47 Cool Things About
"The Greatest Show in the Galaxy"
(and 3 Stupid Ones)
(But we're not telling you which is which)
(We're expecting you to work that out for yourselves)
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 450
1. Throughout this “50 Things...”, we suggest you substitute the words “Eighties Who” for “Psychic Circus”, and see where the parallel leads you.
2. To make the connection even more pertinent, one of the ideas which eventually coalesced into “Greatest Show...” was to do a story set around the Doctor Who exhibition at Longleat.
3. In the late 1970s, rap was a dangerous novelty, by the mid-1980s, following enthusiastic but naive attempts to incorporate it into the mainstream, every tired old franchise was incorporating rap numbers in an attempt to seem exciting and new. Right from the off, this serial sets out its postmodern stall.
4. The Doctor's spoons are the same ones from “Time and the Rani”.
5. “Junk mail that talks back” seemed like a futuristic novelty in 1988. How things change, we say as we hang up on yet another telemarketer from BT.
6. Think, as you look upon the desert scenes here, that they were shot in Warmwell Quarry, without the benefit of CGI or even CSO. There's absolutely no need to visit a human rights hellhole like Dubai to get that sort of landscape, Mr. Davies.
7. The old merchant hates the Psychic Circus and hurls abuse at its clientele, but nonetheless is completely dependent on the Circus for revenue and plonks her stall in front of a bloody great sign for it.
8. The Circus' visitors also meekly give her their money and buy her products.
9. She later watches the clowns dragging Bellboy away with complete indifference. So, we have the people who profit off the Psychic Circus observing that it's in trouble, but doing nothing to fix it.
10.The scene where Bellboy and Flowerchild kiss was directed by John Nathan-Turner. So much for his image as anti-sex.
11. “Monopods”, referred to by the merchant, were one-footed dwarves who appeared in CS Lewis' children's classic The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and who move about by hopping.
12. The Captain is a colonialist adventurer who roams the galaxy, droning on about his adventures in time and space, and putting everyone else in danger, particularly his teenage girl companion, who provides the violence and is also a wolf. What all this means, we're not sure.
13. The Captain also, later, manipulates one of this serial's supporting characters into sacrificing himself in order to save the Captain's neck. We're not too sure what that means either.
14. Meanwhile, Mags is a short teenager in a black jacket who is deadly dangerous when provoked, and who the Doctor tries to encourage towards mercy and compassion.
15. One of us used to own a cup and saucer exactly like the Captain's. He gave it away to a charity shop the day before viewing this serial and discovering it was made by Royal Doulton.
16. Bellboy built the clown robots and gave them all a face cast from the Chief Clown, the Chief Clown in turn, subverted the clowns and uses them for evil ends, which sets up both Bellboy and the Chief Clown as oppositional mirror-images of each other.
17. Bellboy is dressed in Sergeant Pepper-style gear like a 1960s musician; the Chief Clown is clearly meant to recall David Bowie's outfit from the Ashes to Ashes video, which revolves around Sixties space hero Major Tom falling on hard times in the Eighties.
18. The current Circus-runners are driven, ruthless managerialists, but the original Circus-runners from the 1960s, deciding it's not fun any more, have withdrawn into a druggy stupor rather than create a counternarrative. Which rather explains how so many 1960s ideals went that way 20 years later.
19. “It was one of my trips to Neogorgon, there was a whole planet that had electronic dogs' heads submerged in mud”. Admit it, you really want to know how that story ends.
20. This episode originally featured Mel. This suggests interesting possibilities for a scream-off between her and Mags.
21. “Delta and the Bannermen” was set in the 1950s; “The Happiness Patrol” was originally to have had a 1950s-Americana visual aesthetic, the Family watching the Circus are got up in 1950s costume. We're sensing a theme.
22. The Captain, meanwhile, heralds another McCoy-era theme-- Darwinism-- by banging on about “survival of the fittest”.
23. Oh, all right-- McCoy Tropewatch: Characters being killed and coming back from the dead; Norse mythology; insane characters who regain their sanity; postmodern references to the history of Doctor Who; magic tricks; ordinary things and people given a sci-fi-y twist.
24. The Psychic Circus lures its fans into taking part in the performance, and then brutally murders them for the entertainment of the audience.
25. Judging by his hairstyle (short crop with small long braids on one side), Nord is actually an apprentice Jedi. His scenes become that much funnier with that backstory in mind.
