One alien hardly constitutes an emergency.
It wouldn’t be a Robert Holmes Doctor Who story without a colorful central character given to fanciful dress and mannerisms, and we’re even not talking about the Doctor. From Milo Clancey in “The Space Pirates” through to the debut of the Master in “Terror of the Autons,” Holmes’ protagonists often vie for center stage, and in his “Carnival of Monsters” (Story Production Code PPP), the travelling carnies Vorg and Shirna sustain the rather thin framing story that surrounds this otherwise rote tale of miniaturization and monsters.
Holmes juxtaposes two story threads to begin: the Doctor and Jo disembarking from the TARDIS in the hold of a ship on the Indian Ocean in the 1920s; and Vorg and Shirna arriving on the xenophobic planet Inter Minor with their entertainment device, a Miniscope, as part of the planetary president’s attempt to open the world to outside influences. The two stories link together at the end of the first episode, where the Doctor and Jo realize that they are trapped inside the Miniscope, like sentient goldfish in a bowl, capped off by a non-manicured Vorg reaching into the scope to remove a “fault” in the circuit, namely the TARDIS.
The creatures trapped in the titular carnival of monsters are both miniaturized (to fit inside the small machine) and stuck in a time loop surrounding an interesting occurrence (the better to amuse viewers), harkening back to two earlier stories: “Planet of Giants,” where the TARDIS crew finds itself shrunk down in a mad scientist’s laboratory, and “The Space Museum,” a tale of time tracks gone awry. But where those two stories attempted to use both miniaturization and temporal anomalies as the crux of the tale, Holmes deploys them as set dressing here, to less than successful effect.
The first episode focuses mainly on the Doctor and Jo encountering the passengers and crew of the S.S. Bernice, a ship thought lost at sea in 1926, as they relive the same brief moment over and over. That moment happens to involve an aquatic dinosaur bursting from the ocean, placed there by the Miniscope curator to create an exciting tableau. The care spent on the humans trapped in the loop, with one of them almost realizing she has lived this moment over a near-infinite number of times, suggests that they will form a major part of the story, leading to the prospect of watching the stowaway Doctor and Jo unravel the mystery of the time loop, escaping their shipboard pursuers, ruminating on the nature of time, and working out ways to use the loop to their advantage.
Alas, it doesn’t happen, but we do get to see future companion Ian Marter throw dynamite at a beastie in an enclosed space. (Given this stunning tactical nous, it should come as no surprise that his future role, as Harry Sullivan, is as a former UNIT soldier…)