The Doctor and Ace are invited to the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. There are few in the audience and few running the circus in a worn-out tent. The Ringmaster (Ricco Ross) and the ticket-seller and fortune teller Morgana (Deborah Manship) seem to be running the place. The only audience aside from the Doctor and Ace is a family of three, who gobble down snacks with a bored expression and complain. The Doctor and Ace learn that they are expected to perform, and if they fail to entertain the family, they will die. The Chief Clown (Ian Reddington) has kites for surveillance and mechanical clowns to make sure no-one escapes across the surrounding wasteland.
They discover the corpse of Flower Child (Dee Sadler), a worker who tried to escape. Ace pins one of the girl’s earrings to her jacket to remember her by. The Chief Clown notices, as does Bellboy (Christopher Guard), though his memory is clouded. The Doctor has joined with intergalactic explorer Captain Cook (T.P. McKenna) and Mags (Jessica Martin), also invited. Mags joins the Doctor to find out what’s going on before they have to entertain. There is a well with glowing energy at the bottom and an eye like that on the Clown’s kites. The Doctor is on next, but he escapes to find a worker named Dead Beat (Chris Jury) with the same eye on a medallion.
The Doctor enters the caravan to find Ace and Bellboy, who has his memories restored. In the past, Dead Beat was called Kingpin and owned the Psychic Circus. He came to Segonax to find power, but the power drove him mad and he enslaved the rest of the circus to that power. The Chief Clown finds them. Bellboy, feeling guilty for Flower Child’s death, sacrifices himself so the Doctor and Ace can escape.
The Doctor and Ace find Dead Beat and take him to the well. The Doctor thinks a missing piece of Dead Beat’s medallion is in the bus. He offers to cover Ace and Dead Beat as they look for it, by taking their place in the ring. In the main tent, Cook says the Doctor, he, and Mags are up next. Mags wants a beam of moonlight on her, but that reveals her as a werewolf, who attacks and kills Cook. The family cheers and the Doctor and Mags escape in the hullabaloo. The family then orders the Ringmaster to perform, but he fails to entertain and is killed.
Ace and Dead Beat find the piece of the medallion and Dead Beat becomes Kingpin again. He defeats the Chief Clown and his robot clowns. They return to the circus and find the Doctor entertaining again. The family is really the Gods of Ragnarök, who appear in a colosseum arena, demanding entertainment. The Doctor tells Ace and Kingpin to throw the medallion into the energy well. Just as the Doctor is about to be obliterated by the gods, the medallion falls through a dimensional portal into the arena and the Doctor uses it to reflect the gods’ power back to them. They die in the collapse of the arena. Mags and Kingpin decide to reclaim the circus, while the Doctor and Ace leave in the TARDIS.
The story reminds me of Charles Finney’s The Circus of Doctor Lao and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, which were made into great movies. The serial was almost cancelled outright because asbestos was found at the BBC, after the location filming was done and the studio filming was just about to begin. But a tent was set up in a carpark and the work went on. This was probably the only Doctor Who story in history that could have been filmed in a tent. The story was called imaginative and psychedelic, and it is thought to be one of the better serials. The robot clowns were scary as Hell, the Chief Clown was seriously warped and beautifully played, and the whole thing was subversive and funny.
A character called Whizz Kid is a parody of obsessive fans. Captain Cook and Mags are parodies of the Doctor and his female companions. If so, the bored audience must be the watching public and the stone-face Gods of Ragnarök must be the BBC. McCoy’s magic tricks in the arena, which are delightfully goofy, were taught to him by Geoffrey Durham, called the Great Soprendo. Captain Cook remembers the planets Lelex, Dioscuros, Inphitus, Leophantos, Periboea, Vulpana, Overod, Boromeo, and Anagonia. The Ringmaster’s rap song was the first original song commissioned since The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon in The Gunfighters, in 1966. The next would be Song for Ten in The Christmas Invasion (2005). The kiss between Bellboy and Flower Child is, rather surprisingly, the first on-screen kiss in Doctor Who.