26. One of the clowns who comes to prepare Nord for his stage appearance in Part Two is carrying a pink makeup sponge.
27. It's worth slowing down the DVD in Part Two when the Captain displays his double headed coins: there's a picture of Alpha Centauri on one of them.
28. “We used to have fun. We were free spirits then... [now] It feels more like we're part of a machine”. We were going to include Morgana's exchange with the Ringmaster as being another ironic nod to Doctor Who's plight at the time, but really, it could apply to any production or group which has gone on so long its original members are starting to feel the fun's wearing off.
29. And believe us, when any theatrical company gets stuck in a rut, playing the same tropes over and over, the posters on the front can be cheerful, but the cast inside are bored, stale and preying on each other.
30. “Just as long as they keep on coming, and they will, no doubt of that, we are a success. Don't you understand? An intergalactic success. Now, the others, they couldn't take the pace, that's all”. And again, a nod to the Thatcherite idea that so long as something's generating revenue, and everybody's working till their stress levels are through the roof, it's successful.
31. “Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be” Say what you will about Whizz Kid, he is actually right about the Psychic Circus.
32. While the writer, Stephen Wyatt, says the name Whizzkid is a holdover from an earlier draft which focused on computer games, we think it also works as an ironic allusion to the line from the song “2-4-6-8-Motorway,” “Whizzkid sitting pretty on your two-wheel stallion”.
33. The sets and lighting in this story are particularly impressive, which, given that the interiors were shot in a tent set up in a car park at BBC Elstree, just goes to show that sometimes one has to get out of one's comfort zone to reinvigorate a concept.
34. PSA for Nu-Who fans: Part Two of this serial is where the now tired old trope of a character pulling off a robotic enemy's arm comes from.
35. PSA for Nu-Who fans, number two: Take a look at Whizzkid's David Tennant hair and Matt Smith bowtie, and maybe you'll see why us older folk twitch slightly every time we're told that either/both of these are Cool.
36. All three of the main Psychic Circus characters-- the Chief Clown, Morgana and the Ringmaster-- adopt very different modes of speech when they think they're unobserved than when the punters are around.
37. It's ironic that Bellboy's robot is what ultimately kills Flowerchild.
38. The Captain also provides a comment on 1980s individualism: not only will he cheerfully sacrifice everyone else to ensure his own survival, but when urged to work together, he does so only long enough for him to throw the others to the wolves, so to speak.
39. In scripted but cut dialogue the Doctor refers to traps that were left by the Pharaohs, and the Gods of Ragnarok have an Egyptianate look; interestingly one of the origins of the evil-eye symbol which inspires Deadbeat's medallion and the Eye in the well is probably the Egyptian “Eye of Horus” image.
40. Evil-eye medallions are traditionally worn in the Mediterranean to ward off misfortune, so Deadbeat's incomplete medallion naturally brings misfortune onto him.
41. McCoy's entry into the reality beyond the Circus is filmed in glorious Gurnovision.
42. “It must be very difficult for you, trying to exist concurrently in two different time spaces. I know the problem myself”. Which suggests something rather interesting about the Doctor and how he actually relates to the reality we see him in, but thus far nobody's really explored this within the series.
43. The magic tricks the Doctor performs are well-known prepared-prop pieces; the implication here is, however, that the Doctor really is making the objects disappear and reappear through magic/superior technology, but the miraculousness of this is undermined by the familiarity and banality of the tricks. The metatext just writes itself.
44. The Psychic Circus has a family audience who are conservative, small-minded and, if they are not fed a constant diet of superficiality and melodrama, will turn on and destroy their entertainers.
45. The Doctor, meanwhile, has fought that audience all through time and space. “It was your show all along”, says Ace.
46. At the moment, however, he's on the back foot and stalling for time in the hope that a reprieve will come.
47. He likens them to the ancient Roman audiences watching gladiatorial combat. And to think reality TV wouldn't even take off in the UK for another thirteen years.
48. He also says “The climax of my act, Gods of Ragnarok, requires something you do not possess in great abundance. That is, imagination”.
49. What exactly are the clown-figures on the pillars behind the Gods of Ragnarok doing to each other?
50.Just to sum up and recap: the Psychic Circus was an idealistic ensemble cast of artist types, who allowed their enterprise to get taken over by predatory managerialists, then sank into apathy and/or committed suicide, but an injection of fresh talent eventually allows them to confront their demons, exorcise the managerialists and begin again.