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Carnival of Monsters! Circus Horror and Animal Rights.

March 14, 2015


Budgetary constraints can focus the imagination like nobody’s business.   Recently rewatched Carnival of Monsters (1973), an efficient Robert Holmes adventure, and was admiring its plotting.

There’s no people like show people – and when a couple of them arrive on Inter Minor – a drab world of blue-headed pompous xenophobes, they are made to feel distinctly unwelcome – as is their miniscope – a compressed circus full of bewildered alien species.   These show people are not bad people, but they are rather careless and irresponsible.  They are circus folk who don’t know enough about elephants to know that a circus truck is no place for an elephant to live.  The miniscope was won in a bet by Ringmaster Zorg and he’s never bothered to read the manual that came with it.  As you can see, these circus folk were costumed by the same people who bedecked many an early seventies glam rock group and Noddy Holder’s wardrobe has been well and truly plundered.

This being Robert Holmes, real villainy comes in the form of elaborate political machination.  There are those who are trying to arrange the escape of the drashigs so that they can discredit the rule of President Zarb.  Chief plotter is played by MIchael Wisher who will go on to play the first (and best) Davros.  Of course, Davroses do not gain face-recognition when walking down the street.   Unlike Ian Marter, who here plays a square-jawed 1920s naval officer a couple of years in advance of his welcome portrayal of Harry Sullivan, the affectionately clumsy medical companion who joins Tom Baker from Robot to Terror of the Zygons.

This being Robert Holmes, the dialogue is quite crispy.  Who couldn’t love a script with the line

One has no desire to be devoured by alien monstrosities, even in the name of political progress.”

Light-hearted as it seems, there are some serious moral issues engaged.  We are told that the Doctor was a leading figure in the political campaign to get miniscopes banned (at no point does Jo or anyone else ask if they’ve arrived some place and time BEFORE the ban) and once restored to his normal imposing size, the Third Doctor threatens everyone present with legal action.

In 1973, the campaign against circus cruelty was in its infancy.  I myself went to see elephants trudging around in tight circles, lions with their mouths forced open etc. etc. etc.  It was part of my childhood – something I took for granted.  Robert Holmes didn’t, and he was hoping that if 1970s viewers saw humans treated as circus freaks by some casually thoughtless alien ringmaster, then circus cruelty could be un-normalized.  Carnival of Monsters is part of a focused political concern with animal rights on Robert Holmes’ part.  Carnival of Monsters is not as polemically vegetarian as The Two Doctors, but it is a story which invites us all to consider what other life forms feel and suffer.

But it’s all done with flair and a light touch.  Zorg is not a bad guy – just ignorant – like 1970s circusgoers.  Carnival of Monsters is an innocent entertainment that challenges the innocence of entertainments.

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