Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Doctor Who - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

“The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” is the last adventure of the twentyfifth season of “Doctor Who” classic series, which aired in 1988. It follows “Silver Nemesis” and it’s a four parts adventure written by Stephen Wyatt and directed by Alan Wareing.

The story

The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) brings Ace (Sophie Aldred) to the planet Segonax, where people are supposed to be very open and tolerant. The atmosphere is not what the Doctor expected and on the way to go to the Psychic Circus where they were invited the two travelers meet people who are far from friendly.

When the Doctor and Ace finally arrive at the circus, they find an even stranger situation. There’s only one family watching the show but soon the travelers realize that if those three spectators get bored the artists end up badly and are replaced by anyone who happens to be there.


This DVD contains a good amount of extras. There are typical contents such as production subtitles, a gallery of pictures from this adventure, the Radio Times Listings and a promo of the “Doctor Who” DVDs soon to be published.

There are various comments in the adventure episodes alternative audio track by its protagonist Sophie Aldred, actors Jessica Martin and Christopher Guard, writer Stephen Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel and composer Mark Ayres moderated by Toby Hadoke.

The Show Must Go On. A 30-minute documentary about the production of this adventure.

Deleted and Extended Scenes. Approximately 11 minutes of scenes cut partly or completely in the final editing.

Model Effects. A look at the models used for some unused special effects.

The Psychic Circus. A music video connected to this adventure.

“Remembrance Demo”. Two scenes from the series “Remembrance of the Daleks” with the musical theme rescored by Mark Ayres.

Tomorrow’s Times – The Seventh Doctor. Actress Anneke Wills presents the press review about the Seventh Doctor from that time.

Victoria Wood. A sketch about “Doctor Who”.

Isolated Music. The option to listen to the music composed by Mark Ayres.

There’s also an “Easter Egg”.

Producer John Nathan-Turner asked screenwriter Stephen Wyatt to write another serial before his first, “Paradise Towers”, was broadcast. The basic idea was to set it in a circus and over time was developed with various modifications, including its expansion to four episodes instead of the three originally scheduled. This, among other things, allowed taking more advanted of location shooting.

Everything seemed ready to start filming when in one of the studios used by the BBC in the course of some renovations the presence of asbestos was discovered. When other studies were checked, traces of asbestos were discovered in almost all of them with the consequence that it was necessary to close them in order to clean them up. At best, it wouldn’t have been possible to proceed with half of the scheduled studio shootings.

John Nathan-Turner has often been the center of controversy over choices he made as the “Doctor Who” producer but he reacted to that problem by immediately looking for an contingency solution. He didn’t want to risk “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” to end like “Shada”, which got canceled, though in that case part of the shooting was impossible due to a strike, remaining incomplete for many years.

Luckily, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” was set in a circus so it was possible to mount the tent in the parking lot of a BBC studio in another location that wasn’t contaminated. When it was announced that studio shooting would be impossible and they needed to use the tent in the parking lot for all the shooting in the circus, the production was made even more difficult due to the noise surrounding it but could continue.

One way or another, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” was completed and broadcast to show all its complexity with various subtexts. The story of the circus contains references sometimes also explicit to the hippie movement but in a negative way, with the betrayal of its principles. The circus, which was originally a place of joy that went on thanks to the collaboration of the various artists, became something gloomy.

The change for worse is regretted from another point of view also by Captain Cook. In this case, however, he’s a character that also recalls a colonial past also in his clothing and immediately shows negative sides. Unfortunately, he tends to be dull so he’s not a strong point for the story.

There’s also a young obsessive fan, who represents the show’s fans. In this case his comment on the fact that the circus is no longer as good as it once was represented certain complaints about the show’s decay. In those years “Doctor Who” had some problems that often affected its adventures’ quality too but over the past 50 years of the saga that kind of remarks probably started after a few years and continue today.

These more or less satirical subtexts are included in a story in which we start seeing the Doctor’s last development in the classic series in which he is engaged in fights against powerful entities through space and time. In “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” this emerges only at the end, when we find out who’s behind everything that happens at the circus.

In my opinion, the subtexts are too heavy and end up taking something away from the progressive discovery of the sinister events taking place in the circus. Perhaps in the UK in the 1980s they were more punchier and perhaps today they’d be made in a different way. They’re probably the most subjective element of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” but for many viewers they’re essential for the final judgment on this serial.

Personally I’d have preferred to have less subtests and a plot more focused on the fight between the Doctor and the entities that control the circus, which seemed a bit too hasty at the end of a four-part serial. In essence, the the pace is generally slow, as it was typical of the classic series until to its final part, when everything gets quickly resolved.

I think they could’ve structured the various parts of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” to have a greater balance. The result would’ve been better but it’s a serial that divides opinions and many fans like it exaclty because it was made this way. Visually it’s well done despite the production difficulties and generally well acted with peaks such as the Chief Clown, who manages to be disturbing even with his gestures.

The setting in a circus with various clowns of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” already makes the reactions of the audience more subjective than usual, the way in which it’s developed further increases that subjectivity. The DVD edition is good and above all the documentary is interesting because it describes the production difficulties but the extras don’t make much difference in the overall judgment. I recommend it especially to the fans who appreciate this adventure’s setting and themes.

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