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Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy originally aired in 1988.

Sometimes I think it’s you that’s crazy, not Deadbeat here.

Anybody remotely interesting is mad in some way or another.

– Ace and the Doctor cut to the heart of Doctor Who

It’s very hard to believe that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy aired as the final story of the twenty-fifth season of Doctor Who. Stories like Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis were clearly anniversary fodder, celebrating the progress of the show to this point. The Happiness Patrol was a delightfully surreal oddity that has only really been noticed by the general public in recent years, with news breaking in 2010 that Andrew Cartmel had been using Doctor Who to tell politically subversive stories. Which, I suppose, confirms just how few people were watching The Happiness Patrol in 1988.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is as concerned with the legacy of Doctor Who as Remembrance of the Daleks or Silver Nemesis, but it lacks the nostalgic shine. Instead, it’s a stunningly bitter piece of television that offers a pretty damning indictment of what Doctor Who had become by the late eighties, a critique of selling out and chasing ratings and living in constant fear that the gods of entertainment – the middle-class families so desperately courted and so carefully catered to – might tune out and consign the show to oblivion.

The Doctor welcomes you to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy...

The Doctor welcomes you to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy…

Once upon a time, there was an institution built around excitement and adventure. Weird and wacky individuals would wander around the galaxy and entertain millions with their unique talents and bold ideas. It developed its own following and its own fanbase. Some people even dared to call it “the greatest show in the galaxy.” Eventually, however, there came pressure to conform; to settle down; to sell out. The hippie ideals of the sixties were cast aside like the shell of a brightly coloured party bus, as the show settled for middle-brow entertainment in the middle of a rocky grey quarry.

Where once the show had drawn massive crowds, now the rafters were empty. Various stunts were attempted to draw new attendees or to appease those audience members who had been there since the very beginning. The few people who did watch were less-and-less amused or entertained by what they had seen. The audience ratings seemed trapped in a downward spiral, and this was not a good thing; low ratings meant death. Where once the show had been alive and vital, it was now primarily concerned about staving off death.

No clowning around...

No clowning around…

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is full of mirrors that reflect Doctor Who. The Psychic Circus sits at the centre of the narrative, a grim reflection of the spectacle that eighties Doctor Who had become. Bright outfits and gawdy hooks, pandering to the lowest common denominator and the shortest attention span. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is hardly subtle, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s bold and angry and pointed in the same way that the best of the Cartmel era is.

A middle-class family sit up in the rafters munching on popcorn and telling each other to shut up and watch. They offer the ratings that determine whether the show lives or dies. It becomes a dark metaphor for the state of the show in the John Nathan Turner era, as it offers what ever sacrifices are necessary to keep those viewers watching, and to appease the angry gods sitting at the BBC head office. Don’t try anything too ambitious or controversial. Just keep them entertained.

The future looks hazy...

The future looks hazy…

“Practise juggling, I suppose,” Captain Cook offers. “Your chances of survival in the ring are better, of course, if you keep them entertained.” The Doctor wonders, “Why, do they let you out again?” That’s a stupid idealistic question. “No,” Cook explains, “but you last longer.” And that seems to be the goal here. To survive. It’s not about artistic integrity or big ideas or challenging expectations. It’s about getting to live a little bit longer. As the father explains, “So long as you entertain us, you may live.” The mother offers the logical corollary, “When you no longer entertain us, you die.”

It’s no coincidence that the Circus is presented as some weird left-over from the idealistic days of the sixties. The bus is designed to evoke hippie counter-culture. The local residents worry about the “riff-raff” attracted to such nonsense, seeing these fringe figures as waging a war on their decidedly middle-class values. Trying to earn the confidence of a native, the Doctor explains to Ace that they must try to blend in. “She apparently thinks we’re a pair of undesirable intergalactic hippies. We must try and convince her we’re nice, clean-living people who eat up all our fresh fruit and pay our way.”

A nice ring to it...

