on 7 May 2006
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.
on 9 November 2005
There are very few people who don't love CITY OF DEATH. I could point out that the sets for primeval Earth in episode 4 look pretty awful, that Professor Kerensky appears to be giving an impromptu impression of some kind of a tree when he's being killed, and that it's rather embarrassing that not one of the customers bats an eyelid when gun-toting gangsters threaten the Doctor in a Parisian cafe...yes,I COULD point this out, but it would be extremely churlish, as everything else in the story is(ahem)"exquisite".
Everyone is at the peak of their game here. Trust me, when I say that it's possible to wax lyrical about the cast, direction, incidental music and script for several million more words than I'm allowed for the length of this review. I'll confine myself to mentioning that Tom Baker gives one of his most charming, inventive and energised performances; that Julian Glover gives a masterclass in how to play a James Bond-style super-villain; that Dudley Simpson's Gershwin-inspired score thrums through your head for days after you've heard it; that the cinematic location shooting in Paris is terrific and that HITCH HIKERS' GUIDE TO THE GALAXY creator Douglas Adams' dialogue is some of the best ever in 42 years of televised DOCTOR WHO. Oh, and John Cleese turns up in a cameo in episode 4...what more could you want?
The extras are pretty wonderful as well. The good natured commentary by director Michael Hayes, Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon is nice to have, as are the informative production subtitles. There's a sporadically amusing spoof documentary "Eye on Blatchford" detailing another surviving Jagaroth's attempts to integrate himself into human society. A couple of interesting Behind the Scenes features showing the model work and a frustrating-looking sequence detailing Ian Scoones special effects work with both real and mechanical chickens!
There are at least 4 Easter eggs on the 2nd disc, but the real highlights are unquestionably the revealing documentary on the making of the serial: PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME, and the poor quality, but nonetheless fascinating studio footage which gives a unique portrait of Tom Baker's shifting moods and a sense of what it was like to be there during the recording sessions.
Some people will lament the absence of Baker and Lalla Ward from the extras, but personally, I don't feel short-changed. One gets the feeling that the discs are really more about celebrating the work of Douglas Adams, and there's plenty of footage of him being interviewed from '85 and '92. It's pleasing for DR WHO fans to learn that he retained his affection for the show, even after the fame and acclaim that HITCH HIKERS'... gave him.
on 17 March 2015
This was reputed to be one of the very best Doctor Who episodes of the early epochs. It's fun, but it is creaking a bit now. The Doctor and Romana unleashed in Paris (from the looks on the face of the public in the exteriors, France was not quite ready for Tom Baker and Lala Ward dashing madly around their streets). The exteriors are badly in need of restoration: presumably this is copied from an original on film that has deteriorated badly such that the film quality is not very good at all and that does detract a bit from the enjoyment.
That said, there are the standard Tom Baker bizarre conversations and strange situations. There are some "special effects" that would have looked ropey on an old 625 lines black and white TV and now just look laughable on a modern high-definition set, but then that is part of the charm of 1970s Doctor Who! There are time shifts and time loops and lots of good elements. And there is Tom Baker who was just so perfect as the Doctor. This is far from the best of the Tom Baker stories, but it is still fun and worth watching.
A narrative that entails main production moves from the UK to the city of Paris France. It was the first Doctor Who serial to be filmed on location outside of the United Kingdom; the production team worked in Paris during April and May 1979. There are plenty reviews here that mulled over the plot lines, so this review will forgo this. For me there were some real highlights. A show where the Doctor and Romana 'acquire' several Mona Lisas and uncover alien conspiracy. One of the highlights - John Cleese and Eleanor Bron were persuaded to make a cameo appearance in a short scene, on the proviso that there was no pre-publicity regarding their appearance. For this viewer it was real treat and whole scene was really very funny. Another thing that really worked in the production was the shots of the Jagaroth spacecraft taking off from the prehistoric Earth - as this aspect of the shoot were overseen by Ian Scoones, a veteran of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds - it really looked the business. The Scarlioni's costume and the mask, at the time really lend themselves to the piece and that mask was truly scary too. I liked the threading together of all the 'Scarlionis' fragmented through time and the way a different aspect to time travel is brought to the fore.
