The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was the fourth and final serial of season 25 of Doctor Who. It showcased many of Sylvester McCoy's own skills as an entertainer, and some new tricks he had been taught to perform for the story.

Synopsis Edit

The Seventh Doctor and Ace head for the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax, where they meet a disparate group of performers and visitors, including a self-centred explorer named Captain Cook, his companion Mags and a biker known as Nord.

The circus itself is dominated by the sinister chief clown and his deadly troupe of robot clowns, who organise a talent contest in which all visitors take part. The audience consists of just a single strange familymother, father and daughter — seated at the ringside. Although hindered by the treacherous Cook, the Doctor eventually discovers that the Circus hides a terrible secret: the family are in reality the Gods of Ragnarok, powerful creatures with an insatiable craving for entertainment who invariably destroy those who fail to please them.

With Ace's help, the Doctor ends the gods' influence on Segonax and returns the circus to the control of its original owners.

Plot Edit

Part one Edit

In a circus ring, a ringmaster appears and begins a rap, saying, "You ain't seen nothing yet!" In the TARDIS, Ace and the Seventh Doctor discover that junk mail persists into the far future; a small robot that unexpectedly appears in the TARDIS console room proves to be an advertising drone for the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. The Doctor is delighted at the chance to see it and bring his companion. Ace, who is frightened of clowns, does not want to go, but the Doctor insists.

Four adventurers bus

The four adventurers examine the bus.

Flowerchild and Bellboy, circus performers on the run from the Psychic Circus, flee across Segonax's barren wastes. They are tracked by a sinister chief clown wearing undertaker's clothing, travelling in a hearse with dark-tinted windows. The runaways agree to split up, and Flowerchild alone reaches an abandoned bus crewed by a deactivated robot. Inside, she finds an odd box, which she pockets — unaware that the robotic bus conductor has re-awakened and seen her. The robot attacks and kills her. One of her earrings falls to the ground.

The TARDIS materialises on Segonax. The only sign of life readily apparent to the travellers is a roadside stand run by a jaded and cynical woman. She warns them of the circus. Ignoring her advice, Ace and the Doctor press on to the circus.

Meanwhile, the chief clown has continued the hunt for Bellboy using sinister observational kites. Bellboy's luck runs out — the clowns have found him. They bundle him into the back of the hearse to take him back to the circus.

As the Doctor and Ace continue down the road, they find other visitors making the trek. A futuristic motorcyclist named Nord impresses Ace, though the feeling is not mutual. Further down the road, Captain Cook and his friend Mags, another pair of interplanetary adventurers, invite the Doctor and Ace for tea at their campsite. Ace and Mags find a deactivated robot nearby; it comes to life and attacks, but Ace defeats it.

Nord arrives at the circus. He seats himself in the audience — near a father, mother and little girl — and is surprised to find himself selected for the circus' "talent show". He is escorted backstage, where he finds the contestants in the talent show are to wait... in a cage.

The Doctor, Ace, Mags and Captain Cook stumble across the abandoned hulk of a bus. Ace finds and pockets the earring Flowerchild lost. They are attacked by the same robot that killed Flowerchild — again, Captain Cook lets the others deal with the threat. Disgusted by Cook, the Doctor and Ace continue without the others.

Mags and Captain Cook arrive at the circus after Nord, before the Doctor and Ace, just in time to see Bellboy dragged into the ring to face punishment for his escape. Mags screams at the sight but is quickly silenced by an electronic device held by the Ringmaster. She and the Captain are dragged backstage to the cage with the other talent show contestants.

The Doctor and Ace arrive at the entrance. He asks her to decide whether they are going in, or not...

Part two Edit

Ace and the Doctor arrive at the circus to find it nearly deserted; neither Nord nor Mags and Captain Cook seem to be there. The only audience members besides themselves are the mum, dad and little girl.

