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.