For me City of Death was one the best of the seventeenth season with Tom Baker. Adams' refined comedy script made it easily the wittiest and most quotable of the series - definitely one of my top ten Dr Who productions.
A `Doctor Who' comedy thriller written by Douglas Adams, with my (equal) favourite Doctor, excellent A-list guest actors, eye-catching location filming in Paris and counted in the fans' top 10. So why don't I like it more than 3* ?
Yes, the clever script has ideas like a café artist subconsciously noting both the time fractures and the Time Lady nature of Romana, the multiple Mona Lisas leading us to question what genuine means. The egg-chicken-egg loop being mirrored by the primordial soup / exploding Jagaroth ship is very clever. So is Scaroth being fragmented through time and working to get back to his ship, even if we have had too many `Doctor Who' aliens all claiming to have vitally influenced the development of humanity - my money's still on the Dæmons, you don't argue with Azal.
The best part of `City of Death' is Julian Glover as Scaroth, giving the character all the suave, sophisticated, sinister intent you'd expect from a Bond Villain and the sets and effects are mostly good. The Paris location filming is attractive but didn't seem to add much -if a key plot device is the theft of `the' Mona Lisa you've basically got to be in Paris. There were a lot of famous landmarks seen but they weren't really integral to the story, which seemed a missed opportunity.
But for me the comedy, despite many enjoyable one-liners, undid the story by often feeling too obvious and too at odds with the science fiction plot under the light-hearted topping. The enjoyably stylish, sardonic wit of the Count and Countess and their devious art heist also seemed undermined by the too-evident and rather knowing comedy surrounding them, which was well acted as comedy but felt jarring in this situation. By the time the full destructive nature of Scaroth's stratagem was revealed, I couldn't take that seriously either.
One plot device was especially annoying - how could an intelligent woman like the Countess live with (and presumably, as she shares his title, be married to) a monocular green alien apparently made of spaghetti and she doesn't notice?! Of course, a rubber mask! In fact there must have been a whole set of masks, one for each of Scaroth's time-scattered fragments. This seemed almost like the programme laughing at its own reputation for rubber monsters; making the Jagaroth another shape-shifting species like the Zygons or Rutans was surely the obvious sci-fi solution.
`City of Death' was the best (completed) story in a generally disappointing season of `Doctor Who' and most people love it, but for me, it's not a classic. Fans of Douglas Adams (which includes me) should enjoy the fantastical brilliance of `The Pirate Planet' or the interesting, part-filmed `Shada'.
on 6 October 2013
I think I would probably describe this as Graham Williams' finest hour. It's certainly the best Dr Who he made; I can't quite work out how Douglas Adams failed to ruin it.
To begin with, Julian Glover is on masterful form as Count Scarlioni/CaptainTancredi/Scaroth; it's good to see an actor of such serious quality in Dr Who, though the cast is generally good across the board, with the lamentable exception of David Graham as Kerensky, who stumbles to the wrong side of the comedy threshold, and manages even to look silly as a skeleton. It's a pity because for the story to work, Kerenesky needs to be credible as the man that can invent a time machine, and that simply isn't the case. The character has *so* much potential to be interesting, and Mr Graham plays the comic Russian Jewish Scientist. Too much Schtick.
And this would not be half as pesky were the rest of the story not so damn fine, and therefore so worthy of proper telling, particularly since at least half the ideas came from Mr Adams and are, therefore, on the fantastic side of credible; it's really no mean achievement that they all fit together so nicely.
The film work in Paris is delightful, and clearly planned with an eye to getting the very best from the beautiful city with a minimum of fuss.
