Saturday, 25 March 2017

City of Death written by David Agnew and directed by Michael Hayes


This story in a nutshell: Marrying Douglas Adams’ comic wit and creativity to Graeme Williams’ rock solid plotting, this is as good as Doctor Who gets.

Teeth and Curls: Tom Baker spends the whole story walking the fine line between genius and lunacy and sparkles in every second of his screen time. The truth of the matter is that there really isn’t that much difference between how he is portrayed in City of Death and the two stories either side of it, it’s just that his surroundings are much more in tune with this level of madness. City of Death is crazy Tom Baker hour writ large, it isn’t a last-ditch attempt to tell a sixties Dalek story where his lunacy feels jarringly out of place of a pantomime on an alien world where his madness tips the whole thing over into farce. Everything feels precisely balanced to show off the fourth Doctor during this period at his best; his verbal sparring with Scaroth, a moral debate with Kerensky, eating away at the Countesses fears, exploring a romantic city with Romana, insulting the hired help that keeps talking with his fists. Tom Baker is elevated by the stunning performances around him, he raises his already impressive game to match them. ‘Which came first the chicken or the egg?’, ‘Duggan what are you doing... that's a Louis Kearns!’, ‘1979, more of a table wine’, ‘I've been threatened, thumped and abducted, I've discovered alien technology and been through two time slips...’ During season seventeen it is easy to laugh at the Doctor at times as he trips over and indulges in funny voices and eccentric outbursts but throughout City of Death you aren’t just laughing with him, you’re grabbing onto his scarf and dancing your way through the story with him.

Lovely Lalla: It’s hard to believe that this is only her second story in the role, both Lalla Ward and Romana seem remarkably confident for such a short stint in Doctor Who but when you are handed dialogue as exquisite as this how can you do anything but relax into it and enjoy the ride? It’s an assured turn, it is almost a shock when Creature from the Pit reveals a Mary Tamm-esque ice queen, the unfortunate result of filming these stories in a different order to how they were transmitted. This feels like the first steps of a love story that was doomed to fail, Lalla and Tom dancing through the streets of Paris together. Never mind if their marriage is short lived, at this point they were desperately in love and that spills over on screen magnificently. The chemistry between a Doctor and his assistant has rarely been more intimate. When Romana is away from the Doctor she proves that she is more than strong enough to hold up the show, forming a hilarious relationship with Duggan, working for the Count and generally behaving like the Doctor would if he wasn’t swanning off to Renaissance Italy to figure out the background of the plot. Romana treats are plentiful, her opening of the puzzle box, her quiet insistence he says ‘world’ and not ‘universe’, the charming ‘bouquet’ scene, any scene where she's gently patronising her assistant and his bunched fists, the way she bobs the torch as they run away from the Louvre in episode two...

The Good: So many of my favourite scenes appear in City of Death that it is stuffed full of magical moments you just want to watch over an again to remind yourself why Doctor Who was the best show ever. It is one of those stories where you can justifiably do that rather than sifting out the diamonds in the rough. My favourite bit is a scene that is never mentioned and yet for me it epitomises everything that is so wonderful about the Graeme Williams era, Douglas Adam's writing and Doctor Who in general. It is the scene where Kerensky enters the hidden room in the cellar and looks up at all the copies of the Mona Lisa's and stands there, aghast and exclaims ‘Mona Lisa's!’ It makes me crack up every time I watch it. Only Doctor Who could get away with something this absurd, this ingenious, this perfect. Such a simple line and yet it would seem out of place in almost any other show and every other era of Doctor Who. It’s an ‘only Doctor Who’ moment where you don’t have to make any allowances for its absurdity.

