December 1988 to January 1989
Captain : "So you've always been interested in the Psychic Circus, have you?"
Whizzkid : "Well yes, of course. I've never been able to visit it before now, but I've got all sorts of souvenirs. Copies of all the advertising satellites that have ever been sent out. All the posters. I had a long correspondence with one of the founder members too, soon after it started. Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested."
By 1988, Doctor Who had reached its 25th anniversary. After the troubled departure of Colin Baker in 1986 and the difficulties of producing the final episodes of the twenty-third season, the show's then producer John Nathan-Turner had intended to resign his position and move on to other work. Returning from leave, he was told that he would have to remain in post and produce the 1987 season if he still wanted to work at the BBC as a staff producer. He found himself in charge of a series that was increasingly unloved by the BBC, reduced to the production of just 14 episodes per year watched by a declining audience, and then moved once again from its traditional Saturday evening slot to a single weekday slot opposite Coronation Street. Nathan-Turner resumed work on the series with no scripts commissioned and no script-editor to replace Eric Saward.
The twenty-fourth season, debuting with Pip and Jane Baker's Time and the Rani, was something of a baptism of fire for incoming script-editor Andrew Cartmel and the young writers he cultivated, providing a transition between the outgoing Baker and the recently cast Sylvester McCoy. By the time the season had closed with Dragonfire, Cartmel had certainly shifted the furniture around and was pushing the show in a direction he felt it needed to go. Working with many writers new to television, including several from the BBC's Script Unit - Stephen Wyatt (Cartmel saw the potential in his script for Claws - 'about lethal machinations amongst cat owners'), Malcolm Kohll and Ian Briggs, Cartmel started to leave his imprint on the series and McCoy settled into the role of the Doctor. Flashes of the kind of stories to come, despite some lapses in casting and production and a lack of conviction in the scripts, could be seen in Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen and in Dragonfire the final component to realising the remainder of the seventh Doctor's era, the casting of Sophie Aldred as Ace, had been added to the series.
'it scared the life out of me basically'(1) - that had chimed with Cartmel's desire to bring a darker quality to the Doctor and resurrect the show's ability to communicate radical, postmodernist ideas about the show's past and reflect the inspiration he found in the contemporary comic book oeuvre of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.
Even before Paradise Towers had been made, Head of Drama and Controller of BBC1-to be Jonathan Powell was telling Cartmel that the series needed more scripts like Wyatt's. Wyatt was therefore asked to come up with new ideas and Nathan-Turner's only demand was the use of the title The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (both Cartmel and Wyatt thought it was terrible). The original 'circus in space' idea was selected as the all-studio three parter for the year and Wyatt had welded together a disparate number of characters and sub-plots when he was officially commissioned in May 1987.
The story on screen emerged from a number of developing concepts - one about nocturnal creatures using a circus at night, one featuring a computer games challenge (that's where Whizzkid first appeared) and then another about a collector of ancient curios (the origin of the Captain Cook character) and the search for an ancient circus hidden beneath a contemporary one. According to Tat Wood's About Time, the family as talent judges and ancient aliens/gods in disguise was also a consistent sub-plot right from the beginning(2).
More rewrites brought in the hippie characters, a punk-werewolf girl (the origin of Mags), the stallslady and Nord and fellow writer Ben Aaronovitch suggested Indiana Jones as a template for the Blimp-like Captain Cook. By this time Wyatt had four episodes to write rather than three and the production would also incorporate location filming. The planet of Segonax was originally a pastoral setting before being changed to a desert (perhaps to reflect the forthcoming location work at West Knighton Pit, Warmwell) and the hippies Bellboy and Flowerchild became a reflection of the writer's theme about the demise of their 1960s ideals.
Eastenders and Casualty director Alan Wareing was sent the completed script ('it scared the life out of me basically' he claims in the documentary) and took his crew to Dorset in May 1988 with McCoy getting some training in stage magic from one Geoffrey Durham (aka The Great Soprendo and now the former Mr Victoria Wood), effects supremo Mike Tucker creating foreground miniatures for use on location and the coach featured in Delta and the Bannermen being pressed back into service as the hippie bus. Chris Chapman's documentary 'The Show Must Go On' demonstrates the camaraderie between cast and crew - with McCoy and Aldred joined by the legendary T.P. McKenna (as Captain Cook), Christopher Guard (as Bellboy), Chris Jury (as Deadbeat and incidentally who had auditioned for the role of the seventh Doctor in 1987) Jessica Martin (as Mags), Gian Sammarco (Whizzkid), Ian Reddington (Chief Clown), Peggy Mount (Stallslady), Daniel Peacock (Nord) and Dee Sadler (Flowerchild) - especially when the production returned to studio at the end of May only to find that BBC management had closed down all the studios after asbestos had been discovered in TC2.