Despite Ace's forebodings and the veiled hints of the fortune teller, Morgana, the Doctor volunteers for the talent show and is delighted to be selected. As he is escorted backstage, the chief clown appears and brusquely asks Ace how she came by Flowerchild's earring. Panicked, Ace dashes into the circus' recesses. In an unused room filled with robot clown parts, she meets the exhausted and battered Bellboy. She barely has time to hide from the chief clown, who enters and drags Bellboy away to fix the robots that he apparently created.

Backstage in the cage, the Doctor is reunited with Captain Cook, Mags and Nord. Captain Cook explains their lives are at stake in the talent competition; they must perform to stay alive. He tricks Nord into performing next, to the Doctor's displeasure.

After Nord's performance ends in his failure and death, a young boy riding a BMX bike arrives at the circus. Whizz Kid is a great fan of the circus and of Captain Cook. He has come to enter the talent show. He is escorted backstage by the ringmaster. They find the cage empty except for Captain Cook; the Doctor and Mags, observed by circus janitor Deadbeat, have escaped.

Ace isn't so lucky. She has been recaptured by the chief clown. Playing on her phobias, he imprisons her in the room used to repair the robot clowns.

While wandering in some strange stone corridors adjoining the circus tents, the Doctor and Mags come across a deep pit. Peering in, the Doctor is startled to see an enormous alien eye at the bottom. He cannot investigate further, as Captain Cook and clowns have arrived to take him to the circus ring for his performance.

Part three Edit

Ace, imprisoned and menaced by ill-functioning clowns, faces her fears and defeats the clowns. In doing so, she finds that Bellboy is also in the room. He reminisces sadly on the fate of the Psychic Circus; once a light-hearted and merry band of free spirits roaming the galaxy, their ideals became twisted and corrupted once settled on Segonax. He is now a prisoner of the robot clowns he himself made; Flowerchild made the kites that hunted her to death. He gives Ace a present: a remote control for a large-scale android he built on Segonax.

Whizz Kid takes his turn in the circus ring. Star-struck, he fails to entertain the audience and is promptly killed. Only his melted spectacles are left behind.

The Doctor, who managed to slip away from his captors when Mags staged a distraction, meets Deadbeat and finds an unexpected spark of sanity in the man. He leads the Doctor through the tangle of tent corridors to where Ace and Bellboy are held. Bellboy, his memory jogged, recognises Deadbeat as Kingpin, the circus' former leader. In despair, he realises what he and the other circus performers have lost. Bellboy sends away the Doctor, Ace and Kingpin, then orders his robots to kill him as they killed Flowerchild.

Were mags

Mags is revealed to be a werewolf.

Ace, Kingpin and the Doctor make their way back to the pit with the mysterious eye. There, Kingpin shows them that the eye is connected to a mirrored eye medallion he wears. The medallion is incomplete; its eye sigil lacks an eyeball. The Doctor and Ace realise the missing piece must have been what Flowerchild died trying to retrieve from the abandoned bus. The Doctor sends Ace and Kingpin to fetch it. He stalls for time by taking his turn in the ring, a desperate attempt to placate whatever in the circus is relentlessly demanding entertainment.

In the cage with Mags and Captain Cook, the Doctor suggests that all of them enter the ring together, lengthening their survival if they work together. The Captain agrees, but once in the ring, he asks for an "Old Devil Moon" spotlight, and stands by as Mags begins a ferocious transformation, smugly informing the Doctor that he really should have deduced that Mags is a werewolf.

Part four Edit

The audience are amused by the spectacle of Mags attacking the Doctor as Captain Cook and other circus performers watch. Mags then kills the captain and re-transforms into a girl. The Doctor briefs her on the plan and sends her to find Ace and Kingpin. Meanwhile, he will prepare for his performance.

Ace and Kingpin reach the abandoned bus. Ace is attacked by the bus conductor robot, but Kingpin remembers how to defeat it permanently. They retrieve the missing part of the medallion and head back towards the circus.

