Doctor Who #690: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Part 2

"Oh, you're just making excuses because you don't like circuses."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Dec.21 1988.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor is chosen to take part in a dangerous talent contest and runs off to find a psychic eye at the bottom of a chasm.

REVIEW: You know, I should really try to embrace the surrealism. I'm a fan of The Prisoner; I hold a degree in English Lit; I like to analyze art in all its forms. If I'm resistant to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, I think it's because it's falling victim to its episodic structure. I just can't decode its metaphors until I've seen the entire thing. But then, this is how it would originally have been seen (worse, with a week's wait between chapters), so it's not necessarily unfair of me. At least this time around we're actually AT the Psychic Circus where the Doctor can investigate various mysteries, and Ace can explore some deep-seated fears.  All that stuff is quite good too. The tent makes for novel Doctor Who corridors - and Ace of course creates her own accesses through the cloth - and the Circus is evidently built on something ancient and Lovecraftian. The recurring motif of the all-seeing eye, on the seeker kites and in the dark pit under the tent, is a striking image, the inverted Sauron responsible for all.

And these explorations are key to redeeming a story filled with cartoon archetypes and surreal imagery, because it promises an explanation, if only the Doctor can find it. It acknowledges that the Doctor and Ace are in a weird space and not part of the weirdness themselves, and it's fun to follow both. The Circus appeals to the Doctor's inner clown, and it's easy to get him into the ring (McCoy's variety background means he's comfortable getting juggling pins thrown all around him - pins he'll later use as a weapon, so this is a threat that seems more real than any Cyberman weapon). He's resourceful, curious, thinks about Ace a lot, recruits Mags (a decent alternative companion), and makes intriguing references to time. Ace, for her part, is more or less in an escape-and-capture cycle, but the danger is appropriately psychic, not physical. She's being chased by a childhood fear - clowns - comes across a half-naked, panting young man tied to some furniture and freezes, and later finds herself in a super-creepy robot workshop. The danger here is tuned to her particular angst about growing up.

But what do the guest characters MEAN? That's a problem. They're obviously stand-ins for SOMEthing, because they're not proper characters with inner lives, etc. One theory I've heard about is that the talent show (and thus the Circus) is television itself. Doctor Who is vying for attention (and in this era of multiplying channels and the program becoming more and more niche, it would be a concern) against other genre(?) programming. Captain Cook just sort of sounds like Captain Kirk, but I don't know that he makes a particularly effective Star Trek stand-in. Nord is representative of the Road Warrior, not that this was on TV. The family audience robotically judging and giving scores? A ratings system? The BBC higher-ups who had Doctor Who on the chopping block? Whizz Kid seems to be a fanboy nerd, that one's not too subtle, but then he's asked to take part in the show, so is he another competing program? And then there are the Circus' regular performers, like the slamming Ringmaster (I'd say rapping, but that's a pretty paltry rap), clown security chief or Morgana the fortuneteller with the accent that made me go to the subtitles. Are they meant to be anything in this allegory? Maybe it's a good thing we can't easily identify correspondences between signifier and signified. Keeping it open to interpretation means it can be different things to different people. But if every theory falls apart upon closer examination, all we have left are unconvincing cartoon characters.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium (almost Medium-High) - I love the Doctor and Ace, and this Psychic experience seems to want to reveal something deep about each of their characters. If only the world around them was just a little more credible.

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