Once upon a time there was a Doctor Who story called The Gunfighters, which had a framing device of somebody singing the plot in the form of a ballad. Fast forward a couple of decades, and we get The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, with the Ringmaster rapping dialogue to explain what is going on. This is far more integrated into the story, but works in a similar way. In fact, The Greatest Show is remarkably self-aware.
To get a sense of how much things have improved over the last few years of Doctor Who, compare this to the incredibly popular and utterly dreadful The Caves of Androzani. There we get Shakespearean asides to the camera for the sake of doing Shakespearean asides to the camera. But look what happens here. The Ringmaster raps the plot, the Chief Clown does creepy little flourishes to the camera, so superficially we are on similar ground to Androzani. The difference is that this time the fourth-wall leaning is for a reason, and fully integrated thematically, through and through.
The thing that everyone notices is how Whizzkid is a reflection of Doctor Who fans, and not a very kind one. During the 1980s Doctor Who had a bit of an issue with fans complaining about everything. Actually, scratch that. Doctor Who had an issue with a producer who took any notice whatsoever of fans complaining about everything. Largely it was a problem of John Nathan-Turner’s own making. His cosying up to fandom and attempts to please the kind of fan that his “unofficial continuity advisor” represented came at a price. So Whizzkid harks back to a past that he has no personal experience of:
I’ve never been able to visit it before now, but I’ve got all sorts of souvenirs. Copies of all the advertising satellites that have ever been sent out. All the posters. I had a long correspondence with one of the founder members too, soon after it started. 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.
It doesn’t quite come together as a critique of fandom because everything Whizzkid says about the circus not being as good as it used to be is vindicated on screen, but on a metaphorical level he is entirely wrong. Doctor Who at this point in its history is far from being “not as good as it used to be”.
But as far as the circus is concerned, he is quite right. It is stuck in the middle of a desert, just like Doctor Who is in the wilderness of an evening television schedule in opposition to the most popular soap opera in the country. It is playing to a tiny audience, trying to satisfy its narrow demographic instead of looking for more. If the circus is in parallel to Doctor Who itself, then it is surely having a pop at the Colin Baker era more than anything. Those viewers are never going to be satisfied.
There is a balance here, though, because Whizzkid is a victim as well, betrayed by the form of entertainment he loves. His hero is Captain Cook, who is a dark mirror for the Doctor. The Captain’s villainy comes via betrayal of his companions and manipulation, something that is a reflection of the Seventh Doctor in a way that it wouldn’t have been before. He is also clearly, and obviously deliberately, a character who is defined as hailing from Britain’s imperial past. Whizzkid describes him as “the intergalactic space explorer”, which is Doctorish, but he is overtly British, not just in the name he has presumably chosen as an affectation, but how he drinks tea in every scene in which he appears. So this is the story really showing how wrong Whizzkid is when he says it’s “not as good as it used to be”. Captain Cook is what Doctor Who used to represent, particularly during the Pertwee era: a Doctor who is a part of the British establishment. Wanting a return to those days is ridiculed, and quite rightly so. Along similar lines, the writer Stephen Wyatt includes hippies to make his story about the failure of those 60s ideals in the 80s, and shows that there is no solution that involves a return to the past. Like society, Doctor Who has to keep moving forwards.
Just as Captain Cook is our dark mirror to the Doctor, his companion is Mags, who is a parallel character to Ace, a broken individual who is manipulated. At this stage we are unaware of the extent of the Doctor’s (and other forces) tinkering in Ace’s life, but this functions well as a foreshadowing of what is to come, much like Lady Peinforte’s unexplained magical time travelling in Silver Nemesis. We are building themes across multiple stories, in a kind of layered storytelling that is years ahead of its time.
Doctor Who is also finally breaking away from the need to pretend it isn’t a fantasy show. We are jumping around a bit on the blog to keep things fresh, so Silver Nemesis will be our last McCoy story to explore and will form part of a Cybermen week next month, so there will be more on this subject when we get to that, but it is worth drawing a connecting line here between Lady Peinforte and Mags. Prior to the McCoy era, both those characters would have had a technobabble explanation, but the series has now gained a level of confidence in which Peinforte can simply be a sorcerer and Mags can simply be a werewolf from Vulpana, a planet of werewolves. OK, Wyatt presumably had hazy memories of his schoolboy Latin and forgot that vulpes means “fox”, not “wolf”, but we won’t worry too much about that. The point is that Doctor Who has always held its sci-fi veil over its true identity of fantasy, and this is the season where the veil is allowed to drop away, turning the series into something exciting and new while it plays in the playground of Norse mythology.
