Monday, 30 November 2009

Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Part One

“Oh no, not the spoons again!”

Another script by Stephen Wyatt, and it’s set around a circus. Already we know we’re going to get a somewhat abstract and allegorical tale which borrows from the style and aesthetics of 2000 AD. It’s quite interesting that we start with a rap, however dated it may be. Doctor Who is now in the age of hip-hop. And, as we’ll see, Goths. And ageing hippies, of course. At last, Doctor Who does youth culture.

We get to see the TARDIS interior for the only time this season, and after a brief nostalgic glimpse of Tom’s scarf we get the hilarious conceit of a junk mail robot. It’s advertising the Psychic Circus, but Ace, like all right thinking people, finds clowns creepy. The Doctor, naturally, wants to see this phenomenon. Of course, he probably has reasons other than the obvious.

There’s some great imagery, with Flowerchild’s hippy look, the psychedelic bus, and the clowns in the hearse, and it’s all very effectively shot. And by the time we get to see Nord (“Do you want me to do something unpleasant to your face?”), with his Mad Max look, it’s all looking like a Tharg’s Future Shock or something, already. Suddenly, Doctor Who looks bang up to date.

Contrasting with the whole hippy aesthetic is the robot bus conductor, who represents, like, the man, and the commercialism that, like, killed off the free festival. It’s highly symbolic that we find such a figure inside a bus that is so symbolic of hippy-ism, if that’s a word. In fact, it’s almost the story in microcosm in the way it foreshadows the wider themes, especially as it’s the Doctor who causes the ticket collector to break down. Far out, man.

I like the ringed gas giant behind the tent. This sort of thing is almost the calling card of post-hiatus Who. I also like Mags, and not only because she’s a pretty goth girl. I’m less enamoured of Adrian Mole as Whiz Kid, but heigh-ho.

That’s a bit of a peculiar place to put a cliffhanger.

Part Two

“It feels more like we’re part of a machine.”

I love the ‘50s family in the audience. And if it wasn’t clear before that we’re watching a piece of allegory and imagery where realism has no place, it certainly is now. After all, if we were to treat the story as “realistic”, why the ‘50s clothing? Along with lots of other things of contemporary Earth cultural relevance, in fact.

There are some things here I’ve not picked up on before. It’s noticeable that the Doctor and Ace are asked if they want to enter before they’re invited into the circus, just as the Doctor is asked if he wishes to perform on the stage before the trap snaps shut. It’s as though the victims need to agree of their own free will before the deceit and their true fate is revealed. But the upshot is that Mags, the Captain, Nord and the Doctor are stuck here, and T.P. McKenna is fantastic as the apathetic, smoothly self-serving Captain, manipulating Nord into performing, and dying, before him.

The Ringmaster and Morgana, meanwhile, have a bit of a chat about whether or not they’ve, like, sold out, man, just in case it wasn’t already clear what this story is about. ‘60s ideals slowly morphing into right-wing economic individualism- how very ‘80s.

I don’t like Gian Sammarco’s Whizz Kid one bit. There’s never been anything big or clever about the nerd stereotype, which has always had something of the school bully about it, and unfortunately the costuming and performance really push this. There’s no excuse, really, however much the production team may have felt under siege from certain elements of fandom. And it’s a shame, really, as the nasty elements of this stereotype don’t seem to be present in the script itself- although the “satire” of perceived fan attitudes certainly does, and this isn’t pretty either. Still, it’s admittedly a nice touch that Morgana, who up till now has subtly tried to persuade potential victims not to enter the circus, encourages Whizz Kid to his doom just to be rid of his annoying presence.

We’re introduced to the pit and the eye, though not yet to their significance. But the Captain has betrayed the Doctor…

Part Three

“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 has a bit of a chinwag with Bellboy. “We had such high ideals when it started,” he tells her; “We shared everything.” I’m glad we got that line, because there’s no way we would have got the selling out subtext without it. Still, I’m enjoying this. It’s nice to have a story made entirely of aesthetics, imagery, allegory and subtext where all pretensions to realism are irrelevant. After all, one could easily point out the problem of how the circus manages to keep up the steady stream of entertainers for their mysterious and demanding audience, as there don’t seem to be many punters to be lured in. But to take things so literally would be to miss the point.

Whizz Kid meets his inevitable demise, paying the price for his inability to realise that the memory cheats. I’ll always defend JN-T, who has generally done a pretty good job however much I may object to certain of his previous script editors, but the unsubtle rant at his critics here comes across as unnecessarily bitter. Still, I’m highly amused by the scene where the Captain persuades him to go first, and especially the double-edged line “A sacrifice I am prepared to make.”

“You’re just an ageing hippy, Professor,” says Ace to the Doctor. Somehow that fits very well indeed, and not just the Sylvester McCoy model. It also shows us where he stands in relation to the allegory, of course.

Poor Bellboy gets hoist by his own mechanical petards. Ian Reddington is great here as the camera turns towards the Chief Clown’s reaction.

Part Four

“It was your show all along, wasn’t it?”

Hooray! The last episode ever I’ll watch on video, and consequently the last episode without subtitles for me and my dodgy hearing. No more muffled dialogue for me!

The Doctor tells the Captain he’s a “crushing bore,” clearly the most hurtful thing he’s ever said to him in his entire life. McKenna’s reaction is great, as is pretty much everything he does.

Appropriately, though, it’s Mags who kills him. Also appropriately, the eye heals Deadbeat / Kingpin, and the story enters its final stretch, much of which consists of the Doctor doing magic tricks for the Gods of Ragnarok. It’s a good climax, although I wish the allusions to Norse mythology had been done either meaningfully or not at all.

All the pieces come together and the Doctor, in a surprising return to traditional values in what I believe we’re supposed to call an “oddball” story, blows up the bad guys. The scene of his calmly walking way as the big top explodes is, of course, legendary. And the extreme coolness of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is underlined once again. “It was your show all along, wasn’t it?” asks Ace. You know, I wasn’t expecting to end up saying this, but this Marathon has really made me rethink Sylvester McCoy. As things stand, he might well end up as my favourite Doctor.

Well, the hippies vs. commercialism stuff was a bit more blatantly in-your-face than I remembered, but this is still great. Stylish, full of wonderful visuals, and playing with ideas in an agreeably fun way. 5/5.

As for the season as a whole- well, after a long time of seasons mostly ranking near the bottom, it’s with some relief, and no little surprise, that this gets a very creditable 4.25/5, placing it fourth overall.

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