The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

151[1] The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Doctor Who serial

Ace and the Doctor at the Psychic Circus.
Directed by Alan Wareing
Written by Stephen Wyatt
Script editor Andrew Cartmel
Produced by John Nathan-Turner
Executive producer(s) None
Incidental music composer Mark Ayres
Production code 7J
Series Season 25
Length 4 episodes, 25 minutes each
Originally broadcast 14 December 19884 January 1989
← Preceded by Followed by →
Silver Nemesis Battlefield

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is the fourth and final serial of the 25th season in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which was first broadcast in four weekly parts from 14 December 1988 to 4 January 1989.


The Seventh Doctor and Ace respond to an invitation to visit the mysterious Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax, despite Ace’s fear of clowns and reluctance to go. Other travellers have arrived on the wasteland world too – the fannish Whizz Kid; the motorcycling maniac Nord; tiresome bore and intergalactic explorer Captain Cook and his young female companion Mags, whom the Captain curiously refers to as a "unique specimen".

But not all is pleasant at the Circus. The Chief Clown travels around the planet's surface in a hearse with his team of mechanical clowns, using some unusual kites to search for and recapture an errant robot repairman named Bellboy, and his companion, Flower Child, who are trying to escape the circus. While hiding on board a disused hippie bus, Flower Child is killed by something mysterious. It turns out to be a creepy robot conductor, which also attacks the Doctor, Captain, Ace and Mags when they discover the bus. The Doctor disables the killer robot, while Ace finds one of Flower Child’s earrings, and pins it to her jacket as a keepsake. They venture on to the circus tent itself, but Ace hesitates when she hears Mags screaming inside, as she witnesses Bellboy being punished. The Doctor, however, doesn't hear a thing, and persuades her to go in.

Inside, they meet Morgana, the Circus ticket seller and fortune teller, who offers to read the Doctor's fortune, and reveals the Hanged Man Tarot card. The Doctor and Ace both join the audience, noticing that the only other audience members are a small family of three – father, mother, daughter – who observe the central stage with stoic disdain. The Ringmaster soon appears and invites the Doctor to join the entertainment. He agrees and is taken backstage where Nord, the Captain and Mags are also being kept. It appears that audience members are expected to become part of the show. Nord is duped into performing first, and when his act fails to amuse, he is obliterated.

The Chief Clown meanwhile notices the earring pinned to Ace's jacket, and demands to know where she got it. Ace flees deeper into the Circus, and finds Bellboy strapped to a workbench. She hides as the Chief Clown comes in and lets him up to work, then questions him about what is really going on at the Circus. Bellboy sees Flower Child's earring pinned to Ace's jacket, and trusts her, but his memory seems to have been affected by his punishment, and he can only tell her that there used to be more people at the Circus, and then they all disappeared. Ace ventures back to the main entrance, where she sees Morgana and the Ringmaster arguing about the Circus. The Ringmaster does not seem to share Morgana's ethical qualms about the means used to fill the Circus. Their argument is interrupted by the arrival of Whizz Kid, who is ushered into the ring. He too is obliterated when he fails to please the family in the audience.

The Doctor and Mags venture deeper into the Circus, and suddenly find a strange stone archway, which wasn't there before. Mags acts strangely when she sees the moon sign carved on the archway, but the Doctor manages to calm her down. At the end of a tunnel, they find a vast well shaft, with a pulse of energy at its core. A curious eye symbol looks up from the bottom of the well, which is also depicted on the kites that the Chief Clown uses to spy on the circus workers. Morgana also sees the eye at the heart of her crystal ball, which inspires her to pledge her loyalty to the forces that control the Circus and the planet. The Captain then corners the Doctor and Mags with a group of the robotic clowns, and tells the Doctor that he is next in the ring.