The family, their eyes glowing bright green, speak in reverberating voices, demanding more entertainment. When the ringmaster and Morgana have protested, the chief clown and the robot clowns enter the ring and force the pair into two large wicker baskets for a magic disappearing act. When the baskets are opened, both the ringmaster and Morgana have vanished forever; only the ringmaster's shiny red top-hat and whip are left behind. With the family now entertained the Chief and his troupe leave the ring to recapture the others.

Mags meets them on the way. She is being pursued by the clowns' hearse. The three realise they must evade or defeat it and Ace hatches a plan.

Gods of Ragnarok

The audience members' true forms.

The Doctor confronts his adversaries: the three audience members, the Gods of Ragnarok. Extradimensional beings who feed on entertainment, they have brought the Doctor to their home dimension, from which no escape is possible. The Doctor declares he is not afraid of them and begins a series of conjuring tricks.

Ace, Kingpin, and Mags have reached the old robot in the desert, the one Ace and Mags have already defeated. They crouch behind it as the clowns approach, taunting them — but Ace uses Bellboy's device to control the robot and the clowns are incapacitated. The friends dash to the clowns' hearse and return to the circus, which they find strangely deserted. They see Captain Cook's body, laid out in a state in the entrance hall, but can't find the Doctor. Kingpin thinks he may be trapped in the Dark Circus, accessible through the stone labyrinth.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is less than successful in entertaining the Gods of Ragnarok. He is still alive, but the Gods are running out of patience. They continue to taunt him, shouting, "We want more! We need more!"

Seven like a boss

The Doctor strolls out of the arena.

Kingpin, Mags, and Ace reach the pit in the stone labyrinth, but Kingpin cannot bring himself to use the medallion. As Mags and Ace try to talk him into it, he is pushed aside by Captain Cook, who had been re-animated by the Gods. Cook claims the medallion, but Ace rushes him and knocks it into the pit... where it re-materialises by the Doctor's feet. The Captain blunders into the pit after it, while the three travellers flee into Segonax's wastes.

The gods try to kill the Doctor, but he deflects their weapons with the medallion and the arena begins to crumble. He mock-bows to the dying gods and calmly walks out of the arena, back into the Psychic Circus on Segonax, which disintegrates as he leaves it. He joins his friends to watch the destruction from a safe distance.

Kingpin declares he will re-start the circus and return to its lighthearted roots. Mags joins him; she is initially uncertain that she can control her changes, but the Doctor assures her she can. Kingpin invites the Doctor and Ace to join them and explore the galaxy, but they have galaxies of their own to explore...

Cast Edit

Uncredited cast Edit

Crew Edit

Uncredited crew Edit

References Edit

Foods and beverages Edit

The Doctor's items Edit

  • The Doctor produces a variety of items as part of his magic show, including a scarf, a length of rope and two eggs.

