Sunday, 10 October 2010

"Is there no end to you weirdoes?!"

Written by Stephen Wyatt, directed by Alan Wareing, 1988-89

I’m torn about this story, because much as I love seasons twenty-five and -six and the Seventh Doctor and Ace, here everything seems somewhat disjointed and amateurish. It’s hard not to compare anything Doctor Who to the current series, especially because being from the most recent part of the original run, the comparison isn’t as churlish as contrasting 1963’s season one with 2005’s series one.

The new series has a generally very conventional approach to character development and plot progression; it ticks all those Robert McKee-style narrative structure plot points, has love interests and routinely good-looking eye-candy casting, character progression, emotional ‘beats,’ etc, etc. Much as I might frown on the potential arbitrary cynicism of that approach to story, by comparison Greatest Show feels a little guileless. There are far too many characters who don’t fit into any clearly delineated role, and consequentially feel a bit pointless, and too many poorly-defined intentions muddying matters.

Greatest Show is probably the weakest story of season twenty-five; it just doesn’t gel. I have a soft spot for The Happiness Patrol, which while sharing a similarly outré sensibility, is rather more consistent, and has an easily discernable resonance and can be read as a comment on totalitarianism, or Thatcher (or whatever). You’d be hard pressed, I think, to discern even that broad a theme in this story. Compared to the new series, and even most of the rest of the surrounding (and subsequent) season, Greatest Show needs tightening up, with a bit more script editing to smooth out its lack of logical plot progression.

Despite all that, what does win me over is its wealth of great, memorable (albeit isolated) images and concepts: the hearse, with clowns dressed as undertakers, is inspired and memorably macabre (though shame about stupid details like the unnecessary sci-fi window noise). The big top with the ringed planet behind it is beautifully – and unflashily – achieved; the special effects really were looking up, weren’t they? The violence in the ring taking place off-screen is very effective, as is the disembodied applause, while the clown workshop is grotesque and disturbing – and more than a little reminiscent of JF Sebastian’s workshop/apartment in Blade Runner. The impassive fifties Family and stone Gods are great as well. The stone Dark Circus is impressively solid, especially during its collapse (no polystyrene bounce!), and the climax actually feels appropriately climactic in a way Doctor Who often doesn’t manage.

Even with BBC-basic locations, while some of the quarry stuff looks, well… exactly like a quarry, on the other hand the dunes are amazing, and even the pale blue lake looks exotic and alien. Much like in Survival, the bright sunlight helps to convince that this is some arid alien desert. Likewise, the softly lit, billowing corridors may be corridors, but they’re of a better class than usual. (The tinselly pathway that the Gods open to the Dark Circus is a bit old-school though.)

Poorly-defined and slightly self-indulgent they may be, but the story is equally packed with memorable characters: biker Nord (“Oi, Whiteface! WHITEFAAACE!”); Morgana’s hokey gypsy shtick; and Mags – an eighties goth werewolf… in space! What’s not to love?! She really goes for it during her transformation, too, while the Doctor’s tumble down the stairs in the big top is also quite impressive.

Of course, the characters’ caricature-like presentation has no baring on reality, but is instead predicated around the sort of visual shorthand used by the modern production team: in the same way that Professor Yana wears a Victorian costume in Utopia for no other reason than he’s an elderly professor, so what else would he wear?, or Brannigan wears driving goggles because he’s a driver, here Captain Cook, the famous intergalactic explorer, wears (what else?) a safari suit and pith helmet, while Whizzkid, like all nerds, is bespectacled and wears a tanktop and bowtie (…I know I do).

I’m ambivalent about this approach – doubtless it works, but it is quite a reductive concept, although I appreciate how much less alienating to a general audience this must be than trying to make up futuristic or ‘spacey’ costumes for ringmasters or explorers, which would connote nothing. It’s the same thinking behind animal-aliens like the Judoon or Sisters of Plenitude; you’re far less likely to scare off your audience or make them snigger into their coffee by introducing an alien clearly based on a familiar animal, rather than something like, say, Alpha Centauri.