Escaping the Captain, the Doctor encounters Dead Beat, and realises that he is key to the situation. The two of them find Ace trapped in a circus caravan with Bellboy. She has encouraged him to remember more about what went wrong at the Circus. One of the workers, Dead Beat, was once called Kingpin, and had brought them to Segonax in search of a great power, which then drove Dead Beat mad, and enslaved the rest of the Circus. The death of Flower Child was at the hands of a robot Bellboy built himself, and he feels wracked with guilt. Bellboy decides that, with nothing to live for, he will stall aid the others' escape. When the Chief Clown arrives to recapture him and Ace, Bellboy sets a reprogrammed clown on himself, and it kills him.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, Ace and Dead Beat visit the strange well again. Dead Beat has a medallion embossed with the image of the eye, which is missing a piece from its centre, and he and Ace head off to the old bus to try to find it. The Doctor gives them time by giving himself up, and finds himself in the ring with Mags; but Captain Cook is one step ahead. In an effort to ensure a good show and thus save his own skin a little longer, the Captain asks for some simulated moonlight to be beamed into the ring, and Mags begins to transform into a werewolf.

He then tries to set Mags on the Doctor, but, unfortunately for the Captain, her chosen victim is him – but the whole macabre spectacle has delighted the trio in the crowd. The Doctor and a shaken Mags slip away, with the Family demanding more entertainment. The Ringmaster and Morgana are now tested in the ring and killed when they fail to entertain.

Ace and Dead Beat meanwhile destroy the Bus Conductor, and retrieve the missing jewel for the medallion. With the jewel back in place, Dead Beat’s mind is restored, and he becomes Kingpin once more. They return to the Circus – disposing of the Chief Clown and his minions with a malfunctioning robot en route – to find the Doctor has become the next person in the ring, having responded to a challenge from the Family. When he enters the ring this time, he realises that it is a dimensional portal, and that the Family are in fact the Gods of Ragnarok, who feed on entertainment and kill those who do not satisfy them. After an array of tricks and japes he holds off the Gods long enough for Ace and Kingpin to throw the medallion into the well. It reaches the Doctor through the dimensional portal and he uses it to repulse the power of the Gods. Thus it is they themselves who are the next victims of their own power. The Doctor returns to the Psychic Circus as it disintegrates and explodes, and flees with his friends. He and Ace depart while Kingpin and Mags elect to set up a new circus on another planet. As the Doctor and Ace leave, the Doctor quietly comments that he's now not so sure he likes clowns any more than Ace does.


Near the beginning of the first episode, Ace briefly appears wearing the Fourth Doctor's trademark scarf, and Mel's top seen in Paradise Towers.

The New Adventures novel Conundrum states that the Gods of Ragnarok created the Land of Fiction, seen in the Second Doctor story The Mind Robber. Another New Adventure, All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane, identifies the Gods of Ragnarok with the Great Old Ones from H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.


The character of Whizz Kid was created as a parody of obsessive fans.[2] Sylvester McCoy was coached in the magic tricks he performs in episode 4 by Geoffrey Durham, formerly known as the Great Soprendo.[2] This is the first story to feature music composed by Mark Ayres.

Owing to the discovery of asbestos at the BBC, which led to the temporary closure of various television studios, this story nearly met the same fate as that of the uncompleted Shada - that of being cancelled after the location work had been completed. However, a tent was erected in the car park of BBC Elstree Centre, where the crew completed all sequences previously scheduled for the studio.[3]

Cast notes

Director Alan Wareing provides the voice for the third God of Ragnarok in Part Four. Dean Hollingsworth as the Bus Conductor is credited for Part Three, but does not appear. Jessica Martin who plays Mags in this episode, briefly returns in "Voyage of the Damned" (2007) voicing Queen Elizabeth II. Ian Reddington, the Chief Clown, later played Nobody No-One in the audio play A Death in the Family. Harry Peacock, the brother of Daniel Peacock, who plays Nord the Vandal in this serial, later appeared in the 2008 episodes "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead" as Proper Dave.

