City of DeathBookmark and Share

Friday, 15 December 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

I put off reviewing this story for a while, as I feel so strongly about it it’s difficult to say if I could be objective enough to do it justice. I first saw this story in about 1992, when I was eight. Even at that tender age, I could tell that there was something about this story that set it apart from others, even if I couldn’t necessarily articulate why at the time. Almost a decade and a half later, having got me some learnin’, I feel like I might be able to explain why City Of Death is my candidate for that ever-shifting title: Best Episode Ever.

The opening scene looks rather ordinary at first; although the atmospheric music helps there’s a definite studio-set-and-painted-backdrop to the prehistoric landscape, although Michael Hayes’s classy direction sees a smooth pan to the brilliant model of the Jagaroth ship that makes up for it. Immediately the viewer is thrown into a mystery – all we can gather is that these aliens are in trouble. Who are they? Where are they? Why are they in danger? Why is their future in the hands of a single pilot? We don’t know, and it's a long time before we find out. This story pushes the limits of what the audience would find acceptable in storytelling terms – and by sailing so close to the wind, Doctor Who has never been so successful. To cap it all there’s the marvellous special effect of the ship exploding, followed by one of the series most distinctive pieces of direction: a slow fade from the burning wreckage to the flowers on the Eiffel Tower.

The story of how this story was written is well known, but despite the hectic production Douglas Adams’s style is as distinctive as ever, and the slight self-consciousness of the dialogue is eased through by the breezy naturalism of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. Their conversation is whimsical but always intelligent – the story never patronises the viewer, the jokes never seem gratuitous, and despite talking about their travels the episode never veers into metafictional smugness. The scene on the Tower is just two intellectual equals riffing off each other, which gets round my usual complaint of opening TARDIS scenes where the characters have nothing to say to each other before the plot gets going.

One criticism often levelled at this episode is the number of location scenes that pad out the episodes. I think they’re forgivable given the hurried nature of the scripts, but I think they help the story as much as anything by adding to its sense of easy-going stylishness. Hayes directs them beautifully, keeping shots interesting by filming through leaves for example, and they’re elevated to greatness by the programme’s best ever music score, a lilting, freefalling orchestral piece from Dudley Simpson – nine out of ten of his scores were terrible, but that tenth was a humdinger. Funny though how all the best stories have great music (The Invasion being another example). It makes me wonder if they’re slipping in subliminal messages.

This leaps straight into the laboratory scene with Julian Glover and David Graham. The episode is made out of a jumble of elements, and it’s not immediately clear what the connection between them is; as I said, the story pushes the limits of what’s acceptable to an audience. Graham is theatrical without being really cheesy, and Julian Glover is fantastic as a villain with proper motivations, who doesn’t just want to wipe out a race or take over a planet for its own sake; his suaveness masks his desperation just as his skin masks his true identity (oh, get me). What always makes me laugh though are the banks of computers, with their tape reels that start spinning, stop, and then reverse. It’s an element of the story that hasn’t stood the test of time so well, but in general the set design of this story is extremely good. I love Scarlioni’s casual order to sell a Gutenberg Bible – it’s the kind of line that requires Adams’s total fearlessness to work.

And now, the cafe scene. Much as I like the Doctor’s very in-character skimming of the book (I refuse to use the word “Doctorish”), it’s getting to the point now where I want something to happen, enjoyable as the whimsy is. Fortunately the first time slip occurs and keeps things interesting, with a very simple but effective scene. The only confusing element is the artist, who was apparently a product of David Fisher’s original idea and has little relevance to the final product. It’s still an enigmatic moment, and I can forgive the hurried script editing.

Romana’s complaints about the Mona Lisa I think are pitch-perfect, although I can appreciate why they’re not to everybody’s tastes. I’m not a fan of jokey Doctor Who, but all the humour in this story is strictly in context and for a purpose, which in retrospect is something that maybe should have made clearer earlier in the episode. It’s difficult not to notice Pat Gorman, one of the show’s most-used extras) hanging around in the background (although nothing tops The Monster Of Peladon, where his character gets shot and then a few scenes later he’s back playing a different extra).

Duggan, like Kerensky, is a collage character made up of stock elements of the detective cliché; this is the point of the story, since these are put into stark contrast with the more serious themes that surface later. This story does for clichéd characters what Philip Hinchcliffe did for horror. The alien bracelet stolen from the Countess is another nice dose of mystery, putting the Doctor’s behaviour into context – he isn’t just larking about. It warms my heart to see the Doctor order drinks (water, naturally) with such authority while at gunpoint. His excuse to Duggan that “we’ve only just landed on Earth” is one of my all time favourite quotations, and one I use a lot when small children accusingly tell me that everyone on Earth’s heard of some footballer or other.

The cliffhanger to part one is sensational, although a bit contrived since the only reason Scarlioni takes his mask off is to provide the episode ending. What’s notable though is that this is the first time we see that the opening scene has any relevance whatsoever, although we still don’t know exactly what; if this revelation has been left any later it wouldn’t have worked, but as it is it’s a great twist. I’m willing to overlook how Scaroth fits inside the skin – if the explanation involves him farting like an old farmer then frankly I can live with the dramatic licence. 

Catherine Schell gives a good performance in what is not one of the programme’s more empowering roles; that is the point though, and Schell effectively portrays a character blind to just how powerless she really is. Tom Baker overacts in his first scene with her, but again it’s not gratuitous and the Countess sees right through him. The Doctor’s line of “you’re a beautiful woman, probably” is again perfectly in character and Hermann’s reference to the Doctor’s “boring conversation” could seem like Adams poking fun at himself.

Locked in the cell the Doctor becomes suddenly serious, and we realise what he’s been doing; a quick recap of the plot so far shows us how unobtrusive the exposition has been up to this point. The famous chicken scene is fun (even if it did lead to the strangest DVD special feature of all time), and is validated by the sight of the Jagaroth at the end; all the story’s whimsy requires that kind of serious moment to justify it, and without exception it gets it. Kerensky is a sympathetic, pitiable character – a genuine philanthropist whose genius and good nature is misused. Ironically, he calls Scarlioni the philanthropist.

The old hidden-room schtick is well-worn but serviceable, with only Duggan smashing the wall annoying – polystyrene blocks (“make it look heavy, guys”) are one of my pet hates in this show. The six genuine Mona Lisas present a dazzlingly original set up, and I think what made the episode so unique to me as a child – this is a villain not only with a proper motivation but with thought gone into the logistics of his plan, and it’s a far more original than the standard “take over the planet / get the doomsday weapon / blow up the universe” fare.

It’s odd seeing Scarlioni demonstrate how the bracelet works since we never get to see it in action. Like the knocking out of the Countess, it might be something that was a leftover from the hasty writing process.

The Renaissance is represented by a single set, but it works well and the cliffhanger is a knockout – we go into the credits desperate to learn the answer to the mystery, and to cap it all it’s a well directed shot too. There are nice parallels between the scenes set in 1979 and 1505, showing that despite the odd wobble the story is really very tightly structured. However, in the third episode the exposition cranks up a bit, which jars considering how subtle it’s been up to now. Then again, when the plot’s as interesting as this I’m happy to listen to it be explained.

Perhaps the Polaroid is too indulgent, as it always jars to see modern technology used to defeat the villains in a historical setting. The Doctor writing “this is a fake” under the canvases of the future Mona Lisas, however, is one of the show’s best ever ideas. “The centuries that divide me shall be undone” – now that’s a cool line, and the Doctor’s seriousness towards it makes it seem all the more portentous.

I feel sorry for Kerensky when he realises the true nature of his work – he corrects “what we have been working on” to “what I have been working on” as he realises that the Count has been planning something totally different. Glover meanwhile becomes less controlled and more desperate – his performance is excellent.

Romana and Duggan have been in the cafe all night – what does the owner think when they come in in the morning, since Duggan has clearly broken in? And why do the gendarmes let the Doctor into the Louvre so quickly? The cliffhanger to part three is another good one, although more functional this time as it feels like a reason to write out a character whose usefulness is over.

Episode four contains more exposition, effectively breaking up these necessary scenes without confusing the viewer by withholding essential information. It’s a nice idea having the Doctor copy out the first draft of Hamlet (it harks back to Pertwee’s namedropping), although by this stage the point of these character moments has been made. He shows the Countess how little she really matters, making even her a sympathetic character.

The confrontation with the Count is a devastating scene, with Tom Baker on superb form with some seriously intense dialogue. This is followed by the killing of the Countess; despite the story having a mortality rate of over 44%, they are all the more shocking for occurring all (apart from Kerensky) in the final episode. There is a real sense of what’s a stake, although the story does need to make more of exactly how the ship taking off will affect the human race. Duggan breaks out of the cell so easily that there’s almost no point to it.

The famous John Cleese / Eleanor Bron cameo borders on smug, but it gets away with it because not only is it genuinely funny but it’s accurate too – believe me, this is how those people really talk. Really.

The last confrontation with Scaroth is decent, with more great dialogue, although his final defeat is a bit too quick; the very last scene, however, is just sublime with its “what is art” discussion, long shot of the Doctor and Romana running away, and another beautiful piece of music leading into the credits.

The mark of a classic is the extent to which its flaws can be ignored, and this is never easier than with City Of Death. Nothing anyone has ever made is perfect (the Mona Lisa, for example, no eyebrows), but with its plot, dialogue, characters and design City Of Death is as close as makes no difference.