Yes, still more from DWM #474…
A spaceship model, blessed with nifty moving parts, explodes successfully – even spectacularly – on a well-realised cauldron of a landscape. Up the top of the Eiffel Tower, Tom Baker and Lalla Ward attack every line of dialogue with the excitement of being on day one of their holidays. At Dupleix Métro Station, a train pulls in accompanied by the best ever-incidental music, mustering like it’s never mustered before. And then (you don’t need me to tell you this) for no reason at all John Cleese and Eleanor Bron waft in.
City of Death knows it’s something special. It communicates that with every aspect of its being. It’s as if, from conception, the four-parter from 1979 was designed to be received with best-ever viewing figures and awarded a permanent seat at Doctor Who‘s top table. It doesn’t matter what comes next, we’ll always have Paris.
Despite filming in an usually cloud-locked City of Light, everything seems tinged with sunshine. Everyone is happy. This is going to be the time of their lives. Sure, the Doctor has been here before, but Doctor Who hasn’t. In fact it’s rarely gone beyond the catchment of the M25. So the excitement cannot be contained. “Never mind the time-slip,” says our hero, “we’re on holiday!” And thus we have Doctor Who‘s version of those old sitcom specials, wherein cast and situation are spuriously transplanted to a foreign location just… just because it’s a special.
But that’s not how the ensemble felt at rehearsals. Guest star Julian Glover (Count Scarlioni/Scaroth) says their initial reaction to the script (exquisitely bodged together at the last minute by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams and put out under a pseudonym) was that it was “slow and pedestrian”. Tom Baker led the company in tweaks and refinements. How profound they were and whether or not they were ever really required, it’s hard to tell, but this process of collaboration is perhaps why he, in particular, appears so committed to the production. That vigour and delight as Tom and Lalla chew over their repartee. Then later, the Doctor arrives in Da Vinci’s home, picking up the artist’s odds and sods as he strolls around, turning over that, taking a sniff of this, really inhabiting the moment. True, there’s maybe one too many scenes of our hero tearing it up in Scarlioni’s drawing room, and when he kicks off again in Part Four, it does feel as if we’re caught in a time-slip. But it’s entirely forgivable. Tom’s having a ball.
In contrast to this, Glover plays the baddy with an unusual conviviality, delivering much of the Count’s dialogue with the reassuring tone of a children’s TV presenter. Striding through the regular bombardments of madness, he is often the most reasonable figure on screen. There are moments, of course. Gently cajoling Kerensky, or needling the Countess as if having the upper-hand in a tiny spat about whose turn it is to make a brew: “No, my dear. You tell Hermann.” And although there are clues to his real identity – specifically his sweet devotion to the colour green (his matching cravat and pocket hankie, that kimono, that glass of crème de menthe) – it’s still an appalling shock when he claws open his own face at the end of Part One.
What City of Death has, it has an ethos, a life. A reality that underpins it. Sure, it’s a screwy reality – wherein gangsters tout guns in public and wear black hats, and we only encounter one person with a French accent (that tour guide in the Louvre) during our runaround in Paris – but it’s superbly crafted.
There’s an exchange between the Doctor and the Countess at the end of the story which I believe demonstrates this. When he asks her how long she’s been married to Scarlioni, she hedges a reply: “Long enough.” It makes him smile. “Long enough?” he echoes back. “I like that. Discretion and charm. So civilised. So terribly unhelpful.” Her turn again: “Discretion and charm. I couldn’t live without it, especially in matters concerning the Count.” And so they continue, fencing around this phrase – until one draws blood. “Every man must have his hobby,” parries the Countess as the Doctor lists her husband’s crimes. “Man?” he says, making his strike. “Are you sure of that? A man with one eye and green skin, eh? Ransacking the art treasures of history to help him make a machine to reunite him with his people, the Jagaroth, and you didn’t notice anything? How discreet, how charming.” It’s killer isn’t it? A beautifully-honed duel, based around the unlikely of discretion and charm. City of Death maybe doesn’t have so much of the former, but it’s overflowing with the latter.
The charm of Duggan, who is perhaps the only strong-arm in the programme’s entire history who doesn’t end up learning violence solves nothing. The charm of Dudley Simpson’s travelogue music, which manages to evoke the essence of Paris without ever reaching for an accordion. The charm of Romana, opening the Countess’s Chinese puzzle box with a couple of unlikely twists and a chuckle, and wondering where the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows have gone.
For some reason, DWM‘s readers haven’t yet voted it the very greatest Doctor Who story of all time. But that’s okay. City of Death is on holiday. It’s having a high old time. It doesn’t care. It’s Doctor Who‘s true original. Put any other adventure under the x-ray and you’ll find, written across them in felt-pen: ‘THIS IS A FAKE’.