Doctor Who: City of Death
November 22, 2006

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.

Doctor Who: City of Death cover
Doctor Who: City of Death
Buy this DVD

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.

16 Responses  
Alan Sepinwal writes:  

After getting hooked on the Eccleston/Tennant incarnation of the series, I Netflix’ed this one on the recommendation from a lot of hardcore fans, and it did very little for me. I think the 5-cent production values were the real killer. Where the current show doesn’t exactly look like the most expensive thing ever put on screen, it also doesn’t look like a community theater production being taped for public access. Even allowing for the state of FX in the ’70s, the pacing, the blocking and the lighting were all too clumsy and awkward for me to get past. Maybe if I had watched the original series as a kid I would be accustomed to its rhythms the same way I make allowances for the limitations of ’70s and ’80s superhero comics, but watching it as an adult with zero nostalgia was a chore.

And now I look forward to a good public stoning.

Johanna writes:  

Oh, yeah, I forgot about that! There’s one particular scene that sums it up for me — Duggan is supposed to knock down a weak spot in a stone wall, so he runs at it shoulder-first… and the entire set shakes when he hits it.

Allan Harvey writes:  

Baker does contribute to the DVDs. He’s done several commentaries; most recently for Genesis of the Daleks. He was due to record a track for this DVD and be interviewed in Paris at the locations used, but it just didn’t work out.

Eric Gimlin writes:  

I love this particular story; but I can’t argue too much with the problems you bring up. I actually find the Black & White episodes of Who have aged far better than the color ones; B/W hides a lot of flaws and conditions you to worry less about the ones that are there. And I think Troughton was the best Doctor, which helps right there…

This may not be the best serial, it’s probably the best one to start with if you haven’t seen the original series. If you can’t get past it’s flaws, I doubt you would have much luck with other stories, Alan. Believe it or not, this looks better than a lot of the others from this era. (The Blue-screen work on the Pertwee episodes has to be seen to be disbelieved.)

Jer writes:  

Hmm. There are some plot elements there that sound suspiciously like plot elements Adams used in “Dirk Gently’s Holisitic Detective Agency”. I thought he’d scrapped an unused Doctor Who script for that book (for “Shada”, IIRC), not one that had actually been filmed. That’s kind of disappointing.

Jer writes:  

Grr… I do actually know how to spell “Holistic”.

Chris Galdieri writes:  

Alan, I’ll be stoned along side you, then — wait, that came out wrong. My wife and I were underwhelmed by City of Death but are currently enjoying Genesis of the Daleks, which we Netflix’d just to see Sarah Jane Smith after the “School Reunion” episode of the new series. Baker seems much more engaged with his surroundings in this one than in City, where he was looking off-camera to the point that I wondered if he was using cue cards.

Phil writes:  

Jer – “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” actually uses plot elements from both “City Of Death” and “Shada”. It wasn’t the first time he did it, as the Kirikkitmen arc of “Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, novelised as “Life, the Universe and Everything”, was based on a Who pitch that was rejected as too silly.

Johanna writes:  

Allan: I’ll have to look for some of those with Baker, then, since I’m curious to hear him talk about his experiences. I’ve got the Leisure Hive up next, which apparently has Ward but not Baker commenting.

Eric: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Troughton. I’ve been getting DVDs by Doctor — I’ve got all the 5th and 7th out, so I figured I’d try 4th next, working my way backwards.

Chris: I’m looking forward to some Sarah Jane, although I think I’m overdosed on Daleks.

Chuck writes:  

One of my favorite Baker-era stories is “The Talons of Weng Chi-Ang”. I didn’t enjoy “City of Death” much. Watching people walk around Paris isn’t entertaining to me. The effects never get much better in these old shows, but that’s not what I watch ‘em for. I like the character of the Doctor, and I like the “anything can happen” feel of his adventures.

Rich Johnston writes:  

Adams stripmined Shada and City Of Death for Dirk Gently. Ironically, he left Pirate Planet well alone though.

No mention of the wonderful John Cleese finale? For shame…

Simon Fraser writes:  

I think ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’ is about the best of them. If you can get past the dodgy ethnic stereotyping.
The first Pertwee story, the Auton Invasion, was all shot on film ( before they started mixing in the video footage ) so it looks lovely, like some Val Guest brit Sci-Fi movie of that period.

Paul O'Brien writes:  

If you found the production values questionable in “City of Death” then I’d really brace yourself for “Leisure Hive”, which is very, very early 80s indeed.

The thing to remember with Doctor Who is that up until the early 80s it didn’t look that bad to audiences at the time. People simply didn’t expect it to look any better, and were more or less happy to accept dodgy effects in the same way that they would at the theatre. In the early 80s, unfortunately, they start trying to use New and Exciting Video Technology, which is just a disaster, because once you start trying to compete in the arena of production values, you’re doomed to fail on a 1980s BBC budget. (“Hey, what if we still film a quarry… but tint it purple?”) They have to wait 15-20 years for the cost of CGI to come down before it’s worth attempting again.

Johanna writes:  

I just finished Leisure Hive yesterday, actually. It worked better for me, maybe because it was more of what I expected in terms of goofy costumes and design quality — it all hung together somehow. (And the devolved baby – so cute!) The extras, about how this was some radical set of changes at the time with new producer Nathan-Turner, were interesting but kind of quaint.

Caesar writes:  

City Of Death is not a particularly good story, despite the author being Douglas Adams, and the production values are rather cheap. There are also numerous holes and inconsistencies in the story. Some of the acting is rather poor too. There are a number of other stories that are better than this one.

Caesar writes:  

It must be said that Tom Baker was also getting rather bored with some of the stories and that his working relationship with Graham Williams was not as good as that between him and Philip Hinchcliffe. This shows in stories like ‘City of Death’.


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