Friday, 7 June 2013

"Fun for all the family? I don't know how they have the nerve!"

Doctor Who: 
'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' (BBC-1, TX: 14/12/1988 - 04/01/1989)

It's always been a part of me, for as long as I can remember, really.

A hazy, possibly self-invented recollection of a rotund, colourful-coated man on a screen - from when I was, maybe, 4. I might have retrospectively imagined that. I'd surely have ended up a quite different person if I'd had the misfortune to catch some banal Pip and Jane Baker-penned potboiler as my first - and thus, potentially, last - Doctor Who adventure.

A definite Year Zero: 'Remembrance of the Daleks', episode 1. 5th October 1988. The true adventure began.

I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness recently, but could never prefer Star Trek to Doctor Who. Ever since 1988.

Doctor Who's richness is in how much of an impression it makes on different generations and individuals, in unpredictable ways. Sylvester McCoy is often written off. Often by fans of previous eras, as well as the general public.

I have often regarded Peter Davison to be a slightly bland Doctor, rarely grabbing my interest as much as others.  Yet, I have always been captivated by certain of his stories: along with the obvious final one, 'Kinda' and 'Enlightenment'. I have recently watched - with weary trepidation - the 1993 Children in Need 'Special' 'Dimensions in Time' and, in his brief appearance, he lends some gravitas to an utterly unseemly farrago. He is more central to and brilliant in 'Time Crash', one of the most touching and witty things that Steven Moffat has written this side of Press Gang.

Having just finished reading Richard Marson's excellent JN-T: The Scandalous Life and Times of John-Nathan Turner I thought I would write a review of 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy', watched on DVD with a friend, Ben, last Sunday. The JN-T biography is an insightful book, not just into the specifics of the show and BBC practices of the 1980s, but into a remarkable man; Nathan-Turner was the charismatic, ebullient yet flawed producer of Doctor Who for the whole of the 1980s. The book has moments of high farce and absurdity, but also a deep underlying melancholy, as personal hubris and wider circumstances lead to his slow, sad decline. 

Ben liked this story, but wasn't entirely bowled over by it, slightly preferring the Pertwee era six-parter 'The Time Monster' which we also watched. I speculated that my preference for this McCoy story may partly have been through my strong attachment to it from my personal experience of the McCoy years. But it isn't just that, I'd say: it is a brilliant work, made against the odds. It repays subsequent viewings and is enriched by knowing its context.

As Marson's book and the DVD extras explain, this story had a troubled production. After the externals had been filmed in a more than typically evocative quarry, the BBC studios could not be used due to the discovery of asbestos. It looked as is this serial would have to be given up. JN-T came into his element in improvising within constraints. He decided to remount it; placing the circus tent in the BBC car-park. This actually adds a distinct atmosphere - and the lighting of this tent is first-rate: creepy dark reds, greens and blues banishing the memory of the ghastly, over-lit studio sets in earlier 1980s serials such as 'Timelash' or 'Warriors from the Deep'.

Unlike in so much Doctor Who in the troubled 1985-7 period, the casting is appropriate. They are a diverse bunch - Peggy Mount, Gian Sammarco, T.P. McKenna, Chris Dury - but this works entirely with the grain of the story. It is a truly bizarre array of characters - a weary battleaxe with a fruit stall in the middle of nowhere (Mount), berating the 'weirdos!' and 'circus riff-raff' who come into her path. Nord, self-described 'Vandal of the Roads', an irate hooligan biker screaming things like: "OI!!!! WHITE FACE! WHITE FACE! CAN YOU TELL ME THE WAY TO THE PSYCHIC CIRCUS!" Deadbeat, a monosyllabic depressive, who seems lost in his own world. Captain Cook - a pompous intergalactic explorer, always regaling us with past exploits. Mags, a glum, subordinated companion to Cook with the look of the Goth about her. There are departed characters mentioned who are named 'Juniper Berry' and 'Peace Pipe' - and, somehow, you scoff. You are drawn along by a story that shows an empathy with hippie ideals. But is in no illusion about them.

Latter-day EastEnders and Corrie actor Ian Reddington - is MAGNIFICENT as the Chief Clown. A return to proper Doctor Who villainy? Or a bold, new step into a realistic depiction of managerial evils? The use of his voice, face and body language is unnerving and masterly. It makes you sad how so few actors in Doctor Who had put real effort into their characterizations since Sharaz Jek... Maybe it was the casting, maybe the direction; but, either way, the show had hit rock bottom in the three seasons prior to this, with only slight glimmers of promise.

Mark Ayres's music is languid and fitting, after the incessant clatter provided by Keff McCulloch in most previous 1987-8 stories.

