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A Carnival of Metaphors

Significance and Insignificance in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

By Peter Adamson

A return of chaos, magic and surrealism to Doctor Who, the story summed up by the scene in which the Doctor walks out of a confrontation amid carnage. Whizz Kid is a (not very subtle) parody of anally retentive, obsessive fans. It could be said that the whole story is a metaphor about the production of Doctor Who (Cook = Star Trek, the gods = BBC executives, the Chief Clown = Michael Grade, Deadbeat = Blake's 7, etc.). The ideas in this, one of the most iconic stories, are very imaginative and the direction is psychedelic.
The Discontinuity Guide (pages 347-8)

WHIZZKID: Gian Sammarco's character in ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’, which was written as a parody of anoraked fans. ‘Although I never got to see it in the early days,’ says Whizzkid of the Psychic Circus, ‘I know it's not as good as it used to be’. Funny thing is, he was right. The circus, after all, had fallen into the hands of malign entities that caused it to become stagnant, employed unsuitable acts, refused to let it go and eventually caused its destruction.
The Completely Useless Encyclopedia (page 195)

Don't you just hate it when bad fan theories happen to good stories? I'm not just talking about The Brain of Morbius or Warriors of the Deep, either. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, a story seemingly begging for interpretation, really got something close to it in The Discontinuity Guide and The Completely Useless Encyclopedia. But recently, this sort of thing has gone out of control, even appearing appropriately as a Professor X spoof adventure ‘There's a Metaphor Born Every Minute’. So all-encompassing has this ‘theory’ become (it appears from time to time on internet newsgroups and mailing lists), it's hard to imagine there being any other way to interpret Stephen Wyatt's second script for Doctor Who. Trouble is, so far there's no indication that Wyatt intended any great, ulterior meaning behind the story. Even if he did - well, for those of you who want to go the Discontinuity Guide route, good luck! You're on your own from here.

If we're to take the DisCon theory at all seriously (and surely we're intended to - otherwise why would it have been committed to paper and publishing?), we need to examine the story's structure and dynamics. First off, the story does set itself up for analysis in some ways. Consider how Wyatt adopts a tried method of using traditional images and settings to represent abstract ideas. Even in early drafts, the contestants and scenarios were either mundane (i.e. worldly) or hi-tech versions of the sort of things characteristic of circus entertainment: knife throwing and tightropes (“we'll be using lasers!”). The symbolic device of the circus is very old in itself, and despite attempts to fill it with exotic alien creatures, the farthest Wyatt strays from the stereotype is throwing robots into the mix. There are no beasts in the Psychic Circus - not anymore, at least - only people and automata. Even the ‘wild card’ elements - a werewolf, basilisks and a squonk, are creatures from our folklore. They seem at times to beg for interpretation - little wonder the DisCon authors tried it, shame it all turned out pants. Where the authors seem to have got it wrong from the start is misinterpreting what the story's about - or at least, they assume it's about Doctor Who, but before long they're going off on tangents. The interpretation I provide here is, I promise, more focused.

But it might take some time.

A Story of Thirds

Indulge me. If that DisCon lot can say Kinda is all about boxes, then for me Greatest Show is a story comprised of triple acts - significant threesomes. A Three-Ringed Circus, if you will. Everyone comes from a larger group of three - except perhaps the Doctor and Ace - but maybe they too form part of one. Most striking is the neat concentric pattern the central three trios form in the Circus itself, with the Gods in the middle, the remaining Circus employees beside them, and farthest out, three fugitives.

The First Triumvirate

diagram 1

We begin with the central inner personalities - the Gods of Ragnarok themselves. There's no point in comparing them to BBC Executives - the Gods are latecomers, having happened upon the Circus in its time of greatest popularity. They didn't create it, they have no interest in ending it (in fact they're quite content for it to continue forever provided it can entertain them), but are harshly critical of it all the same, destroying those who fail to entertain them. Who are they? That's you that is - they're the fans. Why else would they leech off the programme so readily?

Now you might think me harsh at this stage, but consider the treatment of Doctor Who by fandom in the Eighties and look again. Gloves were off. In his interview with TSV, Andrew Cartmel made no bones about who the character of Whizzkid was supposed to be, nor the sadistic pleasure with which the production team dispatched him (albeit rather cleanly and offstage). I have my own ideas on who Whizzkid is, but that can wait. Let's move on. All that really remains to be said for the Gods is that the Doctor claims to have fought them throughout all time. If that's not a dig at the TV ratings game, then I'm a monkey's auntie.