Planets Edit

Story notes Edit

  • This was the debut performance for Jessica Martin as Mags the Werewolf. Her first line in the role was: "Captain."
  • An asbestos scare at the BBC studios prompted the idea of a story that could be shot outside the studios, inside a large tent and outdoors.
  • This story was originally a three-parter but was expanded, at the request of the producers, to four.
  • Ben Aaronovitch suggested the character that became Captain Cook.
  • Whizz Kid, the fan character, was a deliberate parody of Doctor Who fans.
  • Sylvester McCoy was coached in magic by Geoffrey Durham, otherwise known as The Great Soprendo, for the sleight-of-hand and other magic trick scenes. This was the first time that a magic consultant had been involved in the production of a Doctor Who story since the uncredited contributions of Larry Barnes and Ali Bongo for The Talons of Weng-Chiang in 1977.
  • The rap song heard during the serial was the first original song commissioned for Doctor Who since "The King's Song" in The King's Demons. The next original song for the series would be "Song for Ten" in The Christmas Invasion.
  • Part three was originally going to have featured a short scene where two of the robot clowns unload the newly-repaired Bus Conductor from the hearse near the bus, and the Bus Conductor then walks back to the vehicle. However, because part three was overrunning, this sequence had to be edited out of the finished programme and was moved forward to part four, which was running slightly under-length. Because of the last-minute nature of this edit, Dean Hollingsworth (Bus Conductor) was still credited on-screen for part three, even though he did not appear.
  • The Radio Times programme listing for part one was accompanied by a black and white publicity shot of the Doctor and the Stallslady with the accompanying caption "The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) discovers mysterious forces at work on Segonax. Will the stallslady (Peggy Mount) help him? / BBC1, 7.35 p.m. Doctor Who". (original published text)
  • At six words, this story had the longest title until the release of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe in 2011.
  • When filming the explosion of the arena in part four, Sylvester McCoy was told that he wouldn't need to walk too far of a distance, as the bulk of the explosion would be supplied by special effects. However, the pyrotechnicians over-rigged the arena: the resulting explosion was much larger than the crew anticipated, catching McCoy in the heat blast and even setting fire to some of his clothes. Yet he continued to walk away unfazed because he knew that there wouldn't be a retake.
  • This serial features the first appearance of the TARDIS interior since TV: Dragonfire, making it the only appearance of the interior in the twenty-fifth season. It was also the final appearance of the console room set introduced in TV: The Five Doctors, though the console itself would make one final appearance in TV: Battlefield.
  • This was also the last televised serial in which the Seventh Doctor wears the cream coat as part of his costume, as it's changed for a dark brown one in TV: Battlefield, to symbolise the character's shift from light-heartedness to dark and manipulative. The turning point is actually seen in this story, in the final confrontation with the Gods of Ragnarok, where he begins by performing goofy tricks for them, but when they respond by trying to turn him into their plaything, he stops messing around and blows the whole thing to smithereens.

Ratings Edit

  • Part one - 5.0 million viewers
  • Part two - 5.3 million viewers
  • Part three - 4.8 million viewers
  • Part four - 6.6 million viewers

Filming locations Edit

This story was technically filmed entirely on location, although the main location was the car park of a studio.

Production errors Edit

If you'd like to talk about narrative problems with this story — like plot holes and things that seem to contradict other stories — please go to this episode's discontinuity discussion.

to be added

Continuity Edit

Home video and audio releases Edit

Video releases Edit

  • September 1999 (Australia/New Zealand)
  • November 1999 (US/Canada)
  • January 2000 (UK)

DVD releases Edit

DVD Contents:

  • Audio Commentary featuring Toby Hadoke, Sophie Aldred, Christopher Guard, Mark Ayres, Stephen Wyatt, Jessica Martin and Andrew Cartmel
  • The Show Must Go On - Production documentary
  • Deleted and Extended Scenes
  • Lost in the Darkness: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy's Missing Model Shots
  • The Psychic Circus - Music video
  • Remembrance 'Demo'
  • Tomorrow's Times - The Seventh Doctor
  • Victoria Wood Sketch
  • Radio Times Listings
  • Visual Effects Designs and Storyboards (PDF)
  • Isolated Score
  • Photo Gallery
  • Production Subtitles
  • Coming Soon - Planet of Giants (TV story)
  • Easter Egg: Trails and Continuity Announcement. (incomplete VHS quality, with a brief excerpt from The Psychic Circus Music Video and an ident link into part two of Survival) To access this hidden feature, press right at "Deleted and Extended Scenes" on the Special Features menu


Early Region 4 pressings of this DVD in Australia and New Zealand have a major problem in the middle of part two during the scene when Ace knocks over the kites and is chased by the clowns: the picture stops for a second when Ace knocks the kite over, and then resumes after around three seconds; and when Ace disappears behind the booth being chased by the clowns, the picture stops, and the sound plays for about a second and a half, before the disc freezes completely. The only way to fix this problem is to restart the DVD and switch to the episode's next scene. The cause of this problem is currently unknown, but it is not present on the UK's Region 2 pressings.

Soundtrack releases Edit

A soundtrack album of Mark Ayres' score was released by Silva Screen Records on FILMCD 114.

External links Edit

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