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City of Death ★★★

Filmed in Paris, co-written by Douglas Adams and with a John Cleese cameo... is this fan-favourite smug and overrated?

Published: Sunday, 13th February 2011 at 11:00 pm

Season 17 – Story 105


"The centuries that divide me shall be undone!" - Scaroth

The Doctor and Romana are enjoying a sojourn in Paris, 1979, until they experience two time slips and stumble upon a plot by Count Scarlioni to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. He already has six authentic copies, all painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, which will finance his temporal experiments. Hopping back to Florence 1505, the Doctor learns that Scarlioni is in fact Scaroth, an alien splintered across time. The last of the Jagaroth, he is determined to travel back 400 million years and prevent his ship exploding - an event that triggered the birth of the human race…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 29 September 1979
Part 2 - Saturday 6 October 1979
Part 3 - Saturday 13 October 1979
Part 4 - Saturday 20 October 1979

Location filming: April/May 1979 in Paris at the Eiffel Tower; Dupleix, Trocadéro & Boissière Métro stations; Rue de Rivoli; Le Notre Dame Brasserie, Place du Petit Pont; Denise René Gallery, Blvd St Germain; 47 Rue Vieille du Temple
Studio recording: May 1979 in TC3, June 1979 in TC6

Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Romana - Lalla Ward
Count Scarlioni - Julian Glover
Countess Scarlioni - Catherine Schell
Duggan - Tom Chadbon
Kerensky - David Graham
Hermann - Kevin Flood
Louvre guide - Pamela Stirling
Soldier - Peter Halliday
Art gallery visitors - John Cleese, Eleanor Bron

Writer - David Agnew (a pseudonym for Douglas Adams and Graham Williams)
Designer - Richard McManan-Smith
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Script editor - Douglas Adams
Producer - Graham Williams
Director - Michael Hayes

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
I don't much care for City of Death. Tantamount to sacrilege in the Doctor Who world, but there, I've said it. I've outed myself.

It's often placed in fandom's top ten. There's no doubting it stands head and shoulders above its season 17 bedfellows in terms of production values. Viewing figures were extraordinary: part four drew in 16.1 million punters (largely due to "the other side", ITV, being on strike and still an unbeaten record). The script sings with Douglas Adams's wit and intellect. And no one can decry the unheard-of fillip of filming in Paris. So what's not to like?

Well, Doctor Who bottled in 1979 is just not my favourite vintage. "More of a table wine, shall we say?" to quote the Doctor out of context. And I doubt I ever will acquire a taste for it.

Of course, I admire Douglas Adams, the eternal hitchhiker who foresaw the internet and mobile phone. I can see why producer Graham Williams and Tom Baker were only too delighted to have the celebrated humorist on board. But his vision for the series bothers me. As script editor he hasn't the discipline to tighten other writers' scripts, but lards them with silliness. As a writer, he eschews suspense and gravity, the dramatic heart of characters and situations that will make you care and want to tune in next week.

Humour has its place in Doctor Who, in the right measure. I adore the light-hearted interplay of Dennis Spooner (Adams' mid-60s predecessor); the bumbling and mugging of Patrick Troughton's Doctor; the laughs engendered by Jon Pertwee's acid tongue and swagger. But I remain resistant to the self-indulgent flippancy that would plunge the fourth Doctor to his nadir during this season.

In 1979, Tom Baker entered his sixth furlong, eclipsing the tenures of all his predecessors, and I recall longing for the almost unthinkable - a change in lead. I was also less than enamoured of Lalla Ward as the snooty second Romana - perhaps the least charismatic companion since Dodo.

She's a Time Lady (a term coined in City of Death) and brilliant with it (finessing Scaroth's time machine), but has the bearing of a class swot - an image reinforced by Romana's school uniform. The 27-year-old Ward intended to hearten younger viewers fed up with their own itchy school gear, but the sight of Tom and "ooh" Lalla lolloping along boulevards hand in hand conveys "uncle and niece" on a saucy weekend.

It's impossible now to view their gay dash across Paris - bantering about bouquets, bouillabaisse and art, generally showing off - without the knowledge that the couple eventually became one. The surge of romance and a patina of innocence are expertly bridged by one of Dudley Simpson's most elated themes. (He once described it to me as "a city skyline".)

City of Death exudes confidence, which is not a bad thing, and an air of sophistication, which is not equal to possessing sophistication itself. Like the multiple Mona Lisas behind which the Doctor scribbles, "This is a fake", there's an underlying sense of pretension and phoneyness.

Count and Countess Scarlioni embody the two sm's - smug and smarmy. The notion that Julian Glover's expressive face is a mask concealing a bulbous, rigid cyclops is patently ridiculous (cf Foamasi and Slitheen). Evidently, Their Excellencies have never shared a bed or bathroom, but how on earth did Scaroth's splintered selves produce the same mask in ancient times? Meanwhile, detective Duggan (bluster, fisticuffs, Marlowe/Columbo mac) and Professor Kerensky (stoop, accent, grimace) take stereotypes to new levels of tedium.

Too harsh? Maybe. City of Death is far from meretricious tosh. Sets, costumes and effects are better than average for this budget-strapped period. Director Michael Hayes strives to give movement and interesting framing to both studio and location shots.

It was also Hayes' idea to cast Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as the art gallery pseuds pontificating on the "exquisite" afunctionality of the Doctor's police box. Perversely, even though this scene crystallises the Cambridge Footlights mentality (Bron, Cleese and Adams were all alumni) that I so object to, I'd have to be a complete misery not to enjoy the moment.

So I cannot be entirely averse to Adams' influence. I chuckle at the wit when the Doctor fools around in the Countess's drawing room ("You're a beautiful woman, probably") and says of Hermann, "What a wonderful butler! He's so violent."

I also relish the serial's cheeky top and tail on the Eiffel Tower. In part one Romana considers, "Shall we take the lift or fly?" and then in part four, they're on the same high platform, but a moment later appear on the Champ de Mars far below. Can these Time Loves really fly?

In the Whoniverse of Douglas Adams, the drive for improbability seems infinite.

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