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Serial 7J:
The Greatest Show In The Galaxy


Despite Ace's protestations that she hates clowns, the Doctor takes the TARDIS to Segonax to see the famed Psychic Circus. But there they discover that the self-styled Greatest Show In The Galaxy has become something sinister: its founder, Kingpin, has disappeared; the callous Chief Clown deals violently with anyone who tries to flee; and prospective Circus stars must entertain an enigmatic family -- or die. The time travellers learn that the Psychic Circus has fallen under the influence of the evil Gods of Ragnarok, and the Doctor's next performance may be his last.


Stephen Wyatt's first Doctor Who serial, Paradise Towers, had not even gone before the cameras when he was approached to write a second story for the programme. Producer John Nathan-Turner suggested a circus setting, thinking that filming could take place at Longleat House, the home of a Doctor Who exhibition since 1974; he also proposed the title The Greatest Show In The Galaxy. With this notion as his starting point, Wyatt's original pitch involved a circus infested with creatures who lived underground. However, this seemed unfeasible -- especially when the production team began to eye The Greatest Show In The Galaxy as the three-part, studiobound serial for Season Twenty-Five. Instead, Wyatt came up with the idea of a circus where the spectators are cajoled into performing for a sinister family, only to inevitably fail to entertain them and suffer a terrible fate. This was considered more suitable, and the script for the first episode was commissioned on May 8th, 1987.

Over the following months, The Greatest Show In The Galaxy evolved substantially. Originally, the story began with the Doctor and Mel arriving at the circus, where they were soon thrust into the ring with a punk werewolf, a creature called the Blob, the musclebound Nord (inspired by the Marvel Comics superhero Thor), and an empath known as the Non-Entity. Rather than performing solo, the characters competed against each other for the family's entertainment in a series of games and challenges. Of the circus staff, it was the Ringmaster who played the most overtly villainous role. The alternative circus was more high-tech and played a larger role, being occasionally glimpsed by Mel. At the adventure's climax, the circus was destroyed when the Non-Entity amplified the Doctor's rage at the needless deaths.

Originally, the circus was destroyed when the Non-Entity amplified the Doctor's rage at the needless deaths

In later drafts, the Blob was replaced by a half-human mutant, the Whizzkid, who then developed into a computer genius who was an expert at all of the in-ring games and referred to himself as the Galactic Games King. After his death, this character returned as a ghoulish self-parody, with a robotic brain and a scoreboard body. Mel encountered a friendly animal called the Squonk, who later evolved into a clown creature referred to as a Honk. There was a love triangle between the Ringmaster, the Chief Clown and the gypsy-like Box Office Lady (who was originally envisaged as grandmother type), and the Non-Entity destroyed the circus using the werewolf's fury rather than the Doctor's.

In September, however, it was decided that The Greatest Show In The Galaxy should be expanded to four episodes, with The Happiness Patrol taking its place as the three-part studio-only story. Not only did this give Wyatt greater narrative space, it also meant that he could take advantage of location filming, and therefore free his scripts from the confines of the big top environment. As a result, the new first episode would now spend time exploring the planet Segonax on which the Psychic Circus was located, and the story as a whole would focus less on the notion of the performers competing to survive. The final three episodes of The Greatest Show In The Galaxy were commissioned on September 29th.

With Wyatt now in need of additional characters, Ben Aaronovitch -- who was writing the Season Twenty-Five premiere Remembrance Of The Daleks -- suggested introducing an explorer along the lines of Indiana Jones. This inspired the creation of Captain Cook, whose demise was intended to provide the cliffhanger for the new first episode. However, Wyatt enjoyed the character so much that he greatly expanded his role throughout the adventure, and even considered having Cook mysteriously survive the Circus' destruction.

Also added at this point was the background to the Psychic Circus, which reflected Wyatt's disenchantment with the hippie movement of the Sixties. Elements of the Non-Entity and Honk characters were refashioned as Deadbeat and Bellboy, while Ace replaced Mel. With the change in the plot's emphasis, Whizzkid had become redundant in his Galactic Games King incarnation, so it was decided to remould him as a parody of the stereotypical Doctor Who fan. The werewolf character, now Cook's associate Mags, originally came from the planet MacVulpine (rather than Volpana) and spoke with a Glaswegian accent, but Nathan-Turner felt that this was too silly. At one point, the Little Girl was given the name Sandra.

