"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."
IN THIS ONE... Whizz Kid gets blown up, Ace bonds with Bellboy before he commits suicide, and the Doctor goes back into the ring.
REVIEW: Trying to figure out the meta-text is becoming a distraction, but Greatest Show really invites it, especially with the character of Whizz Kid who owns pieces of Captain Cook's history and all the old Psychic Circus posters, etc. What he says and how he looks make up a pretty blunt take down of the kind of Doctor Who Appreciation Society fans who invariably got to appear on talk shows during the 80s, something to which the DVDs testify in all its awkward glory. It's fitting that putting the fanboy in the ring gets him destroyed. And I'm wondering if the whole thing hasn't been a kind of 25th Anniversary exercise in retelling the history of the program as an allegory. His escape from the Circus would be the forced hiatus, and he returns to face a "trial", where his plan is to go three at the same time, as if he were pitting his show against other channels on purpose. Was the first episode the Hartnell era's quest to find what the program really was? If it's allegory, it's far from clear, and it may have allegorical elements without being Dante, of course.
But that intellectual exercise wouldn't be worth spit if the story didn't work as a character piece. That's where Ace comes in. She isn't just facing her irrational fears (clowns), she's also facing very real ones, namely that Bellboy and the Circus are somehow proving that things must, as a rule, become corrupted. That's very much at the heart of Ace's story. Her issues with authority and trusting people will become even more important in the next season, but here, she gets quiet when Bellboy says they'd started out trying to do good and it all went wrong. She knows how that feels. It's why she seemed to overreact to Mike Smith's betrayal in Remembrance, and in that same story, why it's so important for her spirits to be doused by a "No coloureds" sign. And behind this is the fear that the Doctor himself will turn out to be fake as well. It's a nihilistic vision of the world that's translated into Bellboy's suicide, making his own robots attack and kill him. Dark.
Other bits that grabbed my attention... The Doctor admitting he's a bit of an aging hippie was one of his most naturalistic moments. The family judging the Circus going on about how bored they were puts the episode in dangerous territory early on. You don't want the real audience to start agreeing with them. Captain Cook turns out to be the human face of villainy here, tricking people into going into the ring in his place where, surely, he would be disintegrated. I mean, he's worse than the Doctor about referencing old unseen adventures (is this another dig at SF fandom?). And Mags turns out to be a werewolf, which I just find odd because up until that point, she looked like a bird-person. Some kind of alien were-bird would have been a far more coherent design choice. Ah well.
VERSIONS: Several minutes of material was cut from this episode, and is included on the DVD. Of note, Morgana reads her Tarot cards, Whizz Kid asks the Circus for autographs, and a confused Bellboy initially confuses Ace with Flowerchild.
REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Regardless of whether the meta-text works (and the jury's still out), there are some strong, meaningful moments for Ace I wouldn't part with.