The Psychic Circus serves as both sequel and prequel to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the Season 25 story. With writer Stephen Wyatt returning to his creation, it also reunites original cast members with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor.
With a junk mail robot taunting the Doctor about being scared, the story begins with familiar notes. However, on this occasion, the unit appears faulty and he suspects a malign influence. Meanwhile, deposited on a humourless planet, the origins of the circus begin with Kingpin and Juniper Berry. With frivolity banned it may be the perfect, productive society, but it is also deathly dull. With the Doctor on a mystery tour, Kingpin is guided by a masterful voice to gather like-minded free spirits together.
Prequel and Sequel
The twisty-turny narrative not only leads the performers towards the planet Segonax, but also brushes through the writer’s other McCoy era tale, Paradise Towers. We did have some trouble keeping track of events, so this is possibly a story that requires multiple listens to fully appreciate: it is a prequel for the circus characters, but a sequel from the Doctor’s point of view. Although, at the start, he cannot recall why things are familiar to him which adds a further layer of complexity.
In story terms, prequels can be a strange beast too: we know where this ends, so it becomes more about the journey. Stephen Wyatt builds on his original themes, linking the decline of free-spirited ideals to the rise of commercialism, with the sale of merchandise and a contest to bring punters in.
Sylvester McCoy plays up the whimsical aspects of his Doctor here, with juggling and tricks. It is difficult to work out where this story takes place in his tenure though; with no mention of a companion, we assume this is post-Ace somewhen.
Returnees Chris Jury and Ian Reddington reprise their on-screen roles. Trapped as Deadbeat for the greater part of his original appearance, Chris Jury enjoys greater scope as the optimistic Kingpin. Full of barely restrained lunacy, Ian Reddington’s Chief Clown is terrific; increasingly dangerous as he moves from outsider to the sinister, controlling figure of Greatest Show. In the wider cast, Sioned Jones does an excellent job as the recast fortune teller Morgana, while Andrew John Spooner impresses in multiple roles.
As the cover reveals, the other significant presence here is the Master, in Big Finish’s early incarnation. In the background, he instigates much of what occurs, and James Dreyfus once again gives a great performance. However, we did wonder at the need for the Master at all, in what felt like an already packed tale.
With a great score from Steve Foxon, though thankfully without a Ringmaster’s rap in earshot, The Psychic Circus is fun – but it demands a re-watch of the original afterwards too.