|I’m happy. Hope you’re happy too.|
On Sunday, July 8th, 2012, I finally ended my childhood. It was January 4th, 1989. Kylie and Jason were at number one – that being Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue, of course – with “Especially For You.” The three weeks previous had been “Mistletoe and Wine” by Cliff Richard. Erasure, U2, and Phil Collins also charted. The album charts were dominated by Now That’s What I Call Music 13, a collection notable for putting Duran Duran and Transvision in direct debate on consecutive tracks and then concluding the dialectic with The Human League’s “Love Is All That Matters,” a sequencing that I assume somebody had quite a bit of fun with.
In real news, Lyndon LaRouche, perpetual US Presidential candidate/huckster and source of some delightful early Wikipedia drama (Seriously, his followers actually stalked me to a Wikipedia meet-up once. It was fantastic.), was convicted of mail fraud. Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Scotland. And two days prior to the story in question’s airing thirty-five people were killed in a three-train collision in Clapham.
While on television was The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. It’s not the last Doctor Who story I’d never seen – that was Warrior’s Gate. But past Warrior’s Gate were scattered stories I’d only seen once, nearly twenty years ago, or ones that I had seen in the sense of “they were on a television while I was in the room, but I got distracted after five minutes and stopped paying attention.” The latter describes The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, a story I’ve liked the idea of for years, but somehow never got around to paying attention to. And so it is functionally the last new piece of classic Doctor Who to me – the last unchecked box of my favorite era of the series.
Of course, twenty-nine isn’t the worst age for childhood to end at. There’s a case to be made that I’m past due. And another still that one never ends it – that one’s life is circumscribed forever by the ghosts and echoes of childhood, the ever-expanding vista of the adult world mapped endlessly in fractal geometries within the private nations of our childhood homes. The latter case is, in the end, the one I’m more interested in.
As narratives pre-ordained to reach their appointed conclusion go, my childhood is apparently solid. There are few better places to end it than The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, itself a story about the slow and declining aftermath of youthful idealism. Stephen Wyatt, who shares the crown of “Cartmel-era writers with an axe to grind” with Ben Aaronovich, is taking dead aim at 60s idealism here: a bunch of “weirdos” (as the local businesswoman insists) with names like Flowerchild and Peacepipe have sold out, gotten themselves some evil corporate sponsors, and are recreationally killing people.
This message is overlaid on a strange dreamscape of images. The quarry planet is perfectly, gorgeously wrong for the circus setting, a fact that Wyatt’s script is happy to play on, reveling in the image of a lone creepy circus out in the wasteland. The circumstances that forced production out of the studio and into a literal tent were pure fortune, and the internal geographies of the Psychic Circus are like no set of corridors to run through that we’ve ever seen before. Fabric billows and encircles the world, with characters cutting through walls and stepping through them, a glorious landscape of total and complete constructedness.
Lurking throughout these folds is an unsettling piece of parallelism. The Psychic Circus is explicitly paralleled to Doctor Who itself, most famously through Whizz Kid. This is a puzzling character – most commentators focus on the way in which he is a parody of the stereotypical Doctor Who fan, which he certainly is. But look at his story arc. He doesn’t get his comeuppance for how annoying he is – he’s starkly betrayed and manipulated by Captain Cook and sent to a tragic and inevitable death. He’s a figure of pity, a man whose childhood loves have been turned against him. If we take seriously his role to be that of a Doctor Who fan, and by extension the Psychic Circus’s role as the series then it is fairly clear where the tip of this particular stiletto is wedged.
Let us consider the choice of Captain Cook as the name for our blithering establishment figure. A washed-up sham of an adventurer he is, on the one hand, a straightforward dark mirror of the Doctor. On the other, he is both visually styled and named so as to directly invoke Britain’s colonial past. This is another sharp barb, particularly given that colonialism and the leftist politics of the Cartmel era go together… poorly. For the fourth time this season the show is calling into question some of its own ideological and historical foundations, suggesting that the basic image of the Doctor – the wise British man sashaying his way through the cosmos and fixing people’s problems for them – might be a little bit broken.
But Captain Cook carries a third resonance as well. In Australian Aboriginal mythology Captain Cook has a symbolic resonance in excess of the historical impact of James Cook himself, serving as a transformational figure that destroyed the old order of things and inaugurated a new, fallen order characterized by Western imperialism. Structurally speaking, Australian Aboriginal mythology is an interesting topic. A central idea of the mythology is what is called the Dreamtime, a mythical time in which all things, from all time, exist in their primal form. The other thing to note about Aboriginal mythology is that it is intensely geographically focused – the spirits of the Dreamtime manifest as the physical land.
