City Of Death

Written by:
David Agnew
Directed by: Michael Hayes
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1979
Video Availability: Try

Has any Doctor Who story ever had "perfection" written through it as completely as this one? Okay, some of the SF set elements may look fake, and David Graham might be a bit too cod as the Professor, but every other single disparate element collides together to make something almost flawless.

Don't get me wrong, I'd probably hate it if all Doctor Who was like this. While City is always witty rather than silly, and inspired rather than lazy, a comedy Doctor Who series would pall very quickly. But in and of itself, this is a classic that can easily stand with the likes of Marco Polo and The Robots of Death. In fact, while I now acknowledge that Hinchcliffe does best Graham Williams (though to be fair, he was using up most of Williams's future budget), I might even suggest that City of Death is better than any Hinchcliffe endeavour - the best Tom Baker story of all, in fact.

There's very little to say about it that's new, of course, though Michael Hayes, who did wonders for Tara and became unusually flat for The Armageddon Factor, again delivers the goods with a cleverly European style of direction. Coming in between works by Ken Grieve and Christopher Barry, you certainly can't say season 17 wasn't well directed. Also a marvel is Dudley Simpson. I've rightly slated him time and time again in these reviews - so why did he suddenly decide to become good? He'd been with the series since the second season, producing only a handful of decent scores. Yet somehow he pulls out all the stops and produces a top ten (top five? Top three? Best ever?) orchestration that is as much a part of the story as the obvious flirting between Tom and Lalla.

Douglas Adams runs the show here, working with Graham Williams from the original ideas proposed by David Fisher. The "David Agnew" here is a production pseudonym for all three, just as it was for Williams and Anthony Read when used as the credit for The Invasion of Time. Adams's constant barrage of concepts, his own or developed, feels so right in a way that perhaps it didn't during The Pirate Planet, or the thankfully uncompleted Shada. Not only is the sheer audacity of the ideas breath-taking (an alien criminal selling art treasures, carried off with faultless pitch by Julian Glover), but there's also lots of gags you'll miss on first viewing. I never even got the joke that the Doctor's speed-reading that novel in the café. ("Not bad… bit boring in the middle.") Seven minutes in and we're experiencing the time slips. Whereas most Doctor Who stories would pad out their limited scopes and tread water for their four episodes, this one packs in more situations than possibly any other Who story ever.

I apologise for such fawning, wide-eyed praise, but it's all just so good. The very first overseas location shoot, something that would become an albatross around the series' neck with three repeats, is here magnificent. I would say "exquisite", but that would be too corny by far, if not actually untrue…
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There's a nastier implication to Count Scarlioni than you would at first expect, making him one of the most sadistic adversaries the Doctor has ever faced. While his henchmen and his lover might be homages to old pulp fiction pot boilers, his reactions to them both are telling. Not only are there various inferences that he beats his wife (or possibly would if the mood struck him) but he also orders the death of his henchmen without compunction. The opening here is particularly striking, with Tom showboating to try and steal the honours from Glover's calm and focussed thesping. Yet season 17 Tom overacting is fun overacting, a world away from his laziness just the previous year. Of course, having Lalla to bounce off works wonders, and even if Tom Chadbon might not be playing the same game as them both, he's a tremendous foil.

There's a great Hitch-Hiker's reference in this one, with Tom's "mainly for the thumping" (shouting). I don't actually think that's Adams making an in-joke really, just him knowing a good gag when he heard one and reusing it. In fact, it's probably even funnier in the context of Who. How strange - it's only just hit me that we'll never be able to ask Douglas any more questions about his work. What a shame he wasn't more prolific, at least.

Have you noticed that the laboratory has the same sound effect as the Movellan ship in Destiny? Only just hit me this time, don't know why. But this really is the finest achievement of the Williams production team, the one time he decided to stop messing about and really have a decent stab at it. You'll note that even the special effects are good for the time - in fact, I'd even go so far as to say they'd still stand up very well today. Okay, maybe it would have been nice if the whole wall didn't shake when Duggan charged it, and the location shooting is missed in this one, but who cares? This is a Doctor Who episode with six Mona Lisas, for goodness' sake.
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"Hell's bells!" "It sounds like it, let's go!" An unusually cheap gag in this story there. You know what else I've never been keen on? The bit where Tom gives that guard an upper cut. Apart from the fact that it's a bit contrived, I've never thought Tom's post-Hinchcliffe fighting convinces - just witness The Keeper of Traken, where he manages to bang heads together despite them being several feet apart. Anyway, on a point of note this is another episode where we get dubbed-over "thoughts", as Tom's voice can be heard dictating his letter to Da Vinci.

One of the most audacious things about this story is where the splinters of the Jagaroth contact one another and you get to see them all through Scarlioni's eyes. Is it just me or does the second one look just like Jesus? "You should go into partnership with a glazier. You'd have a truly symbiotic working relationship." Better material for Lalla there, as is "You know what I don't understand?" "I expect so." Beating all of them though is "What do you mean, 'time's running out', it's only 1505!"
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Julian Glover gets strings of good lines in this one, lines which he polishes and delivers to their utmost potential. While the pace may have lagged slightly in the still-excellent episode three, here it comes back with a stormer of an ending. It's an ending that even dares to question the reality of the series itself: "What else do you ever do?" asks Scarlioni when the Doctor talks about fooling with time. Just when you think it can't get any better, John Cleese and Eleanor Bron put in an appearance.

Actually, shall I commit heresy and suggest that perhaps the good-natured freefall of ideas presented in this story do begin to tire a little after four episodes? That, while Adams's writing is clever, the constant barrage of aloof double meaning (particularly when delivered by Ward) does begin to feel a little smug? And that Catherine Schell's sidelined presence in the later episodes does lose it some of its pulp charm? Never mind, in a world of Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, the barbed attacks on the nature of art are more relevant than ever.
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Top ten, no question. Classic.
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