Unfortunately, despite this link between the eras, this story falls down by comparison to the new series because nothing is made of the big, daft ‘circus… IN SPACE!!!’ concept. A modern story would have a field day with that, but here it’s just accepted so, disappointingly, it doesn’t feel like a big deal. Even the way it’s introduced is lost in the choppily mixed-up opening scenes; imagine some sort of Trial of a Time Lord-like swooping modelshot of the big top as the opening scene, rather than a mix of the Ringmaster rapping; Bellboy and Flowerchild being pursued; and the Doctor juggling in the TARDIS. It’d be a really striking opening and everyone would get the concept straight away.

In fact, the disjointed, choppy scene progressions do a massive disservice to the story; individual scenes that should have been longer are instead distractingly intercut. The eighties trend of having several scenes cut up into infuriatingly short little snippets, and then intercut with about five other things, is not only infuriatingly ADHD but makes everything seem entirely inconsequential. Bad editing (and music) belie its budgetary constraints too, though at least there is enough invention to shine through. (Part one’s bizarre cliffhanger – “Well, are we going in or aren’t we?” – is one of the worst culprits.) Aside from these technical constraints, at least – echoing my comments about Paradise Towers – there are no stories like this in any other period; the show is trying something new rather than mimicking a former approach.

What makes the slightly unfocused cast of characters more annoying is than, when they do work, they’re brilliant. Intriguingly, for example, the Captain, with his quintessential Britishness, young female companion, and ever-present tea, is like an amoral version of the Doctor, while the Chief Clown is brilliantly creepy, all the more so because he’s not evil, or a robot, but a ‘real’ person. In fact, he must be one of the most evocative villains at this stage of the programme. His fey/sinister breathlessness, coupled with his strangely terrifying exaggerated hand gestures and deranged laugh, makes me empathise with Ace’s phobia.

The comparison to season twenty-four stands; the concept of “a friendly hippy circus … turned into a trap for killing people,” is great, and does smack of a more effective version of the kind of madcap/oddball/quirky stories from that run. Fortunately, its ‘zaniness’ is tempered by its more ominous atmosphere. You certainly couldn’t imagine any other Doctor in it, which I think is great – the series is doing brave new things! The whimsy, in fact, could have been pushed even further. It’s interesting that the surreal approach of this story, with its exaggerated archetypes, is more akin to The Celestial Toymaker or Mind Robber than more conventional sci-fi stories, yet the setting is technically ‘just’ some alien planet.

Ultimately, larger than life tone and bold imagery isn’t enough to stop the story falling apart, its grasp on narrative logic becoming increasingly tenuous. “Don’t try our patience!” What’s the eye and the medallion all about? And though the gladiator’s sword makes for a good moment… I have no idea why it’s important. Everything’s very muddled – in the words of Marge Simpson talking to John Waters, although I didn’t understand, “I loved hearing it!”, but I’m not sure that’s good enough.

Last comparison to the new series (promise): can you imagine a story where a convenient deus ex machina plot device that saves the day wasn’t even foreshadowed?! The new series is in no way without its flaws in this department, but though we’ve had our share of reset switches and all those fan-reviled bits of laziness, at least Russell T Davies’ resets are in some way prepared for. Having said that, I don’t know if that’s necessarily better – maybe that’s more cynical than the ‘guilelessness’ of a less structurally box-ticking outing like this. Hmm, I feel I may have stumbled into classic series/new series smackdown territory. And that's a fight I don't want anything to do with.


  1. I love 'Greatest Show' and I can't wait for it to come out on DVD!

    I think you are a little harsh on it. I think it is best to compare 'Greatest Show' with 'Warrior's Gate.' In both those stories there is a lot of stuff that is not explained and the viewer is left to come up with her own explanations and ideas about what is going on.

    'Greatest Show' is not a convention Dr. Who story and it does not work if you treat it as such.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I do adore Warriors' Gate - I keep planning to rewatch it, in fact - but I think the difference there is that it's the gaps in the situation at large which are left up to the audience to fill in. In Greatest Show, on the other hand, it's the plot itself which is unsatisfactorily explained.

    I have no problem with the audience being considered to have enough nous to draw their own conclusions, but here it just smacks of even the author not being quite sure what the hell is going on!

  3. I don't think as a story, 'Greatest Show' is driven by the plot, but it is instead an elaboration on symbols and metaphors. What we have of a plot simply brings these images and ideas into focus.

  4. Good review, Neil. I have never been a big fan of this story and I think you've explained rather well a lot of the shortcomings.

  5. Hey, thank you very much. I'm never really sure how worthwhile these reviews are, so it's always gratifying to get positive feedback, thanks.