The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (TV story)

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The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was the fourth and final serial of season 25 of Doctor Who. It showcased many of Sylvester McCoy's own skills as an entertainer, and some new tricks he had been taught to perform for the story.


The Seventh Doctor and Ace head for the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax, where they meet a disparate group of performers and visitors, including a self-centred explorer named Captain Cook, his companion Mags and a biker known as Nord.

The circus itself is dominated by the sinister chief clown and his deadly troupe of robot clowns, who organise a talent contest in which all visitors take part. The audience consists of just a single strange familymother, father and daughter — seated at the ringside. Although hindered by the treacherous Cook, the Doctor eventually discovers that the Circus hides a terrible secret: the family are in reality the Gods of Ragnarok, powerful creatures with an insatiable craving for entertainment who invariably destroy those who fail to please them.

With Ace's help, the Doctor ends the gods' influence on Segonax and returns the circus to the control of its original owners.


Part one[[edit]]

In a circus ring, a ringmaster appears and begins a rap, saying, "You ain't seen nothing yet!" In the TARDIS, Ace and the Seventh Doctor discover that junk mail persists into the far future; a small robot that unexpectedly appears in the TARDIS console room proves to be an advertising drone for the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. The Doctor is delighted at the chance to see it and bring his companion. Ace, who is frightened of clowns, does not want to go, but the Doctor insists.

The four adventurers examine the bus.

Flowerchild and Bellboy, circus performers on the run from the Psychic Circus, flee across Segonax's barren wastes. They are tracked by a sadistic chief clown wearing undertaker's clothing, travelling in a hearse with dark-tinted windows. The runaways agree to split up, and Flowerchild alone reaches an abandoned bus crewed by a deactivated robot. Inside, she finds an odd box, which she pockets — unaware that the robotic bus conductor has re-awakened and seen her. The robot attacks and kills her. One of her earrings falls to the ground.

The TARDIS materialises on Segonax. The only sign of life readily apparent to the travellers is a roadside stand run by a jaded and cynical woman, who very much frowns upon hippies and the circus as crazy savages. The Doctor and Ace to sample some of the stallslady's delicacies to convince her to tell them the way to the circus, to Ace's reluctance. She then warns them of the circus. Ignoring her advice, Ace and the Doctor press on to the circus.

Meanwhile, the chief clown has continued the hunt for Bellboy using sinister observational kites. Bellboy's luck runs out — the clowns have found him. They bundle him into the back of the hearse to take him back to the circus.

As the Doctor and Ace continue down the road, they find other visitors making the trek. A futuristic motorcyclist named Nord impresses Ace, though the feeling is not mutual. Further down the road, Captain Cook and his friend Mags, another pair of interplanetary adventurers, invite the Doctor and Ace for tea at their campsite. Ace and Mags find a deactivated robot nearby; it comes to life and attacks, but Ace defeats it with a shovel.

Nord arrives at the circus. He seats himself in the audience — near a father, mother and little girl — and is surprised to find himself selected for the circus' "talent show". He is escorted backstage, where he finds the contestants in the talent show are to wait... in a cage.

The Doctor, Ace, Mags and Captain Cook stumble across the abandoned hulk of a bus. Ace finds and pockets the earring Flowerchild lost. They are attacked by the same robot that killed Flowerchild — again, Captain Cook lets the others deal with the threat. Disgusted by Cook's lack of concern for others, the Doctor and Ace continue without the others.

Mags and Captain Cook arrive at the circus after Nord, before the Doctor and Ace, just in time to see Bellboy dragged into the ring to face punishment for his escape. Mags screams at the sight but is quickly silenced by an electronic device held by the Ringmaster. She and the Captain are dragged backstage to the cage with the other talent show contestants.

The Doctor and Ace arrive at the entrance. Ace hears the scream, but the Doctor denies it and asks her to decide whether they are going in, or not...

Part two[[edit]]

Ace and the Doctor arrive at the circus to find it nearly deserted; neither Nord nor Mags and Captain Cook seem to be there. The only audience members besides themselves are the mum, dad and little girl.

