Review by Jacob Licklider
The first Main Range trilogy of 2020 stars Sylvester McCoy as 7th doctor and is already being dubbed the ‘Renegade Time Lord’ trilogy; as each story features a Time Lord ‘renegade’ in the role of the villain. February’s release is the middle one and features the Master as played by James Dreyfus, however, while Dark Universe has the appeal of being Ace on Gallifrey, and Subterfuge has the Monk meddling in the affairs of Winston Churchill, The Psychic Circus boasts the return of both Ian Reddington and Stephen Wyatt to Doctor Who. Stephen Wyatt wrote two stories for the McCoy era, and his inaugural Big Finish audio production is essentially a combination of Wyatt’s previous stories, Paradise Towers and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. This makes The Psychic Circus a special treat to fans like myself who adores the McCoy era. That isn’t to say that non fans of the era will not get enjoyment, as Wyatt has improved on the trappings of the McCoy era; especially of Paradise Towers, to tell a story that encapsulates both classic and modern sensibilities in storytelling. The Psychic Circus re-explores several of the themes of Wyatt’s previous two stories to great effect and more clarity than the television outings ever did.
The Psychic Circus inhabits a unique position that only stories dealing with time travel really can, serving as both prequel and sequel to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and including a diversion into the territory of Paradise Towers. This is a story all about decay and the entropy of ideals as they expand and grow. Wyatt explores the idea that while an idea may start with a good intention to create something where everyone is equal and living in paradise, after time this grand idea begins to decay as darker elements seep in. While it is most obviously seen as the story tracks how the Psychic Circus began and was eventually corrupted with the arrival of the Master and the Chief Clown, but Wyatt prefaces it with a glimpse at Paradise Towers in the middle of its own collapse. Wyatt uses Paradise Towers as a foreshadowing to see just how the chaos of decay and corruption is going to influence the story going forward. Ian Reddington in particular steals the show throughout the story, continuing to be the quiet clown with that undercurrent of evil and manipulation hidden behind an airy voice. Reddington’s turn as the Chief Clown, much like in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, is used sparingly which allows the mystery around the character to build and create a sense of unease as the listener and the other characters really don’t know where they stand. Some complaints have been that the Chief Clown is put into a stooge role for the Master, but with that I will disagree. The character was a stooge to the Gods of Ragnarok in the original television story, and as he starts as a stooge to the Master, the listener sees his allegiance move from master to master and just how much of a leech the character is.
James Dreyfus as the Master is really one of the true villains of the piece and this release is perhaps his best outing. Throughout the first half he is working behind the scenes to move all of the members who will establish the Psychic Circus into place so they can get to Segonax; all so he can harness the power of the Gods of Ragnarok. Setting up the Master as just as much of a chess master as the Doctor here serves well to mirror their characters and fits in well with the other appearances of the character with McCoy’s Doctor. Dreyfus also does an excellent job at showing the innocence of Chris Jury’s Kingpin and Anna Leong Brophy’s Juniper Berry, as both characters appeared in the original story, but here they are younger and we just see their ideals ground to powder. The Master and the Chief Clown really find a way to trap them in the circus and set up a system for them to exploit to their own gains. Finally, we have Sylvester McCoy’s excellent turn as the Seventh Doctor, working in the background to unravel the mystery through the first half of the story and taking center stage to start a revolution in the second half. The Doctor has to deal with a robot companion which is intentionally annoying and just find the connections between these two very early incidents in his timeline, now after he’s said goodbye to Ace and several other companions.
Overall, The Psychic Circus continues this year’s main range with the steam that Dark Universe began with. It’s a story with incredible themes of decay and corruption and the script keeps its performers and director on top form. 9/10.