Stephen Wyatt, having penned the partially successful Paradise Towers, which heavily alludes to JG Ballard's High-Rise, comes up with a cerebral yet accessible script. After the dreary, half-hearted efforts of the previous few years, this is an intoxicating breath of fresh air. There are ideas, there are different levels on which you can take it. As Cornell, Day and Topping wrote in 1995, this was a 'return of magic, chaos and surrealism' to Doctor Who.

Episode 4 gained 6.6 million viewers: by far the largest audience the show received between 'Revelation of the Daleks' (1985) and the Paul McGann 'TV Movie' (1996) - if you don't count the execrable 'Dimensions in Time', of course.

This could be seen as: (a) an undeniably scary, weird circus story, (b) a satire of the way the show was beset by idiotically blinkered fans - the Whizzkid (played by Sammarco, TV's Adrian Mole, in similar nerd specs and jumper apparel) - and BBC bosses, who couldn't understand or appreciate its value as a programme other than grudgingly regarding its pecuniary value to BBC Enterprises. Or, indeed, (c) a melancholy depiction of the failings of 1960s idealism, with the idealists reduced to sorry, dead-eyed commerce in the heartless, Thatcherite 1980s. 

Captain Cook (T.P. McKenna), "a crushing bore" in the Doctor's words, represents the stultifying arrogance of a status quo that is always harking back to old battles. The emotionless 'Father', 'Mother' and 'Child' represent the everyday horrors of a philistine Middle England tendency, the ruthless efficiency of the 1980s reforms. Reforms that made it harder for inventive and unusual things to emerge from British culture. The croak-voiced Daleks were on the march, to paraphrase Dennis Potter.

You feel for the characters. Wyatt has us rooting for the underdog. The sad werewolf girl against the pompous ass explorer. Loving idealism against cynical calculation and "every man for himself" and "survival of the fittest". A theme that runs through the wistful, yet urgently humanist Season 26. 

At this stage, Doctor Who itself was the ultimate underdog - in terms of general public and BBC perception, indeed being pitted directly against the mighty Coronation Street in the schedules. Yet, here, it shows a good deal more life and spirit than no doubt many of the BBC's more prestigious 'heritage' minded drama adaptations of the time.

As Tat Wood argues in About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who - Volume 6: 'Ranged against the corporate whores are a quixotic bunch of misfits. It is surely no coincidence that in this story, the bad guys are turning imagination into a commodity'. Peggy Mount's Stallslady indeed castigates the Seventh Doctor and Ace as "weirdos", along with the others. It is impossible to imagine the Pertwee or Colin Baker characters accepting this as phlegmatically or siding as convincingly with the underdogs: the ragbag gaggle of Mags (Jessica Martin, a comedienne, very subtle), Deadbeat (Chris Dury, of Lovejoy fame) and Bellboy (Christopher Guard, excellent). 

In 2003, Mark Fisher honed in on some of 1980s DW's problems: 'Davison's problem was his winning, fresh-faced toothsomeness; something intelligently offset by his reading of the character as beset by an ancient melancholia. Colin Baker, on the other hand, looked like a smug office manager in pantomime costume. He had a solid, doughy ordinariness, more deadly to Dr Who than any Cyberman or Dalek.' Baker's strident verbosity and garish coat do not make for madness or an alien quality, but a kind of conformism: the managerial type trying desperately to appear different. 

"Everybody remotely interesting is mad in some way!"- McCoy's Doctor, in this story. 

McCoy is never managerial, he is mysterious; sneaky perhaps, but you cannot help somehow trust and warm to him.

This also chimes with Michael Newton's recent description of the great German director Werner Herzog's world-view in the Guardian (01/06/13): 'There are few film-makers less interested in the everyday world of supermarkets, mortgage payments and Sky Sports. Herzog does not despise the "ordinary person", for it is hard to picture him believing in such a rare creature and to imagine him despising anyone. Yet in the background of his films lingers a sorrowing contempt for the blithe, banal member of "the public" – that hypothetical person who accepts society as it is, who believes bread will always come ready-packaged, and who is too busy updating their Facebook page to notice how at any moment nature might sweep us all off the Earth.'

From Herzog, Vivian Stanshall and, indeed, the Seventh Doctor I have learned the lesson that life is not about being an 'ordinary person' or 'normal'. This story may not just be getting at the BBC bosses of 1988 but also the 'armchair critics' - people writing baleful, ill-informed letters to newspapers or, to extend this to 2013, emitting endless bile from behind aliases on internet forums. People so disappointed in their own lives that they want to spread the malady. Or, indeed, it may be getting at the sort of people involved in the Starburst and DWB campaigns against JN-T. People who, in substance, may often have been right - but, who, in their approach, went beyond the pale into pure, needless nastiness.