There's but one small continuity error, which would seem to arise from the tiny number of actors permitted by the budget. The location manager clearly struck very lucky in finding a door with Medusa on it - I can't imagine that they could have spared the money to take it to Paris with them, not with a prop boy to go with it.
The Paris footage is so good that, in 1979 I found myself hoping that the café was real too (it's not) and the extras - like the inexplicable sketching man - were French as well. The bouquet of Paris is nothing if not intoxicating.
The whole Mona Lisa story is gloriously improbable, but only fun because it's played so straight, which implies the director had recourse to some secret means of stopping Tom Baker acting the prat. Maybe the presence of Mr Glover had conferred on him a temporary sense of shame.
The model work really is good too. Scaroth's ship is beautifully realised, and explodes most effectively, and even the set of pre-historic Earth is convincing - shame they couldn't store it for a couple of years and use it in Timeflight.
And the bit in Leonardo's workshop is fun - nice set, nice cameo from Peter Halliday (by gum! Also played Pletrac!), and a great cliffhanger when Captain Tancredi appears.
And John Cleese is in it; it really is damn good. The scene where the Countess discovers the Jagaroth alongside the Egyptian gods very neat too, and I do like Hermann.
Just a pity about Kerensky; I'd knock half a star off for his performance, but they won't let me.
on 28 January 2007
"City of Death", written by Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams under the pseudonym David Agnew, is widely regarded by fans as a classic of the Tom Baker era of "Doctor Who" and the best script produced by the Williams / Adams production team that presided over the fifteenth to seventeenth seasons of the series. It is also memorable as "the one where the Doctor goes to Paris". Paris is presumably the city referred to in the title, although the title bears absolutely no relation to the actual events of the story.
Personally I feel that "City of Death" is somewhat overrated and probably seems better than it actually is due to the overseas location and the fact that the serial was produced during one of Doctor Who's weakest periods on the air. None the less, there is no doubting the fact that "City of Death" is a genuinely classy effort from a very cash-strapped production team, enhanced greatly by its Parisian setting, the strong guest cast and the excellent set design.
Headlining the guest cast is Julian Glover, who puts in a menacingly suave performance as the enigmatic Count Scarlioni. Catherine Schell is more than Glover's match as the sophisticated but deluded Countess. Meanwhile, Tom Chadbon joins the cast as the ineptly violent detective Duggan (whose tendency to hit first and ask questions later is a running gag that becomes much more important at the end of the story). All three revel in Adams' one-liners and display great comic timing, as do regulars Lalla Ward and Tom Baker, who is at his most irreverent in this production.
Although seemingly padded by numerous film shots of the cast running around major Parisian landmarks, "City of Death" proceeds at a swift pace and we really do believe that the events of the story, including the studio scenes, are taking place in Paris. There are enough absurdly inventive twists in the rather bizarre overall plot to keep the viewer interested from start to finish.
On the DVD, there is a 45-minute documentary about the making of the story, extensive behind the scenes material, an exclusive comedy sketch and a few bits and bobs from the archives. There is a full commentary with director Michael Hayes and actors Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon that is let down only by the absence of both Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. A thorough and entertaining package even if it didn't really need to be a two-disc release.
on 19 February 2013
Paris, 1979, this is when Dr Who went to France and gave a spellbinding funny and comedic Sci-Fi adventure to the sight, sounds and atmosphere to Paris. This was when Dr Who gained its highest viewing figures of 16 million and demonstrates both Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor) and Lalla Ward (Romana II) hitting their acting peck.
I would like to gives this excellent Sci-Fi adventure `5' stars as it blends excellent acting from the main cast and supporting cast of Catherine Schell (Countess Scarlioni), Kevin Flood (Hermann), David Graham (Professor Kerenski), and a fabulous cameo appearances from comedy actors Eleanor Bron and Monty Python and Fawlty Towers comedy legend the great John Cleese. But all acting glories goes to Tom Chadbon who plays funny gumshoe detective Duggan who funnily saves the planet earth with one single punch, and future James Bond, