Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy DVD review

With the release of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” the Sylvester McCoy era draws to its DVD close, and the final tale of Season 25 is a fine enough series of notes to go out on. Like “The Happiness Patrol” before it, “Galaxy” is (sometimes) a satire, only the satirical elements here aren’t as prominent as the story’s emphasis on surrealism. This is the sort of material that the McCoy era seemed hell bent on exploring, yet came away from with mixed results. “Galaxy,” to my mind, never quite scales the perfection of the story that brought us Helen A and the Kandy Man, but then it’s not going for as political a statement, either. At its core, “Galaxy” is about not following your dreams by selling out, and the horror and hurt that results from inaction.

That such ideas should be wrapped around a story set at a circus makes “Galaxy” a possibly appealing proposition, and it is a worthy story, even if flawed, due to a somewhat unsatisfying final act. (Similarly, writer Stephen Wyatt’s previous Doctor Who script, “Paradise Towers,” resulted in much the same ratio, though this is still superior to that offering.) 

The Doctor (McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) receive a piece of intergalactic junk mail inviting them to the Psychic Circus, currently operating on the planet Segonax. The Circus, which was once quite the draw for young and old alike, has fallen on hard times. The staff is in shambles and at odds with one another, while visitors go in and don’t come out. Seemingly unaware of what the Circus has devolved into, and despite Ace’s fear of clowns, the Doctor heads for Segonax, and naturally the pair find themselves in loads of trouble and danger, yet always surrounded by an extremely colorful cast of characters.

Christopher Guard's Bellboy menaced by Ian Reddington's Chief Clown
It’s the clowns, though, that elevate “Galaxy” from intriguing to well worth a look. The Chief Clown was brought to life by a guy named Ian Reddington, who was so good in his role, that in a Doctor Who Magazine poll, he won best villain of the season – in a year that had already featured villainy in the forms of Daleks, Davros, Cybermen, Nazis, a time-traveling witch, as well as the aforementioned tyrannical dictator, and her sweet-toothed psychotic servant. Yes, even through the lens of today, the Chief Clown (and to a lesser degree, his silent, robotic minions) makes an impression, and if you’ve a fear of clowns, as many seem to, you can’t say you weren’t warned. Reddington gets a great deal of mileage from never playing the part even remotely for laughs, yet his clown has an unsettling welcoming quality, but doesn’t necessarily give off a sinister vibe until the camera captures him in just the right moments. It’s a tough act to describe, and better imbibed; one helluva performance, which might’ve made Pennywise weep with envy.

Sophie Aldred & Sylvester McCoy
The rest of the cast shines as well, featuring an array of talented Brits - mostly unknown here in the States - who inhabit all the various carnies and fans of the circus. Aldred is in as fine a form as usual, and McCoy acquits himself nicely, turning in a subdued performance that only falls apart in the final act when he’s forced to do a bunch cheap parlor tricks that are more at home on a vaudevillian stage than on Doctor Who (though keep an eye out for the hanging man tarot card introduced in episode two, that’s paid off in episode four). Further, this is a tale in which it’s never made specifically clear whether or not the Doctor is manipulating events in his favor; might be, might not. The revelations of the true enemy in the final act indicate that maybe he “knew all along,” yet it’s in no way ever spelled out. Frankly, I prefer McCoy’s Doctor a little more ambiguous, such as he is here, but the lack of narrative clarity may have some viewers calling foul.

Behind the scenes of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” things were a disaster, and, due to an asbestos scare at the BBC, the serial was this close to being scrapped entirely. All of its exterior location work had been completed when this was discovered, but the remainder of the production (roughly ¾ of it) was scheduled to be completed in studio at the BBC, which was now unavailable. Producer John Nathan-Turner knew the potential power of this tale, and wasn’t about to let it go. He fought tooth and nail to finish “Galaxy,” and in the end a giant tent (so perfect given that it largely takes place inside, wait for it…a giant tent!) was erected on the Elstree Film Studios parking lot, where the serial was completed. Kudos also to director Alan Wareing, who makes the most of everything at his disposal, imbuing the serial with proper chilly atmosphere, and casting a sense of dread over the entire piece.

John Nathan-Turner
But much credit must be given to Nathan-Turner. If it weren’t for his dedication, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” would barely exist today. We’d have about an episode’s worth of existing footage, and the serial would probably survive only in some sort of “Shada”-like limbo, with animated recreations, or audios, or books to attempt to show us what the serial might have been. The extras on this DVD go a long way toward giving him that much deserved credit, and those associated with the serial appear to have nothing but admiration for the man. People all too often talk a great deal of smack about Nathan-Turner, but not here. Not on this disc - which in addition to being generous towards JN-T, is also bursting at the seams with worthy bonus material.

T.P. McKenna as Captain Cook & Jessica Martin as Mags
DVD Extras: The Toby Hadoke-moderated commentary is a blast, loaded with fun, opinions and information. It features Aldred, alongside actors Jessica Martin (Mags) and Christopher Guard (Bellboy), as well as writer Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel, and composer Mark Ayres. It’s something of a shame, given that it’s the last disc of his era to get a release, but McCoy is nowhere to be seen here, in any form or fashion (it seems unlikely that any of his other stories will get special edition treatment, but who knows?). The aptly-titled “The Show Must Go On” is a fine, 30-minute making-of which explores much of what’s been talked about here, including the behind-the-scenes complications. It also includes an on-camera interview with Ian Reddington, which is quite the bonus for fans of the Chief Clown.

There’s an 11-minute selection of extended and deleted scenes culled from the first and third episodes, alongside some intriguing model footage that was originally set to open the serial. “The Psychic Circus” is a mostly terrible music video for an even worse song that’s written by Christopher Guard, and features vox from Guard, Jessica Martin, and T.P. McKenna (who must surely have been drunk when he agreed to take part in the project). “‘Remembrance’ Demo” is a couple scenes from the Season 25 Dalek story, rescored by Ayres. “Tomorrow’s Times – The Seventh Doctor” is a look at the press reaction to the McCoy years. “Victoria Wood As Seen on TV is a mercifully short, howlingly awful piece of sketch comedy featuring none other than Jim Broadbent sending up a version of the Doctor. I can actually remember when this fiasco made the cover of Doctor Who Magazine; must've been a slow month for news. There’s also an isolated music score, the option to listen to the serial in 5.1 Surround, an unusually excellent photo gallery packed with great behind-the scenes shots, the production notes subtitle option, and Radio Times listings & some storyboards in PDF form. Finally, there’s an Easter Egg that flew entirely over my head, and a coming soon trailer for “Planet of Giants.”

Behind the scenes, at lunch