Although Ace hates clowns, the Doctor decides to take his companion to the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. There they find a group of scared performers who live in fear of the sinister and creepy Chief Clown. But what is so dangerous about this particular circus, why is there such a small audience and will Ace be able to overcome her fear before it's too late?







The Greatest

Show in

the Galaxy








The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was the only serial in Doctor Who’s twenty-fifth season that I recorded over. My long-suffering mother’s “rub-off” VHS tapes still had the often-played Happiness Patrol, Silver Nemesis and almost worn-out Remembrance of the Daleks eating into their limited space in the mid-1990s, whereas Stephen Wyatt’s four-part spectacle was blithely recorded over within weeks of its 1989 transmission. Watching the story again on DVD, I’m not sure why my younger self found it wanting - far from being the garish throwback to the previous season that I’d remembered, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’s kitschy exterior actually belies a dark and surreal adventure that’s by turns chilling and droll.


The serial’s look is arresting and unique, championing the series’ oft-lambasted quarries and corridors while eschewing their routine trappings. A familiar barren gravel vista sprouts multi-coloured tents and psychedelic buses; gleaming white corridors are abandoned in favour of those vested with rustic, itinerant charm. Even the story’s monsters are drawn from the murkiest recesses of the human psyche, Wyatt juxtaposing funereal clowns with bulbous-headed, robotic bus conductors while anthropomorphosising the primal forces that hide within many of us.



One could also make the case that Wyatt’s script serves Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor better than any other that made it to television. On one level, it indulges the performer’s penchant for conjuring tricks in the proper context. On another, it furthers the series’ reinvention of the recently-ailing Time Lord, emphasising his newfound, alluring shadiness though his measured ‘nurturing’ of Ace, who makes no secret of her loathing for clowns when her mentor ponders a trip to Segonax’s Psychic Circus. The script thus promotes Sophie Aldred too, allowing the former presenter to turn what was just her third performance as Ace into something very special indeed as she visibly weighs her character’s bald-faced mettle against an entrenched fear that’s been brought to the surface thanks to Ian Reddington’s Chief Clown (The Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s ‘Villain of the Year’ for Season 25) and, of course, her time-travelling friend’s insensitive agenda.


However, as he did with Paradise Towers the year before, Wyatt populates his script with an untidy heap of overstated, almost lampoonist caricatures that, at times, threaten to detract from the many characters and performances that do impress. For every deceptive Deadbeat here, there’s a Captain Cook cipher; for every unconscionably creepy Chief Clown or masochistic God of Ragnorok, there’s a repackaged Adrian Mole. Amusingly, Wyatt even gleefully plucks a character straight out of Only Fools and Horses – fans of that show will doubtless recall Daniel Peacock playing Nord under another name in the episode It’s Only Rock and Roll. The resemblance between Peacock’s two characters is uncanny, right down to their mutual propensity for biting off people’s ears.


Above: Chief Clown and potential plaintiff Ian Reddington recalls his on-set accident


The serial’s DVD release boasts an imposing array of bonus material. As with many productions from the series’ latter years, there are still a number of deleted and extended scenes readily available, which are presented here for posterity along with a few unused model shots and a unique music video set to a song written and performed by members of the cast and crew. The disc also features a rare sketch from Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV, a couple of scenes from Remembrance of the Daleks rescored by Mark Ayres as an audition for composing The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’s highly-regarded incidental music, and the seventh Doctor’s instalment of Tomorrow’s Times. The latter makes for harrowing viewing as even the silken tones of the lovely Anneke Wills can’t soften the vitriolic sneering of the press as it spleen-vents over the series’ dying days.


The customary commentary track sees Stephen Wyatt, Sophie Aldred and Mark Ayres joined by script editor Andrew Cartmel; supporting players Jessica Martin (Mags) and Christopher Guard (Bellboy); and career Who moderator and scarf aficionado Toby Hadoke. As The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’s production was such a troubled one, the contributors’ musings swing from insightful to inciting – a trait shared by the DVD’s colourful centrepiece documentary, The Show Must Go On. Big Finish’s Word Lord Ian Reddington is particularly captivating as he wryly recalls his on-set accident which, believe it or not, was captured on camera and is included in the programme. The BBC can relax though - his potential claim for personal injuries sustained therein is long-since statute-barred.



The Show Must Go On also sees an enthusiastic Mike Tucker offer some insight into the many explosions that he had a hand in rigging for this production, including the one that almost engulfed the show’s star. I love how Sly’s cool exterior betrays only the slightest discomfort on screen as the back of his coat burns – it’s actually quite an appropriate metaphor for the whole production. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy could quite easily have gone the way of Shada, forsaken due to industrial strife, but instead it turned out to be just as polished a production as most of its peers. It’s not “the greatest show in the galaxy”, by any means - but it’s a good one nonetheless.


Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2012


E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design

 and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.



Steve Lyons’ later novel, Conundrum, would posit that this serial’s Gods of Ragnorok created the Land of Fiction first seen in The Mind Robber.


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