Chris Jury (Deadbeat) had been one of the final candidates for the role of the Seventh Doctor

The Greatest Show In The Galaxy was designated Serial 7J, and assigned to director Alan Wareing. Wareing had previously worked on Doctor Who as a production assistant on The Keeper Of Traken and a production manager on Timelash. Nathan-Turner and former Doctor Who script editor Eric Saward had helped Wareing with his directorial training, since when he had worked on EastEnders and Casualty. Cast as Deadbeat was Chris Jury, who had been one of the final candidates for the role of the Seventh Doctor.

Production on The Greatest Show In The Galaxy began normally enough, with location filming taking place at Warmwell Quarry in Warmwell, Dorset from May 14th to 18th. The rocky wasteland was a departure from Wyatt's description of Segonax as a grassy world. The first two days dealt with scenes on the laneways and at the Stallslady's kiosk. On the 16th, a tent had been erected to pose as the exterior of the Psychic Circus. Due to an equipment problem, a different and more violent type of explosive was used for the Circus' destruction. Unfortunately, the crew forgot to inform McCoy -- who nonetheless recorded the sequence of the Doctor walking away from the erupting big top without batting an eye.

On May 17th, material in and around the hippie bus was filmed; this was the same vehicle which had featured as the tour bus in Delta And The Bannermen the year before. Finally, the 18th was principally concerned with the large robot buried in the sand. Unfortunately, poor weather meant that some planned shots had to be abandoned, including the destruction of one of the clowns by the large robot's laser blasts. Costume designer Rosalind Ebbutt had crafted the robot clowns as echoes of the Chief Clown by basing their masks on a cast of actor Ian Reddington's face.

Rehearsals then began for the two planned studio blocks at BBC Television Centre: a three-day session beginning Tuesday, May 31st and a two-day session from Wednesday, June 15th. For the Doctor's feats of prestidigitation, McCoy worked behind closed doors with professional magician Geoffrey Durham (better known as the Great Soprendo). On May 27th, however, asbestos was discovered in Television Centre Studio 2 during renovations, and traces of the dangerous material was subsequently detected in almost all of the other studios. BBC management was left with little choice but to suspend much of the Television Centre production schedule until asbestos abatement procedures could be completed. This meant that, at a minimum, the first studio block for The Greatest Show In The Galaxy would not be able to proceed in TC6 as planned.

BBC Elstree agreed to let the Doctor Who team erect a tent on their parking lot for two weeks

Briefly, Nathan-Turner believed he had found an alternative in the form of a warehouse facility in Bristol used for the medical drama Casualty, only to see it reallocated to the biographical miniseries Shadow Of The Noose. In desperation, Nathan-Turner and Wareing then conceived a plan to erect an actual tent complex on a field off the A40. When it was learned that they were restricted to using BBC premises, designer David Laskey suggested using a car park or similar venue. Finally, BBC Elstree in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire -- the home of the popular soap opera EastEnders -- agreed to let the Doctor Who team use their parking lot for two weeks.

While the construction of the necessary facilities outside BBC Elstree (subsequently nicknamed “Laskey's Studio”) meant that work on The Greatest Show In The Galaxy could resume, it was by no means an ideal solution. Cast and crew would now have to contend with the noise from pedestrian traffic, as well as airplanes landing at the nearby Elstree Aerodrome. The production came under added pressure on June 3rd, when the second studio session was also lost. BBC Planning was now advocating the cancellation of The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, and Nathan-Turner had to assure his superiors that the serial could be completed at BBC Elstree within budget.

It was under these trying circumstances that recording resumed on June 6th. Each of the first five days was largely devoted to a single area of the big top: the vestibule on the 6th, the ring on the 7th and 9th, the backstage area with the cell on the 8th, and the corridors on the 10th. Tempers were short throughout the shoot and, with limited cameras available, Wareing had to work very efficiently. The last three days at BBC Elstree then dealt with those scenes not simply set in the Psychic Circus tent: the stone chamber on the 15th, the workshop and the TARDIS console room on the 16th, and finally the ancient version of the Circus on the 18th. On this last day, Lorna McCulloch replaced Kathryn Ludlow as the Little Girl God due to restrictions on juvenile actors; Wareing's own modulated voice would provide her dialogue. It was also planned to record a model shot of the ancient Circus collapsing on the 18th, but unfortunately an issue with the videotape meant that the resulting footage was unusable, and there was no opportunity for a retake.