Despite Ace's forebodings and the veiled hints of the fortune teller, Morgana, the Doctor volunteers for the talent show and is delighted to be selected. As he is escorted backstage, the chief clown appears and brusquely asks Ace how she came by Flowerchild's earring. Panicked, Ace dashes into the circus' recesses, perused by the clowns. In an unused room filled with robot clown parts, she meets the exhausted and battered Bellboy. She barely has time to hide from the chief clown, who enters and drags Bellboy away to fix the robots that he apparently created.

Backstage in the cage, the Doctor is reunited with Captain Cook, Mags and Nord. Captain Cook explains their lives are at stake in the talent competition; they must perform to stay alive. He tricks Nord into performing next, to the Doctor's displeasure.

After Nord's performance ends in his failure and death, a young boy riding a BMX bike arrives at the circus. Whizz Kid is a great fan of the circus and of Captain Cook. He has come to enter the talent show. He is escorted backstage by the ringmaster. They find the cage empty except for Captain Cook; the Doctor and Mags, observed by circus janitor Deadbeat, have escaped.

Ace isn't so lucky. She has been recaptured by the chief clown. Playing on her phobias, he imprisons her in the room used to repair the robot clowns.

While wandering in some strange stone corridors adjoining the circus tents, the Doctor and Mags come across a deep pit. Peering in, the Doctor is startled to see an enormous alien eye at the bottom. He cannot investigate further, as Captain Cook and clowns have arrived to take him to the circus ring for his performance.

Part three[[edit]]

Ace, imprisoned and menaced by ill-functioning clowns, faces her fears and defeats the clowns. In doing so, she finds that Bellboy is also in the room. He reminisces sadly on the fate of the Psychic Circus; once a light-hearted and merry band of free spirits roaming the galaxy, their ideals became twisted and corrupted once settled on Segonax. He is now a prisoner of the robot clowns he himself made; Flowerchild made the kites that hunted her to death. He gives Ace a present: a remote control for a large-scale android he built on Segonax.

Whizz Kid takes his turn in the circus ring. Star-struck, he fails to entertain the audience and is promptly killed. Only his melted spectacles are left behind.

The Doctor, who managed to slip away from his captors when Mags staged a distraction, meets Deadbeat and finds an unexpected spark of sanity in the man. He leads the Doctor through the tangle of tent corridors to where Ace and Bellboy are held. Bellboy, his memory jogged, recognises Deadbeat as Kingpin, the circus' former leader. In despair, he realises what he and the other circus performers have lost. Bellboy sends away the Doctor, Ace and Kingpin, then orders his robots to kill him as they killed Flowerchild.

Mags is revealed to be a werewolf.

Ace, Kingpin and the Doctor make their way back to the pit with the mysterious eye. There, Kingpin shows them that the eye is connected to a mirrored eye medallion he wears. The medallion is incomplete; its eye sigil lacks an eyeball. The Doctor and Ace realise the missing piece must have been what Flowerchild died trying to retrieve from the abandoned bus. The Doctor sends Ace and Kingpin to fetch it. He stalls for time by taking his turn in the ring, a desperate attempt to placate whatever in the circus is relentlessly demanding entertainment.

In the cage with Mags and Captain Cook, the Doctor suggests that all of them enter the ring together, lengthening their survival if they work together. The Captain agrees, but once in the ring, he asks for an "Old Devil Moon" spotlight, and stands by as Mags begins a ferocious transformation, smugly informing the Doctor that he really should have deduced that Mags is a werewolf.

Part four[[edit]]

The audience are amused by the spectacle of Mags attacking the Doctor as Captain Cook and other circus performers watch. But Mags reacts to the captain's constant whipping and kills him before re-transforming into a girl. The Doctor briefs her on the plan and sends her to find Ace and Kingpin. Meanwhile, he will prepare for his performance.

Ace and Kingpin reach the abandoned bus. Ace is attacked by the bus conductor robot, but Kingpin remembers how to defeat it permanently. They retrieve the missing part of the medallion and head back towards the circus.

