Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
31 Dec 2003City of Death, by Paul Clarke
15 Dec 2006City of Death, by Ed Martin
30 Dec 2012BBC AudioGo: City of Death, by Chuck Foster

If 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' can be said the finest example of Philip Hinchcliffe's Doctor Who, then 'City of Death' is Graham Williams' equivalent. Almost perfect in every way, it boasts a great villain, sparkling dialogue, fine acting from the regulars and the guest cast, superb location filming, magnificent sets and even nice model work. 

The plot of 'City of Death' is actually quite complicated for a four-part story. Scaroth's plan to go back in time and change history is enough in itself, but it is interwoven with the sub-plot of his grand art theft scheme, and that common storyline inDoctor Who, an alien who has influenced human development since the dawn of creation. To add an additional, imaginative twist, the alien in question is not a stranded immortal demigod, but instead has been splintered into twelve identical parts throughout history, each living out its life trying to guide human development to such a point that the splinter furthermost foreword in time might have access to time travel technology. The actual time travel plot could be criticized for being inherently flawed, since Scaroth's plan essentially comprises a Grandfather paradox on a massive scale, the actual implications of which are glossed over. The Doctor seems to believe that Scaroth's plan could succeed, thus changing history and negating the existence of life on Earth from the start, and Scaroth seems to understand the consequences of his actions but simply doesn't care. Exactly what would have happened had he succeeded is therefore left to the realms of speculation, but as is often the case with paradoxes, it remains open to debate. The fact that this is not even addressed properly might annoy me in a lesser story, as might the fact that the Doctor, Romana and Duggan can seemingly survive unprotected on Earth before life began, but in a story this good I find that I can cheerfully ignore it. 

Paradoxical or not, Scaroth's intentions, and indeed his predicament, help to make him a well motivated and memorable villain, as he is ultimately driven by a desire to save his people. Understandable, certainly, and potentially even sympathetic, but he is portrayed as such a callous and ruthless individual that any such goodwill towards him quickly evaporates. Perfectly cast as Scaroth is Julian Glover, who brings an air of ruthless charm and charisma to the role with ease. He seems entirely comfortable with the humour inherent throughout 'City of Death', but also plays the part with admirable restraint and thus succeeds in displaying both wit and menace. Whereas some villains have been seemingly baffled or enraged by the Fourth Doctor's calculated buffoonery, Scaroth not only takes it in his stride but seems to see through it; flippancy is met with a quiet smile and calm threats and whilst he often becomes deadly serious, he never once loses his temper. Glover's ability to switch from an air of amused tolerance to one of icy intimidation is so good that he seems entirely natural as Count Scarlioni, most notably when he is bullying Kerenski or threatening Romana with the destruction of Paris. Equally impressive is the fact that Scarlioni and Tancredi, despite literally being the same person, are also subtly different, serving as a reminder that these two splinters of Scaroth whilst inextricably linked have also lived in very different eras, with very different demands upon them. So whereas Scarlioni lives a life of wealthy luxury in the twentieth century and demonstrates all the courtesy and manners befitting his position in society, Captain Tancredi seems to be a rather more ruthless character, surviving in the less civilized Renaissance period. Brief glimpses in Episode Three of other splinters show them in very different times and circumstances, hinting at further need to adapt to specific challenges. It is an subtle but effective piece of story-telling that significantly adds to the character. 

Such an impressive and prominent villain could easily have overshadowed the other supporting characters, but the uniformly excellent guest cast proves more than capable of complementing both Glover and the regulars. Catherine Schell is excellent as the Countess, a willing accomplice in the Count's plot to steal the Mona Lisa, but so blinded by trinkets and luxuries that she has never even begun to suspect that there is more to her husband than meets the eye. This is made all the more plausible by the fact that she seems easily charmed; whilst she displays open hostility towards Romana, she is almost flirtatious with the Doctor, possibly intrigued by the amusing line "you're a beautiful woman, probably". Ultimately, her willingness to be carried along by excitement is her undoing, and for all that she is an accomplice I can't help feeling sorry for her when her beloved Count turns out to a one-eyed spaghetti-faced monster that first ridicules her and then kills her. 

