Circuses are kind of creepy, but if I had watched this serial when I was six years old, I would NEVER want to go to one ever again. The most memorable Doctor Who episodes have a way of taking something ordinary and twisting it into something terrifying, giving kids nightmares in the process, and this does exactly that.
Even now, as a grown adult, I have to admit that many of the scenes in this serial verge on the disturbing, such as when Ace is locked inside the workshop, and the bits of robot clowns start moving behind her. Brrr!! And those audience members with their lifeless faces and glowing eyes! And Mags turning into a werewolf! It’s got some good direction and lighting, and makes excellent use of some very limited sets.
But it’s also full of really great performances. Ian Reddington as the ‘chief clown’ does so much with so little. A simple hand gesture, a creepy smile, and he’s created a frightening foe. T. P. McKenna as ‘Captain Cook’ is a scary look into what might happen to the Doctor if he ever became selfish and complacent enough, putting others’ lives, even his own travelling companion, before his own. The other circus performers are a varied bunch and you really feel for their plight. And as for the Doctor, he is very quickly rising up the ranks of my favourites. He’s brilliant in this, and if those magic tricks at the end of part 4 are really all performed by him, I have a newfound respect for Mr. McCoy.
There are still hints of hokiness, some of the characters don’t quite work, and some of the production can’t avoid looking too cheap for what it’s trying to portray, but what this serial manages to do is turn its recent silly elements into creepy ones. Lighthearted humour becomes dark and twisted menace, and it succeeds by showing just enough to set the imagination at work. Its combination of direction, performance and production doesn’t have many of the weak links I usually expect from Doctor Who, and the musical score manages to maintain the creepy mood throughout.
While it’s not the greatest show in the galaxy, it’s easily the best serial since… oh, Caves of Androzani, certainly. That deserves a round of applause at least.