The planned broadcast order for Season Twenty-Five had The Greatest Show In The Galaxy airing second

The planned broadcast order for Season Twenty-Five had The Greatest Show In The Galaxy airing second, immediately after Remembrance Of The Daleks. However, the expected start of the season on September 7th was delayed by four weeks because of BBC coverage of the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Nathan-Turner still wanted to lead off the year with the star attraction of the Daleks, while Silver Nemesis had been planned as the twenty-fifth anniversary story, and so part one was locked into a broadcast on November 23rd -- the actual date of Doctor Who's silver jubilee. With only three weeks left between the two serials, this meant that The Greatest Show In The Galaxy would have to be postponed until after Silver Nemesis, making it the new season finale. Unfortunately, this created some inadvertent continuity errors: Ace wears Flowerchild's earring in Silver Nemesis despite not yet having visited Segonax, while the destruction of her rucksack in that story is contradicted by its presence in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy.

Although the production office was interested in commissioning a third story from Wyatt, the writer was growing concerned about being pigeonholed as part of the Doctor Who team and declined the invitation. Wyatt has since been a mainstay on radio, in addition to writing several plays and occasional television scripts for programmes such as Casualty, The House Of Eliott and Family Affairs. Meanwhile, The Greatest Show In The Galaxy episode four was broadcast on January 4th, 1989, bringing Doctor Who's twenty-fifth season to a close.

  • Doctor Who: The Handbook: The Seventh Doctor by David J Howe and Stephen James Walker (1998), Virgin Publishing, ISBN 0 426 20527 8.
  • Doctor Who: The Eighties by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1996), Virgin Publishing, ISBN 1 85227 680 0.
  • Doctor Who Magazine #211, “Archive: The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” by Andrew Pixley, Marvel Comics UK Ltd.
  • Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition #10, 13th April 2005, “Doctorin' The Tardis” by Andrew Pixley, Panini Publishing Ltd.
  • In-Vision #99, November 2001, “Production” edited by Anthony Brown, Cybermark Services.

Original Transmission
Episode 1
Date 14th Dec 1988
Time 7.35pm
Duration 24'23"
Viewers (more) 5.0m (86th)
· BBC1 5.0m
Appreciation 68%
Episode 2
Date 21st Dec 1988
Time 7.36pm
Duration 24'20"
Viewers (more) 5.3m (99th)
· BBC1 5.3m
Appreciation 66%
Episode 3
Date 28th Dec 1988
Time 7.40pm
Duration 24'30"
Viewers (more) 4.8m (108th)
· BBC1 4.8m
Appreciation 69%
Episode 4
Date 4th Jan 1989
Time 7.38pm
Duration 24'24"
Viewers (more) 6.6m (79th)
· BBC1 6.6m
Appreciation 64%

The Doctor
Sylvester McCoy
Sophie Aldred
The Captain
TP McKenna
Jessica Martin
Ricco Ross
Peggy Mount
Chief Clown
Ian Reddington
Deborah Manship
Christopher Guard
Gian Sammarco
Daniel Peacock
Dee Sadler
Bus Conductor
Dean Hollingsworth
Chris Jury
Daniel Peacock
David Ashford
Janet Hargreaves
Little Girl
Kathryn Ludlow

Written by
Stephen Wyatt
Directed by
Alan Wareing
Produced by
John Nathan-Turner

Magic Consultant
Geoffrey Durham
Theme Music composed by
Ron Grainer
Incidental Music
Mark Ayres
Special Sound
Dick Mills
Production Managers
Suzanna Shaw
Gary Downie
Ian Fraser
Production Associate
June Collins
Production Assistant
Alexandra Todd
Assistant Floor Managers
David Tilley
Duncan McAlpine
OB Lighting
Ian Dow
OB Sound
Doug Whittaker
OB Cameramen
Barry Chaston
Alan Jessop
Visual Effects Designer
Steve Bowman
Video Effects
Dave Chapman
Vision Mixers
Barbara Gainsley
Dinah Long
Julie Mann
Fred Law
Technical Co-ordinators
Michael Langley-Evans
Richard Wilson
Studio Camera Supervisor
Alec Wheal
Videotape Editor
Hugh Parson
Properties Buyer
Bob Blanks
Studio Lighting
Don Babbage
Henry Barber
Studio Sound
Scott Talbott
Costume Designer
Rosalind Ebbutt
Make-up Designer
Denise Baron
Script Editor
Andrew Cartmel
Graphic Designer
Oliver Elmes
Computer Animation
CAL Video
David Laskey

Updated 31st July 2015