Scheduling the season also ran into some difficulties. Originally supposed to commence on 7 September with Remembrance of the Daleks followed by The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the BBC's coverage of the Olympics threatened to scupper the plan to transmit Silver Nemesis on the show's anniversary date when the start of the season was moved to 5 October. To retain Silver Nemesis's place in the schedule, The Happiness Patrol swapped places with Greatest Show but this then threw out continuity and consequently in Silver Nemesis Flowerchild's earring appears on Ace's jacket before she visits Segonax and in episode one of Greatest Show she also searches for her rucksack which was blown up during Silver Nemesis. However, the final part of Wyatt's serial, which closed the season, recorded both the highest viewing figures of the McCoy era and those since Part Two of Revelation of the Daleks in March 1985.
There's a knowingness to this story that suggests Wyatt was keen to play with the Doctor Who format and the audience's perception of it, in a bold attempt to dispel the notion that the series had had its day and was 'old fashioned'. The opening to part one certainly alludes to this with the Ringmaster's rap offering a deliberately unstable collision between the series' status quo - as a kind of science fiction vaudeville - and something much edgier and postmodern and that culminates with Rico Ross's stare directly into camera as he tells us 'you ain't seen nothing yet'.
As Wyatt and Cartmel observe on the disc's documentary and commentary, the story's setting plays to certain other strengths (if indeed you see them as such) including McCoy's own persona and skills as a surreal stage artist and former member of the Ken Campbell Roadshow, stories about which had been trotted out by the press when McCoy had been cast. The extraordinary evolving out of the ordinary and the focus on the companion also shine through. Though Ace regards the circus as 'kid's stuff' even she perceives the uncanny lurking beneath the commonplace as the story begins and this is compounded with the space junk mail taunting her to come to the Psychic Circus, to face the fears produced from a previous childhood experience. This of course would be a recurring theme for Ace in both The Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light.
Wareing's location work immediately grabs your attention as Bellboy and Flowerchild make their escape across the arid wastes of Segonax. He cuts to the approach of the clown-driven hearse and zooms in on the door as the window winds down, the surrealism heightened by the first appearance of Ian Reddington's Chief Clown. Reddington makes the part his own through sheer physical presence and oozes schizophrenic menace throughout the story, a dualism he comments on in the disc's documentary. A lovely touch in this scene is Mark Ayres' music and the doom laden organ motif he uses as part of a fairly substantial score over four episodes.
Visually, the story shifts from the open vistas of the location work to some well mounted studio (or should that be tent-in-a-car-park) sequences. The fabric corridors of the circus tent allow Wareing to dictate some eye-catching use of colour and help underscore the warped psychedelia at the heart of the narrative. The second part's climax, where the Doctor discovers the symbolic eye beneath the surface of Segonax and Ace faces her fear of clowns in the beautifully lit confines of the circus workshop as the robot clowns spring to life, is just as memorable.
Add in Viking helmeted Nord roaring around on his bike ('I'll do somefink 'orrible to your ears'), the incongruous stallslady (a suitably tetchy Peggy Mount yelling at 'weirdos'), the introduction of Captain Cook and Mags and a murderous bus conductor, all of which are crowned by Wareing's beautiful long shot of the circus that combines computer and model effects with live action, and part one is itself already a million miles away from the Doctor Who that McCoy was bequeathed in 1986.
... a meditation on television, audiences and production
Later, as Captain Cook informs him, the Circus talent contest is solely concerned with 'the survival of the fittest' - a major theme in the story. This coincides with the first appearance of Deadbeat - another hanged man figure suspended in time ('beat' here chiming with his strung-out Kerouac style observation of having 'gone down the road again'). The idea of survival at any cost is also symbolised with the characters of Morgana and the Ringmaster who were once similar free spirits as Bellboy, Flowerchild and Deadbeat but instead opted for 'success', the conformity of selling tickets and appeasing the force that dominates Segonax.