The family, their eyes glowing bright green, speak in reverberating voices, demanding more entertainment. When the ringmaster and Morgana protest, the chief clown and the robot clowns enter the ring and force the pair into two large wicker baskets for a magic disappearing act. When the baskets are opened, both the ringmaster and Morgana have vanished forever; only the ringmaster's crimson top-hat and whip are left behind. With the family now entertained the chief clown and his troupe leave the ring to recapture the others.

Mags meets them on the way. She is being pursued by the clowns' hearse. The three realise they must evade or defeat it and Ace hatches a plan.

The audience members' true forms.

The Doctor confronts his adversaries: the three audience members, the Gods of Ragnarok. Extradimensional beings who feed on entertainment, they have brought the Doctor to their home dimension, from which no escape is possible. The Doctor declares he is not afraid of them and begins a series of conjuring tricks.

Ace, Kingpin, and Mags have reached the old robot in the desert, the one Ace and Mags have already defeated. They crouch behind it as the clowns approach, taunting them — but Ace uses Bellboy's device to control the robot and the clowns are incapacitated. The friends dash to the clowns' hearse and return to the circus, which they find strangely deserted. They see Captain Cook's body, laid out in the entrance hall, but can't find the Doctor. Kingpin thinks he may be trapped in the Dark Circus, accessible through the stone labyrinth.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is less than successful in entertaining the Gods of Ragnarok. He is still alive, but the Gods are running out of patience. They continue to taunt him, shouting, "We want more! We need more!"

The Doctor strolls out of the arena.

Kingpin, Mags, and Ace reach the pit in the stone labyrinth, but Kingpin cannot bring himself to use the medallion. As Mags and Ace try to talk him into it, he is pushed aside by Captain Cook, who had been re-animated by the Gods. Cook claims the medallion, but Ace rushes him and knocks it into the pit... where it re-materialises by the Doctor's feet. The Captain blunders into the pit after it, while the three travellers flee into Segonax's wastes.

The Gods try to kill the Doctor, but he deflects their weapons with the medallion and the arena begins to crumble. He mock-bows to the dying gods and calmly walks out of the arena, back into the Psychic Circus on Segonax, which disintegrates as he leaves it. He joins his friends to watch the destruction from a safe distance.

Kingpin declares he will re-start the circus and return to its lighthearted roots. Mags joins him; she is initially uncertain that she can control her changes, but the Doctor assures her she can. Kingpin invites the Doctor and Ace to join them and explore the galaxy, but they have galaxies of their own to explore...


Uncredited cast[[edit]]


Uncredited crew[[edit]]


Foods and beverages[[edit]]

The Doctor's items[[edit]]

  • The Doctor produces a variety of items as part of his magic show, including a scarf, a length of rope and two eggs.



  • The Circus of Doctor Lao

Story notes[[edit]]

