BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

28 October 2014

BBC Homepage

Entertainment Cult

Contact Us

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Production Code: 7J

First Transmitted

1 - 14/12/1988 19:35

2 - 21/12/1988 19:35

3 - 28/12/1988 19:40

4 - 04/01/1989 19:35


The Doctor and Ace head for the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax, where they meet a disparate group of fellow visitors including a pompous explorer named Captain Cook and his companion Mags and a biker known as Nord.

The Circus itself is dominated by the sinister Chief Clown and his deadly troupe of robot clowns, who organise a talent contest in which all visitors take part. The audience consists of just a single strange family - mother, father and daughter - seated at the ringside. Although hindered by the treacherous Cook, the Doctor eventually discovers that the Circus hides a terrible secret: the family are in reality the Gods of Ragnarok, powerful creatures with an insatiable craving for entertainment who invariably destroy those who fail to please them.

With Ace's help, the Doctor ends the Gods' influence here and returns the Circus to the control of its original hippie owners.

Episode Endings

Mags screams at what she sees in the Psychic Circus ring, but the sound is blotted out by a device held by the Ringmaster. Outside, the Doctor asks Ace to decide whether they are going in or not.

The Doctor and Mags find a tunnel leading to a deep pit at the bottom of which can be seen an eye like those depicted on some kites at the entrance to the Circus. They are disturbed by the Captain who comes up behind them with an escort of robot clowns. He has come to inform the Doctor that he is wanted: he is the next act due on in the ring.

In the ring, the Captain asks for the light of a 'devil moon' to be thrown on Mags. Under the light, Mags starts to change: she is a werewolf.

The Doctor and Ace leave the Circus in the control of Kingpin and Mags. Kingpin asks if the Doctor might stay, but he comments that he finds circuses a little sinister.


Werewolf films (Mags).

The Doctor quotes Neil Armstrong ('One small step for man') and Al Jolson, via Bachman Turner Overdrive ('You ain't seen nothin' yet').

The Greatest Show on Earth.

The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles Finney.

Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Terry Pratchett (Nord).

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Dialogue Triumphs

Nord : [To Ace] "I told you, girl, to get lost. Or I'll do something 'orrible to your ears."

Mum : "I don't think much of this, Father."

Dad : "Nothing's happening, is it."

Mum : "Not that I can see."

Little Girl : "Mum, Mum!"

Mum : "What is it?"

Little Girl : "I'm bored."

Dad : "There's no point in going on, dear. We're all bored. Something has to happen soon."

Captain : "So you've always been interested in the psychic circus, have you?"

Whizzkid : "Well yes, of course. I've never been able to visit it before now, but I've got all sorts of souvenirs. Copies of all the advertising satellites that have ever been sent out. All the posters. I had a long correspondence with one of the founder members too, soon after it started. Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested."

Ace : "You're just an ageing hippy, Professor."

Bellboy : [About to be killed by his creations] "You were a wonderful clown once Funny, inventive... I'm not helping you any more."


Ace went to a circus as a child. She found it boring, except for the clowns The Doctor knows the Gods of Ragnarok, and says he has fought them 'all through time' [metaphorically, perhaps].

Captain Cook, the galactic explorer, spends much time remembering planets he has visited, including Lelex (the natives are Monopods), Dioscuros, Inphitus (where the Galvanic Catastrophods are 'not what they were'), Leophantos, the baleful plains of Grolon, Fagiros (where the Architrave of Batgeld showed Cook his collection of early Ganglion pottery), the Bay of Paranoia on Golobus, the gold mines of Katakiki and Periboea.

He also visited Vulpana, meeting Mags, recommends the frozen pits of Overod, says that Boromeo has 'bouncing Upas trees' and Anagonia 'singing squids', and shares the Doctor's love of tea from the Groz valley on Melogophon.

Various posters state that the Psychic circus has visited Othrys, the Boriatic wastes, Marpesia and the grand pagoda on Cinethon.


The Psychic Circus, Segonax



Each of the masks for the robot clowns was different and each was designed by a different make-up assistant, overseen by designer Denise Baron.

The voice of the third God in Part Four was provided by director Alan Wareing.

An impressive cast is assembled for this story, including Chris Jury, better known for his appearances in Lovejoy; Ian Reddington before his regular starring role as market owner 'Tricky Dicky' in EastEnders; Gian Sammarco fresh from starring as Adrian Mole in The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole; impressionist Jessica Martin; and popular actors Daniel Peacock, T P McKenna and Peggy Mount.

The Doctor performs conjuring tricks in Part Four. Sylvester McCoy was coached in magic by Geoffrey Durham, otherwise known as the Great Soprendo, for these scenes.


Ace pins Flowerchild's ear ring to her jacket, although she was wearing it in Silver Nemesis.

