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Doctor Who: City of Death (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

City of Death originally aired in 1979.

It’s quite good.

Quite good? That’s one of the great treasures of the universe and you say “quite good”?

The world, Doctor, the world.

What are you talking about?

Not the universe in public, Doctor. It only calls attention.

I don’t care. It’s one of the great treasures of the universe!


I don’t care. Let them gawp, let them gape. What do I care?

– Romana and the Doctor discuss the Mona Lisa

City of Death might divide fans of Doctor Who, with some regarding it as too silly or childish, but I think it’s easily the best Tom Baker serial the show produced, and probably the most entertaining serial for those unfamiliar with the classic show. It helps that the script combines some of the era’s best writers, with “David Agnew” serving to cover contributions from David Fisher, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams. I’ll concede that the farce tended to get a bit much towards the end of Adams’ tenure as script editor, but City of Deathpitches itself perfectly with some wonderful science-fiction concepts peppered over some fine location work, with a side of superb British wit.

From Paris with Love...

City of Death has a lot of things going for it. There’s the wonderful location footage (even if the shots of Paris are milked just a little bit too much), solid performances, Baker and Ward on fine form, some wonderful high-concept science fiction and a fine adversary in the form of Julian Glover’s Count Scarlioni. I even love the title, which is an extremely subtle pun, playing off the fact that the French for “City of Death” (“cité de la mort”) sounds remarkably close to “cité de l’amour”, the affectionate nickname for Paris. How can you resist a title that manages to combine the wonderful hyperbolic naming conventions of Doctor Who with a pun in a foreign language?

In fairness, some of the best ideas in City of Death came not from Douglas Adams, but from David Fischer. While I wasn’t overly fond of Stones of Blood, I do (admittedly controversially) find The Androids of Tara to be the most enjoyable segment of The Key to Time arc that dominated the show’s previous season. The idea of a single person splintered throughout history, constantly aware of his many selves, is a wonderful science-fiction concept, and probably one of the better science fantasy ideas the show has ever produced.

You can Count on him...

The cliffhanger where Scarlioni is revealed to be wandering around renaissance Italy, and yet somehow completely aware of the Doctor, is a rather wonderful moment, and easily one of my favourite cliffhangers from the show. It’s brilliant because it doesn’t just create tension, but it teases possibilities. What is Scarlioni doing here? How does he already know about the Doctor, who he won’t meet from another 400 years? Plus, it gives Julian Glover the chance to utter the line, “Doctor, how very nice to see you again. It seems like only four hundred and seventy four since we last met.”

In fact, Glover is an awesome guest star for the show. He’s not a huge name, but he’s a superb British character actor, who has played quite a few villains. American audiences will likely recognise him from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or even For Your Eyes Only, and this is his second appearance in the show. Glover manages the witty banter brilliantly, but also gives Scarlioni a somewhat colder edge than we’re used to. Even without explicitly drawing on Glover’s other work, Scarlioni feels like something of a Bond villain, but one with considerable depth.

Time's running out...

There’s something very clever about the idea that Scarlioni has effectively been shepherding mankind from its earliest days to the modern era, inspiring civilisation as we know it, purely so he can build a device to wipe it all out. “Achievement?” he mocks the Countess. “You talk to me of achievement because I steal the Mona Lisa? Can you imagine how a man might feel who has caused the pyramids to be built, the heavens to be mapped, invented the first wheel, shown the true use of fire, brought up a whole race from nothing to save his own race?” Scarlioni is a man literally able to “achieve everything” – and yet he takes no pride in the wonders that he has built. It’s actually brilliant, and just one of the many wonderful facets to the episode.

I always get a bit giddy whenever Doctor Who plays with time travel. It’s the show’s bread-and-butter, but it was so rare to see the classic show exploit the concept that it’s great fun to see it. While Day of the Daleks offered a relatively simply pre-destination paradox, City of Death toys with more exotic “timey wimey” ideas. The Doctor is prompted to investigate “a crack in time”, after all, and there are ideas about speeding up or slowing down time as a weapon. I think it’s fantastic that the Doctor signs a letter to Leonardo DaVinci with “see you earlier, love the Doctor.” We even get the idea that – more than simply traveling through it – the Doctor and his companions are sensitive to time. He assures Romana, “You and I exist in a special relationship to time, you know. Perpetual outsiders.”

City of Louvre...

And so Scarlioni plans to reset everything that happened, to wipe out everything that ever existed. It’s an interesting idea, going back and righting a simple mistake made in the heat of the moment – who wouldn’t take that opportunity if presented to them, no matter the cost? It’s an interesting variation on the dilemma suggested in Genesis of the Daleks, with the Doctor steadfastly defending what happened, and insisting history must unfold as documented. “No, Scaroth, no,” he tells the Count. “You’ve pressed it once. You’ve thrown the dice once. You don’t get a second throw.” While it seems relatively abstract here, with the outcome favouring the Doctor’s favourite species, it’s a principle that would continue in Davies’ series, playing out in The Fires of Pompeii and The Waters of Mars.

