Friday, April 19, 2013

7J4 - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy 4

I possibly spoke ill of John Nathan-Turner in the previous post, but, really, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is one of his greatest triumphs as a producer. Threatened with cancellation thanks to asbestos removal in BBC Television Centre, JNT rallied the troops and managed to remount the production on the parking lot at BBC Elstree when no other recording situation seemed possible. He even suggested the somewhat bombastic title for this story, and it speaks more that it suggests: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. It reflects Nathan-Turner's great love and passion for the show he was running, even though he longed to leave its glitzy grasp and had been looking for new and different opportunities for years.

The star of this episode though, and the whole story, is Sylvester McCoy. Wonderfully talented enough as he is, he adds magic tricks to his already impressive repertoire here, and there has never been a more iconic image for his Doctor - for any Doctor - than McCoy casually and confidently strolling out of the Psychic Circus tent seconds before it explodes in a massive display of pyrotechnics. It's a stunt that would never, ever be performed today because of the insurance risks involved, but McCoy, always keen to do his own stunts, performs the stunt flawlessly, especially when you consider that, with the set being destroyed by the explosion, the scene could only have been done on a single take.

Much like Stephen Wyatt's other story though, Paradise Towers, I have a hard time deciding whether this story is a creepy pantomime or just pantomime, which is another one of Nathan-Turner's loves. It's also, more or less, the last story of its kind, the small sub-category dubbed by fandom in subsequent years as "oddball stories". Season 26 took on a slightly darker bent, then the franchise got even more dark and grim in the original novels that followed in the 1990s, an approach that carried on through to the new series. I could never say I was a fan of these oddball entries into Who lore, but I appreciate them for what they are - yet another different approach to storytelling that Doctor Who has somehow managed to pull off to remain fresh over the decades. Even in its 25th year on television, it was trying to do something weird and wonderful, and for that, and for many other reasons, this story and the programme that it's a part of is just lovely.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

7J3 - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy 3

My recent extended hiatus during the progress of this blog allowed for enough time for Richard Marson to research, write, and publish his excellent biography on producer John Nathan-Turner. (As I type this, the first batch of copies of this are being sent out to people who pre-ordered the book; I strongly recommend picking it up, and you can place an order here: To say that the book has altered my perception of the John Nathan-Turner era is an understatement. It hasn't changed the way I enjoy the episodes in a superficial fashion, but knowing what was going on behind the scenes at the time brings some verisimilitude to onscreen events.

The character of Whizzkid had a more prominent role in an earlier draft of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but various script changes ended up making the character somewhat redundant. Whizzkid lived on, although he was now transformed from a boy genius looking to impress the crowd at the Psychic Circus, into a thinly drawn parody of a typical obsessive Doctor Who fan. For years, I thought this was a harmless little joke. However, knowing that Nathan-Turner and his partner Gary Downie used to thrive on going to Doctor Who conventions in the United States in the 1980s (and partake in some fairly rambunctious activities, as outlined in Marson's book), sometimes at the expense of helming the very show they were producing, makes me think that the satire was directed towards fandom with a little more acidic approach than initially thought.

Gian Sammarco, who plays Whizzkid, was 18 at the time this story was being made. (His costume is actually prescient: the pullover could be seen as an homage to Sylvester McCoy's own garment, but the bowtie, shirt, and glasses wouldn't look out of place on a current day Eleventh Doctor cosplayer). He may or may not have been viewed as a "doable barker" by JNT and Downie, but Sammarco is handsome looking enough. I am not for one second implying that Sammarco was cast for clandestine reasons (he was a talented actor at the time, having just come off a successful stint as the lead role in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole), but his appearance as Whizzkid seems to sum up both aspects of fandom that JNT and Gary Downie would have encountered at the many Doctor Who conventions they attended at the time.

I used to think that JNT unequivocally cared about the fans at the time. He may well have indeed, but his suggestion of the Whizzkid character smacks of a blatant disrespect to the fanbase that had elevated Nathan-Turner to near superstar status. Never before had the show's producer have as much of, if not more so, a public profile than the lead actor playing The Doctor himself. Whizzkid may also be a reaction to the treatment that those same fans were now giving Nathan-Turner at the time as the pages of Doctor Who Magazine and, especially, DreamWatch Bulletin, were filled with angry letters demanding his resignation for supposedly ruining their favourite show. Whatever the reason, the character of Whizzkid represented a troubling time for both the state of Doctor Who, and the status and mindset of its longest serving producer.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

7J2 - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy 2

Doctor Who had always flirted with popular music over the course of its long history, from The Beatles' off-key caterwauling in 1965's The Chase to the character of the DJ spinning classic records in 1985's Revelation of the Daleks. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, though, sees Doctor Who take some tenuous steps into the world of rap music, not just as background music, but worked into the narrative. Performed by Ricco Ross as the Ringmaster, it actually comes off not too badly, even if the backing music sounds like an approximation of what a white guy thinks rap music sounds like.

And that white guy is Mark Ayres, who makes his musical debut in Doctor Who with a very unusual score, certainly in comparison with his subsequent scores in Season 26. Ayres relies on his drum machine for the backbone of a lot of the music, but Ayres's device is much more subtle and tasteful than the bombastic digital percussion that Keff McCulloch employs. The score is offbeat, no pun intended, just like the story it features in, which is as precise and perfect a matchup between story and score as heard in the series up to this point.

And I've been resisting the urge to talk about how chillingly awesome Ian Reddington is as the Chief Clown because I could include something exemplary that he does in each episode review. The best aspect of his performance might be the different registers he speaks in depending on what he's talking about and whom he's talking to. He's got the creepy clown laugh down for his public persona, welcoming guests into the tent, and his "normal" voice when he's directing his robot clowns or asserting his authority over the rest of the troupe of the Psychic Circus. But it's his hoarse whisper when he's threatening Ace or demanding answers out of Bellboy that is downright frightening. When Ace escapes after being surrounded by clowns and interrogated about Flower Child's earring, instead of barking an order at his minions to catch her, he merely utters a quiet "After her!", which is much more effective than any ranting villain performance could have done. Reddington is just wonderful, and provides one of the top guest performances seen in some time.