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2 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 701: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Two

Dear diary,

It’s long fascinated me that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy almost went the route of becoming a Shada for the late 1980s - a programme which could have been part-way through production before everything ground to a halt. Having finished all the location filming for the serial, the cast and crew returned to Television Centre to record all the interior segments… only to find that the studios had been closed to have asbestos removed. Schedule in tatters, nothing to be done. It’s this particular behind-the-scenes story which people tend to agree most represented John Nathan-Turner rising higher than ever before. He found ways to work around the BBC’s temporary rules and regulations for completing programmes during this period, had a large marquee erected in the car park at Elstree, and they finished the production in there. The behind the scenes documentary on this DVD has some great anecdotes about an almost war-time spirit that everyone had in making sure that the story could be finished. It’s also pointed out that they’re lucky that this was the story caught up in these events, because it’s the only one this season (indeed, the only one from this decade, I’d argue, if not even longer) which could actively benefit from such a move!

All the scenes inside the circus tent look fantastic - and far more real than if they’d been shot in a mocked-up ‘big top’ in the studios. The same can be said for the great corridors that our cast are asked to run up and down today - the billowing white sheets that form the sides make the shots stand out as being quite unlike any other corridor chase in Doctor Who, and they look wonderful. I think the only disappointment with all of this is that the series has switched to shooting all on video - because I’d have loved to see all these sequences shot out on film, as was the case when a somewhat similar problem struck the production of Spearhead From Space almost twenty years earlier.

Everything has combined together to make this story stand out visually as being very different to anything else around it, and that really does help. Even if this story had ended up being shot in the studio, though, how beautiful is the location filming? It’s all been shot down in a Dorset quarry, and yet it doesn’t look like any of the other quarries that the TARDIS has ever pitched up in. There’s a feeling to this of an alien world that’s far more considered and developed than I’m used to from the programme. It even takes some of the tricks they employed for stories like Mindwarp and adapt them for use here, too - specifically the planet in the sky, which is nicer here because it’s done more subtly, without trying to draw attention to it. The shots of the circus tent from the exterior are beautiful, too, and I’m always a little bit floored by the fact that it was part model, part full-size construct, and just a bit of clever camera trickery to join everything up.

As for the story itself… I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I think I’m enjoying it, and I’ve certainly been far more drawn in to this episode than I was yesterday, partly because the majority of the characters have now been introduced, and drawn well enough that I can quite happily go along with them. But then I’m not completely sure where things are going, and if I’m honest, my main concern is the running time. Because we’re in the era of three-part stories mingling quite freely with the four-parters now, I’m more acutely aware of the fact that I’m only half-way through this tale, and I’m not sure if there’s enough plot left to fill out almost another hour (I’ve seen the story before, so I know broadly where it’s going, but not the specifics). I think I’m just hoping that I’ll continue the trend of these last two days, and find each successive episode slightly better than the last!

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