Like Silver Nemesis, Greatest Show cobbles together a few dissonant ideas, and doesn’t quite get a coherent vision from them. Just as Wyatt picks the wrong Latin word for Mags’s planet, he also picks the wrong mythology altogether for his story. The Gods of Ragnarok are much more akin to spectators at a Roman arena in their raison d’être. The story also shares the same problem as Pyramids of Mars, with a very powerful Big Bad inhabiting a realm that is separated from the main action, which then provides an unintentionally flat anticlimax when the Doctor gets there, because it’s less interesting than the main location and the Big Bad can never fulfil its hype by being big enough or bad enough.
Other than that, this is one of Doctor Who’s greatest achievements. I first saw it as a young child, and I still don’t like clowns much. A Doctor Who story that creates a phobia is a job well done. Doctor Who really is the Greatest Show in the Galaxy. RP
The view from across the pond:
Sylvester McCoy’s second season as the Doctor is a stronger season than his first. Two stories feature classic villains: the Daleks and the Cybermen and the two “weak” stories (continuing his era’s tradition of halves) are both stronger than the two weak ones of the previous season. While I don’t love The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, it does get a lot right. The fear of clowns is a wonderful fear to exploit and the Chief Clown is marvelously eerie. His little hand gestures compliment the sense of wrongness about the character. I’d put him as one of my favorite clowns in horror/sci-fi in fact, although it’s not like we have a massive list from which to choose! Mags is a werewolf, or something similar to a lycanthrope which is always a big draw for me. Werewolves tend to get a bum rap in movies and TV; everyone seems to love them but very few writers get the material right. I’m not sure Mags is “right” but she is far from terrible. In fact, I’d go one better by saying she looks incredible during that transformation. Those teeth are terrifying! And there is a distinctly Lovecraftian influence with the thing in the pit; some powerful entity of unknown origin. I admit, I should be head-over-heels for this story: werewolves, creepy clowns, Lovecraftian horror. But something was amiss…
First off, let’s address the elephant in the room: Steven Wyatt. He wrote Paradise Towers and I felt it was a dreadful bore. He clearly has a better handle on the writing by this point but still struggles. Why? Well, let’s say that when you’re writing a show with the fandom Doctor Who has, creating Whizz Kid, who is clearly a take on Doctor Who fandom, feels like an unsubtle jab. Sure, maybe it was meant to be a tribute, a homage, if you will, to the Doctor Who fan, but coming off as an awkward nerd back in this era of the series was like saying “yes, we know all fans are losers who live in their parents’ basement”. It’s far from a good idea if you want the fans to appreciate the writing. Perhaps we can blame Michael Grade. Even if he was not responsible, he’s a great fall guy! Oh, I’m sure there are those who will say “well, Whizz Kid was a great character… etc, etc.” He may add a sense of humor, perhaps, but I’d argue that you have to be more careful with the way you portray fandom especially during a time when being a fan wasn’t necessarily “cool”. (I’m one of those guys who could wear the shirt that says “I was a fan before it was cool to be a fan!” You’ve seen them…)
Captain Cook has a delightfully British attitude though and maybe this is the counterpoint to a Doctor Who fan in Whizz Kid. If we were all nerdy losers, maybe the “upper class” was meant to be stuffy old British men who regale us with stories and have mastered the stiff upper lip. Never break a sweat, never panic and drink copious amounts of tea. Tea is the drink of choice on all worlds, obviously (hard to argue, if I’m honest)! But Captain Cook captures the flip side of Whizz Kid and perhaps the only reason I take umbrage with one over the other is because I am (and was) a fan but I was never a stiff upper-lipped, old British explorer with tales of greatness. (I’ve been working on it but actually lack every single part of that description!)
What does elevate the story however bookends the piece. I love the opening in the TARDIS when the Doctor is performing juggling. In fact, having not seen the TARDIS interior for a while, it was nice just getting back to it. Sure it seems minor, but the TARDIS is a character in its own right and having screen time is a gift. On the other end of the spectrum, the Gods of Ragnarok offer McCoy a chance to perform, which is as entertaining for us as it is for them. McCoy is fun to watch, whether performing magic or just playing the spoons. And don’t knock the man: he is a professional! Warning: do not try this at home!! When the explosion that rocks the tent goes off at the end of the story, that was real and caught McCoy in the blast, even lighting some of his clothes on fire. Does he flinch? Not at all. So next time you watch, pay close attention to that. I can’t say those Gods of Ragnarok are much of a threat though. Being made of stone, they are too heavy to move and never do anything more than raise their hands and cast lackluster bolts at the Doctor. I could turn a blind eye, but I’m still annoyed by Whizz Kid!
If there’s one thing that was truly out of place in the story, it was the rap song. I’m not saying it wasn’t catchy or I didn’t like it. It is just misplaced. Again, I say, Wyatt didn’t know the audience for which he was writing. But I would argue that he was getting closer and managed to put together a fun story anyway. Had he honed it a bit more, removing the potentially “hidden digs” at fandom, for instance, or maybe having the opportunity to make Mags a companion, that would have been great! He might have had a real classic on his hands, because getting werewolves and Lovecraft right would be a skill to make us howl with love! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Battlefield