“If only”: the two saddest words in the English language. If only Sylvester McCoy had figured out what his Doctor was about a little more quickly. If only all the Seventh Doctor stories had been as good as this one.
The idea behind the story is simple: lots of eccentric characters arrive on an alien planet, including a boastful English explorer; a nerdy teenage boy on a bike and a comically psychotic biker. They have all come to visit the famous Psychic Circus. But instead of watching the show, they are put in a cage and forced to perform in it. If the audience (consisting of a sinister Fifties family) don’t like their act, they are killed.
It turns out (unsurprisingly) that the Circus is being secretly run by the mysterious Gods of Ragnarök. We’ve come across aliens who feed off human psychic energy before – these ones feed of light entertainment.
Back in 1986, then-script editor Eric Saward had used ‘Trial Of A Time Lord’ as a metaphor for the state of Doctor Who – which had effectively been put on trial by the BBC. ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’ is a smarter attempt to do the same kind of thing. As the Doctor desperately entertains the gods, they sneer “You are on the brink of destruction, Doctor. We want something bigger, something better…”
In case you don’t get the point, Whizzkid, the lad on the bike, who is crazy about the circus, bares more than a passing resemblance to the stereotypical fanboy (”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”).
There’s a lot that’s just plain daft. We encounter a hippy touring bus guarded by a robot bus-conductor who shoots death rays from his ticket machine. But each daft idea only holds the stage for a few minutes, then they’re offset by genuinely spooky images: silent robot clowns who drive a hearse, and the dark room where they are assembled and repaired. The cumulative effect of jumping between juxtaposing characters and images is quite exhilarating, like looking into a psychedelic kaleidoscope. It’s surely no coincidence that the hippy bellboy (who is trying to escape the Circus) is wearing an Edwardian jacket straight off the cover of the Sgt Pepper’s album.
Presiding over the chaos is Sylvester McCoy’s multi-layered, Troughton-esque Doctor. He’s a silly clown, entertaining the gods by playing the spoons and doing conjuring tricks. He’s Ace’s best mate, a favourite uncle who’s showing her all the wonders of the universe, and — in keeping with the so-called Cartmell master plan — a mysterious being with a deep, dark secret; grimly announcing that he knows what’s going on because he has fought the Gods throughout time. It’s hard to believe this is the same actor who was such an embarrassment in ‘Time And The Rani’. Here, he feels like the first person since Tom Baker with the kind of mad charisma that could have held Doctor Who together.
It took two seasons, but someone had finally worked out what the Seventh Doctor’s era should have been about. If only it hadn’t been cancelled the following year. If only McCoy had always been this good…