Doctor Who: City of Death

"I say, what a wonderful butler! He's so violent!"

'City of Death' is the undisputed pinnacle of the Graham Williams era and undoubtedly one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories.

It started life as 'A Gamble with Time' written by David Fisher. When Fisher’s script fell through at the last minute, Williams was forced to lock himself up with Adams until they managed to knock out a replacement script. And what a script it was! No Doctor Who story before and since has ever been blessed with so much amazing dialogue, such colourful characters and an extremely complicated plot that is also flawlessly easy to follow and understand. The plot happily hops from Earth 400 million years ago to Paris 1979, a table wine year to be sure, with a quick stop off in 16th century Florence where the Doctor is put through the horrible ordeal of being tortured by a man with cold hands.

One of the main problems with the Williams era was not that it was overly bad but rather consistently inconsistent. The tone of any particular story was often all over the place, zipping from drama to farce to tragedy and back to farce again. 'City of Death' has none of these problems. The tone is kept light and breezy throughout all four episodes. This is Doctor Who as a playful Euro heist caper.

This is one of those rare occasions where the production side of things doesn’t let the side down. Somehow Williams found room in the show’s limited budget for a location shoot abroad so the production crew were off to Paris. Granted there are one too many padded sequences of the Doctor and Romana running all over the city but it makes a refreshing change from having them just running down the same corridor over and over again. And unlike later excursions aboard, the Parisian location is absolutely integral to the narrative.

The sets, model work and creature effects are all top notch too, although you can see the actor through the Jagaroth mask at the end of episode one. But it’s one of those silly little gaffs that you end up loving... like that Stormtrooper bumping his head in Star Wars.

Duggan is one of the great companions who never was, just a brilliant character wonderfully played by Tom Chadbon. Much to the Doctor’s exasperation he’s in it mainly for the thumbing with no regard for the finer things in life, be they wine bottles or Louis Quinze chairs. And despite his brutish nature Duggan is easily able to match wits with everyone else even when he hasn’t got a clue what’s going on.

Oh, and we get two of the series’ finest villains in the suave form of Count and Countess Scarlioni, both brilliantly brought to life by Julian Glover and Catherine Schell. All round the acting is outstanding with the notable exception of David Graham as Professor Kerensky. It’s bad enough that his performance alone is dreadful but his death acting is in a league all of its own. Then there’s Tom and Lalla. Even at this early stage in their working relationship it’s obvious that there is a genuine spark between the two leads.

Name Drop Alert

Since 'The Masque of Mandragora', the Doctor has met Leonardo Da Vinci and that dreadful woman with no eyebrows who wouldn't sit still. He also says he helped Shakespeare write Hamlet after the Bard sprained his wrist writing sonnets.

Notes and Quotes

--John Cleese and Eleanor Bron both cameo as eccentric art dealers in part four. They were both friends of Adams and he arranged for them to appear on the show after learning they were in BBC Television Centre on the day the gallery scene was to be shot.

--Part four was watched by over 16 million viewers, the highest audience ever attained by an episode of Doctor Who. Of course, it helped that ITV, the BBC's only rival at the time, was off the air due to strike action.

--Julian Glover (now best known for Game of Thrones) previously appeared as Richard the Lionheart in First Doctor historical adventure 'The Crusade'.

Duggan: "Can anyone join this conversation or do you need a certificate?"

Countess: "My dear, I don't think he's as stupid as he seems."
Count: "My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems!"

Duggan: "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs"
Romana: "If you made an omelette, I'd expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames and an unconscious chef!"

Count: "I am Scaroth. Me, together in one. The Jagaroth shall live through me. Together we have pushed this puny race of Humans, shaped their paltry destiny to meet our ends. Soon we shall be. The centuries that divide me shall be undone."

Romana: "Shall we take the lift or fly?"
The Doctor: "Let's not be ostentatious."
Romana: "All right... let's fly, then."
The Doctor: "That would look silly. We'll take the lift."

Duggan: "You know what I don't understand-"
Romana: "I expect so."

Four out of four felt-tip pens.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.


JimGfromWI said...

One of the best Doctor Who episodes, ever. And, probably one of the most famous Doctor Who quotes, ever. I've watched this one a LOT - although not lately, so now I want to go watch it again. No time today, though - Happy Memorial Day!

Anonymous said...

I like this story a lot, although I do think it's a bit overrated. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward have great chemistry here and the dialogue is some of the best in Who. However in retrospect, out of Douglas Adams' stories I probably prefer the Pirate Planet.

Darren Smith said...

i have just finished watching and its fantastic tom baker is so funny the part where he is in the thumb screws and starts screaming and when tancredi says i havent started yet and the doctor says his hand are cold i thought that was hilarious . the whole thing is wonderful its my new favorite . the horror channel has me addicted to classic doctor who the last few months . i love reading your reviews after ive watched hope you can continue into the fifth doctor

Mark Greig said...

Hi Darren, glad you're licking the reviews. I'm afraid to say that the Classic Who reviews are on hold for the time being while I focus on other things. I'm hoping to get back to them as soon as I can, with any luck by then I will have figured out how to review 'Shada'.