‘He can’t help being a pompous, selfish, self-satisfied meddler.’ I’ve frequently pointed out one of the best things about Doctor Who is the way it puts things that don’t belong together side by side to generate memorable images and stories. Here, it’s a clown in an undertaker’s costume. It might be a reference to Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
The Magical Mystery tour bus, a character called Flowerchild and references to ‘undesirable intergalactic hippies’ call to mind the psychedelic 1960s which might have preached All You Need is Love but always had a creepy side which infests everything from the sour British horror films of the end of the decade and the queasy faux-Victorian kitsch of The Avengers in Color to the Beatles’ White Album. Like the forced jollity of The Happiness Patrol, it’s all cosmetic. Behind the gaudy advertisements, the Doctor and Ace can sense something evil (leading to one of the strangest and cleverest cliffhangers), and they haven’t even seen the Chief Clown pursuing Bellboy and Flowerchild with spy kites; Flowerchild choked to death by the bus conductor robot, or the ringmaster torturing Bellboy.
This was conceived as a three-part story, and the first episode was a later addition. It’s mostly extended character set up, with some of the talent contest hopefuls like Nord and Whizz Kid arriving, and the Doctor and Ace meeting their amusing fellow travellers the Captain and Mags. The result is an episode which features two sequences of the Doctor sitting down for refreshments while Ace tries to fiddle with machinery. It’s never dull, though, partly because the collection of characters is so amusing (particularly the glorious Peggy Mount), and partly because events on Segonax are so disconcertingly strange.
Like much of the McCoy stuff, it occasionally gives the impression of being an experimental film – the ringmaster raps a prologue to the action, the Chief Clown seems to be performing to an invisible audience, and Whizz Kid is apparently cosplaying Dr Who. Stephen Wyatt’s script is as witty as Paradise Towers (there’s a nice call back to it when Ace briefly wears Mel’s costume from the story), with Ace and Nord trading insults (‘I hope your big end goes’) and the Doctor confusing the bus conductor with a demand for a complicated fare. Predictably, I think it’s fantastic.
Next episode: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy – Part Two