The Only Show in Town

Review of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (#155)
DVD Release Date: 14 Aug 12
Original Air Date: 14 Dec 1988 - 04 Jan 1989
Doctor/Companion: Seven, Dorothy "Ace" McShane
Stars: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred
Preceding Story: Silver Nemesis (Seven, Ace)
Succeeding Story: Battlefield (Seven, Ace, the Brigadier)

Having just come from a killer performance by Circus Juventas, watching Greatest Show was ... a tad jarring. I've really come to love seeing all the ridiculously amazing things skilled folks can do with flexibility, balance, and trust in their partners, and having that utterly backgrounded for sleight of hand and (oh, dear god) the 1989 version of "rap" patter from the Ringmaster (what does it say about the British view of my country that this particular character had an "American" accent?) threw me off a bit. Once I got past wanting to see a circus and got back to seeing Doctor Who, it went a little better.

Sadly, I wanted to like it more than I did. Perhaps it will grow on me with further viewings (one can hope). Aside from the aforementioned circus angle, I'm not entirely sure why that's the case, either. I mean it's got plenty of mystery and suspense - "The Plot Thickens" was practically written across the screen every other scene - and anyone who follows the blog regularly will know I'm a sucker for Seven and Ace.

Ace, of course, is - as always - pitch perfect for me. Her bravado in the face of clowns that clearly creep her out (honestly can't blame her - ick!) is an endearing part of her character. We know she's really a tender, mixed-up teen under it all (which is, I believe, a great deal of what the Doctor loves about her), and trying her damnedest to put a brave tough face on it all. Throughout, she's more obviously attuned to the bad vibes than the Doctor, but that's part of his schtick at this point, too (as evidenced by one of the closing lines) - Intergalactic Man of Mystery, if you will. His personality in this Regeneration feels quite solid here, as if McCoy really knew by now where he wanted to take the character, and was ready to sink his teeth into that darker persona. Heaven knows I've got no complaints about these two leads.

Perhaps it was the weird analog to the TARDIS crew - in the form of galactic explorer Captain Cook and his mysterious "specimen" of a sidekick Mags - that turned me off, or the heavily telegraphed resolution to the question of exactly who or what Mags really was. Maybe it was the Doctor's incongruous facial reaction to that truth at the end of Episode 3 (didn't seem very Doctor-ish) or the utterly nonsensical, out-of-the-blue reveal of the story's Big Bad. Or it could just be that this week I just wasn't in a place to accept the late-'80s production values. Whatever the case, it didn't speak to me this first time around. Maybe in a couple of months.

DVD Extras (highlights)
The Show Must Go On
I found it fascinating to learn that Greatest Show, had producer John Nathan-Turner not stepped in and gone to bat for it, could have become another Shada - a story that had completed its location filming, but due to circumstances that prevented the use of the usual studio space was never completed. How they got around that issue in this very special case was quite the tale.
The Psychic Circus
It sounds kind of weird, but there's a music video on this DVD. The hook is that it not only uses clips from the story for its visuals, but is a song that was written by Christopher Guard (Bellboy) and performed by him along with Jessica Martin (Mags) and TP McKenna (Capt. Cook). Loopy fun.

Tomorrow's Times - The Seventh Doctor
Media reviews of the show during Seven's tenure were no more forgiving (it was the "most sustained period of hostility," as the narration by Anneke Wills put it) than most of the fans I've heard talk about this era. Frankly it's a shame, because there's plenty to love about Seven, if you ask me, but hearing the contemporary thoughts of how the aging show was performing was entertaining and enlightening. I always recommend this series of extras.

Granted, this Show didn't grab me, and maybe I just watched it because it was my only option at the time. But it wasn't awful, and there was nothing that would make me want to avoid it. In fact, knowing all the ins and outs of the plot now, I'm pretty sure it'll be sooner rather than later that I cue it up again. Until then, I'm ready for the next act.



PaulGreaves's picture

I love this story. Ian Reddington's Chief Clown is superb and all the cast do a bang up job. I like the weirdness, the style, the direction and the story. McCoy and Aldred are on top form and how Sylvester didn't flinch with that last explosion beats me.

As for Ricco Ross as the Ringmaster and his "American" accent... He's from Chicago! He was one of the marines in Aliens, been in Babylon 5 and has a pretty extensive CV :)

By PaulGreaves --


mrfranklin's picture

Agreed on the Chief Clown - brilliantly chilling!

Well, color me surprised. Shows you how on top of pop culture I am. ;) I'm still wondering why they chose an American actor for that role, but at least now I know the accent was not just "well done" but not put on at all!

By mrfranklin

Great ideas and concepts and, as far as I am concerned, a vast improvement on Mr Wyatt's previous effort, Paradwas Towers. The bits which I remember not being impressed with mainly revolve around Captain Cook and Mags and, not having seen it for a few years, there is something about Bellboy providing the key to the resolution that seemed a bit twee - maybe I should go back and watch it so I can clarify exactly what I mean? (Usually a good idea when reviewing a programme I guess!).
I thought Adrian Mole as the Fanboy was hilarious, especially as at the time I was one of the DWB-reading-spleen-venters wishing JNT had left several years previous. Even I could listen to the lines about the circus not being as good as it used to be and laugh at the very unsubtle allegory
So in summary, although the story had some sound foundations on which to build, my main memory of this is coming away feeling somewhat underwhelmed as if it had underdelivered on its potential. However, in further summary, perhaps in its defence I think I should give this story some latitiude because it is entirely possible that this story might not have been produced at all (asbestos at the Beeb IIRC),so perhaps some credit should be given to the team who had to work with all the problems associated with that. So although it felt like a 4/10, like the UK unemployment figures this could be seasonally adjusted to to a much improved 7/10 given the constraints they had to work with

By Wholahoop (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Since I wasn't soaking in all the fan/producer vitriol when this was broadcast (because, obv, I wasn't watching at the time), that whole "fanboy" thing totally went over my head. But yes, I liked it much better than Paradise Towers, and look forward to a re-watch of Greatest Show some time when I'm in a different frame of mind.

By mrfranklin
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