25×4. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Writer: Stephen Wyatt
Director: Alan Wareing
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace travel to the planet Segonax after viewing an intriguing ad for the Psychic Circus, only to discover that what began as the brainchild of a group of hippies has turned into something far more sinister – a trap for would-be fans and visitors who are forced into the ring to entertain the gods of Ragnarok and pay with their lives if they disappoint their patrons.
Review: In watching “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” I got a sense of the Sylvester McCoy era finding its footing and successfully telling the kind of story that was attempted but not quite pulled off in previous installments. We have another distinct and imaginative setting – you would not easily mistake the costumes and set design of the Psychic Circus for anything out of a different Doctor Who serial – but this time it’s supported by a more fully developed premise and one of the strongest casts of guest characters that the show has given us in quite a while. We learn that the Psychic Circus was once the creative outlet of a group of idealists who genuinely loved to entertain people, then became corrupted when Kingpin, one of their number, discovered a portal to the realm of the gods of Ragnarok. There is a genuine air of tragedy surrounding Bellboy, who created many of the robotic clowns and detests what his creations have become, and Kingpin, who was driven nearly insane by his encounter with the gods. Meanwhile, the friendship between the Doctor and Ace finds a distorted mirror image in the more cynical relationship between the explorer Captain Cook and his companion Mags. Unlike the Doctor, who also loves to explore but who doesn’t hesitate to intervene wherever he finds evil and injustice, Cook is a believer in “survival of the fittest” who readily sacrifices others to the Circus’s blood-stained performances and openly refers to Mags (whose werewolf nature he exploits to try to gain favor with the denizens of the Circus) as a “specimen.” He’s an explorer in the most amoral sense imaginable, accumulating knowledge and experience with no ethical investment in the fates of those around him, while the Doctor believes that Mags can rise above her nature and disdains the notion of viewing others as specimens. This also helps balance the latest hint that the Doctor’s past is more complicated than we previously thought – he’s apparently clashed with the gods of Ragnarok before – by emphasizing that his altruistic nature is still there underneath the more mysterious veneer that we’ve lately seen him assume. Finally, “Greatest Show” works as a sort of metaphor for show business and for Doctor Who itself. If the “Whizzkid” who meets his end on the circus stage is a caricature of a somewhat irritating type of fan and Captain Cook is the Doctor’s distorted mirror image, then the gods of Ragnarok can only represent the most pernicious influences on the creative process, with their incessant demands for “more” and their taste for pointless violence and death. The only real shortcoming here is the ending, in which the Doctor deflects the gods’ power back at them using some sort of magic with a medallion – it’s not really explained how this works, and I’m still iffy on the idea of Doctor Who crossing the line from science fiction into fantasy – but overall this is a successful and memorable entry in the Who canon.
Rating: *** (out of four)