Like many people, Ace (Sophie Aldred) hates clowns. So she isn’t too pleased when the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) drags her to the circus in the season finale of the original Doctor Who‘s penultimate year. The events of this story, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, are enough to make anyone agree with the Doctor’s companion!
As usual, the Doctor and Ace travel somewhere to solve a mystery and probably save some lives. This time, it just happens to be at a circus. Other travelers are arriving, too, and soon everyone is made a part of the show. Sadly, they perform only for a small audience, a family of three who are very hard to please. Even more sadly, if the family is not amused, the performer is obliterated on the spot.
Of course, it is never as simple as that. There is more going on than meets the eye, both with the circus, and with the vindictive audience. Why did the circus settle on this planet? Where did the rest of the staff and fans go? What can’t Bellboy (Christopher Guard) remember? Who is Deadbeat (Chris Jury, Lovejoy)? And why do the Ringmaster (Ricco Ross, Aliens) and Morgana (Deborah Manship, Angels) argue so?
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy has its share of secrets which must be uncovered, as it typical for Doctor Who. But it also turns up the whimsy a notch. Besides the obvious circus references, there is a man named Captain Cook (T.P. McKenna, Straw Dogs - 1971), who travels the galaxy with a companion, Mags (Jessica Martin). Mags is more than meets the eye, and these two seem to be sort of a version of the Doctor and Ace seen through a twisted fun house mirror. Including them is interesting, and fits well in this particular setting.
There is something to be said for playing on deep, childhood fears. Not everyone is scared of clowns, but The Greatest Show in the Galaxy will bring out the terror in those who are, and might even skew the impression they make on everyone else. The all-encompassing makeup, the painted on smile; it comes across as inherently creepy when shown in a certain light. And this story makes a valiant play to do so.
The strength of these episode lies in the presentation, rather than the substance. There is a familiar formula often used in Doctor Who, and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy plays perfectly into it. Coming so late in the series’ run, this results in a lack of freshness. Yet, it still works because of the allusions it paints, and the masterful way it plays with conventions. There is a reason Doctor Who is beloved, and when looking critically at a “typical” story such as this, that reason emerges in an unexpected way.
As with most of the Doctor Who releases, there is no shortage of extras. The audio commentary this time around includes actors Aldred, Guard, and Martin, as well as familiar voices Stephen Wyatt (writer), Andrew Cartmel (script editor), and Mark Ayres (composer). There are deleted and extended scenes from the first and third parts, two “restored” scenes, and the photo gallery and PDF materials fans have come to expect.
Interestingly, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is know for its music. There is a unique blend of expected and surprising tones, which meld together nicely, complimenting the tale well. A soundtrack was released, and this DVD gives viewers the option of listening to isolated versions of the music. Also included is a music video, written and sung by cast members of this serial.
There are a number of featurettes, including a half hour “Making Of,” which has several Who cast and crew involved in this production providing insight. “Lost in the Darkness” concentrates on model effects, while “Tomorrow’s Time” is a more general piece about the Seventh Doctor. There is a Victoria Wood sketch too that is very amusing.
In short, another worthy addition to the Doctor Who collection. Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is available now.