Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy by Stephen Wyatt and directed by Alan Wareing

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and Ace visit the circus! And destroy it before they leave…

Master Manipulator: An unusual story for McCoy because he seems entirely comfortable in the role. I’ll leave my more scathing comments for my least favourite Doctor to stories such as Silver Nemesis and Battlefield because for the most part throughout Greatest Show you might be lead to think that McCoy has been playing this part for years and has got the quirkiness and the cuteness of the Doctor just about spot on. McCoy juggling in the TARDIS and looking all befuddled as he loses one of his balls is very sweet, very much the angle I wish they had taken more often. He’s a weirdo…you can tell it at a glance you know but he manages to charm the pertinacious stallholder with his elementary diplomacy of eating her plaup. I love his subtle way of acquiring information: ‘Is it far this appalling spectacle?’ Unfortunately McCoy cannot quite pull off the ‘There and back, off peak, weekend break, super save senior citizen, bi monthly season with optional luggage facilities, a free cup of coffee in a plastic cup and make it snappy you metallic moron!’ speech and ends up looking as though he is desperately trying not to let the sentence run away with him, trying to remember the dialogue and tripping over the line. Have a look at the Doctor’s face when he is asked if he wants to see the future, he looks haunted at the idea. Everything seems to alarm him so! He can sense evil apparently (it's one up from scenting it in The War Machines I guess). He prefers to keep on wandering rather than settling anywhere, the eternal hobo. It really bugs me when the Doctor is portrayed as somebody naïve and stupid, everybody tries to warn him and yet when he is selected to be a part of the show and Ace is screaming at him not to he still declares ‘It’s a trap!’ Serves you bloody well right. ‘You’re just an ageing hippy professor’ ‘There might be something in that, yes’ – a lovely sentiment but it took a team of specialist linguists and speech therapists ten years to translate McCoy’s muffled delivery of the line. All the hints about Mags being a werewolf once again makes the Doctor look a fool. The audience should never be this far ahead of the Doctor and the script certainly shouldn't point out his stupidity (‘Surely you should have guessed?’). He makes up for it however with his little ‘woof’ at the Chief Clown. Everything he does in the ring of the Gods is magical, understandably McCoy seems totally at ease with his material and he even manages to rant and rave with spectacular results. His besting of the Gods of Ragnarok is a real highlight for the manipulative trickster.

Oh Wicked: What I love about Greatest Show is that is manages to be a great story (a minor miracle for this era) and it gives Ace a central role where she can display all her strengths and yet she doesn’t completely steal the limelight from the Doctor (another small miracle) like in the next season. Her awful teen slang is not at its worst here but there are still a few moments of ‘mega naff’ and 'got that tinhead?’ which grate. Ace thinks the circus is kids stuff apart from the clowns, which she finds creepy. She’s an undesirable intergalactic hippy. Ace’s scenes with Bellboy are really nice, for once she manages to have a meaningful relationship with a man without fancying the ass off him. Aldred feels completely comfortable in the roe at this stage, it feels like Ace was the role she was born to play.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Do you want me to do something ‘orrible to your face?’
‘I know its not as good as it used to be but I’m still terribly interested.’
‘These hippy fellows are quite so dumb as they look – they didn’t come here just for the fun of it! Well, some of them did but they’re all dead!’
‘Captain Cook! You only a scoundrel and a meddling fool you’re also a crushing bore!’
‘So long as you entertain us you may live. When you no longer entertain us, you die.’

