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Recap / Doctor Who S25 E4 "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy"

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The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Stand down! I have a medallion!
Written by Stephen Wyatt
Directed by Alan Wareing
Production code: 7J
Air dates: 14 December 1988 - 4 January 1989
Number of episodes: 4

"You're just an ageing hippie, Professor."

The One With… the rapping ringmaster.

The Doctor and Ace get junk mail in the TARDIS and head off to a circus that has, inexplicably, set up shop on a desert planet. They poke around a bit—buying gross food from a travelling vendor, chit-chatting with self-important adventurer Captain Cook and his punk companion Mags, trying to flag down a ride from a Mad Max extra—and utterly fail to notice that this is the sort of circus that people run away from.

In fact, the Circus of Fear has adopted the innovative cost-saving practice of imprisoning its customers and making them perform, with a penalty of death if the audience, who consist solely of a jaded Creepy Monotone trio of mother, father, and little girl, are bored. So it is that Ace and the Doctor promptly find themselves backstage, in an unusually well-secured green room together with Captain Cook, Mags, the Badass Biker guy, and a starstruck über-fan named WhizzKid.

After much sneaking around in the circus's billowing tent backstage, the Doctor and Ace discover that it was once a free-spirited hippie circus of, like, love and joy and freedom, man... until they settled down on this planet, where they apparently all had to sign their circus over to evil gods. Guess they should have read the HOA fine print.

Eventually, Ace and Mags (who turns out to be a werewolf) go to dig a medium-sized mecha out of the desert, which they use to fend off the extremely creepy head clown. Now they just need to find and destroy the evil amulet controlling the circus, while the Doctor is left to amuse the Evil Gods of Ragnarok (the true form of the creepy audience family). He does so by improvising egg tricks, rope tricks, juggling tricks, fire tricks, snake tricks, sword tricks and upside-down escapism tricks, and looks like he could have merrily gone on for a few more hours and is having rather a lot more fun than the Gods themselves. Eventually, though, Ace tosses him the evil amulet through a dimensional portal.

The amulet gets destroyed, which takes out the circus in a giant fireball of evil gods and creepy clowns, and Sylvester McCoy walks unflinchingly—both in-character and in real life—while on fire because the BBC pyrotechnics crew screwed up. note 


