Cirque du Docteur

Review of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (#152)
DVD Release Date: 05 Aug 08
Original Air Date: 14 Dec 1988 - 04 Jan 1989
Doctors/Companions: Seven, Ace
Stars: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred
Preceding Story: Silver Nemesis (Seven, Ace)
Succeeding Story: Battlefield (Seven, Ace, the Brigadier)

Usually in mid- to late February, I post a recap of my entire Gally experience for the year, complete with photos. This year I didn't have much in the way of shareable pictures, though, and I didn't want to let February slip away without including a monthly review.

It seemed appropriate, therefore, that I compromise by giving a nod to Gallifrey One 2018 by reviewing a serial that was relevant to the con. Since many of the cast and crew of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (TGSitG) were guests at Gally this year (including Sylvester McCoy [Seventh Doctor], Sophie Aldred [Ace], Jessica Martin [Mags], Dee Sadler [Flowerchild], Adrew Cartmel [script editor], Stephen Wyatt [writer], and Mark Ayers [composer]), it seemed a perfect choice.

I don't actually remember when I last watched TGSitG, but it has definitely been a number of years—enough so that my perspective on the setting seems to have changed significantly. I am fortunate to live in an area that has a circus school, and I've seen the students there perform some amazing feats over the last several years (including my own kids), so something that stuck out like a sore thumb this time around that I seem to have glossed over before is the nature of the "circus skills" the members of the Psychic Circus possess.

Bellboy tells Ace at one point that all the circus members had their own specialities, and that his was creating and repairing the robots that play such a prominent role (they are most of the background performers—clowns who tumble and ride unicycles). Flowerchild's "skill" was creating kites. What the hell sort of circus has robots and kites? A psychic one, I guess, but it threw me for a loop when it was stated outright that those were the things that allowed those folks to become an integral part of the circus.

Another feature of this particular story that grates on me is the set of rap verses the ringmaster uses to introduce each act. Aside from being painfully 80s, they're just... not very good (sorry, Mr Ayers). So there are definitely details that make me grit my teeth and pretend they don't exist (as WhizzKid is for a lot of fans, since the original idea for the character (computer genius) drifted through various drafts until what appears on screen would be better dubbed Fanboy), but there's a lot to love, too.

I find Captain Cook and his, er, friend (a "unique specimen," he says) Mags to be an intriguing analogue for the Doctor and one of his Companions—or perhaps more accurately for the Master and one of his. Their relationship provides several key plot points, some more strongly telegraphed than others. While Mags' true nature is set up as a titillating mystery, it's her behavior around the Captain that stands out most to me, not least because of the similarities to poor Lucy Saxon.

As a whole, TGSitG works well. The plot has a decent element of mystery, a not-too-naff (if poorly motivated) Big Bad, several deaths, and plenty of skin-crawlingly uncanny-valley-esque details—the Chief Clown, in particular, takes creepy to a whole new level with that smile of his. ~shudder~ Plus, there's a massive explosion at the end.

The idea of a twisted circus is not new, but TGSitG takes the premise and puts a Doctor Who spin on it. As long as I ignore the idea that it is any sort of real circus (aside from the actual performers they got to play the robots), the acts that get into the ring make sense enough in context. And true to form, though plenty of people die, there are also some survivors who pick themselves up, dust off the rubble of their lives, and move forward to the next adventure.

I guess that's one of the ultimate messages of any Doctor Who story: life is tenacious. Whatever happens, however much pain and loss and destruction is visited on a person or a group or a whole society, something—someone—somewhere keeps going. Perhaps that's the greatest show of all.



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