The Second Triumvirate

Trapped into using the Circus to provide entertainment, potentially for all eternity (it appears to be part of the deal), is the Chief Clown - the producer of the show, as it were. About him, and forming the rest of this unholy trinity, are the Ringmaster (a Script Editor, employed to maintain pace and the Gods' interest), and Morgana, the Box Office lady/Fortune Teller. Morgana is the most complex of the three in representation. She has aspects of foresight and interacts between the Circus staff and competitors, so she's a liaison of some kind. It's her job to entice passers-by and ready them for the competition, but stationed as she is at a doorway, she sees what's going on outside as well as in. I rather get the feeling she's torn between two masters - the Gods, under whom she and her colleagues are in bondage, and her own conscience. She knows the nature of the Circus, but tries to prevent its causing more deaths, despite the Chief Clown (the only figure she packs off with speed towards the Ring is Whizzkid). I have to admit at this early stage that this is the one character who gives me pause. She possesses the crystal ball by which she can communicate with the Gods, and she has a Tarot pack, offering one upon the appearance of the Doctor.

‘We have a saying, Doctor.’
‘Let me guess - give a man enough rope and he'll hang himself?’

The card is the Hanged Man, number 12 in the Major Arcana of the traditional Tarot. You'll have to bear with me, as I'm no astrologer, but I do know a symbol when I see one. The Doctor of course literally hangs in episode four in the Dark Circus, trussed up in a straitjacket, but the card itself has various meanings. Of all the resources I checked regarding its definition, most were very shaky and non-committal, but those who agree decide that the card represents sacrifice and paradox. The Hanged Man triumphs through his willing surrender to death or whoever hanged him (we don't see how the Doctor manages to suspend and then fasten a straitjacket around himself). Naturally, self-sacrifice is essential to the Doctor's persona; despite his apparent shoving of Ace into danger during Season 26, his role is still protagonist and not cavalry. The aspect of paradox is important as well - the Doctor is a walking paradox, a being of great power in an unassuming, vulnerable guise. He's an enigma, especially in season 25 with the slips and hints of Silver Nemesis and Remembrance of the Daleks. Mystery is highly important to the series, as the mystery of the Doctor's origins were to its last script editor. We're about to meet some other characters for whom mysterious origins are significant, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment it suffices that the Doctor is simply the Doctor.

The Third Triumvirate

Further out from the centre of the Gods is a third trio - the remaining, fugitive members of the Circus. They are Deadbeat, Bellboy and Flowerchild. Together, they might represent the qualities of Who that are necessary for the show's survival but have either absconded or, in this case, been abused to keep the remaining Psychic Circus in check for its audience. There were others, we're told by Bellboy - Peace-pipe and Juniper Berry, but there's little to go on there if we're dealing with names alone. So what do we have to go on with those left behind?

Bellboy says each of the Circus members had their own skill or talent. Morgana's was divining, but the Ringmaster and Chief Clown's must seem utilitarian in comparison. Bellboy's was in making the robots of the Circus, the clunkiest and most primitive-looking of which was apparently his greatest work. Well, I'm no judge. There's probably not much sophistication to Bellboy's robot-making anyway - they were acrobats and clowns, ‘good inventions’, but fell under the Chief Clown's influence. As they're the only visibly SF element to the story (everything else apart from the TARDIS appears out of thin air upon the landing platform, as if by magic), perhaps Bellboy is Science Fiction (don't laugh), or at least is what it amounts to in Who. Originally used to serve (hence his name?) like the Ticket Collector robot, the automaton clowns have been exploited by the Chief Clown - patrolling the show and herding contestants towards the Gods for fodder. Whole articles have been written about the place of SF in Who and its use and abuse; I'm not about to add to them.

Flowerchild made kites. Her skill, as her character, required a childlike embracing of innocence and the wonders of nature. While Flowerchild isn't naive herself, the quality of naivete is important in family entertainment such as the Circus or Doctor Who. Marry childlike wonder with Science Fiction and you get something of the sort of thing Doctor Who is or was once about. Bring in a third element (wait for it...) and you're even closer. Of course, the Chief Clown abuses this talent as well, turning the kites into surveillance devices, detecting escapees and potential victims. Once more, as the Chief gets his hands on the special elements of the Circus, they change irrevocably and lose their appeal - robots become murderous and kites become spies. At best they're cheapened, their use without doubt born of cynicism. What this says about the producers of the show is open to interpretation, but it doesn't sound like the actions of Michael Grade to me.

