Doctor Who: City of Death Review
1979 was a mind scarringly terrifying time to be growing up. There was the Iranian hostage situation, the threat of mutually assured destruction, Skylab falling to earth, the general election result in the UK, the last 10 minutes of Disney’s the Black Hole, the bass thumping behemoth that was Disco, Keith Chegwin and of course the scariest ever reveal in Doctor Whos’ 40 years history, unless of course you count Bonnie Langford. The climax of episode one of City of Death is one of those iconic brown trouser moments for short people that burns its way onto a young memory with the indelible words, “Do Not Erase” stamped across it in large unfriendly letters.
With almost 28 years hindsight (yes it really was that long ago) City of Death has to be viewed very much in context. There was no internet, no home computers, no DVDs, no video recorders, no Tivo and there were only three television channels. Put it this way, Little and Large actually had a television career and we were decades away from push button on demand entertainment. The television culture was an entirely different animal in 1979, weekly television serials still very much had a sense of event and occasion about them mainly because an evenings entertainment had to be organised around the television schedule. In the UK Saturday night was the jewel in the BBC’s crown and City of Death was no exception scoring a high water mark of 16.1 million viewers. That was more that one in four of the population of the UK. The fact that ITV were on strike at the time and that the alternative was to stare at a blue card on ITV informing you of this fact had more than a little to do with it, but as I said this story has to be viewed in context.
Episode one opens fantastically on an alien landscape with a vintage BBC spacecraft in distress. The piloting alien called Scaroth, well they’re never called Brian are they, is apparently on a mission to save his people the Jagaroth. Unfortunately for Brian, sorry Scaroth his craft explodes in a white flash of BBC standard issue magnesium flares. The action then spins forward to Paris in 1979 where the Doctor and Romana are stretching the ‘70s license fee, enjoying the luxury of escaping a Welsh quarry for once by touring the sights of Paris. Whilst there the two Time Lords experience jumps in time, one of which takes place in the Lourve whilst viewing the Mona Lisa. Here they encounter Duggan, an incompetent detective and a Countess in possession of alien technology, which the Doctor promptly steals. The Doctor is suspicious that time is being tinkered with and this ultimately leads them confronting the owner of the technology, Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover). Scarlioni is in fact Scaroth who is hiding in human form. He has been splintered in time by the BBC effects department and is looking to create a time machine to travel back, prevent the explosion and save his people. Scarlioni / Scaroth plans to finance the creation of the time machine by selling multiple “copies” of the Mona Lisa, however these are not fakes, one of his splintered selves in the 16th century has coerced Leonardo Di Vinci into painting multiple copies for later sale by his 20th century self. The Doctor must prevent Scarlioni from stealing the Mona Lisa (the buyers will only buy if they think they are getting the real thing), stop Paris from being destroyed and prevent Scaroth from meddling with the time line which would ultimately lead to the non-existence of the human race, which is generally not considered a good thing.
City of Death is considered hallowed ground by many Doctor Who fans and with good reason. The script, hastily rewritten by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams from a story by David Fisher plays up to one of real strengths of the original format. The four part cliff hanger structure. Each episode ends on a cliff hanger and reveal that both twists the story and satisfyingly moves the action forward teasing the viewer towards the next episode. The climax of episodes one and two are textbook examples of what kept people tuning in each week, remember these stories were originally savoured over the course of a month and not devoured in a single evening on dvd.
Adams previous Doctor Who story The Pirate Planet had to be fair been a bit of a mess. As part of the The Key to Time saga it was full of pithy and witty one liners, beautifully written and full of intriguing ideas but very much lacking in structure and momentum. It was also far too ambitious for the mere BBC budget, the upshot being that the story took on a shoddy cheap look as the SFX department tried to cope with flying cars and robot parrots. City of Death doesn’t suffer from these foleys at all, either because of the original story structure by David Fisher or the calming influence of Graham Williams. Adams here is allowed to concentrate his genius on making the story extremely funny and endlessly quotable but not at the expense of the pacing or the drama. It was the perfect synergy of his abstract style, ideal for the Doctors personality under Baker and a clever interesting story economically told that keeps City of Death extremely popular with fans almost three decades after its transmission.
Of course Doctor Who between 1974 and 1981 is pretty much all about Tom Baker. Baker’s wide eyed eccentricity coupled with an indefinable gravitas and intelligence made him ideal to play the eponymous Gallifrian. He was notoriously difficult to work with and is quite open about friction on set in the current New Beginnings set, but what is also clear is that he was absolutely passionate about the programme and the character. His frequent battles against taking the show into bland deja-vu territory lead to many clashes but it has to be noted that in hindsight Baker’s instincts were on the money. Two years later when he left the show it started on a long and slow decline under the absolutely disastrous reign of John-Nathan Turner. There was no leading man in Bakers place ready to fight for the show with the passion that he had.