A nice ring to it…

(In this respect, then, Russell T. Davies can be seen as the spiritual successor of Andrew Cartmel. Both Davies’ and Cartmel’s versions of Doctor Who seem quite uncomfortable with the hetero-normative value system of the middle class. The real villains at the heart of Davies’ Midnight, for example, is a middle-class family terrified by what they see as something unusual or foreign to their values. Here, the corrupting Gods of Ragnarok are presented as a father, mother and daughter; the implication being that appealing to that group of people was corrupting the show and “selling out.”)

The Psychic Circus is made of weirdos who aren’t too dissimilar to the the Doctor. The group was originally composed of idealistic individuals with hippie names like “Flowerchild and, and Peacepipe and Juniperberry.” Morgana reflects on the group’s history, “Yes, we used to have a great time in the old days, going from planet to planet.” It was a satisfying and enriching experience. “We were really into personal expression and the Circus gave us a chance to develop ourselves by expressing our individual skills.”

I'm stuck with a valuable friend... I'm happy, I hope you're happy too.

I’m stuck with a valuable friend…
I’m happy, I hope you’re happy too.

However, that couldn’t last. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy joins the Circus after it has given up on that youthful idealism. The company are no longer a bunch of fringe weirdos touring the cosmos. They are no longer a mere curiosity. They have a base of operations, a bunch of benefactors and even an impressive advertising campaign. “The Psychic Circus has grown into quite a sizeable operation, by the looks of it,” the Doctor muses. “The greatest show in the galaxy,” Morgana responds, with a hint of irony. But at what cost?

Morgana tries to offer excuses for the decision to sell out. “Well,” she remarks, “you have to hang up your travelling shoes and stop wandering sooner or later, don’t you?” It’s the sort of talk many idealistic young people eventually get from their parents – “get a job; get working; get contributing; get stability.” Bellboy is somewhat more honest about the whole process. “They took everything that was bright and good about what we had, and buried it where it will never be found again.”

Chasing ratings...

Chasing ratings…

That’s a very bitter and bleak way of looking at things. When an interviewer noted that the story “really put the boot” into hippies, Cartmel corrects him,  arguing the it “puts the boot into corrupt, failed hippies. Hippies who sell out.” There’s a sense of self-reflection here, and positioning the story at the end of the twenty-fifth season of Doctor Who feels a little pointed. After all, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is hardly celebratory. Then again, the twenty-fifth anniversary wasn’t really an occasion to celebrate either, with the BBC making a conscious effort to kill the show.

However, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy doesn’t just blame external forces for the corruption of this once-great institution. Sure, the gods of ragnarok are evil and subversive, but the Circus itself has been complicit in this decay and decline. It’s telling that the Ringmaster – the character most supportive of the idea – is presented as a collection of American clichés. He dresses in red, white and blue. He raps. He speaks with an American accent. He uses colloquialisms like “doc” and “babe.”

Hanging together...

Hanging together…

Eric Saward would attack Nathan Turner for spending more time touring the States than working on the show. Nathan Turner famously invented international companions to help make it easier to sell the show abroad. He allowed the airing of The Five Doctors two days early in the United States in order to help the show break there. To Nathan Turner, as to a lot of British television producers, breaking in the States was seen as the ultimate sort of validation. Here, that is linked with selling out.

Trying to justify the Circus’ position to Morgana, the Ringmaster pleads, “Listen, 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. Bellboy, Deadbeat, Flowerchild, the rest. Don’t you understand? They wanted to live in the past, the old lazy way. Not us. We’ll make the Psychic Circus known everywhere.” Fame and financial success are the aspirations for this institution.

Walking the line...

Walking the line…

Other mirrors populate the show. Captain Cook is an interesting character. On the one hand, he seems like he could just as easily be a parody of another iconic science-fiction franchise. Launched only a year before, Star Trek: The Next Generation had proven that it was possible to produce credible-looking science-fiction on television, and had breathed new life into a franchise that had previously been dead on arrival.