Finally, the third member of this trio - Deadbeat. Dual in role, dual in name, as he's not truly the fugitive until he travels the road back to his real identity - Kingpin. Another ‘paradox’ then, and for that reason a ‘type’ of Doctor, for his part in the story is one of rediscovering his origins and power. We're not told what Kingpin's special skills were, though he does chant a lot and he wears the pendant of the Gods - a talisman of immense power which ultimately proves their undoing. And he wears it all the time, even as Deadbeat (though it's inoperative), sweeping out the Circus for the Gods, apparently a harmless, burnt-out hippy. As Kingpin once more he is the prime motivator towards the Gods' destruction - that is, once his prior knowledge (most likely his own ‘power’, hence its removal by the Gods) is restored, things are able to move again. It's highly significant that this Doctorish character, a misfit with only his genius to declare, is the sole survivor of the original Circus, and that his plans are to restore it to its original form. But I'm getting to that later. Suffice it to say that I don't really buy him as Blake's 7.

The Final Triumvirate

diagram 1

There is another threesome, the contestants. Remember that their role in the story is to entertain the Audience, but for this metaphor to work we still have to be operating within the realm of Who. After all, they're not trying to outdo the Circus itself, and there's no point in saying one character equals Star Trek or what have you if Trek isn't part of Who's internal folklore. It might well be, but I'm not convinced that's what Cornell, Day & Topping were on about. Instead, they could be, like the last trio, other ingredients of the series - intangible qualities that made up its nature in the past, and now vie for a (second?) chance at entertaining the Gods.

Nord is the easiest and most obvious - he's the ‘macho’ element; shouty, boorish, and a fair exaggeration of the sort of hard-boiled mercenary type that the Doctor had the misfortune to keep bumping into during Eric Saward's tenure. Of course, this sort of character is all very well as Cyberman or Dalek fodder, but he's otherwise harshly limited in scope - sound and fury signifying nothing. Nord's choice of transport is a huge, garish, noisy motorcycle, and he dubs himself ‘Vandal of the Road’ - “Nord travels with no-one!” he shouts when asked for a lift, and indeed, he rarely entertains any humanity or good humour. Even in early drafts, Nord's fate came at his lack of ability in telling jokes - without humour this option has nowhere to go - a fact expressed to the show's production crew by BBC executives themselves. “I'll do something 'orrible to your ears”? He may as well have threatened to crush Ace's hands.

The other characters are more complicated and work at times in unison, and it's interesting also to note the ‘drifting’ character of Captain Cook - a late addition to the story, who fills several roles in the allusion. Together, Cook and Whizzkid represent Who's past and traditions - Cook is less a traveller than he is a storyteller and a dullard. Bound up in his own stories, he has nowhere else to go - perhaps he's the canon to which some fans hold so much importance?

Whizzkid isn't a storyteller, but he is obsessed with the traditions of the Psychic Circus - where it has been, how long it has existed, what its acts were - he could probably give you the dimensions of the marquee for the Circus' debut. Whizzkid's similar to Cook in that his role relies on recollection and adherence to what has been before, but he interprets the present Circus in context with the past - so perhaps he's continuity? The Doctor isn't human, he might say, he travels in a TARDIS, he's never cruel or cowardly, he comes from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborus, et cetera. Perhaps his threat to the Circus, if it ever perceived him as one, is in acknowledging its past and insisting the present and future follow suit. Whizzkid's character, in earlier drafts a “powerful blob” and for a short time a “mutant yuppie - half fish, half man/rat”, always had an air of arrogance about it. If Cook's role is to fill all the gaps in the past, choking it with anecdotes and allusions, Whizzkid's is to restrict the Circus by declaring what it can and can't do - aspects which Andrew Cartmel himself was eager to overcome in his reinterpretation of the series and its hero. Further evidence can be seen in the original fate of Whizzkid/the Blob: overtaken by ‘elf-like creatures’ he attempts to tame - in reality they are Basilisks, the legendary creatures purported to turn anything they beheld into stone. Ergo - adherence to the show's past and its canonical traditions is tantamount to grinding it to a standstill.

diagram 1

Now onto the Doctor and Ace, via Captain Cook and Mags. From the outset, Cook and his protege are established as a faux Doctor and companion - they even do Doctorish things, like drink tea on an alien planet and travel about in a decommissioned vehicle (a Jeep). When confronted with someone or something vaguely reminiscent of a past adventure, Cook has a penchant for relating tales of where he's been and whom he's met to anyone within earshot - regardless of whether they'd understand or not. Sound like anyone familiar? He even does it while dead! As obvious as that is, that's all Cook amounts to - the worst kind of Doctor you could have - boring, predictable, and so detached from reality that he's willing to sacrifice those around him to further his pursuit of knowledge. In itself, the pursuit of knowledge is important to the presence of the Gods and their power over the Circus. It is suggested that it was Kingpin's thirst for knowledge that brought the Circus to Segonax, this same curiosity causing his transformation into the addle-brained Deadbeat. Cook seems to know something about the Circus and the amulet, and plays on his prior knowledge by sacrificing his companions to the Chief Clown while striking a bargain with him. The Doctor apparently comes to Segonax to compete as well, but McCoy revisionists would no doubt interpret this as a ruse, and that the Doctor suspected the presence of the Gods all along. Mags, of course, is different. As her chaperon admits, she is “rather a unique specimen”.

