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The Chief Clown Serial 7J:
The Greatest Show In The Galaxy

Starring: Sylvester McCoy (The Seventh Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace).

Plot
Despite Ace's protestations that she hates clowns, the Doctor takes the TARDIS to Segonax to see the famed Psychic Circus. But upon his arrival, the Doctor discovers the Circus has become something sinister: its founder, Kingpin, has disappeared; the callous Chief Clown deals violently with performers who try to flee; and prospective Circus stars must perpetually please an enigmatic family with their act -- or be killed. The time travellers learn that the Circus has fallen under the influence of the evil Gods of Ragnarok, and the Doctor's next performance may prove to be his last.

Production
Shortly after completing work on Paradise Towers for Doctor Who's twenty-fourth season, Stephen Wyatt was asked to compose a new idea for the following year. By now well-acquainted with Wyatt's knack for unusual settings, producer John Nathan-Turner suggested an adventure taking place at a circus. Wyatt devised a storyline entitled The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, which was originally considered for the studio-bound, three-part slot for Season Twenty-Five. Subsequently, though, Nathan-Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel asked Wyatt to expand his storyline to four episodes, including some location material; episode one was commissioned on May 8th, 1987.

Wyatt decided to use the opportunity offered by the additional running time to explore the planet, Segonax, on which his Psychic Circus was located. This also meant that he had to devise some extra characters who could be killed off. Ben Aaronovitch, another potential Season Twenty-Five writer, suggested an explorer character along the lines of Indiana Jones. This inspired the creation of Captain Cook, to whom Wyatt took such a liking that he expanded Cook's role enormously. At one stage, Wyatt even wanted to have Cook mysteriously survive the destruction of the Psychic Circus. The addition of the fourth episode also gave Wyatt a chance to add the subplot involving Bellboy and Flowerchild, intended as a reflection of the writer's disenchantment with the hippy movement of the Sixties. Meanwhile, Wyatt's original vision of the Circus -- as a competitive arena in which defeated teams were killed off one by one -- had been greatly altered. Whizzkid had originally been intended to be a computer genius who was an expert at all the Circus' games, but the evolving premise had made him essentially redundant. With the encouragement of the production office, however, Wyatt decided to retain the character, transforming him into a parody of the stereotypical Doctor Who fan. Other changes to the script included renaming Mags' home planet from MacVulpine to Volpana; setting episode four during daytime instead of at night; removing the dialogue of the robot buried in the desert, who would originally lure passersby into approaching him before threatening to attack them; and making Segonax a desert world instead of a pastoral setting. The Little Girl was also called Sandra at one point.

The director assigned to Serial 7J was Alan Wareing, whose credits to date included episodes of EastEnders and Casualty. Wareing had been an assistant floor manager on several serials in the early Eighties, and Nathan-Turner and former Doctor Who script editor Eric Saward had aided him with final project during his directorial training. Location work took place at West Knighton Pit in Warmwell, Dorset, beginning on May 14th, 1988. In preparing the robotic clown outfits for the taping, costume designer Rosalind Ebbutt took a cast of the face of Ian Reddington, the actor playing the Chief Clown. All the robot clown masks were then based around this cast, so that they were all echoes of the Chief Clown. The production was then supposed to return to the studio for a three-day block beginning on Tuesday, May 31st, followed by a two-day session from Wednesday, June 15th.

On May 27th, however, asbestos was discovered in Studio TC2 of BBC Television Centre during renovations, and traces of the dangerous material was subsequently detected in other studios. BBC management decided to close down all the studios until the problem could be rectified, but this meant the loss of the first block, at least, of The Greatest Show In The Galaxy. With no additional studio time left and the performers' contracts obligating them to the production only until mid-June, for a brief time the serial was cancelled. Even a brief respite in the form of a warehouse facility in Bristol went for nothing, as the space was later reallocated to the drama series Shadow Of The Noose, whose need was deemed more vital. Then, in desperation, Nathan-Turner and Wareing conceived the idea of erecting an actual tent complex on a field off the A40. Although this was forbidden, because any remount would have to take place on BBC premises, designer David Laskey suggested the same plan could be accomplished at a car park or similar facility. Finally, BBC Elstree -- the home of EastEnders amongst other productions -- agreed to let the Doctor Who team use their parking lot for two weeks. Although the arrangement was not ideal, as it would mean contending with the sound of pedestrians and airplanes landing at the nearby Elstree Aerodrome, it meant The Greatest Show In The Galaxy could be completed.