The very British Patrick Stewart – who rather infamously used to make fun of the Doctor Who actors at the Royal Shakespearean Society, according to Lalla Ward – played the lead role in the series. Despite the fact that Jean-Luc Picard was clearly meant to be French, Patrick Stewart’s Britishness shone through, right down to the character’s fondness for tea. Much like Cook, the show would often feature Picard sipping tea on the ship while his officers engaged on risky missions planet-side.

Well, we know where we're going...

Well, we know where we’re going…

Like Picard, Cook is constructed with a decidedly British stiff upper lip. He repeatedly defines himself as an “explorer”, a description that implies a far more academic and distanced style than the Doctor is used to. He’s rather detached and cold, maintaining emotional distance. “I wonder you manage to explore anything,” he rebukes the Doctor at one point. “Everything seems to alarm you so.” At another, he makes it clear that his relationship with his travelling companion is rather more rigidly defined than that between the Doctor and Ace. “Now, now, Mags. No use in getting upset, and that’s an order.”

However, as much as Cook might seem like a sly dig at a high-profile American science-fiction franchise with a British lead, he’s also another grim mirror to the Doctor. He’s a wanderer, but he’s less engaged than the Doctor. He sips tea, he observes, he collaborates. He’s passive and complicit in corruption, while the Doctor stands up against what’s wrong. Cook is introduced sipping tea on an alien planet, after we’ve spend a few minutes watching the Doctor throwing himself into the local culture, sampling the local cuisine.

No clowning...

No clowning…

Rather more pointedly, though, Cook is obsessed with survival. It’s something of a recurring theme running through the Cartmel era – a revulsion at the very idea of Social Darwinism. So it’s no surprise to hear Cook offer the familiar refrain about “survival of the fittest.” It’s a theme that really gets pushed to the fore in the following season, with episodes like Ghost Light and Survival exploring the notion that “survival of the fittest” is a pretty disconcerting philosophy upon which to build a modern civilisation.

However, in the context of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Cook is driven by the urge to keep breathing. He doesn’t want anything more. He urges the Doctor to be entertaining; not because they might let him go, but because he’ll live longer. Similarly, he throws the Whizzkid into the ring so that he might get to live just a few minutes longer. Like the Psychic Circus, Cook sold out everything that he believed in. However, while the Psychic Circus got fame and money, Cook just gets to limp on from one mediocre success to another. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy condemns that as the most shallow form of survival, and something that Doctor Who should not aspire towards.

The lonely god confronts some other gods...

The lonely god confronts some other gods…

Much is made of the character of Whizzkid. The serial is quite mean to him. He’s presented as an obvious parody of obsessive Doctor Who fans, with several deliciously stinging sequences. “It must be awfully exciting working for the Psychic Circus, Morgana,” the Whizzkid observes. “Particularly when you did your tour of the Boreatic Wastes. I think that most of your admirers would agree with me that that was one of your finest ever gigs. Well, in so far as you can tell from the posters…”

The irony is delicious, like fans constantly critiquing Doctor Who for failing to measure up to shows that don’t actually exist. Like fans watching reconstructions, Whizzkid is trying to reconstruct a past experience to compare it to a current live performance. In a piece of dialogue clearly intended as a none-too-subtle jab, he insists, “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.”

How time Whizzes by...

How time Whizzes by…

The show brutally kills him off, and Cartmel himself admits that the production staff were quite happy at dispatching him so brutally – but the script remains sympathetic towards him. He is enthusiastic and idealistic, and he’s betrayed by his heroes. He doesn’t fail the Psychic Circus or Captain Cook. In fact, he travels a long way to support them, as entitled and annoying as he might be. However, both institutions conspire against him, and offer him up as a sacrifice to some grim god.

Cook is also rather mean to Mags, his companion. Clearly designed as a counterpoint to Ace (her name is quite similar to “Mel”), Mags seems like a criticism of the way the show has treated other companions. She’s pretty much a character who exists to accompany Captain Cook. For most of the serial, all she does is scream and pour tea for him. She is used as a weapon to be deployed, and never treated as a person in her own right, with potential.

