“Anybody remotely interesting is mad in someway or another.” – The Doctor
I distinctly remember feeling embarrassed by the broadly comedic nature of many aspects of this story upon first watch of this as a teen (the outlandish characters, the junk mail robot, the rapping ringmaster). Yet I also remember being enthralled with the cooly horrific elements as well (the creepy family, the fear of the performers, the amazing chief clown). It definitely helps temper some of the silliness if you recognize the intentional parody of fans and viewers, particularly in characters like WhizzKid. (“Although I never got to see the early days, I know it’s not as good as it used to be but I’m still terribly interested.”)
On re-watch, it is decidedly the dark elements that make this story a standout. I forgot how desperately real the initial escape of Bellboy and Flower Child across the desert appears. The sight of the Chief Clown slowly gliding around in the black limo sets a great tone and his menace grows more every time we see his signature scary smile and vacant stare. There are a number of great scenes of foreboding as well as outright fear like Morgana pleading with the all seeing-eye or Mags screaming in horror at some unseen force. (It’s a really interesting idea to have the sound not escape from the tent and yet Ace somehow still able to hear, or perhaps feel, it and not the Doctor.) I also love how to the family in the stands goes slowly from just oddly out of place to menacing to terrifying at each step until the surprising final reveal of their true nature.
There’s also quite a bit of attractive design in this piece. It’s amazing that illuminated sheets make for such a nice set as Ace escapes down the corridors. The quarry on location is quite impressive as a desertscape, and the addition of the huge planet in the background sky is well done. Meanwhile, the creepy clown workshop is perfectly set up to generate a feeling of unease and expectation of jump scares. The most impressive scene of the whole story comes at the end with the Doctor’s defeat of the enemy and the huge blast as that reality implodes. As the story is often told, the explosion was far bigger than planned and it’s a huge credit to McCoy’s acting chops that he still managed to walk away calmly with the danger behind creating one of the most iconic moments for his character.
The various guest actors bring their odd characters to life well enough. I was surprised to discover on this re-watch how striking the change is when the Captain reveals his ultimate plans to the Doctor in the ring; he goes from seeming just a bumbling egotistical blowhard to an actual malevolent threat. It’s that much more horrifying when he’s brought back to life. I do find the werewolf version of Mags to be rather odd, especially since they do it in such a bright color scheme, but it’s not as bad as I remembered. I still don’t like the rather cheap solution of having her react to simple stage lighting in the shape of the moon—I would have much preferred them to work nightfall into it somehow.
Ace is again in good form here as she cleverly escapes the circus and figures things out. I am impressed how they shot the scene with her being surrounded by the dancing clowns in such a claustrophobically evocative way. I also love how they emphasize the taking advantage of her teenage unwillingness to show fear, to the point that even she recognizes it and yet can’t help herself. The interplay of her and the Doctor on their trek towards the circus shows again just how good of a duo they are. And the Doctor is shown to be playing a cosmic game, this time at level of gods, and yet endearingly does so by being silly and doing magic tricks.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
There are a lot of scary moments to choose from as noted above: the Chief Clown’s eerie smile, the resurrection of the Captain, Mags scream of fear. But it’s also quite unsettling to see the stark reality at the start of Flower Child and Bellboy trying to escape and failing. It’s sad when we see her killed after thinking she’d made it to safety and especially disturbing to see Bellboy simply give up and lie in the street as the scary clown car pulls up to take him away.
I wish they had significantly toned down some of the off-the-wall characters like Nord the Vandal, perhaps a little less outrageous in manner and costume such that it did not detract from the bigger story. I also don’t like how they put a line about the Doctor having “fought the Gods of Ragnarok all through time” when we’ve never heard of them much less ever seen the Doctor facing them.