City Of Death

October 1979

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

"'re a beautiful woman. Probably."

City Of Death is a triumph despite its make do and mend origins. Considering the scripts were last-minute, balls to wall, coffee inspired rewrites by Douglas Adams, David Fisher and Graham Williams, the plotting and dialogue are what lift an already pretty good production to its legendary status in the series canon. Not only does it manage a sublime pastiche of Dashiel Hammett and Mickey Spillane but it also spins off into Pink Panther caper-movie territory with a script that gives you exceptionally funny, almost Wildean, dialogue, that's meant to be serious exposition and also an abundance of terrific throw away lines too. It also resembles Bob Shaw's comical farce The Giaconda Caper, about a psychic detective hired to discover the mystery of an additional Mona Lisa. Overall, it is the template for the Williams era, where he was struggling to make his mark on the format against budgetary problems, and for four episodes he gets it spot on, with this being light years away from the mucking about with Daleks that started the season off.

...John Cleese and the TARDIS as art object

All the various elements from the production team are slotting together nicely here, creating iconic images and witty storytelling. There's the truly lovely Ian Scoones created visual effects sequences of the Jagaroth space ship hovering over, and then exploding above, the Earth's primordial landscape, the location filming in Paris accompanied by some of the best Dudley Simpson music in the series, Julian Glover pitch perfect as Scarlioni, the Tom and Lalla team at the height of their powers and then...John Cleese and the TARDIS as art object. Michael Hayes does a wonderful job of directing this, managing to contain the flippant indulgences and add in his own visual flourishes (the shot through the post card rack is pure French thriller) to serve the script well. Also throw in a delightful side-trip to Leonardo Da Vinci's studio and the BBC's usual high standards for period detail.

Talking of art, one of the major themes of the story is about how much art is worth financially as opposed to its aesthetic value. The debate is between Scarlioni, who pretty much embraces the view that the production of art is simply a mechanistic way to achieve wealth, and the Doctor, who by knowing Da Vinci and understanding the creative process, knows the true value of the work. This taps into the theories of Walter Benjamin and John Berger. Benjamin suggests being able to reproduce the image of the Mona Lisa again and again via means of technology has had the effect of that artwork losing its traditional ritual significance. Through Scarlioni's desire to reproduce the Mona Lisa the art of Da Vinci has slowly come to lose its very meaning as the importance of authenticity has become a far less integral component in investing meaning to the product itself. The writers and producers of the serial would also have been familiar with the contemporary, for 1979 at least, theories of John Berger - he takes the perspective that even if one is familiar with the culture in which, for instance, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, one would still react toward seeing the painting based upon having seen it reproduced and placed in the context of modern culture. If one arrives to see the Mona Lisa with no knowledge of the Renaissance culture or only limited knowledge, it becomes impossible to assess the painting based upon its original aura and mystery.

....breaking a Ming vase over Catherine Schell's head
In the middle of this debate is Duggan, memorably played by Tom Chadbon, who is basically the audience identification figure here as the season continues to equalise the Doctor and Romana's relationship. He is also the antithesis to the Doctor's non violent status and could also perhaps be seen as an anti-aesthete as he is not only the object of the Doctor's objections to violence but also his criticisms for mishandling a Louis XIV chair and breaking a Ming vase over Catherine Schell's head. The irony is, of course, that his punch directed at Scaroth saves the world in true Bulldog Drummond style. This is also interesting from a political point of view in that Scarlioni is positioned almost as a Thatcherite monetarist prototype, playing with market forces to accrue wealth in order to re-establish an empire. The Doctor and Romana are a romanticised, freewheeling socialism quipping their way through crisis after crisis, not overtly concerned about the ambitions of any of their opponents. Ironic in that in 1979, it was Labour who were blindly optimistic and the Conservatives who were deeply pessimistic about their chances in the election. Following that election, Scarlioni should have been a shoe-in for universal domination. I also suspect there's a subtext in there about the Common Market too.

There are some problems with the serial. The acting is decidedly tongue in cheek and if you're a fan demanding serious commitment from actors then you might find the whole 'nudge, nudge, wink wink' attitude of the production hard to take. Many of the performances do go over the top but it suits the style of the story, which comes across as Riffifi meets Inspector Clouseau complete with cod-Frenchies in stripey jumpers and berets. The effects for the Jagaroth head sported by Glover are an immediate let down and are incapable of conviction. But it doesn't matter because Glover is so attuned to the script that, as in a lot of good stories with risible effects, you're happy to ignore it. The location filming does tend to outstay its welcome with a rather overlong tour of Paris landmarks in episodes one and two where obviously the team where trying to get their money's worth out of a few days shooting. Again, the ambience created is worth having and indulgences like this can be forgiven.
This is glorious fun.

City Of Death (the title surely a play on words; Paris is often known as the "City of Love" (Cité de l'amour). "City of Death" translates into French as Cité de la mort) is Williams' crowning achievement for the show and demonstrates, even if the scripts were put together at the last minute, what he and Adams could achieve with the combination of satirical, often surreal, humour, a leading man who was demanding his self-indulgence and good production values. The supporting cast are excellent, particularly Glover and Schell as the Count and Countess, an enthusiastic David Graham sports a mittel-European accent for the batty Kerensky, the direction is suitably ornate and the story is interesting and has a well-rounded, motivated villain. The time paradox doesn't quite work if you look at to too closely but it doesn't matter. This is glorious fun.

The two-disc DVD has all the episodes beautifully restored and includes;
  • a wonderfully enthusiastic commentary from actors Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon and director Michael Hayes.
  • "Springtime in Paris," a witty documentary looks at the making of "City of Death" and offers wealth of interviews with Adams and Hayes.
  • "Paris, W12" provides newly unearthed, time-coded production footage from the BBC's archives.
  • a collection of unused landscape and spacecraft shots and excerpts of how the filmmakers captured the chicken sequence.
  • Plus a PDF of the 1980 Doctor Who Annual.

CITY OF DEATH (BBCDVD1664 Region 2 DVD Cert 12)

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4 Responses to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: City Of Death”
  1. Anonymous says:

    I've often said that 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is as good as Who gets, but 'City of Death' is definitely runner up...

  2. Your review might well force me to watch it.

    I will fast forward through the Paris scenery, and see if I can work out what it is people see in the incidental music. It's always left me cold.

    And you're a very bad man, Frank, because I don't like City of Death and now might have to revise my opinion. ;)

  3. Gray - absolutely concur with you there. In fact, i think it slightly nudges 'Talons' into second place.

  4. I find the Paris scenery charming to a point but it is obviously padding to make the episode run to the right length. I think Dudley's music for this is as good as the stuff he did for 'Pyramids'. Depends if you like Dud's music in the first place.

    Yes, I am a very bad man who forces you to re-watch a programme you genuinely love. Job done.

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