The Good Stuff: I rather like the spangly McCoy theme tune purely because I first started watching during season 25 at the tender age of 8 and every time I hear it I remember how excited I used to get when it came on. Pure nostalgic factor. Imagine robotic junk mail that invades your spaceship and plugs itself into your systems to advertise and then taunts you when you aren’t interested? The hearse gliding amongst the sand dunes being driven by a clown in a mourning (geddit) suit is typical of this stories skin-crawling visuals. The direction is so smooth; the story flows like quicksilver and with real visual panache. With a collection of oddball characters, fun menace and bursts of imagination this story is like a throwback to the Williams era at its very best. The robot in the sand looks as though he is burping fire. The big top has a beautiful ringed planet filling the sky behind it, paintbox work at its most striking. The grinning conductor is another wonderful piece of design. Bellboy being tortured, as the camera pans in on Mags screaming is far more dramatic than anything they might have shown us. I love the description of a circus as form of personal expression, developing your personal skills. The musical score is subversive, surreal, seductive and perfectly suited to the material, one of the best. The Chief Clown is a justly celebrated villain; he is all the more sinister for being played so quietly and only losing it when things spiral out of control. Ian Reddington really does deserve credit for making his so memorable. The way he strokes the mechanical clowns is really sinister. Who said Doctor Who wasn’t capable of putting the willies up you in the 80’s? And that's not me speaking literally in the wake of JNT memoirs. Ace being trapped in the dark with the silently animating robots is as scary as anything that has come before. Genuinely heart-stopping stuff. I love the bland family and their execution scorecards, their post modern dialogue condemning the story when things get a little slow and boring are very apt. In a story packed with memorable visuals the eye in the well is one of the best. Are these the best-looking corridor scenes ever (bleached billowing tent corridors)? It is especially impressive given that the sets were erected in record time. I love how Captain Cook manipulates Whizzkid into going into the ring first (‘It is a sacrifice I am prepared to make’). We need more bastards like that in Doctor Who. A friendly hippy circus turned into a trap for killing people – that line was made for Doctor Who. Bellboy’s suicide (and especially the Chief Clown’s chilling reaction) is one of the highlights of the McCoy era. It is a scene that I can watch over and over. I find the theatrics where Captain Cook is tempting Mags into murdering the Doctor extremely quotable. His reaction to be told that he is a crushing bore is priceless. In the story packed full of fantastic set pieces the one with the robotic bus conductor exploding in slow motion might be favourite. The Gods of Ragnarok look rock solid, like genuine statues that have come to life rather than lightweight polysterene. It really feels like Doctor Who is kicking into gear just as the series is about to come to a close. Exploding crystal balls, walls tumbling, Gods toppled, a big top exploding and the Doctor walking very calmly away from an almighty explosion – can you think of a more climatic conclusion to a Doctor Who story?

The Bad Stuff: The opening rap…isn’t rapping. Nord the Vandal is an unsubtle parody of blokey layabouts and Whizzkid is an unsubtle parody of a Doctor Who fan. Both of their deaths are very welcome. They are just fodder but both characters have moments that, if a non-fan turned over and starting watching, all their fears about Doctor Who going down the swanny would be confirmed. A couple of shots of the punk werewolf might wind you for a second but overall it is a pretty duff looking vulpine with luminous paint smeared all over Jessica Martin’s face and fake luminous plastic claws.

The Shallow Bit: Bellboy is gorgeous! Was it JNT’s idea to have him tied up with his chest exposed and have him writhing about orgasmically for an entire episode?

Result: A total surprise after two mediocre stories, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy proves that Doctor Who still has some surprises up its sleeve. The first episode dazzles with it's creativity, stylishness and charm and the last episode is a magical tour de force of stunning direction (probably my favourite of the McCoy era) but the middle two episodes meander terribly, helped by tremendous, sinister direction. Ultimately I think Paradise Towers has a stronger script but this is much more confidently made and papers over any cracks in logic and characterisation (how much depth can you give people called Ringmaster and Chief Clown?). Although he has come from a comedy background this style of menacing humour is far more suited to McCoy than the shenanigans of season 24 and the darker melodrama of season 26, this is probably his best performance in the series. Packed with imagination and scares, this is a show at the top of its game in its death throes: 9/10


Carl R said...

I'm rapping! I'm rapping! I'm rap-rap-rapping! Apart from that particular musical miscall, TGSITG stands up as well now, if not better, than it did back in 1988. It is probably one of the stories that the wildly different Doctor Who programme *ever* made - bar none. So my problem here is - why it didn't get a 10? The funny thing of course is that it is paced in order to build up to a conclusion over four weeks - I'm not sure that TV can do that these days.

Ed Azad said...

Ditto on the Bellboy's exit. Few things rankle me like a complacent sellout and it's gratifying to these loser gets destroyed and/or redeem themselves. The mime/clown is played with such panache. At first I thought it was mistake to have him to speak, but his Mark Hamill-style mood swings will chill your blood. "You won't use it, you know that. You're not STRONG ENOUGH!!'

The fun thing about the McCoy episodes is that it's so painfully eighties and yet not afraid to mock pop culture of the time. 'Welcome folks / I mean that from the heart / 'cause the Greatest Show is about to start!' God give me strength...

David Pirtle said...

This really is great stuff and I agree that it is right up McCoy's alley. "Menacing humor," as you say, is really the perfect note for him. I think that is why I like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol so much, though this one is by far the best of the mold.