Cast & Crew


The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy

Ace - Sophie Aldred

Bellboy - Christopher Guard

Bus Conductor - Dean Hollingsworth Dean Hollingsworth as Bus Conductor is credited on Part Three but does not appear

Chief Clown - Ian Reddington

Dad - David Ashford

Deadbeat - Chris Jury

Flowerchild - Dee Sadler

Little Girl - Kathryn Ludlow

Mags - Jessica Martin

Morgana - Deborah Manship

Mum - Janet Hargreaves

Nord - Daniel Peacock

Ringmaster - Ricco Ross

Stallslady - Peggy Mount

The Captain - T P McKenna

Whizzkid - Gian Sammarco


Director - Alan Wareing

Assistant Floor Manager - David Tilley

Assistant Floor Manager - Duncan McAlpine

Costumes - Rosalind Ebbutt

Designer - David Laskey

Incidental Music - Mark Ayres

Make-Up - Denise Baron

OB Cameraman - Barry Chaston

OB Cameraman - Alan Jessop

Producer - John Nathan-Turner

Production Assistant - Alexandra Todd

Production Associate - June Collins

Script Editor - Andrew Cartmel

Special Sounds - Dick Mills

Studio Lighting - Don Babbage

Studio Lighting - Henry Barber

Studio Sound - Scott Talbott

Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Keff McCulloch

Visual Effects - Steve Bowman

Writer - Stephen Wyatt

Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide

'Although I never got to see it in the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be. But I'm still terribly interested.' A return of chaos, magic and surrealism to Doctor Who the story summed up by the scene in which the Doctor walks out of a confrontation amid carnage. Whizz Kid is a (not very subtle) parody of anally retentive, obsessive fans.

It could be said that the whole story is a metaphor about the production of Doctor Who (Cook = Star Trek, the gods = BBC executives, the Chief Clown = Michael Grade, Deadbeat = Blake's 7, etc.). The ideas in this, one of the most iconic stories, are very imaginative and the direction is psychedelic.

Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is aptly named, coming at the end of a season that can be seen as the culmination of a trend of gradual improvement by way of which Doctor Who had effectively pulled itself out of its mid-eighties slump and - the disappointing Silver Nemesis notwithstanding - regained much of its former glory. 'Images from this story will be remembered by today's youngsters in a decade or two's time,' suggested Brian J Robb in the February 1989 edition of Celestial Toyroom. 'The clowns driving a silent hearse that glides across the landscape, dressed as undertakers; the tent, on a barren [landscape], with another [planet] hanging above; the robot repair room scenes, a triumph of lighting; the hippie bus; the painted smiles of the clowns watching as Mags undergoes a frightening transformation; and the revelation of the true nature of the Gods of Ragnarok, will all be recalled.'

Setting a story in and around a sinister circus was an excellent idea, and the clowns make creepy, unsettling villains. Special mention must go to Ian Reddington, who truly shines as the Chief Clown - something that is all the more remarkable for the fact that he has hardly any dialogue. His voice, when it is heard, is eerily light and breathy, and his ever-smiling face is never more sinister than when he gestures with a wave of his hand as visitors to the circus die horribly. Sometimes he seems almost inhuman, like one of his robot underlings, but his death scream when he is killed at the end of the story belies his cold, unfeeling exterior.

The cliffhanger ending to the first episode is a classic. As Mags screams at whatever horror she sees in the ring (and the viewer never actually witnesses any killing, only the aftermath) she is somehow silenced by the Ringmaster. Outside, meanwhile, the Doctor and Ace pause. Should they enter the Circus or not? The audience is screaming for Ace to refuse to walk into the lion's den, just as Mags is silently screaming at the horror that awaits them if they do. A superb sequence of images ending with Ace still trying to make her mind up.

Jessica Martin gives one of the best performances of the story, managing to convey just the right degree of innocence and youthfulness to preserve the surprise of Mags's true nature until the moment of revelation. The sequence at the end of Part Three in which she transforms into a slavering beast is classic Doctor Who, and the closing image of a drooling and fanged monster attacking the camera must surely have left many an impressionable youngster fearing to go to bed that night. Christopher Guard's Bellboy, Chris Jury's Deadbeat and T P McKenna's Captain are also well written and acted characters. Rather less impressive are Daniel Peacock as Nord and Gian Sammarco as Whizzkid, who fail to make the most of their admittedly limited roles. In fact one gets the distinct impression that these two characters were added to the story simply to make up the numbers, although many commentators have suggested that Whizzkid was also intended to serve as a parody of a particularly anal Doctor Who fan archetype!

Tension grows as the story develops with the discovery of a murderous robot bus conductor; the building up of uncertainty as to which of the visitors to the Circus will be next in the ring; and the introduction of an odd family - mother, father and daughter - who appear to be watching and marking each act out of ten. These latter characters seem to be equated by writer Stephen Wyatt with viewers at home, passing judgment on the story, and when seen in this light some of their lines are rather amusing. A good example comes in a scene where they comment that nothing seems to be happening, and that something needs to happen soon - neatly echoing the viewer's own feelings as, at this point, the action has fallen into something of a lull.

The pace soon picks up, though, and the story careers toward a somewhat confused finale. Captain Cook is somehow revived from the dead and the Doctor crosses some sort of time/space portal to find himself performing for the three Gods of Ragnarok.

Mark Stammers, writing in The Frame No. 9, dated February 1989, liked the story's on-screen presentation, and felt that it made a fitting end to the anniversary season:

'Overall, the story flowed well - a consequence of having some of the best direction of the season... The design of the sets was also very good, and was complemented by excellent lighting which wasn't, for once, too harsh or strong. The tent corridors, although simple, worked very effectively. Here especially, the understated lighting added much to the overall impact. The design of the Gods and their amphitheatre was highly imaginative, too.

'Looking back, the anniversary season was one of variety. The production team continued their policy of trying out new ideas, and although not all of them succeeded, enough of them did to make it one of the best seasons for a number of years.'

< Silver NemesisSeventh DoctorBattlefield >

This episode guide is made up of the text of The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, and Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker.

The Discontinuity Guide © Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping 1995.
Doctor Who: The Television Companion © David J Howe and Stephen James Walker 1998, 2003.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy