Who Review: City of Death

The TARDIS randomizer lands our heroes in Paris, France, 1979, which is just as well since the Doctor and Romana are in need of a holiday. In a café, a local artist attempts to capture Romana’s likeness, but runs away when she turns to look at him. Not impressed with his picture, the Doctor decides to take her to the Louvre, where she can see some real art. A strange disturbance in time affects them while in the café, and again while they are in the Louvre. The Doctor falls into the arms of a strange woman, while Romana steals a strange looking bracelet from her wrist. The bracelet is not of Earth origin, but the detective pointing a gun at the Doctor certainly is–from England, in fact. Together, the Doctor, Romana, and their new detective friend, Duggan, investigate the strange time disturbances, which leads them to the Count and Countess Scarlioni, who are not pleased with their meddling. And our friends soon discover why: the Count is involved in selling copies of valuable works of art, but the forgeries look incredibly like the real thing. Not only that, but he’s conducting some volatile experiments in time travel. All is not what it seems with the Count, and the Doctor, Leela, and Duggan need to get to the heart of it, before the Count’s true intentions come to fruition–intentions that could bring life on Earth as we know it to an end…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

The original story for this serial was written by David Fisher, but re-written by script editor Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams (Fisher was unable to complete re-writes himself). As a result, the script that was eventually used for the show was more Douglas Adams’s work that either Fisher’s or Williams. Given BBC policy that members of the production team could not also receive writing credit, the show was broadcast as written by “David Agnew.”

If you are familiar with Douglas Adams’s work (THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DIRK GENTLY), you can hardly fail to notice his fingerprints all over this serial. And of his contributions to Doctor Who, this story is by far the best. First, there’s the idea of an alien scattered throughout Earth’s history, trying to nudge the human race to the point where it develops the technology necessary for him to time travel back to when his spacecraft exploded so he can prevent that happening. And then the alien funds his experiments by selling art, his biggest project being the sale of six Mona Lisas, all painted by Leonardo DaVinci, and hidden away by his fifteenth century self for his 1979 self to find and sell. In itself that’s a fascinating premise for a story, but why should the Doctor get involved? Because that alien spaceship’s explosion all those years ago triggered evolution (Adams was an atheist and, hence, committed to the theory of evolution). If the spaceship doesn’t explode, the human race would never exist. This is why the Doctor has to stop him.

The alien, Scaroth, a Jagaroth, is disguised as Count Scarlioni, who lives in Paris with his wife, the Countess. Julian Glover, an actor who has played a Bond villain (in “For Your Eyes Only”), as well as having parts in “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and “Game of Thrones,” plays Scaroth/Scarlioni, and does an excellent job. Catherine Schell plays the Countess, and she too plays the part very well. There’s a charming, understated quality to their performances that play off the Doctor’s humor and antics wonderfully.

The English private detective, Duggan, who is assisting the Doctor and Romana on this adventure, acts more like an American “hard-boiled” private eye. His character was actually originally based on the 1920s British fictional “adventurer” Bulldog Drummond. Again, a wonderful performance by Tom Chadbon, who plays Duggan with more muscle power than brain power, which, given the high-powered intelligence of the Doctor, Romana, and Scaroth, provides a much-needed balance.

Episode one opens with an amazing model shot that I’m not sure today’s CGI technology could better. The alien landscape of prehistoric Earth is perfectly captured on film, as is the Jagaroth ship taking off. For some reason, this same scene doesn’t work as well when we return to it in episode four. Maybe it’s the difference between film and video tape? I’m not sure.

K-9 gets left behind again. We aren’t told why–perhaps the Doctor hasn’t finished putting him back together again (see “Destiny of the Daleks”)? In any case, the TARDIS randomizer has dropped them in Paris, so the Doctor and Romana want to take advantage of this opportunity for a holiday. This also afforded the production crew the opportunity to film the outdoor sequences on location in Paris, France–the first time in the show’s history a non-British location has been used.

It does boggle the mind a bit how the Countess could not have known that her husband is really a green, slimy, one-eyed alien. He wore a mask to conceal his non-humanoid face, but what of the rest of him? Was she really only concerned with the trinkets and title he provided, and never with any intimacy that might have betrayed his true form? That’s a bit of a stretch.

There’s an interesting discussion toward the end, when the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan note that there are now seven Mona Lisas, six of which have “This is a fake” written under the paint in black felt-tip pen (thanks to the Doctor’s visit to DaVinci). Duggan feels this is wrong, that the Doctor has devalued the painting. Experts will x-ray the paintings and discover they are forgeries (which, of course, they aren’t since DaVinci painted them all). The Doctor makes the observation: “Serves them right if you have to x-ray it to find out if it’s good or not. You might as well have painting by computer!” His point is that the value of the painting is not determined by monetary value, based on its authenticity. The true value of the painting is in the eye of the beholder. Hence, whether or not it says “This is a fake” is irrelevant. As a work of art, it should be appreciated for what it is, not what it isn’t.

I would say this story is must-see Who. Douglas Adams only wrote three or four stories for Doctor Who, and while he was script editor for this season, script editing was not his forte. So, as an example of what Adams was really capable of, it’s well worth your time. None of the rest of the season really does him justice.

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