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Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

"It was naff and it was boring."

You've hit the nail right on the head there, Ace.

'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' in no way lives up to its name. Like so many Doctor Who stories from this particular era, it has some good ideas, but is let down by bad plotting, poor direction, shoddy production values, and some seriously questionable acting. This is a story that starts off with a rapping ringmaster who makes Vanilla Ice look like Ice Cube, and gets steadily worse from there.

Many of the problems with this story, and this era as a whole, can be chalked up to a lack of experience behind the scenes. The show's script editor at the time, Andrew Cartmel, was hired despite having no previous experience writing professionally for television. He got the job after the producer's agent saw some unproduced scripts he wrote and recommended him. Rather than compensate for his own inexperience by bringing in some skilled professionals, Cartmel instead assembled a writing team that was just as green as he was.

This injection of fresh blood failed to breathe new life into the series. For their first two seasons, Cartmel and his team blundered around clearly unsure of what they were doing most of the time. Their stories had ambition and lots of youthful energy, but there was no skill or discipline on display. Rather than carefully assembled, their stories were clumsily mashed together, randomly throwing ideas and characters at the screen at a hectic pace and then discarding them just as quickly. They did finally get their act together in their third season, but by that point it was too late. The damage was done, the show's audience had shrivelled to nothing and the axe finally fell.

'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' is a prime example of the Cartmel team's haphazard approach to storytelling. This is one of those stories where the Doctor spends the first three episodes investigating what is happening, doesn't work it out until the final episode, and then everything is wrapped up as quick as it takes to say "BOOM". Little time is given to explaining anything that is happening. We never really find out exactly who or what the Gods of Ragnarok are or how the Doctor knows them. He claims to have fought them all through time, but that just feels like it was thrown in at the last minute as a convenient way to explain how he knows what to do to defeat them, which still isn't all that clear.

It is hard not to see 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' as a meta commentary on the show and its fans, albeit a very bitter and resentful meta commentary that doesn't have anything nice to say about either. The Gods of Ragnarok, who mainly appear as a white middle class family, are the audience, the all powerful deities who determine the life or death of a show performer with just a snap of their fingers, or a click of the remote. The leaders of the circus are the TV executives, self-serving people with no talent of their own who no longer care about putting on a good show and will happily churn out any old crap so long as it keeps the audience entertained. And the fandom is represented by the annoying Whizz Kid, a tank top wearing nerd stereotype obsessed with the show, lacking anything resembling a social life, and aware that the show isn't as good as it used to be. He gets vaporised. The only sympathetic characters are the young creative types, like Bellboy and Flower Girl, whose imagination and genius is abused and twisted by their horrible bosses in the circus.

Hmm, I wonder who they are meant to represent?

Notes and Quotes

--Most of this story was shot in a tent erected in the car park of BBC Elstree Centre after asbestos was discovered at BBC Television Centre.

--As villains, the Gods of Ragnarok are a drearily generic bunch and completely overshadowed by Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown, one of the few genuinely creepy villains from this era.

--Even the TARDIS isn't immune to junk mail.

--The explosion at the end of episode four went off earlier than expected. Sylvester McCoy didn't break character, though, and kept on walking, even with his back on fire. Respect.

--Ace suffers from Marty McFly syndrome. Call her a coward and she'll do anything stupid.

--Ace wearing Four's scarf is beyond adorable.

Mum: "I don't think much of this, Father."
Dad: "Nothing's happening, is it."
Mum: "Not that I can see."
Little Girl: "Mum, Mum!"
Mum: "What is it?"
Little Girl: "I'm bored."
Dad: "There's no point in going on, dear. We're all bored. Something has to happen soon."

Whizz Kid: "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."

One and a half out of four rapping ringmasters.
Mark Greig will twist again, like he did last year More Mark Greig


  1. A lot of people rate this one quite highly, but I'm with you Mark. It's not terrible, but it's nothing amazing either. It's flaws are striking, and the good parts mostly rare; like the aforementioned chief clown who is the most interesting adversary in this story.

    Like most of the 80s era, especially once we get to 6 and 7, it feels cheap. Classic Doctor Who has always had a poor budget, but usually at least looks like it's trying to overcome them, wobbly sets and all, but stories like this don't just look low-budget, they ooze low budget, and that does this story no favors.

  2. I personally love this episode, 7 is my favorite classic doctor but i haven't seen this episode in a while, i need to rewatch a few episodes! But i love reading different opinions


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