In which the Doctor and Ace receive junk-mail in the TARDIS. A small robot appears in the console room and plugs itself into the scanner to show an advert for the Psychic Circus - "the Greatest Show in the Galaxy". Ace isn't too keen to visit, as she finds clowns creepy. The Doctor pushes her into agreeing and they travel to the planet Segonax. They meet a woman selling food by the roadside, and she tells them that they are some distance from the Big Top. A biker named Nord materialises nearby, and refuses to give them a lift, so they set off on foot. On the way, they come across a campsite beside a lake. A huge robot is partially buried here, being excavated by the explorer Captain Cook and his assistant Mags. They also decline to give them a lift. Elsewhere, a young couple are being hunted by a pair of clowns driving a hearse. They are using kites with cameras to track them. The young man, Bellboy, allows himself to be caught so that his companion, Flowerchild, can escape. She reaches the wreck of an old bus, but is killed by a robot Bus Conductor. The Doctor and Ace finally reach the Circus, and find that it is not as entertaining as they were led to believe. The audience seems to comprise of three people only - a man, woman and child. When Nord fails to impress them in the ring, he is destroyed.
A young fan of both the Captain and the Psychic Circus arrives - Whizz Kid. He is also killed in the ring. The Doctor, Ace and Mags escape. They are hunted by the Chief Clown, who is humanoid, and the rest of the clowns, which are robots. Ace finds herself in the robotics laboratory where she finds Bellboy. He had been tortured mentally by the audience members, and is now a broken man. He tells Ace something of the history of the Circus - how it had once been fun to be part of. Everything changed when they set up on Segonax, and the Circus has been twisted into something evil. Bellboy elects to kill himself, ordering his own robot creations to destroy him. The Doctor and Mags meet another Circus employee, a simple young man named Deadbeat, who acts as the janitor. He was once known as Kingpin, and was the leader of the troupe until his mind was broken. He tells them that there is something vital hidden on the old tour bus. The Doctor and Mags are captured and forced into the ring. Ace goes off with Deadbeat to locate the tour bus. Captain Cook uses lighting effects to make Mags transform into a werewolf, as she comes from a lycanthropic race on the planet Vulpana.
Instead of killing the Doctor, she turns on the Captain and kills him instead. The audience still want entertainment, and start to kill other members of the Circus troupe - including the Ringmaster and the fortune teller Morgana. The Doctor has noticed some ancient stones around the Circus, and realises that it is set up on some ruined structure. A deep pit has a glowing eye at its bottom. The Doctor deduces that this is a portal to another dimension. He decides to enter it, to buy Ace and Deadbeat time to collect what is hidden in the bus. This proves to be an amulet with the same eye motif. They are attacked by the Bus Conductor but manage to destroy it. The Doctor finds himself in an amphitheatre, facing the three Gods of Ragnarok. He entertains them with a number of magic tricks. The Gods reanimate Cook's cadaver to try to stop Ace, Mags and Deadbeat, but they are able to throw the amulet into the pit for the Doctor. He uses this to deflect the Gods' destructive energies back on themselves, and they are destroyed. All flee the Big Top before it explodes. The Chief Clown pursues them, but he is killed by the huge robot that was buried by the lake. Mags decides to help Deadbeat - now Kingpin once again - to set up a new circus.
This four part adventure was written by Stephen Wyatt, and was broadcast between 14th December, 1988, and 4th January, 1989. It marks the conclusion of Season 25.
Wyatt had previously written Paradise Towers for the previous season, and was commissioned to write another story before that was even transmitted. This will be his final commission for the programme.
Draft scripts for The Happiness Patrol had featured various people being destroyed for failing auditions, and this was removed as it formed a key part of Wyatt's story.
Producer John Nathan-Turner had come up with the story title. Many fans have seen veiled criticism of fandom in the story - especially in the character of Whizz Kid, who is a bit of an anorak when it comes to Captain Cook and the Psychic Circus. Cook is an explorer who travels across the Universe - but who turns out to be an absolute bore. The Circus is described as having been great once, but is not as good as it used to be. JNT hated it when fans claimed Doctor Who was not as good as it used to be. He usually countered with the phrase "the memory cheats". It should be remembered that JNT expected this to be his final season, so perhaps felt that he could go out with a little stab at the fans who he had once embraced but who had since tried to get him sacked.
Need we mention asbestos, and how this almost never got made? I suppose so. Asbestos was found at the BBC TV Centre, so studios had to be closed down whilst it was removed. This caused the cancellation of a number of shows. All the location work was in the can for The Greatest Show... when it suddenly looked like the studio sections would have to be cancelled. JNT would have remembered Shada, and how that had seen his predecessor leaving on a negative note.
