First broadcast 29/9-20/10/79 starring Tom Baker
Without seeming too obvious, and without being too fannish, City of Death has, well it has an ethos, a life, a spirit all of its own – like a wine, it has a bouquet.
I’ll wait for your collective eyebrows to come down. But Douglas Adams’ gorgeous four-parter in the last year of the Seventies is a beautiful love letter to both Lalla Ward and Tom Baker but also to the repercussions of time travel. It’s also one of my very earliest memories of Doctor Who.
The reveal of Scaroth, last of the Jaggaroth, at the end of episode one made a huge impression on my young mind and lived with me vividly for many, many years. So whilst you could argue that nostalgia plays a big part in this choice (and, why not?), rewatching City of Death as an adult (which, technically, I am) offers up a hefty, not to mention slightly hilarious, reward.
Tom and Lalla are divine together here and work, as a couple, at their best. Paris seems to agree with the lovers, as does the work of Hitchhikers author, Douglas Adams. From their wonderful opening bouquet gambit on the Eiffel Tower to their joyous cafe banter (“Two glasses of water, make them doubles”), the pair cannot but help to raise a smile and a guffaw.
There’s also the huge laughs from lines like “What a wonderful butler, he’s so violent!” and “You’re a beautiful woman probably,” from the second episode, though my personal favourite gag comes in the first instalment between the Time Persons: “Have you ever heard of Scarlioni’s angle?” asks The Fourth Doctor, to which Romana replies, “No, I was never any good at geometry.” Impeccable.
And just sit back and drink in the performances from the rest of the cast. Julian Glover does a fine line in white suit smooth villainy as Scarlioni and hovers between gleeful criminal to detestable killer in a heartbeat. Another one of Who‘s great one-offs (something I seem to be saying every week – but it’s true). Likewise, Catherine Schell does a fine line in cigarette-holding moll glamour as the Countess. A somewhat tragic character. And completing the triumverate, is Tom Chadbon as the irrepressibly, punchy and raincoat-wearing, Duggan.
He’s such a fun character, slightly dim but most definitely on the side of right. Duggan is an Adams classic, a satire on Seventies television cops. In any other story, his performance may have not worked, veering on the side of the pantomimic but with Tom and Lalla in tow, the threesome make for an endearing bunch. A great pity he wasn’t asked to travel with the Gallifreyans a little more in the TARDIS (though they probably had other things on their mind*).
The story itself has some great notions too, with the use of the multiple Mona Lisas making for a delightful crime romp and the splintering of Scaroth a fascinating science-fiction ideal, coupled with the creature’s desire to change the course of history. Time travel plays a lovely part of the tale as The Fourth Doctor pops back to sixteenth century Florence, to take part in some nefarious graffiti work.
There’s also some great model work here, notably in the rather brilliant opening moments as the Jaggaroth ship explodes – although our world, it’s a very alien and evocative start. Paris and its vibrancy and joie de vivre are captured eloquently through the terrific (and, for its time, mightily unusual) location work. Tom and Lalla parading around the streets and the Metro add an urgency but also fill out the story’s engagingly colourful palatte too.
And, finally, no discussion of City of Death would be complete with a mention of the exquisite soundtrack from Dudley Simpson. His melodies slip and slide all overt the four parts like a sexy snake, a love theme for The Fourth Doctor and Romana. Certainly one of Doctor Who‘s best, if not memorable, scores.
City of Death is a story celebrated by many, and it’s really not hard to see why. It’s often cited as an adventure you can show to new fans as an example of the “classic” series, a gateway drug, if you will. It has no baggage, no previous knowledge necessary – you can just plump anyone down in front of it, and they’ll have an absolute blast like no other. And without wanting to finish this piece as I started, it is marvellous. Absolutely marvellous.