Doctor Who has over years thrown up many memorable villains. Some chilling, some ludicrous, some plain mad, but few can possibly hope to match the villainous pedigree of the exceptional Julian Glover. How many actors can claim to have been a villain for both Indiana Jones and James Bond? How many actors piloted an AT AT in The Empire Strikes Back? Julian Glover, that’s who! Glover brings an effortless polish to any performance, a perfect balance between flippant quippery and lethal intent. He takes what could have simply been high camp and injects into it just enough reality to bring it to life, any more and he would be dead panning with Leslie Neilson any less he would be appearing in panto. It is a fantastically restrained performance, one that is probably dismissed too easily because it is being played opposite an insanely and quite appropriately flamboyant Baker. However it is not to be underestimated, another faultless turn from sadly one of the UK’s most prodigious and neglected talents.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by solid if unremarkable performance from Lalla Ward as Romana Mk II (yes I prefer Mk I) bizarrely and without explanation wearing school uniform like a refugee from a St Trinians film. Ward had undeniable chemistry with Baker, they did after all eventually marry but as written her character is ineffective as a companion. She is simply too knowledgeable and too capable, thus denying the writer an avenue of peril or a soundboard for exposition. Catherine Schell lends a faint whiff of exotic glamour to the patently insane Countess Scarlioni, let’s not even attempt to explore the logic gap of her being married to an alien who hides his enormously slimy alien head under a human rubber mask.
In the early nineties the alleged sit-com Friends adopted a rather pretentious and quite frankly offensive template for naming each episode, the prefix of each title was “The one with….”. This is of course usually reserved for genuine classic television. In the Star Trek universe for instance the episode Mirror Mirror is the one with Spock’s beard, City on the Edge of Forever is the one with Joan Collins. In the Doctor Who universe City of Death is the one with the guy ripping a rubber mask off to reveal a slimey green tentacled head with one eye that’s almost twice the size of his head, there’s no way that could have fitted inside the human mask in a million years, well not without the use of a pair of pliers, some safety pins and generous amount of vaseline. It’s not the snappiest title in the world but that was roughly how it was referred to in the playground in 1979. It was either that or the one with Doctor Who in Paris.
To the casual viewer the location shooting for City of Death is probably the aspect that makes it stand out the most in the classic series. As far as I can recall the production only ventured outside the UK three times in the classic incarnation, once for Tom Baker and twice for Peter Davidson. In retrospect Colin Baker was fortunate to made it as far as Wales. The location shooting was of course completed on film and as a result there is that jarring collision of the studio bound video footage and the filmed material. I’ve always maintained that Doctor Who was at it’s best when it maintained a consistency of texture, the completely studio bound stories such as Ark in Space kept the stories “in the bubble”. These stories existed in their own vacuum sealed world, a world that was frequently cracked or weakened by location shooting. That said City of Death manages to paper over these cracks with shear enthusiasm and a pace that never lulls over the four episodes.
For a generation that is currently growing up on Eccleston and Tennant City of Death still stands up remarkably well, pulling off with gusto the tightrope walk of being both intelligent and literate enough for adults whilst exciting and chilling enough for the short trouser brigade. If the last of the Jagaroth does not scare you then perhaps Little and Large will.
Okay so we’re talking 1979 BBC video and film stock here so it is hardly a prime candidate for HD-DVD or Blu-ray but the Doctor Who restoration team have done a beautiful job here. This lot do remarkable work with elements that most DVD companies would simply throw out into the market place and are genuine labours of love. The image is presented in 4:3 standard television ratio and although the film segments are frustrating not as sharp and vivid as the video this is as good as this four parter is ever going to look.
The audio is a basic mono track but like the image has been cleaned up quite effectively by the restoration team. A lot of background noise has been removed and what is left is unremarkable but perfectly acceptable.
Commentary from the Director Michael Hayes, Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon. This is definitely one from the luvvies book of commentary. This is a pleasant enough listen but is very short on detail or any great revelations about the production of the story. This really could have really been livened up by the presence of Tom Baker.
PARIS IN SPRINGTIME 44.03 MINS
This is actually quite good fun considering that it is lacking any contribution from either Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. The tone is very facetious and tongue in cheek much like Adams writing. It concentrates quite heavily on the writing of the story and almost grinds to a halt when it runs through the original story’s first draft. It is well worth a look featuring the rest of the cast who all seem quite happy to trot out the old I was in Paris or not in Paris anecdotes. It is to be applauded for being both brutally honest and equally affectionate about Adams contribution to the series.
PARIS W12 20.00 MINS
This is studio footage from the making of the episodes and should really only be viewed with the additional text switched on, without the context it gives there is very little to gain from this. On paper this should be extremely tedious but is actually quite a fascinating unedited look at how the classic Who episodes were filmed.
PREHISTORIC LANDSCAPES 2.30 MINS
The unedited SFX footage from the episodes. Quite pointless really.