  • This was the debut performance for Jessica Martin as Mags the Werewolf. Her first line in the role was: "Captain." She'd later reprise the role for Big Finish's audio adventures.
  • After the location filming had been completed, the studio sessions were cancelled because of asbestos contamination. At first it was thought that the serial would have to be abandoned, but eventually it was found possible to erect a tent in the car park at Elstree Studios and film there. (It was actually very fortuitous that they were working on this particular serial because the tents made this arrangement possible. With any other story around that time they might have had to simply throw out the location footage, but John Nathan-Turner was desperate to avoid another Shada debacle and arranged the makeshift solution. Indeed, it has often been remarked that what they ended up with looked better than the original intention would have done, because they actually were in a tent rather than a mock-up of one in a studio.)
  • This story was originally a three-parter but was expanded, at the request of the producers, to four episodes.
  • Ben Aaronovitch suggested introducing an explorer character along the lines of Indiana Jones. Captain Cook was the result.
  • Whizz Kid, the fan character, was a deliberate parody of Doctor Who fans.
  • Sylvester McCoy was coached in magic by Geoffrey Durham, otherwise known as The Great Soprendo, for the sleight-of-hand and other magic trick scenes. This was the first time that a magic consultant had been involved in the production of a Doctor Who story since the uncredited contributions of Larry Barnes and Ali Bongo for The Talons of Weng-Chiang in 1977.
  • The rap song heard during the serial was the first original song commissioned for Doctor Who since "The King's Song" in The King's Demons. The next original song for the series would be "Song for Ten" in The Christmas Invasion.
  • The Radio Times programme listing for part one was accompanied by a black-and-white publicity shot of the Doctor and the Stallslady with the accompanying caption "The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) discovers mysterious forces at work on Segonax. Will the stallslady (Peggy Mount) help him? / BBC1, 7.35 p.m. Doctor Who". (original published text)
  • Part three was originally going to have featured a short scene where two of the robot clowns unload the newly repaired Bus Conductor from the hearse near the bus, and the Bus Conductor then walks back to the bus. However, because part three was overrunning, this sequence had to be edited out of the finished programme and was moved forward to part four, which was running short. Because of the last-minute nature of this edit, Dean Hollingsworth (Bus Conductor) was still credited on-screen for part three and in the combined cast for parts two/three in the Christmas two-week double-issue of Radio Times, even though he did not appear. The Radio Times programme listing for part three was accompanied by a footnote in the form of a small, somewhat misspelled advert for BBC Video's two latest Doctor Who releases — namely compilation versions of Terror of the Zygons and The Talons of Weng-Chiang — which had gone on sale in November to tie-in with the series' 25th Anniversary: "New from BBC Videos / Doctor Who in / The Terror of the Zygons and The Talons of Wang Chiang / price £9.99". (original published text) Both of the aforementioned Doctor Who video titles had previously been available only in Australia.
  • At six words, this story had the longest title until the release of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe in 2011.
  • When filming the explosion of the arena in part four, Sylvester McCoy was told that he wouldn't need to walk too far of a distance, as the bulk of the explosion would be supplied by special effects. However, the pyro-technicians over-rigged the arena: the resulting explosion was much larger than the crew anticipated, catching McCoy in the heat blast and even setting fire to some of his clothes. Yet he continued to walk away unfazed because he knew that there wouldn't be any retakes.
  • This serial features the first appearance of the TARDIS interior since TV: Dragonfire, making it the only appearance of the interior in the twenty-fifth season. It was also the final appearance of the console room set introduced in TV: The Five Doctors, though the console itself would make one final appearance in TV: Battlefield.
  • This was also the last televised serial in which the Seventh Doctor wears the cream coat as part of his costume, as it's changed for a dark brown one in TV: Battlefield, to symbolise the character's shift from light-heartedness to dark and manipulative. The turning point is actually seen in this story, in the final confrontation with the Gods of Ragnarok, where he begins by performing goofy tricks for them, but when they respond by trying to turn him into their plaything, he stops messing around and blows the whole thing to smithereens.
  • Ian Reddington came up with a lot of the Chief Clown's mannerisms — the wave, the eyes, the different vocal tones depending on who he's talking to, etc.
  • The writer and director had assumed that Sylvester McCoy could juggle because of his background in physical comedy and mime, and only discovered at the last minute that he couldn't.
  • Like Ace, Sophie Aldred is afraid of clowns.
  • With the hurried filming schedule and filming inside a tent in hot weather, tempers started to fray. According to Sophie Aldred, production manager Gary Downie (also John Nathan-Turner's partner) snapped at her, causing her to excuse herself "for a quick cry" in the toilets. "Highly embarrassed by my over-sensitivity, I visited make-up for a repair job on my eyes, and Gary apologised profusely".
  • This was meant to be the second story of Season 25, but the season was reshuffled to ensure that Silver Nemesis was broadcast in the exact week of the show's 25th Anniversary after the start of the season was delayed by coverage of the Olympics. This creates continuity errors with Ace already wearing Flowerchild's brooch on her jacket in The Happiness Patrol and Silver Nemesis, and looking in this story for the rucksack that she blew up in Silver Nemesis.
  • While filming a scene where the Chief Clown leans into a cage to talk to Captain Cook, the vertically-sliding cage door accidentally slammed down on Ian Reddington's head, causing him to break two teeth. And they were so far behind schedule due to the asbestos situation that he decided to carry on filming for the rest of the day before seeking help. According to Reddington, as he was led off set, he heard one of the wire operators say to the other, "I told you that would happen".
  • The role of Captain Cook was originally meant for Ian McKellen.