Then there's Theodore Nikolai Kerensky, a stereotypical absent-minded scientist but played with such conviction by David Graham that the character works perfectly, so much so that killing him off to provide a cliffhanger successfully demonstrates just how ruthless Scaroth is, since this is a character we've been allowed to get to know. Like the Countess, Kerensky too is blinded by the Count's promises, in his case promises of great scientific and humanitarian interest. Like the Countess, his benefactor's generosity convinces him not to ask questions since he appreciates the rewards; even so, he must have some inkling of how the Count is able to provide so much money, given that the Count and Hermann discuss the sale of Gutenberg bibles long before Scarlioni resorts to threats to persuade Kerensky to complete his work. Hermann too is an effective character, little more than a henchman, but well characterised as much as is possible; in contrast to his employer, Hermann lacks charm and is just a thug, who it is implied enjoys killing just for the sake of it. His contempt for the Doctor's clowning helps to provide 'City of Death' with an air of at least some realism, unlike at least one later story in the season were virtually every single character contributes to the general silliness that Season Seventeen is renowned for. 

On the side of the Doctor we have Duggan, brought memorably to life by Tom Chadbon, whose air of constant bewilderment provides amusement on one hand and on the other gives the Doctor and Romana somebody to explain the plot to. In addition, his propensity for thumping people emphasizes the Doctor's often-hypocritical attitude to violence, in much the same way that Leela did but in a more humorous fashion (lest we forget, the Doctor knocks out Peter Halliday's guard in Episode Three). Thus, fun is poked at the Doctor's objections to violence by having him chastise Duggan for mishandling a Louis XIV chair, and later breaking a Ming vase over the Countess's head. Later, and after several angry sermons from the Doctor, Duggan gets to save humanity by punching Scaroth on prehistoric Earth, thus delivering "the most important punch in history". But for all that the guest cast is excellent the regulars are even better.

'City of Death' has a reputation for its witty script and great dialogue; it is well deserved. With writer David Agnew actually being Douglas Adams and Graham Williams, the humour is unsurprisingly prominent, but it succeeds admirably. The Count and Countess famously get an exchange in which the she says of the Doctor "I don't think he's as stupid as he seems", to which Scarlioni replies "nobody could be as stupid as he seems", and whilst this is just one example of the humour on show, by far the biggest number of great lines go to the Doctor. Lines like "What a wonderful butler, he's so violent" stand out because the Doctor pratfalls whilst Hermann glowers and the Countess looks on amused. The legendary humour of 'City of Death' ultimately works because for all the wit on display, it's focused on the Doctor and Tom Baker has become so adept at clowning that it always seems in character. His performance here is at its most wonderfully manic, as he strides around Paris with Romana, boggling at the Mona Lisa's lack of eyebrows and accidentally scaring small curators, confuses Duggan, and charms the Countess. The fact that the rest of the cast are so good and don't, generally speaking, clown around, means that this results in an amusing and entertaining performance from Baker which doesn't spread through the rest of the production and make it seem silly. As in Adams' 'The Pirate Planet', when the situation is serious, he makes it clear that the Doctor understands the fact; in the midst of wincing at the guard's cold hands and his flippant responses to Captain Tancredi's questioning, he makes grave asides to himself as he suddenly realises the significance of the explosion of the Jagaroth spaceship. In addition to all of this, the relationship between the Doctor and Romana is also at it's closest, and with K9 left behind in the TARDIS throughout, this becomes even more evident. The early scenes in Paris as the climb the Eiffel Tower and visit the Louvre are quite charming and demonstrate how much the rather antagonistic relationship between the Doctor and Mary Tamm's incarnation has settled down. Romana is also well written for by Adams, suggesting that she is as intelligent as the Doctor but far less experienced and more naĂŻve; unlike the Doctor, she doesn't realize that the Jagaroth spaceship played a role in the genesis of life on Earth.

Overall, 'City of Death' is a marvellous story and a highlight of the era. The Parisian location work is gorgeous, and the astonishingly good sets complement it perfectly; the chateau interiors seldom look like studio sets. The model shots of the Jagaroth spaceship are highly impressive, the incidental score by Dudley Simpson is highly effective, and Michael Hayes' splendid direction brings everything together beautifully. And as if all that weren't enough, we even get amusing cameo by John Cleese. And now for something completely differentÂ…

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I put off reviewing this story for a while, as I feel so strongly about it itÂ’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 couldnÂ’t necessarily articulate why at the time. Almost a decade and a half later, having got me some learninÂ’, 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.

