City of Death

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 105, starring Tom Baker)
  • written by Douglas Adams, David Fisher & Graham Williams
    under the name "David Agnew"
  • directed by Michael Hayes
  • produced by Graham Williams
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: Paris, 1979. The Doctor and Romana abandon their holiday to investigate a series of cracks appearing in the fabric of time itself, and soon uncover an overly elaborate scheme to steal the Mona Lisa. What is the true purpose of Count Scarlioni's machinations? Will the Doctor's interference put all of Paris under threat? And will Private Investigator Duggan ever learn the true value of art?

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Julian Glover (Count Scarlioni), Tom Chadbon (Duggan), and director Michael Hayes.
  • "Paris in the Springtime" making-of documentary (44 min.) adding Catherine Schell (The Countess), co-writer David Fisher,
    co-script editor Anthony Read, "The Pirate Planet" director Pennant Roberts, fan professionals Steven Moffat and Robert Shearman,
    and previously-shot interviews with the late co-writer / script editor Douglas Adams.
  • Raw BW studio footage (20 min.) featuring bloopers, deleted and extended scenes
  • Pop-up Production Note subtitles for main feature
  • Pop-up Production Note subtitles for raw footage
  • "Prehistoric Landscapes" (2 min.) - more unused model footage
  • "Chicken Wrangler" (3 min.) - more comedic raw film footage
  • Photo Gallery (9 min.)
  • "Eye on Blatchford" (13 min.) - spoof featurette
  • DVD ROM 1980 Doctor Who Annual .pdf
  • Bonus Douglas Adams interview Easter Eggs

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

"City of Death" can quite easily be ranked as the most fun story of season 17. It is visually exciting, quite humorous, and also presents an interesting sci-fi concept - Art theft and fraud through time-travel and alien gadgetry. It's original, and more importantly, in the end it is used to express the thematic question: What is genuine quality in art?

Conspiring Elements

Character-wise, we are dealt a lot of stereotypes with little dimension: The brutal body-guard, the absent-minded scientist, the thumping police detective. Thankfully though, the story has the finest cast of the season which more than compensates. Julian Glover and Catherine Schell play their roles as Count and Countess with absolute conviction, making their characters extremely watchable and enjoyable. Peter Halliday makes his role as a rather simple 16th century swordsman enjoyable and believable through a great deal of understatement. David Graham and Tom Chadbon, though threatening to go over the top, remain highly entertaining nonetheless. A cameo by John Cleese and Eleanor Bron also remains a highlight to look forward to in the final episode.

The TARDIS takes a backseat to the introduction of the characters; as our heroes' mode of time travel, it becomes something the villain needs to discover about them, and members of the audience unfamiliar with the TARDIS will have to wait until the later half of the story to discover it with him, when the police box proceeds to demonstrate its ability to materialize in many different times and locations and deliver the satisfaction that may have been missing earlier. Even then, the interior features as only a single still frame (probably pulled from "The Creature From the Pit" [story no. 106] or some other previously shot footage), used to construct a shot of the Doctor looking at the scanner screen. And since K9 has been banished to the TARDIS interior for the story, he also does not appear.

The Doctor and Romana are instead presented to viewers as mysterious, educated travelers, whose affinity for matters of time, not to mention ability to travel through it, slowly leaks out through the dialogue as the story unfolds. This very different approach works quite well in this particular story, and makes for a nice change.

This story is also able to boast a tour-de-force from incidental music composer Dudley Simpson, whose highly memorable Paris touring theme leads an exceptional score. Also of note musically is a wonderful piece for the prehistoric Jagaroth spaceship scene that helps cement in place the bookend nature of the story's structure, and some very enjoyable Renaissance music complete with a period rendition of the fourth Doctor's theme.

Script to Scrutiny

The strengths of this script clearly lie in its sense of investigating mysteries, its humour, and its art appreciation theme. Its biggest flaws show through after the mysteries are fully revealed and the on-screen plot needs to shift to action. Once it is revealed that the Count intends to steal the Mona Lisa, the Doctor abandons the setting and leaves it up to Romana and Duggan to foil the Count's plan. They merely get a few token scenes that completely lack any encounter with the Count or his henchmen, and they completely fail to come to grips with that plot strand.

