Aired 27 January – 17 February 1973
With the Time Lords lifting the exile of the Doctor at the end of ‘The Three Doctors,’ ‘Carnival of Monsters’ truly marks the turning point of Doctor Who as the Doctor once more officially becomes a man of time and space, for the first time in full colour. In essence, just as ‘Spearhead from Space’ was vital in establishing a new format for Earthbound adventures, ‘Carnival of Monsters’ is just as vital in shedding that more cautious though no less intriguing approach to the franchise, providing a love letter to the fans that is just as important to the tenth anniversary year as the preceding multi-Doctor serial.
Although ‘Carnival of Monsters’ may not carry the panache of boasting multiple Doctors, the Daleks, or the Master like other stories of this series, it’s crucial in setting the bar for what the prototypical Doctor Who episode should be going forward. Looking past the dodgy special effects and costume design, this story reintroduces the TARDIS as a crucial component of the series while also highlighting the much bigger universe the show is treading into than that of the past three years.
Cleverly, this story also draws direct comparisons between the Doctor and the showman Vorg, both adept at storytelling- even if Vorg is rather clumsier with his Minscope which holds miniaturized versions of creatures in its hold- as they provide an entry to the wonders of unexplored worlds for others. At the same time, Vorg essentially acts as the living personification of plot twists and contrivances to extend the plot within his device, literally pulling the TARDIS away from the Doctor and Jo so that they have no convenient means of escape and also interfering with the Drashigs in order to keep the Doctor and Jo alive. He’s also able to control the thoughts and actions of those on the S.S. Bernice in order to create conflict, giving him fearful power within the context of this tale even if he is not a classic villain in any true sense.
Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor is quite amusingly out of practice traveling to foreign worlds, assuming that the ship he lands on must be something quite epic and that the chickens he comes upon first might be the dominant lifeforms despite Jo’s protests otherwise. Yet this story seems determined to present Doctor Who as an unabashedly silly franchise despite all of its heart and strong storytelling, the bizarrely bright costumes and incredibly overambitious Drashigs highlighting that sensibility perfectly. At the same time, although the S.S. Bernice set is much more realistic than the alien landscape of Inter Minor and its subtle class revolt, author Robert Holmes seems to go out of his way to present the more familiar environment as a less interesting one while guiding viewers to accept that less can be more given the programme’s budgetary constraints.
‘Carnival of Monsters’ also posits that all entertainment is inherently political even when the entertainer maintains an apolitical stance. Although Vorg echoes the sentiments of Doctor Who as a whole by saying he is simply on Inter Minor to amuse and entertain with nothing serious, he is used as a political tool on a world divided about whether it should continue its isolationist stance, a world echoing the sentiments of Great Britain at the time. This lends to the rather romantic nature of the serial in general, highlighting the public consciousness without forgetting that it’s up to the individual to bring about change.
The Miniscope is a fantastic conceit for a story, and ‘Carnival of Monsters’ boldly sends Doctor Who into a brave new direction. Though the transition to colour does highlight the occasional miss in terms of sets and special effects, ‘Carnival of Monsters’ guides viewers into accepting the programme and its ambitions fueled by imagination as much as anything else, proving how successful the core concept of the franchise and the quality of the leads involved are.