If Cook is a faux Doctor, then does it follow that Mags is the same to Ace? Perhaps she is; after all she's a virago, a woman of occasional aggression, charged with natural, cyclic energies. I'll say no more, except perhaps to suggest that in this case the idea of a female werewolf is perhaps quite appropriate. Certainly Ace and Mags are both young, displaced from their original homes, and for a time it was proposed that Jessica Martin would play the role with a streetwise (Glaswegian) accent. All the hallmarks of a future companion, which Ace was already fulfilling, are there in Mags' character - even to the extent of being used by her mentor against her wishes. For Ace this was stretched beyond belief in the New Adventures, but within the TV series her impact and roles were more calculated, allowing her character to assume central roles in stories while the Doctor stepped back.

Where do Fan Theories come from?

Earlier, while researching this article I took the liberty of e-mailing the three authors of The Discontinuity Guide about their ‘Bottom Line’ on The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. I asked them if they knew whether this had arisen from an old, previously published fanzine article (as some of the others in the Guide appear to have been - see Warriors of the Deep and The Mind Robber), or had other origins. If so, where did it come from? Their separate answers are printed below in chronological order. I've left Keith Topping's email ‘sig’ in; for not only does it come from a great song (Paul Weller's The Changing Man, but it really defined my reaction at the time...

Paul Cornell replies:
I have no idea about that one! And to make matters worse, I don't remember if it was Topping or Marty that wrote that bit. At any rate, one of them might be able to tell you.

Martin Day replies:
I don't, I'm afraid. And that Bottom Line reads *very* like a Cornellism, so if Paul doesn't know I'm not sure what else to suggest. Sorry. You could always try Keith, just in case.

Keith Topping replies:
As I remember, and I'm pretty sure I am (!) it was actually Cornell's theory. I certainly hadn't heard it before TDG was published...

“The more I see, the more I know.
The more I know, the less I understand...”

Of the last trio, Mags is the only survivor electing to stay on Segonax with the only survivor of the original Circus, Kingpin. We're near the end, folks, but first, a final word about Kingpin's character. In early drafts of the story, the character of Kingpin was a “small green nonentity”, inauspicious until the conclusion where it reflects the anger of the ‘audience’, back upon themselves, destroying them and freeing the Circus and the heroes. Of course, the Nonentity would eventually become the reconstructed medallion worn by Deadbeat, being integrated into the final character. Other ingredients of Deadbeat's initial character included an unnamed ‘circus animal’ befriended by then companion Mel. This creature (the circus one) later became “the Squonk”. Now, a squonk is a creature of North American folklore, hunted for its ill-fitting pelt but almost never, if ever, captured successfully; when trapped, it had the knack of dissolving itself in its own tears. You can see why Mel would have instantly befriended something like that - the ugly duckling misfit, apparently downcast and in need of cheering up, but in reality special and mystical.

In the end it's the Doctor who meets Deadbeat, and Ace who's paired with him - first the Time Lord and his metaphorical counterpart, then the reinvented companion. The old Circus, ensnared and corrupted by the overbearing influence of the Gods, is destroyed as the Gods are confounded spectacularly, and a new Circus is created. I don't think it's any accident that the future of the Psychic Circus (because that's what the story is about, not the Gods, Ace, or the Doctor) is left in the safe hands of the Doctorish Kingpin, restored with knowledge and power, and the archetypal strong female companion Mags. Metaphorically, at least in this model the Circus/series is in safe hands for being reinvented, its critical usurping masters confounded and its management upturned. Both Kingpin, his real name restored, and Mags, her true nature revealed (and under control according to the Doctor), signal a commitment to the past and a nod to the future signifying hope, acknowledged by the Doctor in keeping his distance in the future. The job done, the Circus no longer needs his help.

So there you go then. The Psychic Circus is Doctor Who, the performers either paid up staff or long-gone bits and pieces; the competitors other bits and somewhere in there the Doctor and Ace are part of a great big Doctor and Ace triumvirate. You're all Gods (oh yes you are), and at this stage I should reveal that the one character I haven't covered, the Stalls Lady, is... a member of the public. She's the only true resident of Segonax, she goes completely by first impressions, doesn't like the Circus because she doesn't understand it, and frankly couldn't care less what all the fuss is about. Makes you think, doesn't it? Maybe not the thickest semiotic text, but hey - at least I didn't say she was supposed to be Babylon 5.

This item appeared in TSV 59 (January 2000).

Index nodes: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy