Yesterday saw the latest release in the BBC’s series of Doctor Who DVDs: The City of Death, starring Tom Baker, with Lalla Ward as Romana.
The Doctor and Romana arrive in Paris, 1979, and are enjoying their holiday until a time-jump at the Louve makes the Doctor dizzy and tips him off to an impending attempt to steal the Mona Lisa. They are eventually led to Count Scarlioni, who is definitely planning to steal the painting, despite already having six of them!
Tom Baker is, naturally, everyone’s favourite Doctor, but by the time of City of Death he was pretty much director-proof, and usually allowed to get away with far more clowning than really was good for the show. Here, however, the script is perfectly tailored to encourage his pratfalls, double-takes and sly delivery.
Douglas Adams writes, under the BBC supplied pseudonym of David Agnew. Adams, though justly lauded for his skills in wielding the rapier sharp bon-mot, and using it to slice even the biggest ideas into tiny strips of lunacy, was never féted for his rapid productivity. But, required to undertake a page one re-write of David Fisher’s A Gamble with Time over one weekend, he proved here that he could certainly turn in the goods. A multi-layered plot with some great reversals, bonkers ideas, exceedingly witty dialogue and very memorable characters all brought to life by one of Who's best ever casts (and check out the gratuitous Cleese cameo), all go to create one of the most successful stories in Doctor Who’s history.
City of Death is famous for its location shooting, and just in case you don’t catch that the story is set in Paris, there are plenty of shots of the Doctor and Romana at the Eiffel Tower, having a coffee outside Notre Dame, merrily tossing the Green Cross Code into the gutter when dealing with Parisienne traffic, running into the Louve, down the Champs Elysees and along the banks of the Seine. At one point I could have sworn the BBC had mistakenly cut-in an edition of Holiday ‘79. Was that Cliff Michelmore I saw, sipping coffee, just off-screen? Could have been.
Thankfully, the story itself moves at such a pace that, when viewed in one go, these extensive location shots don’t drag it down. If I was catching an episode a week, though, I might feel cheated. City of Death has other problems, but the few faults with this production lie not in the fondly remembered wobbly sets and rubbery make-up, but, as the the participants in a rather excellent documentary all point out, in the fact that Adams was not an especially gifted storyteller, and a strange choice, really, for story editor. There are lots of big ideas in City of Death, about evolution and the nature of art, which Adams later reused in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but there are story points that make little sense. What, for instance, is the limit of Scaroth’s fragments’ awareness of each other? How did Tancredi, know:
1 - who the Doctor was?
2 - that the Mona Lisa would become the greatest painting in the universe?
3 - there would be a need to make precisely seven copies for Scarlioni to fence?
How can the Doctor and his companions survive on an Earth which has no life? And let’s not gloss over the fact that the whole plot is predicated on an enormous Grandfather paradox. If Scarlioni succeeds and the human race is never created, where does he get the resources to succeed? None of this, though, really matters, as there is always another bit of business from Baker, or one-liner from Adams to prevent us from thinking too hard about the holes.
This is a two disc set - disc one holds the feature, with a very fine looking transfer; better, actually, than many of the earlier releases of later episodes. Also on this disc are the now traditional production subtitles - always fascinating, and now apparently so taken for granted they aren’t even listed on the case. There is also a rather horrible commentary from the director, Michael Hayes, and two of the cast members: Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon. Nice chaps, all terrible luvvies, who, not altogether surprisingly, don’t remember enough about a three week shoot they made twenty-six years ago to talk for a hour and a half about it. Avoid.
Disc two contains a fantastic documentary Paris in the Springtime, about the writing and filming of City of Death, with contributions from many of the cast members, the director, producer, original writer and two of the writers from the new series, Rob Shearsmith and my personal guru, Peter Moffat. The doc has a very funny, irreverent narration, and includes a great high-speed storyboard version of the original, 1920’s-set premise for A Gamble with Time. There are also snippets of interviews with Douglas Adams, talking passionately about his time spent on Doctor Who.
These releases always manage to dig something interesting out of the archives for inclusion. Why film of a Paul Weller lookalike positioning chickens can be saved, yet no-one can find entire seasons of Patrick Troughton’s time on the show is just one of the universe’s many mysteries.
Also, if you look hard, you’ll find some pretty nifty Easter-eggs, including a six and a half minute monologue from Douglas Adams about an epic Parisienne piss-up with Scottish director Ken Green, that resulted in a visit to the doctors and culminates with the line: “it was the type of evening where at 4 o’clock in the morning you wonder how you’re ever going to get back to England.”
Time, and money, well spent.
Category: Movies and TV