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4 December 2014

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

Day 703: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Four

Dear diary,

This episode is home to not one, but two shots which I think so perfectly encapsulate the Sylvester McCoy era of the programme. The first comes when he’s in the ring, facing down the Gods of Ragnarok, and he turns on the spot, transforming his sword into the trademark umbrella. The second, of course, is the Doctor walking away from the Psychic Circus as an enormous explosion rips through the tent behind him. It’s become something of a legend within fandom that McCoy doesn’t even flinch when this explosion goes off - he does, and now I can’t unsee it - but he does look incredibly powerful regaining himself half a second later and continuing to strut. The story has been told a thousand times over the years that the explosion wasn’t supposed to be so large, but the fact that it is really helps to make this one of the most defining shots of the late 1980s.

The Doctor’s confrontation with the Gods here is somewhat wonderful, and it’s the first time in a long while that we’ve seen the Doctor square up to such a supposedly powerful being. We got hints of it a few days ago with his speech to Davros, but here we’ve got him properly face-to-face with his enemy in the same way we’ll get to see with Fenric in a couple of week’s time. The whole sequence is perfectly keyed to Sylvester McCoy, giving him a chance to clown around and do the kind of acts that he was best known for while also delivering some wonderful speeches to the ‘monsters’ as he brings their world crumbling down around them. It’s also interesting to note that he claims to have fought the Gods of Ragnarok ‘all through time’… presumably in adventures that we didn’t see? Or does he just mean that he;s fought gods like them, meaning the Animus, and the Great Intelligence? Still, it’s good to see the continuing trend of this incarnation specifically going after his enemies instead of just bumbling in on another of their evil schemes. By the time that the story is over, there’s no doubt left in my mind that the Doctor has orchestrated this whole thing.

I’m also rather keen on just how cleverly Captain Cook has been played throughout this story. He starts off as such an obvious parody of the Doctor (complete with companion), then comes back from the dead - how very like a Time Lord - and in this episode he also makes a point of announcing that he hasn’t come to this world simply by chance. He knows what’s going on here, and he’s here because of it all. I’d not noticed quite how well done this was the last time I watched the story, so I’m glad to have seen it now, because it’s a whole other layer that helps make the story all the richer.

On the whole, I’ve been left a bit mixed with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. I’ve enjoyed it, largely, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing to watch it again any time soon, in the way that some other stories are already at the top of the list for seeing again when this marathon is over. One thing I will say, though - in the special features on this DVD, lots of people complain about how the title was given to them by John Nathan-Turner, and they all say how awful it is… but I love it! 

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