The Doctor continues to investigate the main villain and discover the plan behind the plan, but upon his return to Paris, he has nothing significant to do during the remainder of the story other than pilot the TARDIS one more time. His all too brief exchange with Paris policemen outside the Louvre is a hint of an interesting way of developing an action plot, if only a greater collaboration with the police had been expanded on. Too much plot-time is wasted wandering around Paris, and indeed chasing after the Count through a number of imaginative and visually stimulating settings, but the Doctor himself is reduced to a Doomsayer, nattering on and on like a broken record. It becomes slightly reminiscent of "The Time Monster" (story no. 64) and half a dozen other Jon Pertwee tales, although thankfully never becomes quite as irritating under Tom Baker's delivery. The real disappointment is his lack of having anything concrete to do. It is left to Romana and Hermann to save Paris from the Count's presence, and Duggan to *supposedly* take the action to save the day.

The biggest problem with the story is the farcical level of importance placed on not changing history, which if not carefully checked, threatens to dredge up the old anti-heroism plaguing the William Hartnell era. Indeed, note that our heroes care nothing for the fate of the Jagaroth race. Thankfully, it is believable that the Count is enough of an amateur at time travel to concoct the scheme he does, and it is believable that Romana is too inexperienced to know any better herself, relying on her mis-education at the Time Lord Academy on Gallifrey. The Doctor, however, should know better, but seems to have forgotten what little he learned during "Inferno" (story no. 54):

"Yes, of course, of course.... An infinity of universes.... ergo, an infinite number of choices.... So free will is not an illusion after all!"

That season seven story seemed to indicate that although the Time Lords may have conquered Time and Space, they still have something to learn about freedom of choice, and in this particular story, the Doctor seems to need to relearn that as well.

The second part of the farce of the time travel conundrum of "City of Death" is the importance placed on Scaroth's contributions to history. Creating all life, building the pyramids, prompting Mankind to each technological advancement ever made....? If the human race is too stupid to make its own achievements, it's even more ridiculous to think that one villainous alien could be the source of it all either. And if the explosion of his spacecraft doesn't trigger the organization of life on this planet, there are plenty of other natural and extra-terrestrial events keen to help. Any good comet hit during an electrical storm will probably do, if the Fendahl or the Daemons don't get there first.

Besides, if Scaroth succeeded in stopping his past-self from splintering, he would simply branch off onto a parallel history in a parallel universe. He would, in effect, be saving his double and his double's race, doing for them what he could no longer do for himself. While they "prosper" in one universe, he would still be splintered in the other. Mankind and all life would still evolve in both universes, even if a little slower in the one without help from the Jagaroth. Personally, I think that one sounds a little healthier.

And so, feeling comfortable with my own view of choices in time-travel, I find it very difficult to root for the Doctor and party in the final stages of this story. More to the point, I think, would be the fact our villain has demonstrated himself to be a murderer, a thief, and a war-time spacecraft pilot. More worthy of development might have been an attempt to see the Jagaroth safely off of our prehistoric planet, and back to their own interstellar political spheres. Ian Scoones' superb model work is a definite highlight of the story, and I'm 100% supportive of his efforts to showcase as high a level of modelwork on the show as possible. But I do find it sad that the story behind the model work in episode four is little more than a re-run of what happened in episode one - a trap that many science fiction time travel stories fall into.

But in the end, it must be said that director Michael Hayes manages to bring a lot of fun together into this piece, and even where it may be lacking in delivering great action to the adventure, there is a lot of creative camera work to emphasize the drama, and eye candy from the scenic shoots in Paris and the electronic effects wizardry of Dave Jervis in the studio. "City of Death" is highly enjoyable, typically sits well with most Doctor Who fans, and ranks fairly highly with me also.

International Titles:

Deutsch: (Kunststadt)

Magyar: (Művészet városa)

Français: (La ville de l'art)

Русский: (Город искусства)

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC in the U.S.
PAL for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Creature From the Pit"

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