Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
(4 episodes, s25e11-e14, 1988-1989)
It’s an awfully meta moment in the late 1980s: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy gets rhythm, and we “ain’t seen nothing yet.”
On the TARDIS, the Doctor is trying to learn how to juggle while Ace (clad in the Fourth Doctor‘s pre-burgundy scarf) looks for her rucksack and Nitro-9. An automated probe materializes in the console room and delivers junk mail: an advertisement for the psychic circus. The Doctor wants to go and the advertising drone goads Ace (who is obviously scared of something) into joining him.
Something sinister is afoot at the circus: Two performers (Flowerchild and Bellboy) are on the run from a clown in a hearse. A rude sandwich eating biker named Nord and our heroes join the mix as well, and the Doctor and Ace are warned away from the circus by a roadside saleswoman. Flowerbell and Bellboy split up, and Flowerbell ends up at an abandoned bus and killed by the robotic conductor. Bellboy is found by the clowns are returned to the circus.
Nord turns down the Doctor’s request to join him, and the travelers are nearly run down by the clown on the road. They encounter Captain Cook and Mags, two more intergalactic travelers questing for the circus, and join them for tea. Ace and Mags find a buried robot, which comes to life and attacks the party, but is defeated by Ace. They carry on to the bus and are attacked by the conductor robot. The Doctor defeats the robot and parts company with the other travelers, disgusted by the captain’s cowardice.
A new player joins the mix: A well-dressed young man on a bicycle.
Nord, Captain Cook and Mags, and the Doctor and Ace arrive at the circus. Mags witnesses Bellboy being punished for his treachery, but her screams are electronically silenced by the ringmaster. Ace can still hear the screams and is hesitant about entering the tent, but the Doctor presses on. Ace’s fear is revealed: She suffers from coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. Based on the ticket-taker’s reaction to the clowns, Ace’s fear may be well-founded.
The Doctor and Ace find a seat in the darkened attraction, which isn’t hard since the place is nearly deserted: The only other party is a family of parents and a single child. The Doctor tries to engage them in small talk, but they’re almost robotic. The show starts with nearly the same rap as before, but one change is that the Ringmaster selects the Doctor to join as a volunteer performer. The Doctor rushes forward in glee and Ace gets trapped by clowns, and the lead clown is intrigued by Flowerbell’s earring, which Ace found at the bus. Ace runs and is pursued by this insane clown posse.
The Doctor is reunited with Captain Cook, Mags, and Nord, but soon realizes that this is a trap and he’s fallen right into it. Captain Cook tricks Nord into performing next. Meanwhile, Ace sneaks back into the circus tent and eavesdrops on the fortune teller and ringmaster talk about the state of the circus. She is given away by the chirping of drone kites and runs from the clowns, encountering a captive Bellboy. It’s revealed that Bellboy built the robotic clowns and only he can repair them. Ace is soon captured again and imprisoned in the clown repair facility.
Nord goes on stage and his performances are judged by the family. When he fails, he is disintegrated, an act that is witnessed by Mags and the Doctor. As the BMX rider, Whizz Kid, is selected to join the captives, the Doctor and Mags escape and find a series of catacombs to explore. They find a deep pit with a large eye (the same eye on the kite drones) at the bottom, but they are captured by the clowns and Captain Cook. Mags notices a symbol that resembles the phases of the moon, and the her reaction provides a distraction for the Doctor to escape.
When the clowns in the repair trailer attack, Ace defends herself until they stop and collapse. Bellboy emerges from the shadows and, noting the earring, learns of Flowerchild’s fate. He tells Ace that Flowerchild made the kites, something of beauty perverted into something sinister, and gives Ace the controller for the robot she defeated earlier. Elsewhere, the Doctor continues to unravel the mystery behind the circus and frees Ace and Bellboy from the trailer. We also discover that Deadbeat, the street sweeper, was once someone named Kingpin.
The clowns return Captain Cook and Mags to their cage, and Captain Cook snaps at Whizz Kid’s admiration of his exploits. He soon turns about and exploits the kid, moving him up in the queue to save the explorer’s own skin. The kid is soon killed for his failure, and the captain is a truly despicable man.
The Doctor, Ace, and Kingpin set out for the pit while Bellboy stays behind the distract the chief clown. Meanwhile, the fortune teller communicates with the eye through her crystal ball, telling it that more will come to feed it and they’ll keep everyone away from the bus. At the pit, the Doctor’s party uncovers the same link. The Doctor sends Ace and Kingpin to investigate the bus while he distracts the circus in the ring. The Doctor suggests that he, the captain, and Mags work together to upset the balance of the game, and Mags coerces the captain into agreeing.
Once in the room, Captain Cook turns the tables by ordering the crew to shine “moonlight” on Mags. The woman transforms into a werewolf, weirdly explaining her reaction to the moon symbols earlier. After a brief show by Cook, during which the Doctor discovers that the audience members are avatars of the eye in the pit, Mags turns on the captain and kills him. Mags and the Doctor are removed from the ring, but as the family demands more entertainment, the ringmaster and fortune teller are forced to perform. They fail and are consumed.
Ace and Kingpin search the bus, not knowing that the clowns have repaired the conductor. Ace tries to open a lockbox and is ambushed by the robot. During the scuffle, the box is broken open and Kingpin finds the rest of his eye pendant inside. His mind restored, he helps Ace defeat the conductor. Together, they head back to the Doctor.
Mags runs off to meet Ace and Kingpin as the Doctor confronts the eye in a psychedelic sequence. He ends up back in the ring, but now it is an ancient arena. The Doctor greets the family as the Gods of Ragnarok, a force he has fought for some time, and the trio demand more entertainment from their captive. The Doctor runs through a series of conjuring tricks to distract them.
Ace, Kingpin, and Mags end up the massive robot and use it to defeat the clowns. They return to the pit as the Doctor continues his performance, pursued by a reanimated Captain Cook. Cook steals the medallion and Ace knocks it into the pit, forcing it to materialize at the Doctor’s feet. The Doctor uses it to deflect attacks from the gods and destroy the arena around them. The Doctor doffs his hat in salute and returns to the circus, calmly strolling out of the tent as it explodes behind him.
He reunites with Ace, leaving Kingpin and Mags to start a new entertainment venture. He politely declines the offer to join them, citing the adventures that ahead. Besides, in a clever plot twist, he finds circuses to be rather sinister.
It was a decent adventure, and while the Doctor’s feelings about circuses are awfully convenient, I did enjoy watching Ace confront her fears to save the day. The werewolf subplot was kind of crazy, as was the Gods of Ragnarok twist, but they both did away with the treacherous Captain Cook. That guy was one of the first characters in this franchise that I have actively despised in a long time.
Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”
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