McCoy, so often mocked, has a lovely, quiet gravitas when required. The eccentric, slightly professorial clown uncle - he was indeed strongly associated with that radical figure in British theatre, Ken Campbell. Likewise, Sophie Aldred, in Marson's book, mentions her own left-wing feminist background at Manchester University. Andrew Cartmel was 'right-on', yes, and this earnestness was just what a show that was on its knees needed. A new direction, in contrast to Eric Saward's increasingly grim, vacillating world-view. As script-editor, the key role in DW alongside producer, Cartmel put his own mark on the show, as had others before him: Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers'-style laid-back wit, Christopher H. Bidmead's uptight injection of 'science!' and Robert Holmes's wholly assured handling of the 'Gothic Horror' phase from 1974-6. 

Doctor Who aligned itself with underdogs, beyond the wrongheaded pandering to fans of the previous few years. Cartmel enabled the show to become more than a sorry tug-of-war between JN-T's insubstantial, PR-chasing, panto leanings and Saward's wrongheaded bleakness. Some stories were weak - Silver Nemesis and Battlefield, the former especially - but even these had incidental pleasures.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy seemed wonderful at the time, watching this over Christmas 1988. It now seems miraculous, considering the show's dreadful 1985, its cataclysmic 1986 and its half-baked 1987.

It displayed JN-T at his very best, and this serial reflects what he could do, when supported by intelligent scripts and apt casting. It is a sad irony that the last two years of the show saw a creative renaissance while JN-T himself was losing interest, perhaps realizing that he was doomed by association with its earlier epic, tragic failings in the 1985-7 period. But he hadn't lost interest here - and this was a production that all enjoyed and reflects the very best of what this limited, yet whole-hearted producer, could achieve in the most difficult circumstances. 

JN-T in 1988; Doctor Who in 1988: the ultimate underdogs. Backs to the wall, they all produce something that is of value. That matters. Or at least has to me, for many, many years. If 'Remembrance of the Daleks' captivated, it was watching earlier adventures like 'The Time Warrior' on video and new stories like this on broadcast that ensured that Doctor Who was for life.


  1. What was I saying about public perceptions of Doctor Who in the 1980s and particularly McCoy's Doctor? Well, this poll has just been published by YouGov:

    It shows McCoy as significantly the 'least favourite Doctor' among men, women, all regions of the UK and supporters of all four leading political parties. The only demographic he isn't is for 18-24 year olds, where Christopher Eccleston (16%) curiously has the lead.

    Other observations:

    - McCoy is most popular with Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters. No Conservatives and UKIP voters put them as their favourite and over 30% as their least favourite. This perhaps bears out that he is a more radical Doctor, certainly less amenable to traditional, Conservative people. Indeed, he is least popular in the 'Rest of the South' which will strongly sample the Home Counties - and clearly not as disliked in London, the North and his native Scotland.

    - Pertwee is significantly more popular with Conservative and UKIP supporters, perhaps giving credence to my perceptions that he is a more 'right-wing' Doctor. Despite many of the stories being left-wing or liberal in nature - at least those written by Malcolm Hulke or having significant Barry Letts input - his Doctor does hold memberships for elite clubs and display an indignant superiority regarding what he sees as petty bureaucracy (there's one such hapless government figure in every adventure) and in Season 8 he patronises his 'exceedingly dim' (her own words in 'The Time Monster'!) companion, Jo Grant.

    - Predictably, UKIP and Tory voters are much more likely to want the new Doctor to be White, Heterosexual and British or English than other voters.

    - There is an obvious age thing, with McCoy and Davison only really figuring in the favourite Doctor stakes with 25-39 age group. The 18-24 year group all too predictably doesn't know its (DW) history, with 91% of them going for Eccleston, Tennant or Smith and just two other Doctors figuring at all: Pertwee 1% Tom Baker 7%

    - Eccleston is not, as you would expect, most popular in the North! He is pretty much double as popular in London and the Rest of the South.

    - 31% of the public sampled claim to be interested in Doctor Who; if that extrapolates to the estimated UK population of 63.2 million, 19.59 million people are interested, including 10.74 million who are very interested. I somehow doubt you'd have seen such figures in 1988. Maybe 7 million interested and 4 million very interested? This is a sign of how Russell T. Davies and David Tennant, clearly, made it of popular interest again.

    - A Scottish 50-year-old male in a professional white collar job (ABC1), who votes Liberal Democrat, is the most typical type to be interested in Doctor Who.

    - Conversely, the least likely to be interested: a 60-something female UKIP voter in the North of England, of the C2DE social demographic.

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