Despite what the title suggests, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” is not a documentary about Doctor Who. Rather, it’s a serial from 1988 starring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace. The Doctor and Ace receive an invitation to visit the Psychic Circus, renowned for being the greatest traveling circus in the galaxy (although I didn’t notice anything particularly psychic about it) only to discover that it’s become a nightmarish entertainment arena where you can die if the audience does not like your performance. Getting out alive will be easier said than done, and it doesn’t help that there are other performers who are only interested in saving themselves instead of working together to ensure they can all go free.
There were several things I liked about this episode–for one thing, I thought Mags was a unique and intriguing character, and I would have liked to see her become a companion (note to self: check Big Finish audio dramas to see if the Doctor ever meets her again). I also really liked the twist about the creepy family beings the Gods of Ragnarok. However, here’s where we get into the things I didn’t like about the episode–the Gods of Ragnarok were really fascinating, but we didn’t see them until close to the end. I wanted to know more about them, how many times the Doctor has faced them before–on the whole, it felt like a waste of a good villain.
Unfortunately, “Greatest Show” was made in the era when the BBC was actively trying to kill Doctor Who, and some of the “Why won’t this show just die already!?” mentality was coming through. The biggest thing was tonal dissonances; it would be dark and creepy one minute, and the next, we’d have the Doctor making groan-inducing puns. I have no problems with Doctor Who, classic or new, combining horror and comedy, but the transition between the two was so jarring in this case that it almost made the episode seem as if it had a personality disorder.
That being said, “Greatest Show” still had its high points, and I would still recommend it for people to watch. However, this may be more of an experienced Whovian episode than someone who’s still new to it all–I wouldn’t want a newbie to watch it and then brush off Doctor Who as being dumb.