Doctor Who episode 685: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy – Part Two (21/12/1988)
‘Now welcome folks, we’ve got a brand-new act. He’s a real find and no doubt that’s a fact. He’ll entertain you, he’ll make you stare, and our great new act is seated over there!’ Inevitably there are echoes of Paradise Towers. Nord is another take on Pex (with Padawan dreadlocks), the muscle-oaf; Mags looks and acts like a Kang; there’s something evil lurking in the basement, spreading its baleful influence through the once-happy travellers, and there’s a general air of something good having been spoiled, a pervasive sickness that infests every part of the Psychic Circus.
Some of it feels like a very 1980s take on the way the young meteors of the 1960s have become corporate drones, happily settled in their comfortable rut. Morgana might claim, ‘All of us around here believe in letting our feelings hang out’ but goes along, reluctantly, with the Ringmaster and Chief Clown’s plans to grow the circus’ market reach like good capitalists. There’s no room for people like Flowerchild and Bellboy, clinging to ‘the old lazy way’. Only the Doctor refuses to ‘hang up your travelling shoes and stop wandering.’
I could criticise the sequencing of doing another inevitably fatal talent show a month after The Happiness Patrol‘s Late Show at the Forum. But no one in the Psychic Circus is happy. It’s a broader, sadder take on the culture of the 1980s than The Happiness Patrol, a sense of something having been lost and now impossible to regain.
Director Alan Wareing, faced with asbestos-related production challenges, makes the most of having to record chunks of the episode in a tent in Elstree car park. The billowing fabric walls are a lot creepier than studio corridors, and the robot repair shop is even more sinister. It’s not likely this would have looked much better had they been able to record it in Television Centre.
Next episode: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy – Part Three