The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

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(Doctor Who Story No. 155, starring Sylvester McCoy)
  • written by Stephen Wyatt
  • directed by Alan Wareing
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Mark Ayres
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: A scary thing happened on the way to the circus.... Ace says she's always found clowns to be creepy, so an interactive junk mail taunts her to prove she's not scared of coming to see the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. But the Doctor senses something more sinister at work on the planet. Could it really just be a few malfunctioning robots in the area? Is it merely stage fright setting into the varied collection of new and old performers trying out for the circus festival? Behind his smiling façade, the Chief Clown keeps deadly strict control over circus activities. Does he know the true unique reason why this show really MUST go on?

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by combinations of Sophie Aldred (Ace), Jessica Martin (Mags), Christopher Guard (Bellboy),
    writer Stephen Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel, and composer Mark Ayres. Moderated by Tobe Hadoke.
  • "The Show Must Go On" making-of featurette (30 min.) with Aldred, Cartmel, Ian Reddington (Chief Clown),
    producer John Nathan-Turner, director Alan Wareing, designer David Laskey, and visual effects assistant Mike Tucker.
  • Deleted and extended scenes (11 min.)
  • Unused model effects shots (2 min.) introduced by Mike Tucker.
  • "Tomorrow's Times" featurette (14 min.) on media coverage of the Sylvester McCoy era, hosted by Anneke Wills.
  • Isolated Music by Mark Ayres
  • "Remembrance Demo" - two scenes of "Remembrance of the Daleks" (story no. 152) rescored by Mark Ayres (3 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery music montage (7 min.)
  • "Victoria Wood" TV sketch (1 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program.
To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


Here we come to another of the three big success stories of the Sylvester McCoy era. In fact, this is probably the best "candy-horror" story Doctor Who has had yet, neatly conquering the usual believability and stylistic problems, while crafting a good narrative for an interesting collection of characters.


Even if, like me, you hate "rap" music, don't let the Ringmaster's opening verse, or any of the subsequent short ones in later episodes, put you off, because what follows is a good, engaging adventure.

Time is taken to introduce characters properly in this story, and to celebrate who they are with enjoyable scenes. To that end, we get the best TARDIS interior scenes of the entire Sylvester McCoy era here. These are important, as they establish our main characters' reasons for going through the adventure, while also establishing Ace's major character arc for the story. Although she will get many good moments that work with that arc on the planet, no doubt her journey wouldn't work half as well without these important set-up scenes. And thumbs up for another good TARDIS materialization - the McCoy era usually satisfies in that respect.

Most of the guest characters are well drawn, and get economical yet substantial scenes to demonstrate themselves to the audience, scenes that integrate quite a number of good action beats providing good structure to the story. Even with many of the characters being parodies of certain archetypes, they never quite drift so far from normality that the audience can't understand where they're coming from, and one does become emotionally engaged with most of them. The circus idea also encourages recognition and acceptance of at least two layers with each character - the performance they display professionally vs. their real emotionally vulnerable self that waits to be unmasked. The mystery twists for each character provide a lot of the intrigue for later story developments....

Characters are also quite well motivated in this tale, with the circus and its festival for new amateur recruits providing a simple and effective primary external layer for understanding why these characters are there doing what they're doing. Any actions that may raise questions are deliberately meant to.

A lot of the believability problems commonly associated with candy-horror stories are helped by setting the story on an alien planet with an ancient alien culture in the background - all of which injects a healthy amount of unknown into the set-up of the situation that we have here. Additionally, we get to see the best of Sylvester McCoy's Doctor as an explorer of the unknown in this story, instead of the usual long-term manipulator who already knows what's going on. Nice.

Believability also gets a bit of a boost by the fact that the Doctor does eventually recognize the final villains in the end, prompting the viewer to think back over the programme's previous 25 years to try to recognize them as well. Though we've never actually seen or heard mention of them before, the masks they wear bear a striking resemblance to that worn by Sutekh in "Pyramids of Mars" (story no. 82). Are they members of the same or a similar species/culture? It does nothing but good to imagine they are, as the villains here can inherit some of Sutekh's mental powers, and with the final conflict taking place in some alternate dimension, all the classic elements that can make candy-horror work believably are now in play. Good show.

Our villains seem to be playing with less than the full human deck of emotion, desire, and thought - which works in this case to emphasize how inhuman they are. In some respects they resemble Native Americans encountering Europeans for the first time and getting their first tastes of alcohol - easily becoming addicted to it and not knowing how to control themselves very well after having some. Similarly, these aliens on Segonax seem to have little imagination themselves. Now exposed to entertainment via the circus, they can't get enough and will do any unscrupulous thing for more. Although addiction isn't really mentioned explicitly in the Doctor's analysis of these villains, it's an easy element to identify, and helps the story to work.

"It was your show all along."

