While the 1970s had proved to be the golden era for the long-running science fiction series Doctor Who, the following decade was something of a struggle for the ever-developing show, with Colin Baker’s run as the sixth incarnation of the time-travelling Doctor fairing less well with fans and critics than his predecessors. By the time that Sylvester McCoy inherited the role for the twenty-fourth season, broadcast in late 1987, many felt that its run of over a quarter of a century was coming to a conclusion. Yet McCoy’s dry wit and producer John Nathan Turner’s decision to allow the stories to venture into darker territories would allow Doctor Who to end on a high note.
Perhaps McCoy’s best remembered serial as the Doctor was Remembrance of the Daleks, which took the show back to when it was first broadcast in 1963, but several of McCoy’s more ambitious adventures included horror undertones, from the vampire-like sea creatures of The Curse of Fenric to the nightmare carnival of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. The four-part story saw the Doctor and his current companion Ace travelling to the distant planet Segonax to attend the mysterious Psychic Circus. While the locals resent the presence of the sideshow, eager patrons travel from all corners of the cosmos to witness the wonder and excitement of the celebrated performances.
During their journey to the show they come across an aged traveller called Captain Cook and his young accomplice Mags, a strange-yet-sweet young woman who hides a darkness within. Upon discovering the true evil of the circus the Doctor and Ace attempt to escape but are chased by sinister clowns and a ringmaster with a penchant for rapping to his audience. With both the Doctor and Ace betrayed by the Captain, Mags reluctantly reveals her true self, a vicious werewolf, who then turns on the man she had believed to be her friend.
A graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama, Jessica Martin began her television career as a voiceover artist on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image in the mid-1980s, while also working alongside comedian Bobby Davro on his popular sketch show, in which she impersonated such stars as Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin and Glynis Barber from the hit show Dempsey and Makepeace. Following two appearances at the Royal Variety Performance, Martin landed the lead role of Dorothy at the Theatre Royal Plymouth for a production of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wizard of Oz. In 1988 Martin was cast as Mags in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, co-starring in all four episodes alongside Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred.
Jessica Martin reminisces over her work on the classic Doctor Who serial.
One character in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy said ‘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.’ With many criticising the late 1980s Doctor Who as being inferior to the earlier series, would you say this quote reflected the attitude of the BBC at that time?
I think this quote was not necessarily a reflection of the BBC but more of the changing tastes of the time. The late eighties brought a tad more cynicism, a demand for the new and groundbreaking and a sort of iconoclastic outburst from people wanting change for change sake, rather than celebrating the tradition of institutions like Doctor Who.
Were you a fan of science fiction growing up and how did you first discover Doctor Who?
I enjoyed sci-fi to a degree. My best friend and I were there in the queue for Star Wars when it premiered at the Dominion. I remember seeing Patrick Troughton very early in my telly watching history. But Jon Pertwee was my childhood Doctor Who. When he opened our church fête in North Finchley in full Who regalia, that was a day to remember!
Do you have a fear of clowns and when reading the script did you get the feeling that it would make for scary episodes?
I find clowns sinister. They can be masking all kinds of terrible treachery behind the painted smile. I was too old to be scared by them in the Greatest Galaxy episode but they were definitely a top choice for scaring the younger viewers.
How was the character of Mags described to you and how did you prepare for the part?
The part of Mags was described to me as being a goth/punk-like girl captured on the planet Vulpana, who changes into a werewolf when thrown into a blue spotlight. To be honest, there was not much preparation for the part besides watching the video of Thriller and An American Werewolf in London. The rest was wild improvisation on the day I met John Nathan Turner.
Did your background in theatre help with performing under heavy make-up?
My background as a television impressionist – which was what I had been doing for the most part up until then – prepared me for all the wigs and make-up, but wearing the yellow contact lenses was the hardest feat. The optician’s sympathetic retort of, ‘Well, you’ve just got to do it, haven’t you?’ was hardly encouraging!
The best help with the transformation came from other actors on the set who we’re playing clowns. They had acrobatic training and taught me to mimic the choreography of a caged animal when I turned into a wolf.
How did you feel about the plot twist regarding your character’s true nature revealed at the end of the third episode?
The plot twist was very clever because all the way through there was a cavalcade of interesting and game-changing characters. Mags was for the most part a sulky ‘emo’ goth girl, and then..!
Did you enjoy getting to revel in your more animalistic side with the role?
I never in my wildest fantasies had dreamt of playing a werewolf, and yes there was definitely a liberating feel to letting my inner werewolf express herself!
Had you ever wanted to play a monster like a werewolf before, and what other types of creatures would you like to have played?
I always enjoyed watching those old Universal Horror double-bills on TV late on a Saturday, by myself for extra scare points. I always hoped that I might play a vampire or a Morticia Addams-style glam witch. Don’t like too much gore, I’m more for Hitchcock-style suspense.
Do you recall your audition for the role of Mags and were there specific scenes you had to perform?
The thing I specifically recall about my audition was that John Nathan Turner raved about my guest spot on a Saturday night variety show, where I’d sung a medley of songs as Judy Garland. He was convinced that my skills for shapeshifting into a Hollywood icon could be utilised for a werewolf transformation. So the audition was more of an interview, although I was required to do a few lines of snarling for the director, Alan Waring.
Sylvester McCoy is often overlooked as a Doctor, with Tom Baker receiving the most recognition. How would you describe your working relationship with Sylvester and Sophie Aldred and what was the general atmosphere like on set?
My working relationship with Sylvester and Sophie was one of utter joy. There is always a feeling of time standing still every time we meet. In fact the atmosphere as a whole was magical. We were all united in making the show happen, even when the set had to be shut down because of an asbestos scare. John Nathan Turner moved the circus tent to the Elstree car park and the show went on!
With Doctor Who only running for one more series after the broadcast of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, was there any talk of a cancellation while you were on set?
I don’t remember any talk of cancellation, though I’m sure the rumours must have been rife.
Did you hope that your casting in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy would lead to the producers bringing you on board as the next companion?
I never had any expectation about carrying on the Doctor Who connection with a role as companion. By that time, I was about to forge a career in musical theatre and I wasn’t actively looking for long-term TV commitments.
Did you read screenwriter Stephen Wyatt’s novelisation of the serial or the audio adaptation read by Sophie?
No I haven’t read the novelisation or heard the audio drama, though I am delighted to have been cast in several Big Finish dramas myself.
Have you attended any conventions in support of Doctor Who and would you consider returning to the new show, either as Mags or a new character?
With the release of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy on DVD I was invited to attend quite a few conventions. My new burgeoning career as a comic artist/writer has brought me to many conventions, where there are a great number of Doctor Who fans.
I am also very proud to be friends with a number of top drawer Doctor Who comic artists. My first graphic novel is being published by a company who specialise in TV and film titles…including Doctor Who.
It would be a great honour to be invited to appear in the new series either as Mags or someone else entirely. Perhaps an intergalactic vampire?