ace leave it at that. The story itself is a bit unusual, and very well done, but the many cameo characters besides those mentioned certainly add to the whole mystique. Just a few to watch for are Whizz Kid (Gian Sammarco), Deadbeat (Chris Jury), Flowerchild (Dee Sadler), and especially the Chief Clown (Ian Reddington).

As is the case with these new BBC Video releases, there are a great deal of extras included. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is no exception. The most impressive of the bonus features here is the 30-minute “The Show Must Go On” making-of the serial. This features actors Sophie Aldred and Ian Reddington, producer John Nathan-Turner, and director Alan Wareing, among others in new interviews discussing the show.

“Tomorrow’s Times – The Seventh Doctor” is a 14-minute piece discussing Sylvester McCoy, and his role as the Doctor. There are also some deleted and extended scenes, bits on the various sets and models used, a photo gallery, audio commentary, and some PDF materials. By far the most unusual Doctor Who extra I have ever encountered though is the “Psychic Circus” music video. This is set to a song by Christopher Guard, and features the vocals of Jessica Martin and T.P. McKenna in addition to those of Guard.

Both in the story and (especially) with the visuals, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy in one of the most unusual Doctor Who serials I have encountered. And with the 1988 music video included for “Psychic Circus” included, there is no question that this one is a must for fans.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    you liked it better than I did, as CS readers already know. It was a little too much children’s programming for my taste

  • Greg Barbrick

    I understand your point Bicho, but it was so darned weird that it pulled me in.