Doctor Who - City of Death

Doctor Who City of Death

Doctor Who guru, Steve Hendry, is using the time before the Capaldi Doctor fires up his TARDIS again to review the classics...

Douglas Adams and Doctor Who were clearly made for each other. His spell as script editor alongside producer Graham Williams was always going to be difficult for both of them, succeeding Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe. The BBC, at the behest of Mary Whitehouse and her army of imbeciles, told Williams to dispense with his predecessor’s winning formula for the show and lighten its tone. Julie Gardner once remarked in an interview that she and Russell T Davies decided, in the early days of planning Doctor Who’s 21st century revival, that City of Death was to be the loose template for what they ultimately wanted to put on screen. Hardly surprising, given that the original broadcast for the show achieved viewing figures of 14.5 million. Don’t let the scriptwriter’s pseudonym of David Agnew fool you, this story is 100% Douglas Adams. And as you would expect, everything about it is magnificent.

I have been critical before now of some of Doctor Who’s continental location choices, but City of Death absolutely had to be set and shot in Paris. All of the location work is gorgeous, aided by the fact the show wasn’t well known in France, thus enabling the actors to blend in entirely naturally. The dialogue is mesmeric throughout, some of the conversations between The Doctor, Romana and Duggan in particular are sparkling. When quizzed by Duggan in the cafĂ©- “What’s Scarlioni’s angle?” Doctor- “Have you ever heard of Scarlioni’s angle?” Romana- “I was never any good at geometry.” At times Adams’ script veers dangerously close to pastiche, yet never becomes completely daft. Tom Baker’s Doctor is perfectly suited to this of course, and pretty much sums him up- bonkers on the surface, but with a tough core. This is second phase fourth Doctor in full flow, enjoying travelling with his intellectual equal.

Doctor Who City of Death

Julian Glover, latterly Game of Thrones’ Grand Maester Pycelle, delivers not one but three brilliant performances over the four episodes. Count Scarlioni and Captain Tancredi, Scaroth’s alter egos, are all played beautifully drily, with Baker clearly enjoying every exchange with Glover. The real star of the piece is Tom Chadbon’s Duggan, though. Ultimately the hero, rather than just a comic turn, Duggan is the benchmark third leg to Doctor and companion and has never really been bettered. Very often these types of character meet a sticky end, Rory’s prophetic comment to Amy in The God Complex about Rita could have been about any number of prominent guest characters over the years. Duggan would have bitten the dust under Hinchcliffe and Holmes, that’s for sure. I’m glad he doesn’t, he deserves his farewell at La Tour Eiffel with The Doctor and Romana.

This tale of the start of life on Earth, forged works of art, a violent butler and time loops is utterly bonkers yet solid science-fiction at the same time. That blend is difficult to achieve, yet Douglas Adams seems to manage it with ease. He uses time travel as a key element of the plot’s progress, rather than just as a setting for the story, and surprisingly few Doctor Whos have. But for his untimely passing, he would surely have been the only classic series writer to be invited back to write for “new Who”. It is a tragedy that only two of his stories made it to broadcast, but what a legacy he left in The Pirate Planet and City of Death.

I must give a tip of my fez to Steve Taylor-Bryant here, as an article on John Spencer he wrote a while ago prompted me to write this particular review. Just as The West Wing gave him crucial therapy at a difficult time, Doctor Who was once a vital part of my life in much the same way. I was reminded of City of Death in particular, it is pure, aesthetically beautiful televisual escapism; precisely the kind of therapy I needed. If you come home tired and pissed-off, or just need a bit of a laugh to remove you from a mundane day, I prescribe this mix of Douglas Adams and Doctor Who- it’s a rare and entirely satisfying brew.

Image - BBC.