The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, by Stephen Wyatt, always felt like the second half of a larger story, even when it screened. The creepy circus of death thing was fine and dandy, the evidence of the corruption of once liberal hippy travelling folk into little more than an arena of extinction for the equivalent of The Galaxy’s Got Talent was always solidly dark social satire, and of course, plugging in to the fact that lots of people find clowns really, truly creepy– top notch scares, both in concept and in the phenomenal performance by Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown.
The gods of Ragnarok…
Where did they come from, suddenly, in a story about circuses? It always felt like a particularly under-explained idea, and as such, the way the Doctor escaped from them felt likewise perplexing. There was always more to be told of the story, even when, at least on screen, there wasn’t.
The Psychic Circus is the first time Stephen Wyatt’s been back to play in the Doctor Who sandpit for decades, and that’s really rather a shame – he’s a writer with a nice twist of mind, taking the ordinary and making it creepy in the same sort of way that for instance made the Pertwee era such fun.
What he brings this time round is a prequel to Greatest Show which more or less explains and shows us the decay and decline, the corruption of decent principles and the price paid before the opening of Greatest Show as it happened on-screen. It shows the happy hippies of the Psychic Circus deteriorating into dissension, the fall of one groovy but weak leader, Kingpipn, and the rise of a figurehead for utter evil, the Chief Clown.
He also brings a reason for the decay and decline, in the person of the James Dreyfus Master. In a way that’s quite unfortunate – many listeners will be turned off listening to The Psychic Circus, not wanting to hear anything with Dreyfus’ name attached to it due to the actor’s real world views, especially on trans rights. While that’s a valid decision, it means they’ll miss out on some great stuff from McCoy, from Chris Jury and from the seemingly unconquerable Reddington, all of whom reprise their roles from Greatest Show.
It’s also quite unfortunate if, as has been widely rumoured, this is Dreyfus’ last performance as the Master, that he doesn’t get to go out on a higher note. Politics aside, his performance as an early Master has been spectacular in previous Big Finish stories, but here, he’s not really given that much to do – he sets a temporal trap for the Doctor, and then…well, there’s quite a bit of pantomime villainy, really, as he refuses to be goaded (while being goaded), refuses to be bested (while being bested) and gnashes his teeth rather a lot to very little effect.
Everything apart from the Master’s involvement works really rather well – the return of Chris Jury as Kingpin shows the wonder of audio, in that he sounds quite as young and hippy as ever he did at the end of Greatest Show. The return of Ian Reddington is beyond sublime – there’s an interesting origin story for the Chief Clown, linking Greatest Show to Wyatt’s other McCoy story, Paradise Towers, and whereas on screen, Reddington’s performance was mostly physical, here he puts the graft in and gives the Chief Clown a kind of audio tic that is just as creepy as anything he delivered on Greatest Show. If anything, actually, Reddington’s better here, because he’s given more lines and we learn the insidious nature of cowardice and ambition that drives the boy who wanted to become a clown – in a way, this is the Doctor Who world’s answer to the Joker origin myth, and I’d argue that between them, Wyatt and Reddington have done something ultimately better and longer-lasting than the latest Joker movie, if admittedly for a far more niche audience.
As with the use of the Master, there seems to be needless complication in the placing of this story in the Seventh Doctor’s timeline, and he seems to remember things he shouldn’t, or perhaps forget things he shouldn’t – it’s very much a line that’s hopped over, time and again, the question of whether The Psychic Circus is before Greatest Show in the Doctor’s personal timeline or after it, and while this temporal confusion plays into the Master’s evil plans, it does also serve to make the plotlines rather fuzzy to follow where there’s no real need for them to be that vague.
But certainly the Master’s involvement sets things in motion to turn the Psychic Circus into the arena of performing death it becomes by the time we find it in Greatest Show. The bus conductor – yes, he’s back – is corrupted at the command of the Master, the kites become eye-spies at his instigation, and the amulet that keeps people safe from the gods is given a history here. Perhaps best of all, the moment when Kingpin becomes Deadbeat is here too, and it’s not some by-blow, some accident or collateral damage. It’s a conscious decision which in some respects is what gives Kingpin back his soul, what justifies his redemption at the end of Greatest Show, despite having been a dupe and a puppet of the Master’s to the extent that he was led to Segonax and put in service to the gods of Ragnarok, with countless deaths and enslavements following as a result.
As such then, The Psychic Circus has lots of goodies for fans of the original Greatest Show In The Galaxy, with Ian Reddington on absolutely paint-blistering form, proving that you don’t need to see his Chief Clown for him to be a terrifying concept, like Michael Gove in make-up. You’re welcome for that image.
It also includes James Dreyfus’ Master in a way that makes him crucial to the plot, but doesn’t actually give him much that’s satisfying to do or listen to, and then lets him do it in a pantomime villain style.
All in all, The Psychic Circus would have been a much better story with any different Master – the Beevers Master would have made more temporal sense and added that practiced bubbling vicious glee to the trap the Master sets in this story. Perhaps more suitable still, the Alex MacQueen Master, perhaps rewritten and stepping into the circus as the – oh dear gods, I can’t help myself – Ring-Master, would have elevated the whole thing to a new level of vicious dark grand guignol. The Dreyfus Master, who made an impressive start in the First Doctor Adventures, feels flat and wasted here, and leaves a hole in the story where some engaging dark charisma should be. There’s plenty of dark engaging charisma in the story, and it’s provided by Reddington’s Chief Clown, and not a little by Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor too. But it leaves the listener feeling like they’ve experienced a story that could have been great, with very much the wrongest possible Master plonked poorly in the middle of it. Tony Fyler