So the dark mirror of the Doctor (and of Doctor Who) is a figure who led to a schismatic break between an all-encompassing time in which history and geography were a unified entity into the present fallen world, and this division takes place in the last unexplored nook of the era of Doctor Who I most thoroughly embraced as a child. There is a fitting narrative logic here that exceeds sense: a story written in 1988 can hardly have consciously shaped the interplay between 2012 and 1993 for my life. And yet the links are in their own way perfect, if fictional.
This is oddly fitting state of affairs for The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, a story that, more than really any other before it, works unabashedly according to a logic of fantasy and magic. Mags is the most obvious case: she’s unabashedly a werewolf. Her planet – Vulpana – is clearly named after the fact that its inhabitants are werewolves. There’s no explanation for how she works, nor even the vaguest pretext that she is anything other than a straightforward werewolf who works like werewolves of mythology. There’s no von Dannikenesque explanation of how our myths of werewolves came from space. They’re just… space werewolves.
The culmination of this line of thought comes at the end of the story, when the Doctor confronts the Gods of Ragnarok. This was, in many ways, the reason I never got through the story. The idea of the Gods of Ragnarok – what a name, even – was so cool seeming that I mostly got irritated with three whole episodes of messing around with an irritating rapping ringmaster before we got to them. What was striking actually going into the story, then, was just how disconnected the Gods of Ragnarok section is from the rest. I mean, yes, their human avatars are present throughout the story, but the coda in which the Doctor confronts them really does feel like a departure from the rest of the story.
What’s interesting about this sequence is twofold. First, everybody seems to be acting out a pre-ordained script. The Doctor is seemingly aware of the exact moment the eye medallion is going to teleport across to him, despite the fact that there is no early reason why he should be able to know that. The Gods of Ragnarok keep firing upon the Doctor even when this is clearly not working out for them. Everyone seems, in other words, to be filling roles in a structure that is already wholly determined.
This links with the second aspect, which is that for the second story in a row a story ends with the Doctor having seemingly been planning this all along when it flagrantly begins without that. At the start of the story the Doctor is in this on a lark having been lured in by junk mail. By the end it’s been his show all along and he’s been fighting the Gods of Ragnarok all through time. This time it makes even less sense than it did in Silver Nemesis, which is a relatively impressive bar to miss. And that’s before you get to questions like “why does he happen to have a bit of metal from that gladiator’s sword handy?”
But in the overall structure of Greatest Show in the Galaxy, a story in which the world works purely according to the logic of magic and symbols, this is just about justifiable. The Gods of Ragnarok exist within some sort of separate “time space,” in which they maintain a different form. Is it such a surprise that the Doctor would also take a different formal role in this space? That when the Doctor is transported to their time space he would slot into a slightly different formal role, playing out a more iconic and fundamental version of himself. That, in other words, he has entered a sort Dreamtime where he and the nameless gladiator are not separate entities but different echoes of some larger logic.
The Doctor, then, moves from the fallen world where Flowerchild and Peacepipe were eventually killed by a once-great clown who sold out his ideals to a transcendent one. Or, to put it another way, from the world where Captain Cook exists to the Dreamtime itself. This is almost crassly simplistic, of course – a common enough issue in the Cartmel era. For all of its fondness for moral complexity, at the end of the day the Cartmel era favors a straightforward conception of good and evil. The failures of modernism? Work together. The vast complexities of systemic racism? Don’t be racist. Oppressive governments? Refuse their propaganda. And now the solution to the crushing failures of 60s utopianism is little more than dreaming anew and trying not to screw it up this time.
But why not? What more, really, is required? For one thing, surely one of the advantages of the strange hybrid of children’s television and counterculture rabble rousing that Doctor Who has settled into is that it’s a format that allows for moral simplicity. And for all the complexity and nuance that the adult world reveals to us, there is much to be said for a level of moral simplicity. At the end of the day the question of how to deal with the selling out of utopian visions for sociopathic profit is, in fact, straightforward: don’t do that.
But equally, this moral simplicity is not nostalgia for some lost golden age. There is never any sense that the Psychic Circus could go backwards. The Dreamtime is a past moment, yes, but it’s just as much the future. That’s what eternity means. The Dreamtime isn’t the rolling back of the interminable detail-filling of our childhoods that marks adult life. It’s not a return to ignorance. Rather, it’s the realization that filling in the details need not change the basics of the picture. It’s the realization that you can, in fact, keep wandering forever without giving up any ground in terms of wisdom and sophistication.
So the last unseen Doctor Who story fills a symbolic space more perfectly carved for it than it ever could have had in childhood. Of course it does. This imaginary landscape was always shaped to this higher order. Things don’t always need to make more than symbolic sense. Childhoods, in fact, ought never do so.