Of course, the circus is working on another completely different level as well, becoming a parody of television programming in general, and the peculiarities of Doctor Who and its fans, general audiences, and television bosses in particular. With this device, John Nathan-Turner and the rest of the team get a chance to say things they might never otherwise say, and the story is littered with many nice little observations on the subject. It might all have been subtle enough to remain ambiguous about what is actually being referred to here, if only Ace's line at the end hadn't quite made the parallel so obvious by not really having any story-only context that it could believably refer to. Well, we don't really mind so much. This is a fun parody that really works as icing on the cake of a good story.



Of course, as much as Stephen Wyatt's writing here is a vast improvement over his efforts for "Paradise Towers" (story no. 149), writing by itself, particularly in this style, won't ever quite be enough to guarantee success on the big or small screen. Thankfully director Alan Wareing seems to have been able to make time to wrap his head around the aims of the story, and get his actors and production team to follow suit. The believability continues through the performances, maintaining good levels of seriousness where appropriate. Camera angles demonstrate much higher levels of creativity than usual for Doctor Who - even where we simply have the Doctor and Ace walking along on location, time is found to emphasize Ace's boredom and expectations of disappointment simply by the way she walks along. For his directorial debut on this show, Wareing knocks this one out of the park. (...and in actual fact out of the studio too, but that's another story.)

Also making his Doctor Who debut is composer Mark Ayres, whose music also does much to sustain correct mood, increase tensions, and make the whole thing quite cool and enjoyable to listen to. Of particular excellence is the fact that the musical themes of this story are not so much attached to external ideas like specific characters, but more importantly to the thematic subtext of the story, emphasizing the ideological struggles that fuel the characters' motivations. This is a deeper and more satisfying level than that which 1970's composer Dudley Simpson usually seemed to settle for, and I love it. The use of a new sixties-style melody helps to make this a very compelling score, and it remains my favourite of Ayres' three scores in the canon so far.
Music by Mark Ayres
The complete score is available on:
Audio CD - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Silva Screen FILMCD 114

More info & buying options


A selection of cues (some edited) is also available on:
Audio CD - The Best of Doctor Who Volume Two
Silva Screen SSD 1042

More info & buying options


Dave Chapman's post-production effects also deserve mention, as they are nearly as good as here as they were back in
"Remembrance of the Daleks" (story no. 152). Good visual laser effects feature everywhere you'd want them, plus many good picture mixes feature on shots that establish or celebrate the circus's alien planet location. Nice. Although I rarely say this about other classic Doctor Who stories, I think wide screen might have benefitted this tale, particularly in allowing some of these lasers some better traveling distance before they exit the frame. However, I will emphasize that I'm talking about "wider screen" when shooting, not TV's usual 4:3 ratio cropped off after the fact, like the silly Fiona Cumming remakes for "Enlightenment" (story no. 128) and "Planet of Fire" (story no. 135).

There are lots of good performances in this story, but Ian Reddington stands out as the Chief Clown. In many ways he offers a lot of the same qualities you'd want from the Master - and Anthony Ainley's Master in particular: the elegance, the calculated sinisterness, even the odd sympathetic beat, while exaggerating the style slightly and getting away with it due to the character being a performer already in a very unique and bizarre situation.

The story also caters to Sylvester McCoy's abilities as an actor, particularly for the concluding moves, allowing him to make a few more inimitable marks on the long-running character. It would be hard to imagine most of the other Doctors pulling off what McCoy does here, although no doubt William Hartnell's facial expressions would be priceless should he have had a chance to try. But Davison, Eccleston, or Matt Smith? ...fuhgedaboutit.

The story is also really good for Ace, as she matures from the newbie she was in "Dragonfire" (story no. 151) and "Remembrance of the Daleks", and develops the more fluid relationship she shares with the Doctor in "Silver Nemesis" (story no. 154) and "The Happiness Patrol" (story no. 153), while also proving that she isn't about to succumb to Janet Fielding's theory that every companion breaks the mould in their first story, and then falls right back into it for the rest of their run. Ace is going to continue to be interesting and inimitable herself in nearly every story she gets to participate in. Good one.


Bottom line: This is an excellent story that also remains unique amongst the rest of the entire Doctor Who canon. If you still haven't got this one in your collection, you ain't seen nothing yet!



Season 25 Rankings:

Best Story:

  • Remembrance of the Daleks
  • The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
  • Silver Nemesis
  • The Happiness Patrol

Best Director:

  • Alan Wareing (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy)
  • Andrew Morgan (Remembrance of the Daleks)
  • Chris Clough (Silver Nemesis / The Happiness Patrol)

Best Music:

  • Mark Ayres - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
  • Dominic Glynn - The Happiness Patrol
  • Keff McCulloch - Remembrance of the Daleks
  • Keff McCulloch - Silver Nemesis

Best Writer:

  • Ben Aaronovitch (Remembrance of the Daleks)
  • Stephen Wyatt (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy)
  • Kevin Clarke (Silver Nemesis)
  • Graeme Curry (The Happiness Patrol)

Best Video Effects:

  • Remembrance of the Daleks (Dave Chapman)
  • The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (Dave Chapman)
  • The Happiness Patrol (Dave Chapman)
  • Silver Nemesis (Dave Chapman)

This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Battlefield"



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