Work at Elstree began on June 6th. For a time, Nathan-Turner hoped that the serial's second studio block might proceed as originally scheduled, but eventually this was cancelled as well. Consequently, Wareing was forced to be extremely efficient in arranging his shots. Nonetheless, The Greatest Show experienced few major modifications despite the change of plans. Amongst these was the loss of Kathryn Ludlow, who played the Little Girl. By the time the scenes of the Gods in their nonhuman forms came to be recorded, the production team had exhausted the number of days that Ludlow, as a child actor, could commit to the serial. Consequently, Lorna McCulloch donned the God costume, while Wareing's own modulated voice provided the requisite dialogue. Another late change was Bellboy's appearance after his capture. Originally, he was to be haggard and white-haired, implying that he had suffered electric shock treatment, but this was dropped on recording. The script also indicated that he should be lashed to a kite, not a workbench. Meanwhile, it was thought that the use of a real tent (as opposed to a sturdier studio mock-up) would mean the loss of the episode four sequence where the Doctor swings on ropes; this scene was retained, however, at Nathan-Turner's insistence and was accomplished without problem. One minor incident did occur on June 15th, when TP McKenna reaggravated an injury to his achilles tendon after falling onto the wrong foot in the scene where Captain Cook is killed. Fortunately, though, this was the final day on which McKenna was required for taping.

Season Twenty-Five was originally supposed to have been broadcast in production order, with The Greatest Show In The Galaxy second. However, the expected start of the season on September 7th was delayed to October 5th because of BBC coverage of the Seoul Summer Olympics. Nathan-Turner still wanted to lead off the year with Remembrance Of The Daleks and have episode one of the twenty-fifth anniversary story, Silver Nemesis, broadcast on November 23rd -- the actual date of Doctor Who's silver jubilee. This left only three weeks in between the two serials. Consequently, the original season finale, The Happiness Patrol, was exchanged with The Greatest Show In The Galaxy. Unfortunately, this created a couple of inadvertent continuity errors: Ace is seen wearing Flowerchild's earring in Silver Nemesis, the same serial in which her rucksack -- seen in The Greatest Show -- is destroyed.

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 contributing scripts to the drama series Casualty. 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.

Details
Original Transmission Details
Episode Date Time Duration Viewers Audience App.
1 14th December 1988 7.35pm 24'23" 5.0m (86th) 68%
2 21st December 1988 7.36pm 24'20" 5.3m (99th) 66%
3 28th December 1988 7.40pm 24'30" 4.8m (108th) 69%
4 4th January 1989 7.38pm 24'24" 6.6m (79th) 64%

Principal Crew
Producer John Nathan-Turner
Script Editor Andrew Cartmel
Writer Stephen Wyatt
Director Alan Wareing
Designer David Laskey
Costume Rosalind Ebbutt
Incidental Music Mark Ayres

Principal Guest Cast: David Ashford (Dad), Christopher Guard (Bellboy), Janet Hargreaves (Mum), Chris Jury (Deadbeat), Deborah Manship (Morgana), Jessica Martin (Mags), TP McKenna (Captain Cook), Ian Reddington (Chief Clown), Ricco Ross (Ringmaster), Gian Sammarco (Whizzkid).

Novelisation: The Greatest Show In The Galaxy by Stephen Wyatt (book 144), December 1989; cover by Alister Pearson.

Video Release: The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, episodic format, January 2000; PAL (BBC Video cat.# 6798) and NTSC (Warners cat.# E1494) formats available; photomontage. Due to a delay in the release of the UK version (originally set for July 1999), this marks one of the few occasions when the North American versions was actually released first, in November 1999.

Rankings: 78th (65.78%, Doctor Who Dynamic Rankings website, 22nd June 1999); 84th (67.28%, DWM 1997 Annual Survey).

Sources


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