Doctor Who – The Psychic Circus review

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(c) Big Finish

***Contains spoilers***

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.

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Chris Jury as Kingpin (c) BBC

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…?

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Jessica Martin as Mags & Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor (c) BBC

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.

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Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown (c) BBC

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flashback Feature: Roger Sterling’s Agencies Of The Future (Mad Men, The Hollywood News, Nov 2014)

MM 1Greetings and salutations. My name is Roger Sterling and I run Sterling Cooper & Partners, a thriving advertising agency in Manhattan. We have one rule – if you can successfully cross the street after a lunch meeting then you’re the man for us (tougher than it sounds folks). You may have read the opinions of my colleague Don Draper about the state of the industry and where we go from here. I like Don. Who doesn’t like Don? If you don’t want to sleep with him you at least want to shake his hand, hope some of that magic rubs off. But he isn’t the only one here with strong views as to the direction our business should be taking. In this feature I intend to highlight key areas of growth that can be capitalized upon to ensure the ad scene becomes a key motivator in peoples’ lives. Not just in a day-to-day capacity but in a way that expands the consciousness of the nation and that one day will eventually challenge the established social hierarchy. Now if you’ll excuse me I just tipped a mohito down my leg.

Sorry about that. Where was I? Ah yes. The future of the modern day advertising agency. What role could a creative organization like Sterling Cooper & Partners play in shaping this great country of ours? Allow me to paint you a picture…

THE MEDIUM & THE MESSAGE

MM 2The President is sitting in the White House. He’s just had yet another meeting with the group of cotton-brained bamboozlers he calls his advisers. The country is in turmoil. There are riots in the streets. He’d call in the troops but they’re busy losing their lives in Vietnam. He has a headache, and who could blame him? What he needs is a message. A means of getting how he’s feeling out to the population that put him where he is. And who’s going to be doing that? You’ve guessed it. An ad agency. If you can sell a can of cream corn you can sure as hell get a man re-elected. Without sounding disrespectful, there’s virtually no difference.

In the future, all world leaders and men of influence will come to outfits like ours to impart their wisdom to the masses. There will be a room beneath the oval office that you can access via an elevator operated by some great-looking chick in a bikini.

Sorry, what was I talking about? That’s right, the advertising bunker! It’ll make the War Room look like my ex’s walk-in closet. The finest minds in the industry will steer the political and cultural trends. I’d say Don would be in that room but he’d probably be President by then.

WOMEN IN OUR INDUSTRY

At Sterling Cooper & Partners we’re proud to be progressive. Our female staff not only take messages and make the coffee. They also write campaigns and eventually stab their mentors in the spine. I like to think of our agency as a model for the path things are going to follow into the next few decades. To illustrate this let’s look at one of our most valued employees. Names aren’t important, but let’s call her Joan…

MM 4Joan not only participates in our light-hearted battles for supremacy, she also has a man working under her! This would be unthinkable at other firms, yet here a squeaky clean opportunist can worm his way into the attentions of a woman who really should know better. But I digress. (Though I would say I get the impression this guy buys his fruit upstate as well as downtown if you catch my drift.  Maybe we’re more socially radical than we’re letting on…)

HEALTH & HAPPINESS

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The biggest factor facing the way we do business is our mental and physical well-being. Creating ads for clients is like trying to share your steak with a hammerhead. Chunks will be taken out of you as well as what’s on the plate. That’s why we grease the wheels with alcohol, try and slow the hungry bastard down a little, but it can’t carry on like this. I may look like the love child of Howard Stark and Lena Horne, but believe it or not I suffered a mighty heart attack once. We’ve got to take the focus off lacquering our livers with liquor and find a more practical solution.

MM 6That’s why in the future all ad men will be fitted with stainless steel organs. Lungs for smoking. Liver for Sterling Cooper’s penthouse-sized drinks cabinet. And a cast iron spleen so I can deal with the ex-wife…

MM 7With these modifications in place there’s nothing an enterprising creative couldn’t do in his pursuit of a deal breaker. And if the eggheads are reading this, there’s a certain part of my anatomy that would benefit from an overhaul.

THE SPAGHETTI FACTOR

MM 8The other afternoon I was sitting on the roof of my building on a particularly hot day. As usual I was naked, I tend to think better that way, and as I placed one of my special orange pills on my tongue I came to a staggering revelation. The sounds of Hell’s Kitchen were drifting on the air. If New York is a kitchen I reasoned, then surely the different boroughs are saucepans. And what does that make us? Yes you’ve guessed it. We are all strands of spaghetti! Like a good bolognese the stuff at the top is rich and delicious but beneath it we’re all tangled together. We need to blend our minds so the strands merge to form something broad and supportive… like a sheet of lasagne! Society will be much better ordered with the sauce distributed evenly between layers. That way everyone gets a better bite at the beef and if you can make it up to the beschamel, well, good luck to you.

MM 9We’ve all got to get together people! Show those bureaucrats with their detachable faces that they don’t run the show. If we could all just strip naked and run into Central Park, using the conduit of the trees to channel our natural energy to create a shockwave that could wipe greed from the streets of the city, there’d be a free and groovy future from which we could all make a healthy profit!

My name is Roger Sterling and I am currently sitting in a pool of my own ingenuity.

This feature first appeared on The Hollywood News and was researched via this Vanity Fair article.