While the story has drawn fire from some quarters for being too comedic, I think that what makes City of Death work much better than the rest of the season is the fact that the comedy is mostly confined to Baker’s Doctor, who utters gems like, “I say, what a wonderful butler. He’s so violent.” Baker loves the material, and he’s brilliant delivering observations like, “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s being tortured by someone with cold hands.”However, everybody else in the story takes the matter entirely seriously. Scarlioni is, after all, plotting a genocide to save his species.

Scarlioni's plans for primordial Earth never really took off...

I do love how clearly Scarlioni is able to see right through the farce. “My dear, I don’t think he’s as stupid as he seems,” his wife suggests, prompting Scarlioni to reply, “My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems.” And yet there’s shown to be method to the Doctor’s madness. As silly as all this is, it’s all just a ruse to get more information on a threat he takes very seriously, which is really the best angle to play the comedy, as it keeps Baker’s comedy somewhat under control. As entertaining as it is to watch, sometimes it’s best to contain Baker’s comedic impulses, if only because they can do serious damage to the show around them.

So the Doctor’s jokes and flippancy are just a means to the end. I admire the manner in which the Doctor tries to talk Duggan through a standard “capture and escape” plot, speaking with authority from years of experience. “What’s the point of coming all the way here just to escape immediately?” he asks rhetorically, giving us an insight into the Doctor’s approach and suggesting that he’s familiar enough with being captured that he now treats it as a means of investigation. “Now, while we’re here, why don’t you and I find out how they’re going to steal it and why. Or are you just in it for the thumping?”

The part fits him like a Glover...

The Mona Lisa subplot, reportedly modeled on an urban myth, is brilliant and shows the series trying out a variety of clever little ideas. In fact, the Parisien setting is wonderful, adding an air of magic to the proceedings. I think part of what I like about companions like Leela and Romana is the fact that they give the Doctor a chance to show off his fondness for humanity. It’s hard to imagine Sarah Jane being too impressed with a trip to modern Paris, which is a shame, because it’s an incredible city – but it just isn’t as exotic as an alien planet. Lalla Ward and Baker work well together, and I like the Doctor and Romana as a team, because it makes the Doctor seem the more human of the pair.

There are other touches, like Duggan’s rather wonderful knack for violence. In the café scene, he breaks the bottle to get a drink. When he suggests “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, Romana retorts, “If you wanted an omelette, I’d expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames and an unconscious chef.”It’s a pretty fair point, to be entirely honest.

Time to die...

There’s also the cameo. Perhaps it’s telling that one of the most discussed celebrity appearances in Doctor Who doesn’t come from Brian Blessed or Michael Gambon or even Kylie Minogue, but from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron. I think that says something about the wonderfully quaint British nature of it all. It helps that the scene is wonderfully self-aware, even in the age before internet blogs and message boards, with two art critics parodying people like me who try to discern meaning in the wonderful nonsense that is the show.

The pair discuss the TARDIS as high-art, perhaps as pointless as trying to discuss the show as high art. Sounding as pretentious as possible, Bron remarks, “Divorced from its function and seen purely as a piece of art, its structure of line and colour is curiously counterpointed by the redundant vestiges of its function.” Cleese is keen to get in on the act, “And since it has no call to be here, the art lies in the fact that it is here.”Still, it won’t stop me from pointing out that Cleese makes a perfectly valid observation.

Jagarothed edges, eh?

In fact, the episode is rather wonderfully capped off by a discussion between Duggan and the Doctor that could been seen as a reflection on the show itself. Duncan is upset at the idea that the Mona Lisa in the Louvre has “this is a fake” scrawled across it in felt tip, but the Doctor tries to convince him that the particulars don’t matter – as long as people enjoy it, isn’t that all that matters? After all, the show might look ridiculous or camp or manage the odd unconvincing alien (or, as here, have the characters breathing or primordial Earth), but it’s all entertaining, and isn’t that what counts? I think that’s a fairly valid point. That it plays off the pretentious parody of Bron and Cleese only makes it work even better.

City of Death is nonsense, but it’s fun, enjoyable and energetic nonsense. In short, it’s Doctor Who at its very, very best. Along with The Caves of Androzani, it was City of Death that really got me into the show, and I’d argue it stands as Baker’s best serial on the show by a fairly considerable distance.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting stuff — this is the first time I’d ever heard an argument that the script was too comedic. I wouldn’t buy into that, myself, not with Glover and Schell being so suave and Lalla Ward playing it so straight. Plus, I love the timely nature of the script, which refers to the previous year’s real-life sale of a Gutenberg Bible for $2 million. The story is perfect, and you help explain why!

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