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Doctor Who (Classic): “City Of Death”

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"City Of Death" (season 17, episodes 5-8. Originally aired Sept. 29-Oct. 20, 1979)


Today's stop on our nonchronological journey through Doctor Who brings us to somewhere close to the end of the second major period of the Fourth Doctor era. The most obvious way to mark changes in the series over the years is simply by which actor is playing the main character, but Baker's seven years in the role, longer than anyone else, spans three distinct periods, more or less. There were always many other forces helping to shape Who, whether that was external ones like the 1960s Dalek craze or competition from shows like The Avengers and Batman, or internal ones like the changes in creative vision brought in whenever a new producer or script editor took over. I've already covered two serials from Baker's first period ("The Brain of Morbius" and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"), when horror-friendly Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes were the creative leads behind-the-scenes. (Baker's debut, "Robot," is really more of a holdover from the Third Doctor creative team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks.) The third section begins in Baker's last season, with the ascendancy of producer John Nathan-Turner, who would steer the ship like a slow-motion car crash through nine years and four Doctors, before flying his metaphorical "Mission Accomplished" banner with the series' cancellation in 1989.

Inbetween those two was producer Graham Williams, who took over with a specific mandate from the BBC to tone down the violence and macabre atmosphere of the Hinchcliffe era, which had been heavily criticized by conservative moral crusader Mary Whitehouse. Under Williams, the show became much more lighthearted and comic, even farcical, taking advantage of Baker's not-inconsiderable eccentric charm and manic energy. One of the writers Williams brought on board was already well-known for working with Monty Python's Flying Circus and for creating his own sci-fi/comedy series that would soon achieve worldwide fame far eclipsing Doctor Who: Douglas Adams. The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy series cemented Adams' reputation as a comic genius and made him the only writer from Doctor Who's original 26-year run who achieved greater lasting fame for work he did outside the series. Adams' first Who script, "The Pirate Planet," was well-received enough that Williams hired him for the crucial job of script editor for Season Seventeen.

It wasn't as successful a partnership as it might have been—this was Williams' final year as producer, and Adams' attentions were divided by Hitchhikers' runaway success. His time on Who overlapped his work on the second Hitchhikers radio serial, to the detriment of both—there are stories of Adams rushing in Hitchhikers pages to the actors while they were waiting to record them, and he rewrote those scripts heavily when he turned them into the now-definitive Hitchhikers novels. Who's troubles didn't end there, though: Williams and Adams had trouble finding scriptwriters, and a BBC strike also forced the scrapping of an entire story, "Shada." In the end the seventeenth season gave us a few mediocre-to-passable serials and one undeniable gem, "City of Death." It's credited to the pseudonymous "David Agnew," but is largely the work of Adams and Williams, who rewrote an original script by David Fisher nearly from scratch.

"City of Death" boasts the highest ratings of any story in Doctor Who's original run, which is both a testament to its entertainment value and a historical accident, since the BBC's main competitor at the time, ITV, was on strike. But while it's possible to overrate "City of Death," it  surely has to be high on any Who fan's list of favorites if for no other reason than that it catches both Adams and Baker at their comic prime. Nearly every scene crackles with classic Adams zingers and Baker's goggle-eyed physical comedy.


The basic plotline is one we've seen before—it's a crime-thriller pastiche that breaks out of the expectations of that genre by adding Doctor Who's particular science-fiction flavor at the opposite ends of the structure—the hero (the Doctor, obviously), and its arrogant and glamourous villain, Count Scarlioni, excellently played by Julian Glover. Scarlioni is pretending to be a rich sophisticate who plans to steal the Mona Lisa, but he's actually a one-eyed, tentacle-faced monster named Scaroth, who's been split into 12 time-shifted pieces by an explosion hundreds of millions of years earlier which inadvertently created life on Earth, and to fix himself he's willing to fix that little mistake as well. That's not dissimilar to previous "broken boss" stories like "Talons of Weng-Chiang," but the tone is very different. Partly that's due to Adams and Baker, but it's also because of the particular kind of pastiche this is. "Talons of Weng-Chiang" took its main inspiration from  Jack the Ripper, Fu Manchi, and The Phantom of the Opera, appropriate to its action/horror atmosphere. But in "City of Death," the crime-thriller  DNA comes from heist movies like How To Steal A Million and Topkapi, where a couple of glamorous thieves (Count and Countess Scarlioni in this case) use their wits and high-tech devices to steal an even more glamorous prize, as well as the Bulldog Drummond pulp stories, where the thick-headed detective Duggan is drawn from. If the Doctor wasn't involved, and if Scarlioni wasn't an alien monster but just an ordinary jewel thief, then you'd have a story about a clueless, physically blundering detective trying to stop a pair of aristocratic cat burglars—you'd have The Pink Panther.


If the caper element is downplayed (and note that the actual theft takes place offscreen), it's partly because Tom Baker is such a totally dominating figure. Look at the way he commands the center of the screen during the scene in the Count's drawing room in episode two, for instance—directing everyone on where to sit, and constantly doing little unexpected things to throw all the other characters (and actors) off-balance, like Baker's ad-lib to the Countess that "you're a beautiful woman, probably." It's very different from the way previous actors tackled the Doctor—Hartnell and Pertwee had their comic moments but generally took both the stories and the Doctor's dignity much more seriously. Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor played the buffoon as much as the Fourth did, but he'd also typically skulk on the sidelines, letting the other characters take the center but always maintaining a subtle presence onscreen that would allow him to grab the spotlight whenever he needed to. Baker is much more direct, and especially during this comic era of the show, he steamrolls his way through the story by sheer force of charisma like a one-man version of Groucho and Harpo Marx. It has the dual effect of focusing the attention firmly on the Doctor, and of undercutting the seriousness of anything else, particularly the villains.

