This story is certainly a prime candidate for referral to the Advertising Standards Authority – if ever there was a misleading (and far too long!) title for a Doctor Who story, this is the one!
I begin however by praising the direction that the show was beginning to take by this point – not least of which is that when a studio workers’ strike put the serial in jeopardy, the producers circumnavigated the issue by filming the interior shots under tents. Full marks not only for persistence, but for subsequently producing a story that is more claustrophobic and atmospheric than might otherwise have been the case.
By this stage too, the Seventh Doctor and Ace are in their element and very neatly play off against each other. By now, McCoy has definitely shrugged off any pretensions of being Boris Johnson, and is now every inch Peter Mandelson – even when clowning there is a distinct sense he’s only doing it for an ulterior motive. Ace continues to grow in a very fascinating role – one where she displays a tough exterior and a great deal of bravado, but the audience gets glimpses of the vulnerability that the exterior masks. Played over a modern style 13 episode series, the seventh Doctor and Ace would have made compelling and interesting viewing.
Sadly however, that is not what is on show (yes I know, forgive me) in this story. This is one of those rare instances where it isn’t the acting or production values that let the serial down – most of the acting is highly credible. The greatest problem is that the story is relentlessly silly. The core premise is that a touring circus mishappens upon the resting site of three beings of immense power, who insist on perpetuation entertainment lest their considerable wrath be made evident. It’s rather akin to the modern day God Complex serial where the reality you see is not real but a projection, and behind the scenes someone is feasting on human emotion.
What ought to be a scary concept is rather ruined by the fact that the hosts of the ‘Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ are somewhat unbelievable – and while it is tense, there isn’t the same sense of dread there ought to be. Take the head of the show – the chief clown. Clowns ought to be scary – it’s practically a law of the land. A clown appears for a three second cameo in The Deadly Assassin and it scares you because it is unnerving. The clown of this serial however, is more of the Hooded Claw pantomime villain variety and with his gang of misfits leaves you cringing rather than cowering.
And then of course there is the greatest fan of the greatest show in the galaxy – a teenage nerd who bicycles great distance so he can see the show himself. Here is a simple message to the showrunners – like Osgood in Day of the Doctor, like Malcolm Taylor in Planet of the Dead – it is not a good idea to have a character in the story who is an obvious representation of Doctor Who fandom. It’s self-referential, cringy, and embarrassing. I suspect I was not the only viewer not to be disappointed when he failed to please the all powerful baddies and ended up roasted by lightning.
Unlike many of the serials below, this is a story that I will watch again. I found it hard to enjoy on DVD but I am prepared to give it a second chance – probably while doing the ironing at the same time! The Greatest Show in the Galaxy in some ways typifies the tragedy of Sylvester McCoy’s era – you can see how they were trying to turn the corner, but the flaws make it painfully obvious how far short they were falling.