Who Reviews: City of Death
Reviewed by “Razorglove” Fyler
When Doctor Who came back in 2005, many people asked many of the same questions. Would the sets be wobbly? No. Would the companions still be screaming girls? Not unless the situation really called for it. Would the Tardis still be a police box? Yes of course. What story from the past would be the keynote for the future? Well, City of Death, obviously.
City of Death, when it appeared in September 1979, was a thing of unparalleled style – perhaps fittingly for the first story in the show’s history to feature an overseas film shoot, and for one set in Paris, the fashion capital of the world. Having started out being called “A Gamble with Time”, and with quite big areas of difference in the script, it was eventually panel-beaten into shape by ‘David Agnew’ – a gestalt entity, the thirds of itself split between writer David Fisher, Script Editor Douglas Adams and Producer Graham Williams. Because his style went on to be recognised around the world for at least three generations, (and also because he would recycle bits of it for one of his novels) it’s easy to say that Adams’s footprints are all over the script – which is never, under any circumstances, a bad thing.
If you want to make Doctor Who into a heist movie, then this is how you do it (can someone pop a note through to Stephen Thompson?). You set it not in a great big outer space bank, but right here on Earth in a recognisable setting, where a suave aristocratic couple are using alien technology to plan the theft of the Mona Lisa.
You add a Doctor and his companion at the absolute peak not only of their on-screen relationship, but also, if you can, at the peak of their off-screen relationship too: Tom Baker and Lalla Ward here banter like a newly-married pair of honeymooners, and are each a match for the dynamics of the other’s performance (and who else, if we’re honest, can say they genuinely held their own in scenes with Tom Baker? Who can say he let them?)
And then, just when your audience thinks it’s nothing more than a jolly alien heist caper, you turn the crazy up to not just eleven, but thirteen.
The “prologue” of City of Death, to give it its due, does tell us almost everything we need to know. Scaroth of the Jagaroth, looking like a patch of something scraped off a beach and poured into a flight suit, sits in his bizarrely-shaped spaceship, and accidentally blows himself to bits. The tonal shift from such hardcore sci-fi to the gibbering of the Doctor and Romana is achieved in one short panning shot, and there they are, on the Eiffel Tower, Romana in her school uniform (something decidedly for the dads, despite Lalla’s assertion that it would help children feel better about wearing their own uniforms). They banter and we follow them to a café, where a time slip shakes them up. Ohhhh, did we not mention that? The alien tech-using art-stealing aristocrat? He’s also doing time experiments down in his cellar. As you do…
Despite the time-slip, the Doctor decides they’re on holiday, and they go to view the Mona Lisa, which despite not having any eyebrows is, as the Doctor insists, one of the finest artworks in the universe. After another time-slip, the Doctor falls into the lap of a beautiful woman (probably), the Countess Scarlioni (Catherine Schnell, here Sophia Lorening for all she’s worth), and attracts the attention of English thumper-of-things and alleged detective, Duggan. And so the knockabout fun really begins. The Doctor steals the Countess’s alien tech – a bracelet that scans the defences they will need to overcome to steal the Mona Lisa – meaning Duggan gets interested in what he thinks is the Doctor’s ruse. The Countess, or more specifically her husband, Count Scarlioni, sends a squad of rent-a-goons to get the bracelet back, and locks our heroes in the cellar. Episode 1 ends with the Count, alone, staring into the mirror and then, for apparently no reason at all, tearing his own face off to reveal Old Seaweed-Features himself – Scaroth of the Exploding Spaceship.
While a great cliffhanger, it does rather boggle the mind. Not only does it mean that an alien actually wants to steal the Mona Lisa; it seems to mean that an alien we’ve seen blown to smithereens…wants to steal the Mona Lisa.
Meanwhile, in the cellar, the time experiments make solid progress – renowned expert in time (if not perhaps in accents) Theodore Nikolai Kerensky is busy turning eggs into chickens and back again (Well, everyone needs a hobby). So – alien art heist by exploded seaweed-faced monsters in the drawing room, world food shortage-beating time experiments in the cellar. Everyone clear? It’s like Upstairs, Downstairs written at a sci-fi convention, by people with access to way too much wine.
What’s missing from all this? How about a secret chamber that’s been bricked up for centuries? No problem - Romana spots a size difference in the downstairs rooms, and boom, there’s a secret chamber that’s been bricked up for centuries.
Now…you remember we mentioned the crazy being turned up to 13? Well, this is the point at which it reaches at least 11. The bricked-up chamber appears to contain…
Mona Lisas. Six Mona Lisas. So – just in case you’re falling behind, a seaweed-faced alien who exploded in scene one has a bricked-up cellar chamber with six Mona Lisas in it, and it using alien tech to help him steal a seventh – the one in the Louvre. Enter Duggan with a handy bit of exposition, and a chunk of plot that could have been lifted directly from a Sherlock Holmes story – there are seven criminal art collectors around the world, each of whom would pay a kingpin’s ransom to have the Mona Lisa in their private collection…but only if they believed it was the one and only – the one hanging in the Louvre. So, that explains why the Count needs to steal the painting. What it doesn’t explain is how he ends up with six in the cellar, all of which, according to the Doctor, are genuine – or, come to that, how he knows they’ll be there so he needs to steal the seventh.
