Big Finish Productions have aimed for the top with this release. A Big Top to be precise!
Doctor Who‘s offbeat clownfest The Greatest Show In The Galaxy hit TV screens at the end of the Eighties. Now three decades on an audio prequel has been released. It’s a sort of rabbit out of the hat for Big Finish, seemingly launched without warning. Not only does it feature original cast members but writer Stephen Wyatt has been persuaded to come back and flesh out events.
Nostalgia is a driving factor behind the company’s output and news of a return to the Psychic Circus had me hook, line and sinker. Sylvester McCoy‘s era was my entry point to Doctor Who at school. It was definitely the weird kid of the Classic Years family. From villains made of sweets (The Happiness Patrol) to the late Ken Dodd being brutally assassinated (Delta and the Bannermen), it wasn’t afraid to go somewhere different.
Greatest Show ranked among the best because yes it was peculiar, but Wyatt grounded it in some kind of reality. This was the first time coulrophobia (fear of clowns) played a role in the Doctor’s adventures. The circus and its damaged performers were far out yet at the same time meaty and intriguing. Plus the carnival atmosphere was a good fit for McCoy’s tumbling Time Lord, who got to put on a magic show for a trio of malevolent gods. The story was simple, anarchic and effective.
Satisfying though it was, questions hung in the air after the circus blew up. Fans wanted to know more about how these poor souls wound up caught in a showbiz-fuelled trap. Where did the characters come from? Why was it called the Psychic Circus in the first place? It’s a trick Wyatt is ready to reveal, but does he pull it off…?
The Psychic Circus begins with Kingpin (Chris Jury, sounding exactly as he did 30-odd years ago) and Juniper Berry (Anna Brophy) arriving on a planet where fun is outlawed. Coming a cropper in this faceless environment where growing broccoli and building walls are the norm, it isn’t long before they encounter other hippies like themselves.
Meanwhile, the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) has his TARDIS invaded by another annoying junk mail robot. This one is faulty and becomes a companion of sorts for part of the story. The Doctor was involved in the Circus’s future. He’s about to become embroiled in its past…
The two strands are connected by some nebulous idea about psychic landscapes that didn’t come together for me. Behind the mental manipulation is of course an old enemy. It would have been a surprise to learn it was the Master (James Dreyfus), only they’ve stuck him on the cover. When the revelation arrives you’re already a few steps ahead.
Kingpin establishes the Psychic Circus and the Doctor does some nosing around (and a fair amount of juggling). That’s the first half – a confusing preamble I thought. Wyatt has created the universe’s blandest planet and then written it perfectly! Quite why we needed to go there I don’t know.
In a genuinely surprising move the writer revisits another story he wrote, Paradise Towers. The prospect of a Stephen Wyatt shared universe type thing was exciting, but in the end it’s just a passing plot point. I had hoped the Great Architect might be connected to Ragnarok in some way – hint hint – but it wasn’t to be.
Whilst birthing the circus turned out to be less interesting than I thought, things get much better once the tent is up and politics comes into play. Yes, circus life isn’t all buckets of glitter and riding elephants. The downfall of the Psychic Circus lay not only in dark forces working behind the scenes, but the consumerist bent imposed on free spirits who just wanted to have a good time.
Wyatt writes a fun dynamic between the peace and love brigade with their “solidarity” (as a Socialist I’m all for that) and the cold hard lure of the spotlight and a fast buck.
He also cleverly boosts the role of fortune teller Morgana (Sioned Jones). If anyone’s going to be significant in a psychic nightmare it’s the person with the crystal ball. It would have been nice to hear from other classic characters. No-one new here measures up to Mags the curveball-throwing werewolf, Captain Cook or Nord. Bellboy the robot maker is mentioned a few times, though doesn’t appear. I wanted to know what he was like before he became so tormented.
The last part of the script relies too much on listeners being familiar with Greatest Show, which in fairness the majority will be. Having the Master so heavily in the mix may come across as fan service but I thought he worked quite well as the lynchpin between the circus and the Gods of Ragnarok… even if I couldn’t quite work out what he was up to.
McCoy is as eccentric as we’ve come to expect, treating many of the lines as a workout for his vocal chords. Jury really took me back and Dreyfus makes an enjoyable addition to the list of Masters. This was the first time I’d heard him as the Doctor’s nemesis and on this evidence I’ll be checking out more.
Like many, I really wanted to meet the Chief Clown again and hear about his origins. Ian Reddington played one of the best one shot Doctor Who villains of all time. I guess in a way he’s better left to the imagination but Wyatt does a good job explaining who he used to be. Reddington delivers another intelligent performance and runs away with the tale once again. Big Finish must surely be wanting to bring him back somehow.
Everyone else is decent. Director Samuel Clemens has an impressive pair of multi-taskers in Sioned Jones and Andrew Spooner and though the production didn’t grab me their versatile tones did. Also featured on the release are interviews and an evocative suite from composer Steve Foxon.
Did this match up to The Greatest Show In The Galaxy? Not a chance, though waiting from 1989 to 2020 for a follow up/look back was always going to ramp up expectation to mega levels. Are there more stories to tell about Kingpin’s hippy haven? If Wyatt wanted to take a third trip to Segonax I’d probably shell out for more.
The Psychic Circus keeps enough balls in the air to be worthwhile. It’s certainly not a classic but the 11 year old in me was happy to be back in the ring.