This is Doctor Who: The Movie before the Movie actually happened, except with genuine wit, surprises, character motivations and a dense plot. A story so sumptuous to look at you are disappointed to come back to the drab old world we call reality at the end. People bemoan the scenes of the Doctor and Romana wandering through Paris are padding and just showing off the location...why wouldn’t you want to do that? The material speaks for itself. Paris is a gorgeous city, full of wondrous sights. Why not put on the screen for everyone to enjoy? How the story is in no hurry to get to the plot and simply enjoy the atmosphere whilst the Doctor and Romana take a holiday is all part of its uniqueness. Michael Hayes directs these scenes with a romantic edge, letting the teenage thrill of the leads off screen relationship explode in the French Capital. Dudley Simpson provides a score that ties my tummy in knots it’s so perfect, a shattering contrast to his regular plod-plod-plodding music...did they take him along on the shoot with them and let him get wrapped up in the stylish atmosphere of it all? Along with Mindwarp it is one of my favourite scores for the show, arguably the best because it touches on every genre from comedy to drama to science fiction. Simpson strides these genres with effortless confidence, in his twilight days he reminds the audience why he has been scoring Doctor Who for as long as he has. I love it when they are walking towards the Louvre arguing about the Braxiatel Collection, I love it when they run off the subway hand in hand. I love the shot through the postcard rack. I love the high angles as they dodge the traffic. I love it when they sit outside the cafe and chat about time slips. It’s all so absurd, two Time Lords deciding to have a nice holiday instead of saving the universe... it's just so wonderful.

The plot is hard as nails perfect too. It encompasses much, has many layers, is bred into the very fabric of human existence itself and yet still manages to tell a hugely enjoyable adventure story in the process. The Jagorath spaceship exploding caused the birth of the human race and scattered Scaroth throughout time where he pushed the human race forwards to a point where they could help him go back in time and stop it all happening. It's so bogglingly audacious It’s Doctor Who throwing the highest concepts in the air and shrugging as though it does this all the time. It takes brilliant ideas like the Doctor popping in for a chat with Leonardo Da Vinci, the man drawing a picture of a Time-Lady with the crack through the face to explain the time slip, seven Mona Lisa's hanging out in a basement, a ruthlessly inept Detective who punches out everyone the Doctor talks to but ultimately throws the punch that saves history, a suave and elegant bad guy who is involved with a multi million dollar heist to wipe out humanity…and best of all the Doctor dodging traffic trying to hail a taxi screaming out ‘is no-one interested in history?’ City of Death is the work of incredibly skilled writers with formidable imagination and a real sense of humour. I could never hope to have a hundredth of the talent of Douglas Adams and Graeme Williams (and let’s throw David Fisher in there too for his subtle contribution). 

Duggan feels like an aberration but he’s part of the point. He’s one of those characters that turns up in Doctor Who just to complicate the plot (although he does provide a great deal of explanation in episode one). Punching out scientists, touching the laser beams, smashing a vase over the Countesses head…he bumbles from one scene to another, getting in the way and trying to keep up. The secret of Duggan is that he is not only utterly charming because of the Tom Chadbon’s marvellous comic turn in the part but the character is ultimately an ace up the sleeve on the part of the writers, the very thing that he is criticised for doing throughout the story is what ultimately saves the day. We should all hang around with somebody as useless as Duggan, you never know when he is going to be needed. 

Julian Glover is still thrilling audiences on screen to this day and it’s easy to see why he is never out of work. His controlled performance is crucial to the story's success because if he had chosen to play it up the story would have descended into a horrible farce but as it is I totally believed Scaroth's story. Menace is the key word and the thing that is missing from so many villains in this era. He refuses to be a pantomime villain, even when the lines point in that direction. Scaroth is elegant, charming, wealthy, indulgent of the Doctor’s excesses…and he will also destroy all human life on this planet just to suit his purposes. And you absolutely believe that humanity is an irrelevance to him, just a means to getting where he needs to be. What a fantastic character.

Result: It has been noted that just when you think City of Death cannot get any better that John Cleese and Elanor Bron appear. Their scene has never thrilled me as it has others because this story is simply packed with scenes as good. It’s just another to add to the list. The Doctor headbutting Duggan’s gun in the gallery. The close up of the detailed eye of the Jaggaroth mask at the end of episode one. The saxophone music that plays when the Countess appears. The centuries that divide me shall be undone. The pan across prehistoric Earth in the opening seconds. The effect of the chicken and the egg and the Doctor asking the obvious question. The Doctor’s reaction to the cold of the guard’s hands. Duggan’s method of opening a bottle of wine. The telephone book. Too much joy, too little time I guess the only bad thing you could say about City of Death is that it touches upon genius to such an extent that it leaves the majority of this season, of the era it takes part in and I hope you don’t think it crass of me to say but the remainder the of the classic series a little embarrassed to exist beside it. Ambitious, funny, atmospheric, perfectly performed, directed and scored Doctor Who. Little more needs to be said: 10/10