  • Action Figure Speech: The three Gods of Ragnarok indicate which of them is talking by raising and lowering their arms. Unlike the Daleks and Cybermen, however, the Gods have noticeably different voices.
  • Adventurer Outfit: Captain Cook wears the classic safari outfit, with a pith helmet.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • After Nord's threating behaviour towards Ace in the first episode, the audience aren't too sorry to see his death.
    • Does anyone really mourn for Captain Cook after Mags mauls him?
  • Badass Biker: Nord, Vandal Of The Road.
  • Berserk Button: Captain Cook doesn't mind being called a scoundrel or a meddling fool, but "crushing bore" cuts him to the quick.
  • Big Bad: The Gods of Ragnarok.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humour: The whole serial is a massive Take That! to The BBC. All the performers at the Psychic Circus are paraded in front of cold, unfeeling cosmic figures with a penchant for destroying anyone who fails to entertain them, a reference to the BBC executives seeking to cancel Doctor Who at the time. The Doctor does simple tricks to bide for time, but once he gets a chance to destroy the Gods of Ragnarok, he takes a bow and casually strolls out of the exploding circus, showing up all the other performers and proving once again why he's a walking Moment of Awesome. It ain't called Greatest Show in the Galaxy for nothing. Sadly, the show's newfound confidence (and storytelling quality) would be cut short, as under a year later, it would be cancelled until 2005.
  • Bond One-Liner: The Doctor gets a couple.
    • After disabling a homicidal robot bus-conductor with his own ticket machine: "Just the ticket."
    • After knocking out a homicidal robot clown with a juggling club: "Join the club."
  • Broken Aesop: Whizzkid was intended as a Take That! to fans who criticised 1980s Doctor Who by saying it wasn't as good as it used to be in a time they couldn't possibly remember. The problem here is that Whizzkid's similar opinions about the titular Psychic Circus are shown to be absolutely correct. Consequently, all Whizzkid does is vindicate the same fans the character was supposed to be chastising. What also doesn't help is that there are moments of Self-Deprecation within the story that suggest that Whizzkid had a point.
  • But Now I Must Go: When The Doctor and Ace are invited to travel the galaxy with the new circus at the end, he says he has other galaxies to travel.
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: Nord's strongman act's impressive, but he gets fried when he's suddenly put on the spot to wow the judges with humour.
  • Circus Episode: Which gives Sylvester McCoy an opportunity to show off his sleight-of-hand skills.
  • Circus of Fear: A circus where people are killed for the amusement of eldritch abominations. It's surprising that it took Doctor Who 25 years to do this trope.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • While Ace's looking for her rucksack in the TARDIS wardrobe, she throws the Fifth Doctor's coat to the floor and emerges a while later, wearing the Fourth Doctor's scarf. Mel's blue-and-white polka dot blouse from "Paradise Towers" is also visible.
    • One so subtle people don't usually notice until it's pointed out: Captain Cook's double-headed coins appear to depict an Alpha Centaurian.
  • Creator Cameo: The director, Alan Wareing, provides the divine voice for the "little girl" god. Kathryn Ludlow, who played the human form of the god, was also meant to provide the voiceover, but delays in the production meant that by the time these scenes came to be recorded, they had exhausted the number of days that Kathryn could commit to the serial under child labour laws.
  • Creepy Child: The "little girl" god.
  • Creepy Circus Music: Used to great effect. It's just similar enough to some well-known circus tunes to be off-putting, seems to come from nowhere inside the circus tent, plays during some of the most surreal and creepy scenes in the story, is used to drown out a young woman's screams, and is just catchy enough to stay in your head...
  • Crystal Ball: Morgana has one, in keeping with her fortune-teller persona.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: The Doctor killing the Gods of Ragnarok.
  • Did You Just Scam Cthulhu?: The Doctor versus the Gods of Ragnarok.
  • Double Entendre: The Doctor comments to Ace that the robot was "just a device to get us involved". This is a triple-entendre—it's a "device" (a robot), a "device" (a plot device), and a "device" (a manipulation).
  • The Dragon: The Chief Clown.
  • Driven to Suicide: Bellboy.
  • Dumb Muscle: Nord isn't long on grey matter, but manages to wow the audience with his strongman performance.
  • Egomaniac Hunter: Captain Cook seems to qualify. We never actually see him hunting, but he bores everyone with his "tales of glory" and had no problem with enslaving a sentient being he captured on one of his expeditions and using her for his own ends.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Gods of Ragnarok.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": If the Ringmaster and the Chief Clown ever had names, nobody uses them now.
  • Evil Counterpart: The Captain and Mags are a dark mirror for the Doctor and Ace if the Doctor were a self-serving, abusive coward. In Mags' case, however, she's less evil and more an abused glorified hostage who the Doctor helps free.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: Deadbeat (in his backstory) and Captain Cook both planned to make deals with the power behind the Circus. When Deadbeat tried he lost his mind; Cook became a revenant under their control before he got the chance to negotiate.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: The Gods when they drop their facade, and the Chief Clown when he loses it.
  • Failed a Spot Check: When the Doctor and Ace are walking along the road to the circus, they don't seem to notice the truck driving straight towards them from the opposite direction until it's about a foot away and starts honking.