  • The part of the Ringmaster was first offered to Clarke Peters. Peter Straker was offered the role and badly wanted to do it, but was not free. Danny John-Jules was also considered.
  • Originally, the story began with the Doctor and Mel arriving at the circus, where they were soon thrust into the ring with a punk werewolf, a creature called the Blob, the musclebound Nord (inspired by Thor), and an empath known as the Non-Entity. Rather than performing solo, the characters competed against each other for the family's entertainment in a series of games and challenges. Of the circus staff, it was the Ringmaster who played the most overtly villainous role. The alternative circus was more high-tech and played a larger role, being occasionally glimpsed by Mel. At the adventure's climax, the circus was destroyed when the Non-Entity amplified the Doctor's rage at the needless deaths.
  • In later drafts, the Blob was replaced by a half-human mutant, the Whizzkid, who then developed into a computer genius who was an expert at all of the in-ring games and referred to himself as the Galactic Games King. After his death, this character returned as a ghoulish self-parody, with a robotic brain and a scoreboard body. Mel encountered a friendly animal called the Squonk, who later evolved into a clown creature referred to as a Honk. There was a love triangle between the Ringmaster, the Chief Clown and the gypsy-like Box Office Lady (who was originally envisaged as grandmother type), and the Non-Entity destroyed the circus using the werewolf's fury rather than the Doctor's.
  • In the original script, Segonax was a pastoral setting.
  • The robot had dialogue in the original script.
  • Captain Cook was originally killed off in part one, his death being the cliffhanger. However, Stephen Wyatt enjoyed the character so much that he instead gave Cook a prominent place throughout the narrative, and even considered having him mysteriously survive the Circus' destruction.
  • In the original script, Bellboy 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.
  • In the original script, the last episode took place during the daytime.
  • The "muck" the Doctor and Ace were going to eat was going to be pineapples.
  • John Nathan-Turner suggested a circus setting, thinking that filming could take place at Longleat House, the home of a Doctor Who exhibition since 1974 and set something on a fairground, but he went off the idea as he spoke it out loud, much to the relief of Andrew Cartmel and Stephen Wyatt, who thought it was a bad idea; he also proposed the title.
  • The  original pitch involved a fairground infested with creatures who lived underground. However, this seemed unfeasible.
  • The Psychic Circus reflected Stephen Wyatt's disenchantment with the hippie movement of the Sixties.
  • Mags originally came from the planet MacVulpine (rather than Volpana) and spoke with a Glaswegian accent, but John Nathan-Turner felt that this was too silly.
  • At one point, the Little Girl was given the name Sandra, but it was never used in the finished version.
  • The hippie bus was previously used as the tour bus in Delta and the Bannermen.
  • The relationship between the Captain and Mags was toned down so that people wouldn't question the Doctor and his young companions' relationship.
  • The circus design was based on the Jerry Cottle Circus, which was quite big at the time.
  • Alan Wareing was scared witless of doing fantasy after his gritty background.
  • The clowns were Stephen Wyatt's way of avoiding lumbering monsters. He also drew on his dislike of clowns.
  • It was so hot on location that Ian Reddington's Pierrot face makeup ran.
  • The crew couldn't afford to move the bus from the quarry after the shoot and they had permission to leave it there.
  • The cast had a skittles match with the cast of Rockcliffe's Babies. This allowed the frosty relationship between Sophie Aldred and John Nathan-Turner to improve.
  • Model shots were originally created for this story to be used during part one when the TARDIS is infiltrated by the advertising drone. They were never being used in the final programme but still exist in the BBC Archives on their original 35mm elements. Thus they were included on the DVD release as a bonus feature.
  • T.P. McKenna was in a great deal of pain while taping this serial because of an Achilles tendon problem.
  • Alan Wareing cast Ian Reddington, having worked with him before on Casualty. Jessica Martin and Christopher Guard were cast by John Nathan-Turner.
  • The robot buried in the sand was Andrew Cartmel's idea.
  • Stephen Wyatt originally envisioned Segnoax as a grassy world.
  • The hippie bus had previously been used as the tour bus in Delta and the Bannermen.
  • The robot had been conceived as speaking to the characters (alternately threatening and pleading).
  • Some planned shots had to be abandoned, including the destruction of one of the clowns by the large robot's laser blasts.
  • Costume designer Rosalind Ebbutt had crafted the robot clowns as echoes of the Chief Clown by basing their masks on a cast of Ian Reddington's face.
  • On the last day of film, Lorna McCulloch replaced Kathryn Ludlow as the Little Girl God due to restrictions on the number of days a juvenile actor could work and Alan Wareing's own modulated voice would provide her dialogue.
  • There was supposed to be a model shot of the ancient Circus collapsing, but an issue with the videotape meant that the resulting footage was unusable, and there was no opportunity for a retake.
  • With BBC Television Centre unavailable, John Nathan-Turner believed that he had found an alternative in the form of a warehouse facility in Bristol used for Casualty. When it was abruptly reallocated to the biographical mini-series Shadow of the Noose, Nathan-Turner and Alan Wareing instead conceived a plan to erect an actual tent complex on a field off the A40 motorway. It was then learned that the recording had to take place on BBC-owned premises, so designer David Laskey suggested using a car park or similar venue. BBC Elstree soon agreed to the use of one of its car parks by the production team for a week and a half.
  • Since soundproofing was impossible at BBC Elstree, cast and crew would have to contend with the noise from pedestrian traffic, as well as from airplanes landing at the nearby Elstree Aerodrome. After a whole block was lost, BBC Planning considered scrapping the serial altogether, but John Nathan-Turner managed to convince them otherwise.
  • The grunting noise made by the Dumbo robot is a reused sound effect of the Marshmen from Full Circle.
  • This is the last time that the TARDIS lands on an alien planet on-screen in the original run of the series, although it would not be the last time an alien planet would be featured outright. New Earth would be the next story to feature this occurrence.


