Doctor Who City of Death

On 26th December 2019, 627 pieces of Classic Doctor Who content were made available to Britbox subscribers. Every Sunday in 2020, our Doctor Who expert, Tony Cross, looks back at some of the classic stories. Here is the Fourth Doctor adventure City of Death  ...

Find Tony's full Classic Doctor Who on Britbox list of reviews here.

Is there a more quotable Doctor Who story in existence than The City of Death? Is there a script as witty or as much fun? Is this the perfect Classic Doctor Who?


We get a wonderful script, which is credited to David Agnew (a BBC pseudonym) but mainly written by Douglas Adams. An exceptional supporting cast: Julian Glover as Count Scarlioni aka Scaroth, last of the Jaggaroth is the main villain of the piece. He's intelligent, dangerously charming and Julian Glover is such an excellent actor that he manages to make Scaroth frightening without ever having to raise his voice. He's a master of delivering threats that sound like polite requests.

Then there's Catherine Schell as the Countess, a very beautiful woman...probably and Tom Chadbon as Duggan, a private detective with a penchant for violence against people and windows. The interplay between the Doctor, Romana and Duggan are blissful to watch, especially the Doctor's frustrating with Duggan continually knocking people out whilst in conversation.

Some might criticize David Graham as Kerensky, the Count's pet scientist for a frankly ridiculous accent but he hits all the right notes in my book and when the Count says that he can't believe that such a large intelligence can live in such a small mind he hits the nail on the head. Kerensky is a classic Doctor Who character, the scientist too focused on his work to ask - or perhaps care - about what that work might lead to.

[Update: In fact, the short conversation between The Doctor and Kerensky is a rather lovely little lecture on scientific responsibility. It's actually much meatier than its tone might make you think.]

There are nice performances from people in minor roles to Kevin Flood as Hermann the Butler is a masterclass in polite psychopathy. [Jeeves with a pistol] We even get a little appearance by the wonderful Peter Halliday as a bemused Renaissance guard with cold hands. Not to mention the best cameo in Doctor Who history in the final episode when John Cleese and Eleanor Bron make a very minor appearance as art critics.

Then there's Paris. The first story filmed outside the UK and having the Doctor run around the streets of Paris, instead of London is nice, even if there's an element of 'Wish You Were Here' about making sure we see all the sights. Just to prove it is Paris. It does feel sometimes as if we are watching 'guerilla filming' as some shots seem to have been done on the cuff, e.g. the scenes on the Metro in episode one.

I was going to say that the problem with that, of course, is that it makes the studio scenes seem a bit flat but it doesn't. The only scenes that don't really work in the studio are those in the cafe when a series of morose gun-wielding fedora-wearing grunts hold up the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan without anyone raising the alarm. They are probably the only dud moments in the story.

[I think the thugs dress sense is based on a lot of French policiers from the 60s and 70s like Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai but I'm prepared to be corrected.]

Finally, we have two pitch-perfect performances by the leads. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward seem to be having the time of their lives, relishing being both in Paris & having a great script to work with. Lalla Ward in a schoolgirl outfit is also a pleasure, although whether the modern series would do this is an interesting point.

Tom gets some wonderful scenes from his first meeting with the Count and Countess. One of the best moments is his cold dismissal of the Countess in the final episode where he talks about her 'discretion and charm'. It's quite nasty in its way, even though it is couched quite lightly.

I've said before that there's no such thing as a perfect Doctor Who story and one can quibble about a few technical things, especially around Scaroth's 'big head' and disguises but frankly it's like looking at a masterpiece and complaining about the frame.

This is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories of all time and it borders on the magnificent at points. Apparently, Doctor Who fans at the time didn't like the story. They thought it was silly, which just goes to show that no one is worse at judging Doctor Who sometimes than its own fans. It's actually a serious story, the fate of mankind is at real risk. It's just couched in a script filled with genuine wit. There's very little actual 'silliness', but lots of wit.

And that I like. So if you're a new series fan and you've never watched an old episode you could do much, much worse than dig this one out for a watch.

[update] I'd stick to that judgement to some degree, although perhaps less so after this watch. It seems to me there's a gaping plot problem here, which is if Scaroth succeeds then he's surely creating a time loop. He goes back in time, stops his ship exploding, and his people getaway but if he stops his ship exploding he can't have been splintered in time and built a time machine in a 1979 Parisian basement. That means he can't have gone back in time to save his ship, which means his ship still explodes splintering him in time ad infinitum. This timey-wimey stuff isn't quite as straightforward as it looks.

But it's still great fun, eminently quotable and rather beautiful in its way. Whatever happens to Doctor Who, we'll always have Paris.]

Tony Cross is the creator of the wonderful Centurion Blog's found HERE and HERE.

Image – BBC.

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