The first idea was to hire a Big Top and film in a field somewhere, but this would not be permitted as it would need to be done on BBC property. The production was moved to a large marquee which had been set up in the car park at BBC Elstree. This caused all sorts of problems due to frequent deliveries and the Heathrow flight path.
A top notch cast in evidence. Principle guest artist is T P McKenna, as Captain Cook. JNT had wanted him on the show for ages. Best known for comedy roles and impressions, as Mags we have Jessica Martin. The Chief Clown is Ian Reddington, who would go on to find fame as one of Eastenders' villainous characters - Tricky Dicky, the dodgy market supervisor. Famed for his portrayal of Adrian Mole at the time was Gian Sammarco. He is Whizz Kid. He would give up acting soon after, and become a mental health professional.
The Ringmaster is Ricco Ross, who featured in Aliens. Nord is Daniel Peacock, again best known for comedy roles. Deadbeat is Chris Jury (Lovejoy). Bellboy is Christopher Guard. Both his wife and brother had already appeared on the show in the past few years. The stall lady is Peggy Mount - yet another actor best known for comedic roles.
Episode endings are:
- Bellboy is in the ring, being tortured, as Ace and the Doctor arrive outside the Big Top - oblivious as to what they are about to encounter within...
- The Doctor and Mags have found the pit with the glowing eye at its base. Captain Cook comes up behind them with a party of robot clowns, and informs them that they are next to go into the ring...
- As the Captain uses lighting effects to simulate moonlight, Mags turns into a ravenous werewolf...
- Mags and Kingpin have decided to try to set up another circus, whilst the Doctor and Ace head off back to the TARDIS...
Overall, not a bad little story at all. It was 108th in the DWM 50th Anniversary Poll - up from 119th in the Mighty 200 one, so people liked it. Some lovely visual effects, creepy clowns (especially the Chief) and a good cast.
Things you might like to know:
- As previously mentioned, this story was supposed to be earlier in the run of Season 25 - in second place. This has lead to a couple of (fairly minor) continuity mistakes. Ace picks up and wears Flowerchilds' earring in this story - but is seen wearing it on her jacket in the previous story. Also, at the beginning she is looking for her rucksack in the TARDIS - which she lost when she blew up the Cybership, also in the last story.
- There is no on screen explanation for the Doctor's vanishing juggling ball. In reality, it was caught in a net by someone at the top of the set.
- About to become the theme for Season 26, the Doctor is forcing Ace to confront her fears - in this case her Coulrophobia. That's a fear of clowns. It will later transpire that Sarah Jane Smith suffers from the same condition. This new aspect to the Doctor / Ace relationship would have been more explicit if it wasn't that some TARDIS scenes were cut. The Doctor would have been shown to have dropped the forcefield to deliberately allow the advertising robot to materialise in the ship.
- Some VFX shots were filmed of the robot approaching the TARDIS but the lighting was too low and they were dropped.
- VFX magic - the Big Top was never set up on location (only the vestibule). What we see in that image at the top of this post is a foreground model that did make it to the quarry.
- This story was really featured in the DWM partwork The Complete History. I was rather surprised that this failed to mention Ian Reddington's accident, when the metal cage door fell on his head and damaged his teeth. It's on the DVD release extras.
- If Mags comes from a planet named Vulpana, why does she not turn into a werefox?
- As written, Mags was originally going to have a strong Glaswegian accent.
- Ricco Ross's rap marks a rare example of a piece of music written for the show that isn't incidental - in that the Doctor and company actually hear it themselves and not just us at home straining to catch the dialogue that is being drowned out. A couple of earlier examples include the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, and King John's bloodthirsty song in The King's Demons. We should mention that this story is the first to be scored by Mark Ayres, who has done so much to preserve vintage Doctor Who audio and sound effects. As well as performing with the Radiophonic Workshop members, he has become their archivist. Well done Mark.
- Talking of music, the cast composed a song called The Psychic Circus whilst on location, which Ayres wanted released as a single. You can hear it on the DVD for this story.
- Sylvester McCoy was a dab hand at illusions, thanks to his time with the Ken Campbell Roadshow, but for this story he was coached in the magic tricks by Geoffrey Durham - aka The Great Soprendo, and husband to Victoria Wood. Previously John Bennett had been coached for Li H'sen Chang's performances in The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
- At one point during recording at Elstree the fire alarm went off. The Fire Brigade turned up to find the cast of both Doctor Who and wartime comedy 'Allo 'Allo assembled to greet them.
- This is the last time we get a full-on TARDIS interior scene in the Classic Series. Something will be cobbled together and kept deliberately dark for a very brief sequence in the next story.
- At six words, this story has the longest title of any in the Classic Series. It remained so until the 2011 Christmas Special.