Broadcast and Reception

Serial details by episode
EpisodeBroadcast dateRun timeViewers
(in millions)
"Part One" 14 December 1988 (1988-12-14) 24:23 5.0
"Part Two" 21 December 1988 (1988-12-21) 24:20 5.3
"Part Three" 28 December 1988 (1988-12-28) 24:30 4.9
"Part Four" 4 January 1989 (1989-01-04) 24:24 6.6

The last episode of the story received the highest viewing figure of Sylvester McCoy's time in Doctor Who - 6.6 million against Coronation Street.[7]

Reviewing The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Tat Wood described it as "a story with so much going right" and a sign of how he believed the show had improved since its mid-1980s period.[7] Noting how difficult the story had been to film, he stated "it was worth it. This is everything Doctor Who should be."[7]

Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping said "The ideas in this, one of the most iconic stories, are very imaginative and the direction is psychedelic."[8]

Commercial releases

In print

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Author Stephen Wyatt
Cover artist Alister Pearson
Series Doctor Who book:
Target novelisations
Release number
Publisher Target Books
Publication date
21 December 1989
ISBN 0-426-20341-0

A novelisation of this serial, written by Stephen Wyatt, was published by Target Books in December 1989, the same month the final episode of the original Doctor Who series was broadcast.

Home media

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was released on VHS in January 2000. The Region 2 DVD release was on 30 July 2012, completing the DVD releases of Seventh Doctor stories.[9] This serial was also released as part of the Doctor Who DVD Files in Issue 113 on 1 May 2013.

An unabriged reading of the Target novelisation was released on 1 August 2013 by BBC audiobooks and read by Sophie Aldred.

Soundtrack release

Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Soundtrack album by Mark Ayres
Released 1992
Genre Soundtrack
Length 76:21
Label Silva Screen
Mark Ayres chronology
Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric
Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Doctor Who: Ghost Light
Doctor Who soundtrack chronology
Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric
Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Doctor Who: Ghost Light

Music from this story by Mark Ayres was released on CD in 1992 by Silva Screen Records.[10][11][12]

Track listing

  1. Introduction: 'Doctor Who'
  2. The Psychic Rap
  3. Invitation to Segonax
  4. Bellboy and Flowerchild
  5. A Warning
  6. Fellow Explorers
  7. The Robot Attacks
  8. Something Sinister
  9. 'Welcome, One and All!'
  10. The Circus Ring
  11. Deadbeat
  12. Eavesdropping
  13. 'Let Me Entertain You'/Stone Archway
  14. The Well
  15. Powers on the Move
  16. Sifting Dreams
  17. Survival of the Fittest
  18. Bellboy's Sacrifice
  19. Plans
  20. The Werewolf/'Request Stop'
  21. The Gods of Ragnarok
  22. Playing for Time
  23. Entry of the Psychic Clowns
  24. Liberty Who
  25. Psychic Carnvial
  26. Coda: Kingpin's New Circus
  27. Epilogue: 'Doctor Who'

An edited suite of music from the story was also released on the series 50th Anniversary album from Silva Screen.


  1. From the Doctor Who Magazine series overview, in issue 407 (pp26-29). The Discontinuity Guide, which counts the four segments of The Trial of a Time Lord as four separate stories and also counts the unbroadcast serial Shada, lists this story as number 155. Region 1 DVD releases follow The Discontinuity Guide numbering system.
  2. 1 2 BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - Details
  3. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy at Doctor Who: A Brief History of Time (Travel)
  4. Shaun Lyon; et al. (2007-03-31). "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy". Outpost Gallifrey. Archived from the original on 2008-05-12. Retrieved 2008-08-30.
  5. "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy". Doctor Who Reference Guide. Retrieved 2008-08-30.
  6. Sullivan, Shannon (2007-08-07). "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy". A Brief History of Time Travel. Retrieved 2008-08-30.
  7. 1 2 3 Wood, Tat (2007). About Time 6: Seasons 22 to 26 and TV Movie. Illinois: Mad Norwegian Press. pp. 274–90. ISBN 0975944657.
  9. "DVD Update: Summer Schedule". Doctor Who News. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  10. Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (CD Booklet). Silva Screen. 1992. FILMCD 114.
  11. Ayres, Mark. "Mark Ayres - Doctor Who Incidental Music". Archived from the original on 15 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-05.
  12. "Millennium Effect". Retrieved 2008-10-05.
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Target novelisation

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