Wyatt's other approach, which he plays down on the DVD release, is to take the poorly articulated themes of 1986's Trial Of A Time Lord season - of the series and its central character being on probation at the BBC - and invert this perspective into a meditation on television, audiences and production. The making of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy against all the odds is itself bound within this concern and is a commentary about the changing culture within the BBC at the end of the 1980s. In fact, Doctor Who itself is cast as a grand narrative of liberal broadcasting, a fading remnant of the ‘golden age’ of television production and a contradiction to the free market meritocracy being espoused by Thatcherism. Its policies favouring individualism over collectivism chime with Wyatt's notion in the serial about the end of post-war consensus and the death of the hippy dream as the free spirits of the Circus submit to the demands of the Gods of Ragnarok.
Although Birt’s ‘Producer’s Choice’ hadn’t yet arrived at the Corporation, market forces were already making their presence felt in television production at the time and ratings were increasingly becoming the benchmark of what constituted a 'successful' programme. Just as the Gods exclaim, 'Entertain us… …or die!'and score the various acts in the Circus, such competitive free market principles in broadcasting were already being outlined in a 1988 White Paper that would eventually become the Broadcasting Act of 1990. Here, the ratings and the BBC may well be emblematically represented as both the audience figures of the mother, father and daughter - the idealised 1980s nuclear family as envisaged by contemporary media - and the Gods Of Ragnarok - the BBC transformed from 'what had been a producer‘s programme-led hierarchy' to a 'management led power structure'(3) by accountant turned Director General Michael Checkland, his eventual successor John Birt and Marmaduke Hussey's appointment to the Board of Governors.
Whizzkid, one of the survivors of the original storyline about computer games, has also been seen as a crude representation of a more vocal Doctor Who fandom (or the 'barkers' as Nathan-Turner fondly regarded them), one quite happy to bite the hand that feeds it, and his line about the Circus not being as good as it used to be might suggest Wyatt was tuning into the received fan wisdom regarding Doctor Who at the time. The general feeling was that the series had lost its family audience and was only appreciated by a fan minority. However, the irony is that Whizzkid’s observation looks rather redundant when all around him The Greatest Show in the Galaxy demonstrates that the series can rise to the occasion and present something imaginatively chaotic and non-linear that works on multiple levels and illustrates the efforts of a confident production team and director grabbing hold of the programme to briefly make it relevant once again.
In that sense then perhaps the Doctor Who series itself was caught up in this aftershock and by 1989 had reached a point where it could no longer cope with 'survival of the fittest' as a requirement within broadcasting policy and the reaction from a fragmenting audience base where, as mother wryly comments of the entertainment on offer: 'I don't think much of this, father'. After the death of Flowerchild, the conversation between Bellboy and Ace is mournful about the loss of 'high ideals' and, when he elects to commit suicide and confronts the Chief Clown with ‘you were a wonderful clown once, funny and inventive’, you get a sense of a cultural legacy, and a series, beautifully disintegrating in front of your eyes.
Characters are also set up as reflections of each other - Captain Cook is a mirror of the Doctor, a 'crushing bore' opposed to 'good vibes' and 'letting it all hang out' whereas Nord is the aggressive rocker in contrast to the flower power and beat credentials of Bellboy, Deadbeat et al. Cook critiques the iconic Doctor himself and Wyatt is perhaps saying that this pompous old name dropper, a cynical cultural tourist, is the Doctor shorn of his morals who manipulates his companion and others for his own benefit. He ruthlessly hands the Doctor over to the clowns, treats Mags appallingly and uses her in her werewolf form to try and kill the Doctor and gets shut of Whizzkid because his entire self-interested raison d’etre is to seize the power of the Circus. McKenna is wonderful in the part and a perfect foil for McCoy.
In this, he’s the anti-hero that many dramas would prefer to have as their main protagonist in the late 1980s rather than the seemingly wishy-washy Doctor. Wyatt is basically saying you can either have an utterly ruthless Doctor, a post-Altamont, post-Manson figure espousing many of the ‘me’ values of the late 1980s, or you can have the liberal consensus, bohemian Doctor turning people on to beauty, honesty, truth and fun. The Doctor, with foreknowledge of the evil that had taken control of the Circus, again helps Ace face her fears and it is quite pointed that she turns to him at the end of the story and says 'It was your show all along, wasn't it?' She might be acknowledging that he’s a master manipulator but I think she’s also saying that this unique programme is again in the right hands and will always have the Doctor as liberal, moral compass, that sense of of 1960s liberalism at the heart of the series, rather than a ruthless, selfish anti-hero who is averse to risk.
