Full disclosure! Full disclosure! Yes, I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a Doctor Who nut. Maybe not what you’d call a full-fledged Whovian (Google it, if you’re at a loss or so inclined), but quite probably I’m very close to it. I first met the Doctor in his fourth incarnation (God Bless us all, Tom Baker!) when it aired on PBS here in the United States, and I mostly stayed faithful to his era, though I’ve picked up on DVD or caught a few episodes here and there of other ‘Doctors’ since. I’m still young enough to be openly enthused by the Doctor’s ongoing love of exploration, and I’m old enough to know more than a thing or two about his ‘history’ on television.
That said, I’ll admit that I was never a big fan of Sylvester McCoy’s particular stint as Gallifrey’s remaining Timelord. To be honest, I don’t much fault him; given the times, the shape of things to come in modern television, and the fact that the stories were running a bit thin by the program’s twenty-fifth season, I think much of the Doctor’s universe had grown a bit tired. Still, the fact that he looked like an everyman’s uncle – maybe even a run of the mill dentist – didn’t help matters, and tales like THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY probably didn’t endear fans all that much at the time, either.
The Psychic Circus had come to town … well, to the planet Segonax, anyway. Whereas most circuses are built on thrills, chills, and spills, this one was predicated on abducting members of the audience and then put them through the motions. If (and when) they failed, then they’d perish – all at the request of the sinister three-person family sitting in judgment in the top row – but just who are they? What are they seeking? And how will the Doctor and his trusty companion, Ace (who happens to hate clowns), fare when they’re given their time in the center circle?
To the story’s credit, it’s more of a cautionary fable than some of the other Who-fare that has aired throughout the years. And most of it is benign – while dealing with some ‘heavy’ material, the Doctor always remains a winsome character with a heart (or two) of gold. Ace is a lovable chum – a teenybopper-ish tagalong who’s there to question whatever status quo is presented. Like any good companion, she’s fast on her feet, so she’ll help put the good Doctor through some paces as well. As well, there are a few irregulars who show up to help lift the narrative up a notch or two – a somewhat devilish biker-from-Space, some half-retired Space general, and a troupe of the creepiest looking clowns in all the galaxy.
But this SHOW never quite develops into anything more than a modest diversion – a circus sideshow, if you will – in the theatre of otherwise great Who storytelling. McCoy – a gifted showman in his own right – does the best he can with the material he’s given; however, his showdown with the three galactic judges (I’ll preserve their identity in order to respect not spoiling anything should you pick this one up) is decidedly anticlimactic. In order to stall for time, he’s earning Vaudeville stripes by doing cheap tricks, minor balancing feats, and pulling eggs from his mouth. Sorry, folks, but that’s not the Timelord I grew up with.
DOCTOR WHO: THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY is produced by the BBC, and DVD distribution is handled through BBC and BBC America. It all looks and sounds fairly solid though there were a few sequences with a noticeable dip in audio quality. If you’ve had the good fortune of picking up practically any of these releases of the Doctor’s, then you should be familiar with the fact that they’re chocked full of some very respectable extras, and SHOW does not disappoint. There’s a terrific audio commentary with a host of cast and crew; there’s a making of featurette that explores some of challenges they encountered specifically in assembling this story at a time of budgetary upheaval for the BBC; there are some deleted and extended scenes (not much is learned, but they’re nice to have and see); and there are even a handful of other features that look at music, special effects, and the like. There’s even a terrific little examination of where Doctor Who was at the time – the challenges they faced both as a show and as a commodity the BBC has built up – and a great examination of some of critical reaction to McCoy’s particular interpretation of the lead. It’s nothing short of magnificent, and, even though I found the episodes somewhat forgettable, I learned quite a bit about the program that continues to inspire me even in its current incarnation today.
RECOMMENDED for serious Whovians only as I don’t think you’ll win over many new converts with THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY. Sure, it’s quirky, somewhat clever, and at times even fun, but much of SHOW seems quite dated, even by Doctor Who’s most benign standards. Filmed in the late 80’s, so so much of it looked like the late 80’s – not necessarily a bad thing, just not a good thing when compared to the rest of what’s offered by the franchise. However, I’d be a fool if I didn’t tell you how much time, effort, and care went into collecting these special features; they’re a hoot – or is that Whoot? – and shouldn’t be missed.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the good folks at BBC America provided me with a DVD screener of DOCTOR WHO: THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY for the expressed purpose of completing this review.
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