For the series’ twenty-fifth anniversary, Doctor Who took a moment to offer up a satire of the series and its fans with “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.” Set at the Psychic Circus, the serial sees various parties trying to keep a trio of ever-hungering god-like beings entertained with varying degrees of success. In many ways, the serial is a predictor of the ever-increasing hunger that the world seems to have to consume pop-culture and then how quickly it can be and is forgotten. The Gods of Ragna Rock use up various acts, quickly moving on to the next one with the constant chorus of “Entertain us.”
It’s a brilliant, subversive bit of Doctor Who and one that sits in my top ten.
But, it wasn’t the first time that Doctor Who would be so subversive. The series would offer up a satire of itself fifteen years early to celebrate the show’s tenth anniversary. But as with everything involving the late, great Robert Holmes, not only would the serial be subversive and point out the current state of Doctor Who, but it would also create a template for the next decade or so of our favorite program.
Season ten’s “Carnival of Monsters” is like an onion with multiple layers just waiting to be peeled back.
Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts had inherited the series with a couple of caveats — the biggest bening that the third Doctor was exiled to Earth for his sins by the Time Lords. Letts and Dicks could have easily undone this after a single season, but instead chose to play by the rules of the scenario for three seasons with the Doctor having one to two adventures away from modern Earth per season. One of the big reasons for this was the series had transitioned to color when Jon Pertwee took over, opening the door to having to create more vibrant alien worlds on the slim BBC budget. The show got three seasons for Letts and Dicks to figure out how to do Doctor Who on the budget given.
Now, as the series celebrates its fifth decade on the air, Letts and Dicks decide to see if the series can survive another ten years.
“Carnival of Monsters” is the first serial after the Doctor is given back his freedom to wander in all of time and space. It’d be easy for the show to go for a giant space opera type story or a battle with the Daleks. (Those were coming). Instead, the series gives us an intimate, mostly studio-bound four-part story that promises a vast alien world for the first five minutes and then puts the Doctor and Jo on an Earth-bound cargo ship a few minutes later. Holmes’ story cuts back and forth between the two settings before it’s finally revealed that the Doctor and Jo are inside a travelling zoo of sorts, where various attractions are stored for quick and easy enjoyment by viewers on the outside.
Holmes gives us the glitz and glamour of an alien world — all of it within a studio set. We do get some location filming on this one — just enough to lend enough verisimilitude to the story without breaking the band. And it gives us a one-off monster that the production team apparently liked a lot because it seems to crop up time and again for the rest of Jon Pertwee’s tenure.
As the Doctor and Jo struggle to survive inside the alien device known as the mini-scope, outside the Doctor and Jo stand-ins for Vorg and Shirna struggle to survive with the various calamities that seem to befall them — from their scope not working right to being used as pawns in a game of political chess. Vorg and Shirna have little idea of the role they’re playing in things (echoes of a lot of Holmes stories with the Doctor) nor do they necessarily realize they’re the catalyst to what could be high-level change to the government establishment. They’re just trying to survive and move on to the stop in the show.
Vorg and Shirna’s costumes are even designed to draw attention to themselves — even as the Doctor and Jo’s costumes stand out in the S.S. Bernice when they arrive there. The contrast is a bit less for the Doctor and Jo, though they’re not interacting with people who seem almost grey in their skin tones and pigments. (They’re actually blue, but it’s so light it’s hard to tell sometimes).
What unfolds over four episodes is Holmes, Dicks, and Letts showing what you could and couldn’t do at the time with the budget Doctor Who was given. The tatty-sets and lots of creative angles used to disguise that we’re watching characters walk up and down the same corridor over and over again — get used to that. Whereas the show had a budget for location shooting and stunt teams for elaborate military battles, we’re now going to see alien planets in full color, all realized on a shoe-string budget. But what will draw you in is the writing and the performances.
And yet, despite all of the limitations, “Carnival of Monsters” shines. I know there are some bigger concept stories to season ten, but I don’t think there is one story that is quite as satisfying all around as the four-part “Carnival.”
It’s interesting that John Nathan-Turner would pick this one as the example of the third Doctor era when they showed “The Five Faces of Doctor Who” in 1980. But part of thinks this has more to do with it fitting the time slot he needed and that the serial needed very little work done to it. (At that point, a lot of early four-part Pertwee stories were in bad condition). It also means that Holmes gets two of the five stories features for the season of repeats, which I think only continues to reinforce how great he was when it came to creating Doctor Who.