City of Death [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

City of Death

Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companion: Lalla Ward as Romana
Written by David Agnew (aka David Fisher, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams).  Directed by Michael Hayes.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  September – October 1979  (Episodes 5-8 of Season 17)

City of Death was based on an initial story by David Fisher. When it needed major rewrites that Fisher couldn’t provide, Douglas Adams (the current script editor, and also writer of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)) and Graham Williams (the current producer) holed up for a weekend and took care of it themselves. The end result is one of the series’ most well-regarded stories.

Spoilers Ahead!

There are many things, frankly, to love about City of Death. It’s an inventive, engaging story with a strong sense of humor and a lot of energy driving it all the way through. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward seem very at home in their roles, delivering assured and inviting performances. Putting them against the backdrop of Paris just enhances the delightful chemistry the two had, all the more clearly.

I wasn’t always a fan of the more whimsical (and sometimes sillier) take on the show that characterized producer Graham Williams’ era, but in City of Death it all works tremendously well. The production has a romantic quality suitable for its Paris location, and is full of witty dialogue (not a surprise, given Douglas Adams’ involvement). There’s one scene in Episode 1 that has two of Tom Baker’s most famous lines: “What a wonderful butler, he’s so violent,” and “You’re a beautiful woman probably.” And just when you think the show’s gone as far as it can, suddenly there’s this hilarious little bit where John Cleese and Eleanor Bron play snooty art critics admiring the TARDIS (as its parked in an art gallery)–they’re appreciation only increased when the TARDIS dematerializes in front of them.

The whole cast is on point here, in addition to the leads. Julian Glover (who also played a villain against Luke Skywalker, James Bond and Indiana Jones) is solid as Count Scarlioni, Catherine Schell (a minor Bond girl from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) is charming as the Countess, and David Graham (one of the original Dalek voices from the 1960’s) is memorable as the hapless Professor Kerensky. But the standout is Tom Chadbon as Duggan–the character is hilarious and likable, and makes a great counterpoint to the Doctor and Romana. He’s one of the best guest characters of the era–it would have been great to have seen more of him, but he probably would not have fit in as well in any later seasons, after John Nathan-Turner took over and pushed to give the show a harder sci-fi edge.

And all of the elements–the humor, the cast, the location–come together in a clever plot that is full of interesting ideas. You’ve got an art heist, localized time glitches, an alien who has been split into twelve pieces across earth’s history, and a story that is about the origins of all life on earth. It’s all cleverly woven together to culminate in a single moment where the brutish Duggan can throw a single punch and save the world (“Possibly the most important punch in history!”)

If there’s a weakness in the story, it might be that the production is a bit enamored in its locale, and especially in the early parts of the story there are a lot of shots of the Doctor and Romana just walking and running around the Paris streets. But I think that’s a small price to pay for all the benefits of taking the cast and crew across the channel for this particular serial.

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