I’d heard of Doctor Who: City of Death because of Douglas Adams’ involvement (uncredited co-writer), and as such it gets a lot of praise for its blend of science fiction and humor. All I can say is, I think our standards are a little higher these days. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t the standout I had expected from reading about it.
I think part of that might be due to Tom Baker. He gets a couple of show-off bits, but although he was the first Doctor I ever watched (I spent part of my childhood in England), I just don’t warm to him these days. He’s unsubtle and seems bored much of the time. Perhaps that’s intended to be a commentary on what the life of a Time Lord would be like.
He spends much of the episodes facing off with Julian Glover as a green spaghetti-faced alien masquerading as human in different eras, although we mostly only see two, modern day (1979) Paris and 1505 in Leonardo da Vinci’s studio. Glover later went on to play a Bond baddie in For Your Eyes Only. He’s wonderful at quiet, privileged menace.
This was the first Doctor Who shot in another country, and while some of the scenery is lovely, there’s also a lot of filler. Instead of running up and down corridors (a Doctor Who standard), they run up and down the Champs Elysees. They also spend time at a cafe’, which could have been anywhere.
So the alien-now-Count is using his other selves to create really authentic copies of masterpieces, which he sells in order to finance the creation of a time machine in his basement. He’s got 7 Mona Lisas, which he will sell as soon as he steals it from the Louvre so his customers think they’re getting the real one. Which, in a way, they are, since da Vinci painted all of them. Only the Doctor has written on all the canvases before they were painted on “This is a fake.” Because he always gets the smart-alec last word.
The Count wants the time machine to go back to the beginning of Earth and prevent himself from pushing the button that blew up his spaceship, fractured his selves into time slivers, and oh by the way, caused humanity to start evolving out of the prehistoric sludge. Of course, he must be stopped.
Romana, meanwhile, is hanging out with Duggan, a private eye type whose answer to everything is to hit it. If asked to leave a room, he breaks out through a window. Surprisingly, his approach to life saves the day. The last episode also contains a very brief cameo by John Cleese doing a predictable turn as a pretentious art critic who thinks the Tardis is on display at a museum.
This was the highest-rated Doctor Who ever because, at the time, there were only two TV channels and the other one was on strike. It’s got an awful lot going on, little of which hangs together. That’s probably because it was a last-minute, over-the-weekend, caffeine-fueled rewrite of another story. Several promising elements that go nowhere (like the artist sketching Romana as a clock) came from that earlier piece. Lots of good lines and comedy bits, though.
The changes are discussed in detail in one of the lengthy documentary extras in this two-disc set, complete with bits of previous interviews with Adams. The audio commentary features Glover, Tom Chadbon (Duggan), and the director Michael Hayes, and there’s also a trivia track. There’s a large amount of production footage also included, which makes you feel like you’re on the set during filming, watching actors get ready for setups and so on. Very nice for behind-the-scenes buffs.
Additional extras are focused on special effects or simply silly, like a fake documentary on what one of the aliens would experience trying to settle into a British town, and I’ve never understood why someone would want a track of nothing but the incidental music. Still, it’s a very complete package. The only other thing I could want would be participation from Baker or Lalla Ward (Romana), but I understand that they can’t be made to contribute.