  • Foreshadowing: Courtesy of the ruthlessly pragmatic Captain Cook, "survival of the fittest" become something of Arc Words in this story. It's a theme that is explored a lot in the following season, particularly in Ghost Light and Survival.
  • For the Evulz: The Gods of Ragnarok who were trapped in a parallel dimension (possibly by the Doctor himself) and take over a circus to force people to perform for them, just to alleviate their boredom. When they lose interest in an act, they kill the performer.
  • Fortune Teller: Morgana is one.
  • Fourth-Wall Observer: Is there any other explanation for why the Chief Clown does his little flourish direct to camera when Bellboy kills himself, given that there are only robots present otherwise?
  • Gentleman Adventurer: Captain Cook is the evil underside of this trope. He talks big and has a great personal style, but he's a Dirty Coward who's always willing to let others die in his place and exploit his werewolf companion.
  • Gratuitous Rap: The circus' MC is a rapper. Why? Because!
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Nord, Vandal of the Road. Any offer of help is met with threats, as is any request for assistance.
  • Hippie Name: The founding members of the Psychic Circus have names like Bellboy, Flower Child, and Juniper Berry.
  • Hippie Van: There's a broken-down one in the desert near the Circus, a relic of its free-spirited hippie days.
  • Hold Your Hippogriffs: The novelization mentions that The Doctor can talk the hind legs off a robot donkey.
  • Horror Hippies: A circus run by intergalactic hippies who have fallen under the control of ancient eldritch horrors.
  • The Hyena: The Chief Clown. Goes with the general Monster Clown-ness.
  • "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight: The Doctor to Mags. He's half-successful, as she kills Captain Cook but spares the Doctor.
  • Immoral Reality Show: Visitors to the circus are killed for the amusement of the Gods of Ragnarok.
  • I Take Offence to That Last One: See Berserk Button above.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: After the Doctor's "Just the ticket" line (see Bond One-Liner above), Ace and Mags simultaneously give him a "Did you really just say that?" look.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: As the Psychic Circus's audience, the Gods of Ragnarok kill anyone who fails to entertain them. When the Doctor finally confronts them, he manages to keep himself alive by distracting the Gods (and the actual audience) with a magic show.
  • Lovely Assistant: When the Ringmaster tempts the Doctor into agreeing to perform, he attempts to pigeonhole Ace as the Lovely Assistant. Ace, already creeped out by the circus, prefers to run away as far and as fast as she can.
  • The Mad Hatter: Deadbeat/Kingpin.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Captain Cook is constantly looking for ways to get others to go into the ring before him, and manages to talk Whizz Kid into doing so where he is promptly killed.
  • Meaningful Name: Mags' home planet, Vulpana, suggests 'vulpine' (fox-like) — hinting at her canid qualities.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Captain Cook, a blustering braggart who is quick to pontificate about his many exploits, but makes sure to keep himself as far from danger as he can. It's a minor moment of awesome when, even as Cook has him penned in by a werewolf and at the mercy of the clowns, the Doctor finally has all he can stomach of Cook's tedious waffling and tells him to shut up.
  • Monster Clown: The murderous robot clowns. The Chief Clown, the only actually human one, is a servant of the Gods of Ragnarok. He also taunts one of his former colleagues on supposedly not being able to stop them. The Novelization also implies him to be a greedy Pagliaccio.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Bellboy wears an open jacket with no shirt beneath. Sophie Aldred mentioned that all her friends were quite pleased by that.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Ace herself wears a crop top that shows several inches of her stomach whenever she moves her arms.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: Kingpin, Bellboy, Flower Child, etc. Stephen Wyatt has said that the story was consciously intended to be partly about the failure of The '60s hippie ideals in the The '70s and The '80s, which cuts a bit deeper when one considers that Doctor Who first aired in 1963.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Ace and Kingpin would never have retrieved the other part of the amulet if the bus conductor robot hadn't accidentally broken its box open while trying to kill Ace.
  • No Name Given: Most of the guest characters are identified only by job title ("Ringmaster", "Stallslady"), obvious nicknames ("Whizz Kid", "Flowerchild"), or in the case of the Ragnarok gods, family relationship.
  • Nobody Calls Me "Chicken"!: Done by the spambot to Ace to provoke her into going to Segonax.
  • Noodle Incident: The Doctor's previous encounter with the Gods of Ragnarok.
  • No Shirt, Long Jacket: Bellboy.
  • Novelization: The serial's writer, Stephen Wyatt wrote the novelization.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: Mags is a Vulpanan, an alien race with abilities similar to those of a werewolf. In the presence of moonlight, she gains the attributes of a wolf, and Cook also implies that Mags has a weakness against Silver Bullets.
  • Pre-Insanity Reveal: Dead Beat is really the shellshocked former leader Kingpin. He regains his sanity at the story's climax.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: The villains are Eldritch Abominations who need to be constantly entertained.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "I ain't! Going! On! Next!"
  • Repulsive Ringmaster: The Ringmaster willingly collaborates in feeding people to the Gods of Ragnarok to ensure his own survival.
  • Revenant Zombie: The Captain after the Gods raise him.
