Doctor Who: The Greatest Show In The Galaxy on DVD
The McCoy era comes to its DVD end.
Calling the Doctor Who of the late 1980s The Greatest Show In The Galaxy seems now a suicidally stupid thing to do. It was as ridicule-inviting a story title as Michael Winner's A Chorus of Disapproval (there was in every cinema showing it) or Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed ("No, We Didn't," said the critics of America). Even if John Nathan-Turner did think Doctor Who was, like, the best programme ever - which is quite sweet - the idea of crowing about it is close to an obese, sweat-soaked fortysomething strutting down the street with
"100% Babe" emblazoned across her tits.
Of course, it's a rotten stinker of a title, and the worst thing about the story, whose standing has never been quite as stellar as it should be. Fan opinion in 1988 found it hard to see beyond the character of Whizz Kid, the fandom-satirising dork played by Gian Sammarco whose dialogue seemed to be made up of cut and pasted lines from fanzine reviews. It seemed difficult to think too fondly about a story that was telling us we were all whinging dickheads.
There may not be much Masterplan onanism in Greatest Show, but it's still an archetypal Cartmel commission - all those vivid, darkly comic characters and the faint echo of 80s youth culture. Most of Doctor Who's original run seemed oddly queasy about referencing popular culture, which was probably because the squares making the programme had zero interest in it. But then along comes Cartmel and suddenly there are references to drugs and U2 and Frank Bruno, and - in this - allusions to Goths (Jessica Martin's Mags should be supporting All About Eve), Hippies (Flower Child and Bellboy and that Woodstocky bus) and - most awkwardly - hip-hop, in the shape of Ricco Ross's rapping Ringmaster (try saying that 12 times). (What is it with Cartmel-era ethnic casting by the way? Every time there's a black hire, it's always to have them performing "black music". There's Ricco Ross doing his Chuck D bit, there's Richard D Sharp's harmonica-chewing blues muso in The Happiness Patrol, and there's Courtney Pine, signed up on jazz duties in Silver Nemesis. For all the aggressive PC-ness everywhere else, late 80s Who was very klutzy around race.)
Greatest Show glistens with primary-coloured characters and Stephen Wyatt writes with more of an awareness of visuals than most Who scribes of the time. The vivacity of Wyatt's script makes you wonder how Paradise Towers could have ended up, if partnered with a good director with a painterly eye. Alan Wareing makes good use of the enforced, all-location hand he was given, with all those hand-held cameras and more naturalistic lighting. Each scene drips with menace, helped out by Mark Ayres' glacially subtle score.
The four parts are peppered with season-high performances. Ian Reddington steals most of the loudest plaudits, a masterpiece performance of relished evil, all whispered lines and camp hand swings, but TP McKenna is also great as Captain Cook, a tea-devouring adventurer from the Rudyard Kipling school of colonial haughtiness. A big shout out too to Daniel Peacock who brings some bracing punk aggro into the world of Doctor Who as Nord, "vandal of the roads".
McCoy isn't too bad in this one, either, though a savvier writer who have refrained from having him say, "Ragnarok," a word McCoy seems incapable of pronouncing with only the two "r"s. He's even tolerable at the story's end, where he finally gets to play Sylvester McCoy in front of the Gods of R-r-r-r-ragnarok, kicking his little legs up like your gay dad doing his Christmas turn. McCoy blends into this story so well, that - for once - he feels like the Doctor, not some visiting cabaret performer standing on the shoulders of actors.
Apparently, The Greatest Show In The Galaxy started its life as a light bulb in JNT's head to do a story based at Longleat. As Stephen Wyatt (who sounds about three feet tall here) explains on the commentary, that proved as unworkable as it was undesirable, and so the idea of the Psychic Circus was birthed.
Toby Hadoke's on hand here for compering duties on the last McCoy story to be released. But as with his turn on Davison's last DVD story, there's no Doctor present. Though, during one episode there's a DVD first - three commentators appear on the chat track together when Hadoke is joined by Mark Ayres and Andrew Cartmel (who, if you need reminding, compered The Sea Devils commentary for reasons no-one's yet 'fessed up to).
It's the usual revolving door affair, with Wyatt and Ayres taking the odd break in order for Cartmel and Jessica Martin to sit in. Christopher Guard is amusingly actorly - apparently, "there was an organic symbiosis going on and ideas were realising themselves," on Greatest Show in the Galaxy (yes, Christopher, of course there was), and he seems obsessed with telling us how much of a fashion crime flares were in 1988, having obviously never heard of Madchester.
The ever-amiable Ayres reveals that it was he who composed the backing track to Ricco Ross's rap. That kind of makes Mark Ayres Doctor Who's Terminator X (sentences you never thought you'd write #134), though he defends himself against brickbats by insisting it was never meant to sound too polished.
The documentary by Chris Chapman - The Show Must Go On - tells its tale well, but then Chapman's lucked out in being given a story with such a juicily difficult production. The cast and crew talk of the fire alarm at Elstree, when they were in the car park, under their hastily-built tent, and the 'Allo 'Allo team were recording in the studios, and the documentary shows the two
in-costume casts hanging out together, with the sitcom cast laughing and posing with the firemen. "Sylvester and our cast were quite subdued," says production designer David Laskey.
The extras are filled out with a Quantel-tastic music video for The Psychic Circus, a chirpy electro-pop effort produced by Mark Ayres, Christopher Guard and Jessica Martin, which lurched for chart success in 1988; the Eighth Doctor's Tomorrow's Times (which doesn't shirk from some of the more withering decimations of McCoy's Doctor); 11 minutes of deleted/extended scenes (which are most trims, and nothing to get your heart racing); and a Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV - Who sketch, which is okay, but notable now for being the moment Doctor Who fans were introduced to the word "ming-mong".
And so that's it for Sylvester McCoy's period on DVD. And although there's no Patrick Kent-Smith present, it's a nicely full-fat package that the era's going out on. And a fitting story too, being perhaps as archetypal a Sylvester McCoy story as you'll ever find, without wanting to burn the DVD.
Check out the trailer here.
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