Let's get this show on the road...

Let’s get this show on the road…

Indeed, there’s an uncomfortable whiff of misogyny to Cooks’ attitude towards Mags. Describing her to the Doctor, he talks of Mags as if she’s a curiousity. “She’s rather an unusual little specimen,” he boasts. As Mags is gripped by her werewolf urges, Cook explains, “She can’t control herself, of course, and like all her kind she’ll destroy whatever comes in her path.” While the “like all her kind” obviously refers to her lycanthropy and evokes colonial racism, but – given Cook’s colonial characterisation – it has deeper sexist connotations as well.

This sort of emphasises the idea that Ace is a new type of companion, and that the Seventh Doctor’s relationship to her is rather different than any previous relationship with a companion. The Seventh Doctor is distinguished from the Psychic Circus and from Captain Cook by his stubborn refusal to compromise with injustice to get a better deal, but also because he cares about people. At the end, Mags asks, “The Captain really is finished now, isn’t he?” The Doctor replies, “Yes. But you’re just about to start.”

Beastly...

Beastly…

Indeed, much like Cook’s “survival” philosophy, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy seems to prefigure the final season’s interest in Ace’s own character arc. Here, she’s given a very clear personal stake in the adventure – she doesn’t like clowns. Bringing her to the circus and allowing her to face that fear, the Doctor is offering her a chance to work through her issues. He’s actually helping with her personal development. She’s growing as a person in a more tangible way than “hung around time and space for a while.”

We can really see Cartmel’s vision of the Doctor shining through here. He’s introduced reading “juggling for the complete klutz”, which foreshadows a major shift in the Doctor’s methods during the Cartmel era. Suddenly he’s not just improvising. Suddenly he’s throwing and catching balls that have been up in the air for so long. The Doctor isn’t just randomly stumbling through time and space, as much as it might appear so. He is moving with deliberate purpose.

Made of stone...

Made of stone…

And again, Cartmel suggests a larger mysterious past for the Doctor. The gods of ragnarok are pretty much your standard “fallen” villains – like Sutekh or Magnus Greel before them, the fairly standard “here’s a big bad that has been responsible for massive suffering across the cosmos” back story to ensure that the audience is suitably disgusted by their antics. They’re a massively evil force manifesting in a strangely banal sort of way, a cosmic evil masquerading as a far more normal villainy.

The only real difference is that their past is intertwined with that of the Doctor. Their mysterious past becomes his own. “I have fought the gods of ragnarok all through time,” he boasts, even though no member of the audience will have seen such a struggle. Like the Doctor’s past date with Fenric or his future date with Morgaine. It’s a nice way of suggesting that there’s more to the Doctor than we know about from reading the handy books or the magazines or the plot synopsis of earlier episodes. The Doctor’s history is suddenly wide open again, and there’s plenty of room of more ambiguity and more mystery.

Quite an undertaking...

Quite an undertaking…

That is, after all, the real Cartmel master plan. It ultimately has little to do with Lungbarrow. Indeed, that story could only ever prove a disappointment. It’s not about tying the Doctor to the history of the Time Lords or any nonsense about that. It’s about reinjecting a sense of mystery or ambiguity into the character, creating a sense that he is a genuine riddle rather than an old friend. He’s not an unambiguous heroic figure, and he’s not anything we’ll ever fully know – no matter whether we watch eight episodes or eighty episodes.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a strange show to close out the series’ twenty-fifth anniversary – serving as an evisceration of the franchise’s desire to cash in or sell out, and questioning the show’s urge to survive at whatever cost. However, it does offer a nice mission statement for the future. As much as Remembrance of the Daleks or Silver Nemesis celebrate the show’s glorious past, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy seems dedicated to tearing down the romanticism surrounding that nostalgic past, in the hopes that it might have a future again.

Walking off into the distance...

Walking off into the distance…

However brief that future might be.

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