That’ll be that “turn the crazy up to 13” moment we were talking about. Turns out Scaroth didn’t die in the explosion we saw at the start of the story. No, he was “splintered”, so there are a bunch of incarnations of him, connected but incomplete, scattered throughout Earth’s history, all working to advance human civilisation, to the point where the Count-incarnation, the last, latest one, has the equipment to perform rudimentary time travel experiments in 1979. Now…here’s technically also where the wheels come off the story. The seven Mona Lisas and their subsequent sale are all to fund time travel experiments in 1979, along with a bunch of Guttenberg Bibles, original Shakespeare folios and so on. What you have to ask is, with foreknowledge through his selves, is getting seven Mona Lisas painted really the most effective way this alien can think of to accelerate human technological development? Bear in mind that he has access to the greatest minds of Ancient Egypt, of Rome, of the Renaissance. He has access to Galileo, to Copernicus, Newton, to – let’s absolutely not forget – Leonardo DaVinci! But never mind about the engineering, Leo, you knock up a bunch of paintings, that’ll do nicely. So technically the plot makes no sense at all, but it’s delivered with such style, such grace, such pace that it really doesn’t matter that much. (Interestingly – and perhaps a little sadly, there’s no mention of Scaroth’s work with the Silurians, and how that presumably went extraordinarily pear-shaped when the Moon arrived and they all went underground. Fans may like to imagine the Silurian-Scaroth, as he’s forced into hibernation along with the rest of the species, muttering “Rassen-frassen stupid reptiles, all that work for nothing…”)
A quick hop back in time for the Doctor to write “This Is A Fake” on the six Mona Lisa canvases in felt tip and the art heist plot is foiled. But no matter – because the Count has persuaded Romana to help him. Kerensky’s experiment created a separate time field, but no-one could move from one universe to the other without a field interface stabiliser. Romana obligingly builds him one, only to belatedly realise what Scaroth’s actual plan is. He doesn’t just want to unite himself into one fully-functional Jagaroth again. He wants to go back in time and stop himself pressing the button that triggered the explosion in the first place. All very fine and noble, except the explosion is what started the development of life on the planet, so if he succeeds, we’re all doomed never to have existed.
What you need in situations like this of course, is a handy detective who likes to thump things. Duggan travels back to primordial Earth with the Time Lords, lamps the lantern-jawed Jagaroth and saves the course of history as we know it. Good old Thumper Duggan.
And so, bar a timeless cameo from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron, finally answering the question “The Tardis – fantastic dimensionally transcendental time machine, yes, but is it art?”, we leave the City of Death behind. But given it actually makes staggeringly little sense, why has it so often been cited as the story with the tone that re-launched Doctor Who to greater and greater triumphs in the New Who era?
Perhaps because if you look at it really hard, you see the fundamental components for a successful 21st century show. The Doctor and his companion are equals here in a way they had seldom been (and indeed would seldom be again) in the Classic show – each bringing their own life, their own personality to the relationship in equal measure. The villain, Scaroth, played with his usual mastery by classically-trained stage actor Julian Glover, for the most part mixes charm, nous and a worldly humour – “My dear, no-one could be as stupid as he seems,” – with a fundamental brutality that quite takes the breath away (his response to the idea of wiping out all life on the planet is simply that he understands what will happen – “and I don’t care one jot”). The scale of the show feels bigger and better than the endless gravel-quarries of the majority of 70s Who, and the performances, the dialogue, and the deliciously bonkers plot all match the effervescence of the location. The characters may be living in a world of madness, but the dialogue they’re given makes them feel like real people. And City of Death has a firm, firm grip on its tone from start to finish. In this, more than in anything else, it maps out the 21st century future of the show. There’s plenty of running around, a bit of filler and a great deal of banter, but the tone of this story is absolutely identifiable from scenes one and two, and it just intensifies from there, in a series before the words “tone meeting” were ever uttered. In essence, 1979 may be a table wine year in the Doctor’s judgment, but City of Death is a vintage champagne of a story – bright, bubbly, utterly celebratory and never failing to bring a smile to the lips of anyone who drinks it. What City of Death has, that, for instance, would not really be there for several seasons after Adams left the show to be replaced as Script Editor by the High Priest of Taking Life Seriously, Christopher H Bidmead, is a bouquet, a joi de vivre, that when it came to re-inventing the show for a 21st century audience, was absolutely the note to hit. The sense of a universe of possibilities, of mad and wonderful diversity, a universe in which it could make some sort of sense for a time-split gestalt entity to be stealing the Mona Lisa to fund time experiments, was exactly the sense the revived show would need to get away with “lots of planets having a North” and giant green farting aliens in body-suits that zipped around the forehead. The chatty Doctor of City of Death is essentially a template for the rent-a-gob charm of the Tenth incarnation, and the equality of the Doctor and his companion in City of Death would be absolutely vital to attracting a young modern female audience when the show came storming back. It’s a load of barmy, chatty sci-fi fun that never disappoints – what better tone could there be for modern Doctor Who?