Oddballs, Whizz Kids and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988/9)

greatest show

Back when I was a teenage whizz kid, I watched The Greatest Show in the Galaxy on transmission. Avidly. This makes me feel dodderingly old, but thinking back on it reminds me that it was a rare period of optimism for fandom.

Suddenly, it felt like the show was riding a new wave of creative quality. There was a Doctor and a companion viewers were connecting with. And the show itself was experimenting with a new type of story that someone had christened “oddballs”. During Andrew Cartmel’s reign as Doctor Who script editor, stories oscillated between traditional adventure stories where deeper themes were hinted at (so Remembrance is about things blowing up and racism, Battlefield is about more things blowing up and fear of nuclear war) and these so called oddballs.

I’m working from memory here, but I think “oddball” was the term John Nathan-Turner used in pre-publicity to describe a story which more bizarre elements than usual. I’m pretty sure he first applied that description to Delta and the Bannermen, but that feels more traditional to me than Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol and Greatest Show, oddballs one and all. By Season 26, the oddballs had become less outre, with Ghost Light and Survival blending their bizarreness with more traditional Who storytelling. To become “tradballs”. (Do you like that? I just made it up.)

Being like traditional Doctor Who, or more specifically being like Holmes & Hinchcliffe’s version of Doctor Who, mattered to fans in the 80s. Despite the show’s creative renaissance, oddballs were always greeted warily. I seem to recall someone sniffily calling Greatest Show “the oddball that worked”. And that’s probably because it’s creepy and well acted and it’s got good incidental music, so altogether quite Hichcliffey. Plus no one does anything too silly like dressing up like a big liquorice allsort or smashing jars of honey all over the aliens or doing galactically OTT zombie acting.

But although fans at the time were a bit iffy about oddballs, they brought a new mode to Doctor Who: a sort of highly stylistic aesthetic. Suddenly everyone and everything seemed to be unreal, but not in a Time and the Rani kind of unreality, where people were called Beaus and Ikona and big bat creatures loped alongside Kate O’Mara while she impersonated Bonnie Langford. In this new aesthetic, people had occupations rather than names (the Chief Caretaker, the Tollmaster, the Ringmaster, Control) or they had names which pointed towards their character traits or social heirarchy (Pex, Helen A, Deadbeat, Squeak). Threats became more oblique and more parochial: sweets, pool cleaners and bus conductors will kill you. And the oddballs were so clearly unconcerned with realism that it was obvious they must be allegorical.

To put it another way, Time and the Rani is bizarre but essentially wants the viewer to take the story it’s telling literally. Paradise Towers is bizarre in a way where a reading along the lines of, “this is clearly a message about urban discord and isn’t meant to be read literally” is absolutely valid. And this riled a certain set of fans who just wanted a sequel to Pyramids of Mars.

By the time we get to Greatest Show, the production team was approaching the oddball with confidence. They were working out that a certain set of stories could be told allegorically and still deliver the scares for those wondering what had happened to the magic of Doctor Who. For instance, writer Steven Wyatt saw this story of a hippy circus being infiltrated by a sinister force as expressing the death of 1960s idealism…. And also clowns made great Doctor Who monsters, because were creepy and cheap to realise. So win win.

The members of Wyatt’s space circus have long since sold their Bohemian souls. Corruption is a potent theme in Greatest Show. Just as the Gods of Rangnarok have corrupted the members of this circus troupe, so each of its victims – including the Doctor (a smart, vivid performance from Sylvester McCoy) – are drawn to the circus ring in by their own desire for fame. One of the most terrifying aspects of this is that the corruption doesn’t produce a standard Doctor Who villain – just a triad of desperate middle managers. The Ringmaster (Ricco Ross), Morgana (Deborah Manship) and the Chief Clown (Ian Reddington) have to strategise in panic to get people in the ring, until the latter has no other option but to feed his colleagues to the ever hungry beast. There’s no grand plan here, only desperate improvisation against a relentless taskmaster.

While most of the story’s elements pull in the same direction, others are oddballs within this oddball. Mags (Jessica Martin) is a end of episode monster grrrl hidden in plain sight, but her connection to the selling out of hippy ideals is unclear. Still, she’s nothing compared to Captain Cook (TP McKenna), a walking, talking, pith helmeted representation of colonial arrogance. He’s as out of place as Mags, but he’s perhaps the most extreme example of this story’s high symbolism. How can this towering stereotype be read literally? He’s too starkly stylised to be anything but a walking parody.

Talking of walking parodies, there’s also the Whizz Kid (Gian Sammarco), a stereotypical representation of Doctor Who fans, and specifically, the sort who wished the whole place would Hinchcliffe itself up a bit. Where Captain Cook seems to be one random allegorical element too far, the Whizz Kid manages to push Greatest Show into a new shape, where the circus becomes a stand-in for Doctor Who itself. It’s almost a cry for help from the production team: trapped in an aging show, trying to sate an audience demanding endless entertainment, mercilessly judged by ratings and beset by barkers. Among everything else it’s doing, Greatest Show’s also a meta commentary.

This, I think, is the power of the oddball. It allows so many things to happen simultaneously. You can tell a story about the death of idealism, our society’s constant appetite for entertainment and the strained relationship Doctor Who had with its fans, all at once. You can set it in twisted versions of familiar worlds, dress your characters up in wacky costumes and give them oblique names, and all would be forgiven as long as you kept the lighting low and offered the occasional scare. From here, we get Gridlock, The Doctor’s Wife and Smile. They’re great because they’re smart and funny and see the world a little differently. And maybe it’s because all whizz kids eventually grow up to be oddballs, I still find so much to love in them.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Mini Quiz:

  1. How can the Ringmaster switch off Mags’ screams?
  2. When he does, why can Ace still hear them?
  3. Why does the Doctor expect Segonax to be a green and pleasant land when he saw on the scanner that it looked like a quarry?
  4. Why is that section of dialogue in Part Two between the Ringmaster and the Doctor (and a little bit of Ace) in the ring written in rhyming verse?
  5. How exactly was it the Doctor’s show all along?

LINK TO The Space Museum: annoying teenage boys.

NEXT TIME… Don’t leave me hanging! We meet an underwater menace in Under the Lake/Before the Flood.

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