Excellent viewing and one of the real classics from the Tom Baker years, this is an inspired choice for release on DVD.
City of Death is the second story from the Seventeenth season of Dr Who, made at a time when the show was really flagging in terms of quality of stories and production. However this story is undoubtedly the stand out from the season by far, managing to combine all the necessary Dr Who elements with great success.
The obvious starting point is the story's main setting - Paris. This was the first ever time that the production team had used an overseas location and it works very effectively, giving the story an exotic and sophisticated ambience as well as tying in with one of the main storyline elements, involving the world famous painting, the Mona Lisa...Ok, some of the locations used are the obvious tourist attractions e.g. Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Metro, but they still work and are usually intrinsic to the story.
Writer Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams (under the joint pseudonym David Agnew) have come up with an intriguing and original plotline. In Paris, 1979, the seemingly human Count Scarloni is in reality Scaroth, the last surviving member of the Jagaroth, an ancient race whose spacecraft became stranded on planet Earth thousands of years previously. Attempting take-off, the space ship exploded, killing all of the crew apart from Scaroth, whose being was splintered across different time zones throughout Earth's history. These twelve aspects have been guiding the development of mankind to a point where time travel is possible. In Paris, 1979, Scarloni/Scaroth is on the verge of perfecting a machine that will enable him to travel back in time and prevent himself from destroying the ship. However to do this, he still needs to finance his work and this involves stealing the expensive Mona Lisa...To find out more you will of course have to watch!
What of the other successful elements? There are excellent performances from the regular and guest cast. Tom Baker gives a more controlled and reigned in Doctor than some of his other recent performances (it could be down to the script) but not without his customary lunatic behaviour and humour. The scenes in which he baits the Count and Countess are particularly amusing.
Lalla Ward as the second incarnation of Romana makes an excellent companion and intellectual equal to the Doctor, as opposed to some of the more dim-witted screaming girl assistants of past adventures. She also sports a rather nice schoolgirl outfit which I'm sure will appeal to all male heterosexual fans of the show. Well alright, female and gay fans can appreciate these things too but from a more aesthetic point of view, shall we say. There's a strong and likeable rapport between both the Dr and Romana in this story (maybe reflected by the fact that Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were soon to become partners in real life).
The Dr and Romana team up with a Bulldog Drummond type detective, Duggan, who is on the trail of Count Scarloni. Portrayed with dry humour and appropriate thuggish tendencies by Tom Chadbon, Duggan makes an excellent foil to the Dr and Romana. I think he would have made a very interesting addition to the TARDIS crew, certainly more likeable and charismatic than the precocious and bratty Adric who was to regrettably materialise next season.
Julian Clover is aristocratic, charming and menacing in equal parts as the villainous Count Scarloni/Scaroth. The feline-featured Catherine Schell is his sophisticated, diva-ish wife (dig the cigarette holder!) who is blind to her husband's true ambitions and plans. Both form a suitably villainous pair.
We also get a lovely cameo from John "Basil Fawlty" Cleese and Eleanor Bron as a pair of art lovers, in one of my favourite ever Dr Who scenes. The Dr's time craft, the TARDIS, as always in the form of a police box, is parked in the corner of a gallery. Thinking it's just another exhibit, the art lovers spout lots of typically pretentious comments, before the Dr, Romana and Duggan dash inside the TARDIS and dematerialise, leaving the aforementioned pair completely un-phased and branding the experience "absolutely exquisite". Hilarious stuff.
City of Death boasts some excellent dialogue of the witty and sparkling, variety another definite highlight. For instance:
Countess (speaking of the Dr): My dear, I don't think he's as stupid as he seems.
Count: My dear, nobody could be as stupid as HE seems...
The special effects are also pretty impressive, given that this was an era when the BBC had approximately 20p per production to work with (compare to the much more high budget new series). Of note are the sequences featuring the spider-like Jagoroth spacecraft. Scaroth in his true guise does look rather like he's been constructed out of spaghetti, but that's part of the appeal. What I still can't work out is how Scaroth the alien has a much larger head than when in his human guise as the Count; how does he squeeze his real head into the mask? One of the great unsolved mysteries of the cosmos.
That just leaves me to mention the DVD extras - a slightly mixed affair. There's a good in-depth feature on the making of the story "Paris in the Springtime". "Paris W12" includes some interesting behind the scenes bits. "Chicken Wrangler" is a bit of a waste of time and I didn't find "Eye on...Blatchford" such an amusing skit as "Oh Mummy" (based on another Baker tale "Pyramids of Mars"). The story commentary is lively but I can't help feeling that Tom Baker would have made a more interesting contribution - these days he seems hard to track down!
However all in all this makes for a wonderful story and DVD - to be recommended even to the uninitiated Dr Who viewer and a great introduction to the Tom Baker years. Definitely one of the best Dr Who releases so far.