  • Self-Deprecation: Because the Psychic Circus is a metaphor for Doctor Who and its relationship with the audience and the BBC, some elements of the story can seem self-deprecating.
    • Nord is an aggressive biker, who tries to choke Captain Cook at one point and gets killed by the Gods of Ragnarok after his audition fails to impress them.
    • The space adventurer Captain Cook is the Doctor's Evil Counterpart and can be interpreted as a critique of the Doctor as he is relatively unheroic and uses his intelligence to save his own hide. Likewise, Mags is an obvious stand-in for the Doctor's companion, who is mistreated by Cook and used as a weapon against Cook's enemies.
    • Many of the Circus workers—Morgana, Bellboy, and Kingpin—criticize the current state of the Psychic Circus by expressing how the Psychic Circus used to be good in the old days.
  • Shout-Out: The Gods of Ragnarok.
  • Shovel Strike: Ace hits Bellboy's robot with a shovel.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Captain Cook is bragging about all the planets he's been to while Mags tries to kill the Doctor...
    The Doctor: Captain Cook, you're not just a scoundrel and meddling fool! You're also a crushing bore!
  • Similar Squad: Captain Cook and Mags, for the Doctor and Ace.
  • Standard Snippet: The Ringmaster's entrance is accompanied by "Entry of the Gladiators".
  • Straw Fan: Whizzkid, a nerd who keeps gushing about the Psychic Circus though he said he knew it wasn't as good as it used to be, before getting horribly murdered.
  • The Strongman: Nord is dressed as one for his appearance in the ring, with a piece of leopardskin thrown over his biker gear.
  • Stylistic Suck: The Ringmaster's raps, according to Wyatt on the DVD, are meant to be bad and indicate his diminishing artistic abilities.
  • Take That, Audience!:
    • Whizzkid was intended as a slap in the face to obsessive Doctor Who fans. He enjoys the Psychic Circus a bit too much to be tolerable, but claims "it's not as good as it used to be" (a common fan gripe at the time), despite not having even seen it in the past. He meets a nasty end without even meeting the Doctor.
      Whizz Kid: 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.
    • While they primarily represent The BBC administration, the Gods of Ragnarok also represent the general audience at large. In the circus tent, they're presented as a rather dull family with no imagination of their own who just sit disinterestedly in front of a parade of entertainment moaning about how nothing's ever good enough to interest them no matter how creative it is, and anything they vote down is pretty much wiped out of existence.
  • Tarot Troubles: When Morgana offers to tell the Doctor his future, she draws The Hanged Man card from her tarot deck. This serves as Foreshadowing to a later scene where the Doctor is hanged from a rope by his ankles while performing an escapology trick.
  • Tennis Boss: The Doctor defeats the Gods of Ragnarock by using the mirror amulet to reflect their energy blasts and collapse the roof of their balcony seat on them.
  • Theme Tune Rap: The Ringmaster raps to start off the circus performance.
  • Totally Not a Werewolf: Averted, while Captain Cook reveals that Mags is an alien from the planet Vulpana, he also describes her as a werewolf.
  • Totally Radical: The Ringmaster tries to entertain the Gods of Ragnarok by poorly rapping. As part of the story's Postmodernism, this is essentially the show acknowledging that it may struggle to keep up with times: British hip hop was becoming popular around this time hence the Ringmaster's poor rapping skills.
  • Tranquil Fury: The Doctor does not take kindly to Captain Cook referring to Ace as a "specimen."
  • Two-Headed Coin: Captain Cook uses a two-headed coin to win a coin toss against Nord and force the barbarian to enter the ring first. He later reveals that he has a two-tailed coin as well, so Nord was screwed no matter what he called.
  • The Undead: After Mags kills him, Captain Cook gets back up and tries to stop her, Ace, and Kingpin from helping the Doctor. Presumably he was reanimated by the Gods, but he admits he doesn't recommend the experience.
  • Unflinching Walk: Though if you look close, you can see that Sylvester McCoy does indeed flinch slightly (because the explosion was bigger than he expected).
  • Villain Song: Christopher Guard and Mark Ayres wrote a Villain Song, "We Are the Psychic Circus", for the Psychic Circus characters, which was rejected for release by the BBC but finally appeared on the DVD release. It's not as bad as "Doctor in Distress".
  • Villains Love Entertainment: The Gods of Ragnarok have this as their hat. Keep them entertained, or die.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: It's not clear if Ace has a true phobia about clowns, but she does think they're creepy.
  • A Wild Rapper Appears!: The story opens with the Ringmaster unexpectedly rapping expository dialogue, a dramatic device not used before or since in the show's entire history.
  • Wolf Girl: As is common in Doctor Who - see, for instance, its many vampires - the specific variety of werewolf seen here has never been seen before and never will be again. Convergent evolution, we guess.
  • Wrench Wench: In Episode 1, Ace instantly diagnoses the problem with Nord's engine and offers to help him repair it - to the point where she seems to be channelling Ray.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The rather perfunctory killing of the Ringmaster and Morgana, after the Captain's death rouses the Gods' bloodlust with no further outsider victims available.
  • You're Insane!: When Ace accuses the Doctor of being an ageing hippie, he retorts that everybody remotely interesting is mad in some way.


Video Example(s):


Doctor Who (1987)

From "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy". The Seventh Doctor reacts to the implosion of an interdimensional circus in unflappable style.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (24 votes)

Example of:

Main / UnflinchingWalk

Media sources: