DOCTOR: I say, what a wonderful butler. He’s so violent.
This story is a poisoned chalice to review or talk about because it is one of the stories which have been written about the most. City of Death is frequently praised and celebrated. For very good reasons: it deserves them. But that does leave me with a problem. How do I say anything fresh and innovative about a story as well-documented as this. I don’t want to go over old ground or fall into the trap that so many people do of trying to write in the style of Douglas Adams. Best to muddle through it in my usual amiable, awkward and surreal style and see what emerges.
In all honesty, I would rather copy down a load of quotes from the story and then say something like, “You see these quotes, yes? Good, aren’t they? The serial is better, so stop wasting mine and your time and just stick the DVD on and watch it!” But this would be a cop-out. So you unlucky lot will just have to endure another unreview. But I will include quotes to relieve you of the tedium.
COUNTESS: My dear, I don’t think he’s as stupid as he seems.
SCARLIONI: My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems.
What I said about copying Adams’ style is an important point to raise. This is something which is rife amongst the more amateurish Whovian writers. Douglas Adams has enough stylistic quirks that any writer can do a pastiche of his work but the problem is that none of these wannabes have the intelligence, wit or sheer humanity that Adams had. When it is done badly, it is like reading turgid fan fiction (Zaphod Beeblebrox and Dirk Gently visit the pub with much hilarity not happening etc) or that awful And Another Thing… written by Eoin Colfer. When it is done well, it sings. Read the novelisations of Adams’ Doctor Who stories by Gareth Roberts and James Goss, they pull off the impossible by making you believe you are reading him. Yes, they add their own styles and quirks to the books but it is in harmony rather than a discordant bastardisation.
So. City of Death. In this case, Paris. The Fourth Doctor and Romana are mooching about the boulevards when they discover that some rascal is mucking about with time. This rascal also have six genuine copies of the Mona Lisa, and he plans to steal the original. As you do.
KERENSKY: I know what I’m doing. I am the foremost authority on temporal theory in the whole world.
DOCTOR: Well, that’s a very small place when you consider the size of the universe.
The first impressive thing about this story is that it was actually shot in Paris. The outside parts at least. The story is improved by the location shots. This is a moot thing however since this story is one of the best Doctor Who stories.
The baddie is Count Scarlioni as played by Julian Glover. A legendary actor. Scarlioni, however, is really called Scaroth of the Jagaroth. An alien disguised as a human on Doctor Who. Shocker, right?
DOCTOR: If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s being tortured by someone with cold hands.
Glover is urbane and marvellous as Scarlioni. Very much a James Bond villain on a strict budget. As Scaroth, however, what we get is Julian Glover voicing a cyclopesque green-tentacled thing in a sharp suit. The Scarlioni persona is just him in a rubbery human mask. And the tentacle mask is just an extra doing what Glover refused to do.
At no point during this story does Scaroth sing Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life as he ruminates on the fate of the Jagaroth. Pity.
The human mask leads to a lot of apt questions: Just how does he get away being married to the Countess (Catherine Schell) without her seeing him naked in all his tentaclish glory? Do they have sex and if so does she think that his green body is what all men look like? Does Scarlioni tell his wife that he has a headache whenever she feels frisky? If they don’t have sex, is the Countess reduced to killing her sexual urges by gnawing on raw potatoes?
No wonder she smokes like it is going out of fashion.
For some reason, I am tempted to write a version of Fifty Shades of Grey with Scarlioni and the Countess as the stars. Fifty Splinters of Scaroth?
Another mask question, one that is possibly more relevant than the others, how does he fit his tentacled head into that mask when it is bigger than his human head? Where does his human teeth come from? How does his single eye look out of two eyeholes?
Enough of the questions…
DOCTOR: Ah. Well, it’s my job, you see. I’m a thief. This is Romana, she’s my accomplice. And this is Duggan. He’s the detective who has been kind enough to catch us. You see our two lines of work dovetail beautifully.
Scaroth’s plan is to steal the Mona Lisa and then sell it to seven different collectors. He has got Leonardo da Vinci to knock out six copies. “How he do this?” I hear you struggle to articulate. How he do it is like this: Scaroth was splintered across time when his space ship exploded many millions of years ago. One of these splinters commissioned da Vinci to paint six extra copies so that Scaroth can flog them once humanity has the technology to send him back in time to prevent his ship from exploding in the first place.
Good plan, eh? No, ‘fraid not. Here is why:
a) How does Scaroth know that the Mona Lisa will be worth any money in the future?
b) Even if the original artist copies the Mona Lisa, the brush strokes won’t match the original. The collectors will have the painting looked over and they will see that it isn’t the real thing.
c) If Scaroth manages to save his ship, this will mean that they won’t be a future version of himself to go back in time and save himself, therefore the ship will explode anyway. Rinse and repeat.
d) Since point C was such a good one, I will summarise it: Grandfather Paradox!
e) Erm, that’s it.
But hey, this wouldn’t be Doctor Who if the villain’s plan was actually workable or worthwhile.
ROMANA: Where are we going?
DOCTOR: Are you talking philosophically or geographically?
DOCTOR: Then we’re going to lunch.
Tom Baker is enchantingly daft in City of Death. He is bringing out his best and, dare I say it, most nuanced performance ever. Sublime.
Romana, the second one, is played by Lalla Ward. She is also enchanting. As different from Mary Tamm as Peter Capaldi is from Willy Wonka. Still aristocratic but with a more girly personality. I prefer Tamm but Ward is pretty good too.
ROMANA: Well, at least on Gallifrey we can capture a good likeness. Computers can draw.
DOCTOR: What? Computer pictures? You sit in Paris and talk of computer pictures?
What more can I say? If my unreview and the quotes don’t convince you to watch City of Death, I don’t know what else will.
Sit back in your favourite Louis Quinze and enjoy the story.