RomanaÂ’s complaints about the Mona Lisa I think are pitch-perfect, although I can appreciate why theyÂ’re not to everybodyÂ’s tastes. IÂ’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. ItÂ’s difficult not to notice Pat Gorman, one of the showÂ’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 heÂ’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. WhatÂ’s notable though is that this is the first time we see that the opening scene has any relevance whatsoever, although we still donÂ’t know exactly what; if this revelation has been left any later it wouldnÂ’t have worked, but as it is itÂ’s a great twist. IÂ’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.

ItÂ’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. ItÂ’s a nice idea having the Doctor copy out the first draft of Hamlet (it harks back to PertweeÂ’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 whatÂ’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 thereÂ’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.

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City of Death
City of Death
Starring Tom Baker
Written by David Agnew
Narrated by Lalla Ward
Released by BBC AudioGo, December 2012
City of Death is often regarded as one of the greatest stories from the Fourth Doctor era, and also considered one of the most accessible stories for a newcomer to the classic series to see first. A lot of this reputation stems from the witty dialogue (Douglas Adams on a very good day), excellent music from the then-resident composer Dudley Simpson, and beautifully shot model-work, sets and location filming from director Michael Hayes. However, with such a visually-rich story, how does it translate into the audio-only world of the CD/download? Can words speak louder than action?

Also, some think audio versions of complete stories are simply a waste of time and money; however, there are times when you can't actually watch stories - like driving to your parents' home at Christmas... - and then releases such as this become a godsend. So, the question becomes whether the narrated version imparts the story sufficiently to be able to enjoy as well as if watching?

All-in-all, the story is just as entertaining in this form as on the DVD, with the sparkling dialogue of the characters working just as effectively in this format. As with the preceding Destiny of the Daleks, Lalla Ward (Romana in the story) becomes the guide who ably navigates our path through those unseen moments, with the words themselves scripted by David Darlington, who does an excellent job in filling in such visual gaps.

If I have any 'gripe', though, it is that Dudley Simpson's fantastic score is 'lost' beneath the necessary dialogue describing the scenes. For those unfamiliar with the story, however, or those simply not so bothered with the score, a lack of such dialogue might well render those thematic passages through Paris etc. long and potentially boring to listen to - it's a compromise of the medium, of course, so I'm happy to settle for a release of the score instead (are you listening, Mark? (grin)).

Actually, a thought that does lurk in the back of my mind is to whether the narration truly captures the essence of the story or if it is as much my own familiarity with the story filling in any potential deficiencies - with the early days of the range the narration described scenes lost from the archives, but now we have soundtracks for stories readily available on DVD. It's hard to gauge how much influence that has, but when listening to City of Death on the drive I know I was visualising the characters as seen on screen. A good example of this is how the time-bubble is handled, which though described competently by the delightful Lalla, isn't able to quite create the visual impact of the appearance of Scaroth back in time. Similarly, the reveal of the six additional Mona Lisas isn't quite so startling when spoken. But that is a general problem with translating visual to audio rather than a deficiency of this release.

It should also be noted that inserting such elaborations between the gaps of dialogue without unbalancing the flow of the story is no mean feat either - the timing of these passages is impeccable, and the only dialogue I noticed as being 'muffled' was that of the tour guide's initial chatter during the description of the museum, but nothing that impacted on the plot in any way.

Special Features

It seems a bit odd to talk about "special features" on an audio CD, but with a story you can get on DVD I guess other value-added material is required in order to tempt the buyer.

As with Destiny, there is a brief interview with Lalla Ward included: here she talks about the problems with filming - both with a snowy Paris in May and a cantankerous Tom Baker - and how she feels it is important for an actor to defend the integrity of his/her character when writers might be less familiar with their nuances.

For PC users, the original camera scripts for the four episodes are also provided as PDF files on disc one, so you can read along to the soundtrack too if you like (and spot the ad-libs!).
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