In "Talons," that tendency was muted partly by Baker's much more brooding performance, but also because the companion at the time, Louise Jameson's Leela, was a serious-minded and action-oriented character whose presence brought a certain gravity to the story that Baker couldn't shift. That's not the case with the companion here, a Time Lady named Romana played by Lalla Ward who is essentially a female version of the Fourth Doctor. This isn't particularly a problem for "City of Death"—Adams gives her some of the best quips, and Ward's performance is cute and clever and charming in a way that complements Baker's Doctor while still giving us a unique take on a similar personality. Ward and Baker were dating at the time, and their personal compatibility comes through in their performance here to good effect. That particular double-act would be impossible to sustain. Their subsequent marriage in 1980 was short-lived, and came to negatively affect the energy of Baker's last season. Ward's pert cutesiness could sometimes be very cloying, and Baker's eccentricities could all too easily turn into hammy overreaching that rivaled the worst of William Shatner. But "City of Death" catches them at their peak—this is the perfect team to anchor a lighthearted Whovian take on an Audrey Hepburn-style caper comedy. (Mostly: I could understand if the characters' similarity in background, clothing style, attitude and behavior turns some people off, the way newly-minted couples in love sometimes do.)


One thing that doesn't work as well as it should, though it does help add to the glamourous atmosphere, is the story's Paris setting. It's true that if you're going to steal the Mona Lisa it helps to be in Paris, where the Louvre is. But the actual Louvre isn't in the story—those scenes are filmed on a soundstage. The scenes filmed in Paris largely consist of the Doctor and Romana running past famous landmarks on their way from one plot point to the next. Except for one small bit at an outdoor cafe table, there isn't any dialogue or action other than walking quickly down a street. They're superfluous to the story itself—nothing actually happens, and if you edited all those scenes out, you'd lose nothing but scenery.


The best part of "City Of Death" is Adams's script, which is easily the funniest and most quotable the series ever achieved. But a big part of the reason it succeeds is that Adams also doesn't try to make the comedy do all the work. Adams was not merely a joke machine but was passionate about and very talented at coming up with thought-provoking, elegant science-fiction ideas, and "City Of Death" would have been interesting on those terms even without the comedy. Scarlioni's complex plan to sell seven fake Mona Lisas by creating seven real Mona Lisas is a terrific twist on the typical caper story, and it's not even the story's real twist. Scaroth, with his tentacular face and time-split consciousness and secret manipulation of human history for his own ends, is basically a Lovecraftian nightmare. In classic Adams style, the revelation of Scaroth's real plan takes the story into a darker and weirder place without sacrificing the sense of fun it's so carefully created.

Stray observations

• Adams re-used elements of both "City of Death" and the never-finished "Shada" for his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. He also cannibalized a never-filmed movie script, Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, for his third Hitchhiker novel, Life, The Universe, And Everything.


• Adams' comedy background at Cambridge and his Python connections helped land the terrific cameo by John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as art-gallery snobs who don't realize the TARDIS isn't a piece of modernist sculpture.

• Because of mechanical problems, the Doctor's robot dog, K9, is absent from this story except for one brief mention as the Doctor gets into the TARDIS to visit Leonardo da Vinci.


• Scarlioni's costuming is nicely done, with greens and whites constantly hinting at the alien presence lurking underneath Glover's sneering face. The mask itself is visually striking as well, and the sight of Scaroth in his dapper white suit is one of the show's most unforgettable images—though it's too bad the mask itself doesn't move and is noticeably larger than Glover's human head.

• The hapless guard in Leonardo da Vinci's workshop should be familiar by now: He's Peter Halliday, who voiced the reptilians in "The Silurians" and played the ever-berated second-banana Packer in "The Invasion."


• Science watch: The story repeatedly states that life on Earth began 400 million years ago, which is off by an order of magnitude.

• One problem with a series going on as long as Doctor Who is that its mythology starts to overlap itself. The Jagaroth join at least four other alien species who have secretly influenced the development of humanity over the centuries, including the Fendahl, the Daemons, the Osirians, and the Silence. (And probably the Time Lords, too, or what else has the Doctor been doing all this time?)


• Upcoming schedule: The Fifth Doctor meets Turlough and old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in "Mawdryn Undead" on Jan. 22, followed every other Sunday by the Sixth and Seventh Doctors in "Vengeance on Varos" and "The Curse of Fenric." After that, we'll begin the cycle again with the First Doctor in "The Time Meddler," the Second in "The Seeds of Death," and the Third in "The Curse of Peladon." Then we'll hit the Davros-era Dalek tales in order, starting with "Genesis Of The Daleks," and on through "Destiny," "Resurrection," "Revelation," and "Remembrance." (As suggested in the comments last time, I'll probably insert some non-Dalek stories into the schedule to keep thing from getting monotonous, but I haven't decided what to cover. Suggestions are always welcome.)

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