Despite a slightly muddled ending, where we don't quite get to grips with why the Gods want to be entertained and why they absorb people and a dead Captain Cook is suddenly revitalised for no real reason other than to delay the triumph of the Doctor, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy ends Season twenty-five in a beautiful burst of chaotic, surreal allegory and seals the show’s new found interest in contextualising the story’s themes within the contemporary debates surrounding it, a series fearlessly facing its own demise and openly debating the reasons for its eventual disappearance. Alan Wareing provides some very memorable visuals to supplement these ideas which culminate with the Doctor nonchalantly striding out of the Circus as it disappears in a whopping great explosion. An unforgettable moment of pure television, embodying his bohemian liberalism surviving despite the odds.
1. Paradise Towers review Cathode Ray Tube October 1987
2. About Time Seasons 22-26 and TV Movie
3. James Curran, Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain
Toby Hadoke elicits stories and reflections from actors Sophie Aldred, Jessica Martin and Christopher Guard, writer Stephen Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel and composer Mark Ayres.
The Show Must Go On (30:17)
Chris Chapman's excellent documentary captures well the determination and spirt of a cast and crew prepared to go through the mill in order to get this serial completed. This half hour begins with the evolution of the script, the casting of the actors and the location shoot in Dorset with plenty of good anecdotes from actors Sophie Aldred and Ian Reddington, script-editor Andrew Cartmel, effects designer Mike Tucker, director Alan Wareing, designer David Laskey. You'll hear about hiring hearses, building and riding Nord's motorbike (provided by a pair of bruisers known as Bootsy and Ferret), playing clowns, painting buses and the liberal use of explosives. Back from location (singing Anthony Newley songs as they return), cast and crew learn of the crisis at the BBC (asbestos in Television Centre) that forces the production to remount the studio scenes in BBC Elstree's car park as an OB in a marquee rather than cancel it a la Shada. It also makes a pleasant change to hear praise for Nathan-Turner's handling of the issues ('the prime mover in saving the show') and dealing with the pressure of going behind schedule and being disrupted by beer deliveries, planes and a fire alarm that develops into a photo-op for the cast of 'Allo, 'Allo.
Deleted and exended scenes (11:10)
Various oddments integrated back into the the scenes they were excised from. These include an extended bit of business in the TARDIS, a longer encounter with Nord, more of Captain Cook being pompous, a scene between Morgana, the Ringmaster, Chief Clown and Whizzkid and a longer scene between Bellboy and Ace.
Lost in the Darkness (2:08)
Mike Tucker briefly explains the creation of a series of model shots of the junk-mail robot for the opening of episode one that were eventually dropped from the edit.
The Psychic Circus (3:53)
In stereo and 5.1. flavours, pop song written by Christopher Guard and featuring composer Mark Ayres and vocals from Guard and Jessica Martin, which was unsuccessfully pitched at BBC Records as a potential promotional song. Gloriously bonkers, rather catchy and, the icing on the cake, it features T.P. McKenna 'rapping'.
Remembrance 'Demo' (3:23)
Demo music prepared by Mark Ayres for sections of Remembrance of the Daleks prior to being commissioned for his first full score on The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. In stereo and 5.1. flavours.
Tomorrow's Times - The Seventh Doctor (14:31)
Another instalment of the documentary series about media coverage of Doctor Who reaches the era of the seventh Doctor. Anneke Wills takes us through the casting of McCoy to the demise of the series. Bearing in mind the lack of press coverage, it's turns into a 'What the Paper's Didn't Say' and even what there was doesn't offer much of a positive endorsement.
Victoria Wood Sketch (1:15)
The 1987 piss-take that inadvertently gave the world of fandom 'the mingmongs' as an RTD descriptive of certain self-flagellating anoraks that tend to clutter up Doctor Who fora. There are some lines in this that actually wouldn't sound out of place in a Moffat script - Crayola: "You don't look a day over five million. How do you do it?" Doctor: "Table tennis!" - but the rest is a rather easy attack on technobabble and screaming assistants that must have written itself. Jim Broadbent, playing the Doctor, returned in Moffat's own spoof The Curse of Fatal Death.
Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
BBC Worldwide / Released 30 July 2012 / BBCDVD 3481 / Cert: PG
4 episodes / Broadcast: 14 December 1988 to 4 January 1989 / Running time: 97:33