"A carnival of monsters living in their natural habitats in this little box of mine!" So say Vorg, owner of a miniscope, "a unique artistic achievement, the supreme creative invention of the age." Upon landing on the isolated Inter Minor, now undergoing a kind of glasnost under its liberal president, Zarb, the showman Vorg, resplendent in his flashy clothes, and his cute assistant Shirna, are met with hostility from the triad comprising the Aliens' Admission Commission. There is factionalism between the three, Chairman Pletrac supporting Zarb's policies, the xenophobic and scheming Immigration Commissioner Kalik aided by the submissive Orum. In fact Kalik becomes quite vitriolic: "Don't talk to me about brotherhood and neighborliness! We have survived in the past because of our strength! Now we shall perish because of our weakness!"
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Jo take their first independent flight of the TARDIS, and instead of landing on Metebelis 3, end up on 4 June 1926, aboard the SS Bernice, en route from England to Bombay. The Doctor senses something is wrong and he is right, as a plesiosaurus appears from the ocean. They are captured as stowaways, but once locked in, Jo and the Doctor notices that it was 7:35 PM when they were shut in. A few minutes later, it is 6:40 PM! Also, it's broad daylight outside instead of dark. The best cliffhanger is the end of Episode 1, when a giant hand plucks the TARDIS away from the SS Bernice.
By Episode 2, it's clear that the miniscope and the SS Bernice are connected, and regarding that, the Doctor marvels at the output and input lines, circuits, saying "It's like walking around inside a wristwatch," and the colourful set, with its pilars, red bulbs, shiny chrome-like walkways is a design triumph.
Another design triumph are the screaming caterpillar-like Drashigs. As Vorg says of these ferocious monsters, "the most evil, the most vicious, and undoubtedly the most frightening form of life in the whole universe!" They are the beasties on the cover, BTW.
Race relations is a big theme here. On Inter Minor, there are two races, the more humanoid elite and the crude-looking and less intelligent Functionaries, who are getting more rebellious. KKalik is worried that the Functionaries will eventually take over due to Zarb's liberal policies. Orum says of the Functionaries, "No sense of responsibility. Give them a hygiene chamber and they store fossil fuel in it." And the elite refer themselves in the neutral person: "One must do this" or "One believes that..." etc. is interesting. Their first contact with Vorg and Shirna leads to Pletrac talking down to them: "We give magic talk disks back. All very good." Shirna sarcastically tells Vorg, "You tellem tall fella we talk like him pretty good by and by." And Vorg says of the Tellurians (Earth people) that they all look so much alike. But Vorg's purpose to amuse ties back to the Functionaries, whose lack of entertainment is causing their rebelliousness, according to Pletrac.
A few continuity goofs: the calendar structure aboard the SS Bernice is that of the 1925 calendar. And the micrograph Vorg gives Pletrac is nothing more than an ordinary music cassette! And Fred Astaire is mentioned seven years before he became famous. Bad editing in Episode 2 leads to a previously unseen segment shown before a scene shown in Episode 1.
The supporting players are all first rate, especially Tenniel Evans as Major Daly, a typical friendly pukka sahib-type. Ironically, Evans worked with Jon Pertwee in the British radio comedy The Navy Lark back in the 50's. Veteran actor Leslie Dwyer (Vorg) steals the show, with firm support from Cheryl Hall (Shirna). Ian Marter (Andrews) later became a regular in the Tom Baker Who years as Harry Sullivan.
"Our purpose is to amuse, simply amuse. Nothing political," says Vorg. What I hope Predator did for hunting, showing what it feels like man to be the hunted animal, I hope Carnival Of Monsters will do for zoos. But the concept of overcoming isolation-induced xenophobia and prejudice is key here, and despite not appearing, President Zarb is a well-felt presence due to his liberalism. Rating: 4.5, rounded to 5.