  • Part one - 5.0 million viewers
  • Part two - 5.3 million viewers
  • Part three - 4.8 million viewers
  • Part four - 6.6 million viewers

Filming locations[[edit]]

This story was technically filmed entirely on location, although the main location was the car park of a studio.

Production errors[[edit]]

If you'd like to talk about narrative problems with this story — like plot holes and things that seem to contradict other stories — please go to this episode's discontinuity discussion.
  • When the Chief Clown "strikes" Bellboy in part three, his hand visibly doesn't come into contact with Bellboy's face despite the slapping sound effect and Bellboy's reaction.


Home video and audio releases[[edit]]

Video releases[[edit]]

  • September 1999 (Australia/New Zealand)
  • November 1999 (US/Canada)
  • January 2000 (UK)

DVD releases[[edit]]

Special features[[edit]]


Early Region 4 pressings of this DVD in Australia and New Zealand have a major problem in the middle of part two during the scene when Ace knocks over the kites and is chased by the clowns: the picture stops for a second when Ace knocks the kite over, and then resumes after around three seconds; and when Ace disappears behind the booth being chased by the clowns, the picture stops, and the sound plays for about a second and a half, before the disc freezes completely. The only way to fix this problem is to restart the DVD and switch to the episode's next scene. The cause of this problem is currently unknown, but it is not present on the UK's Region 2 pressings.

Soundtrack releases[[edit]]

A soundtrack album of Mark Ayres' score was released by Silva Screen Records on FILMCD 114.

External links[[edit]]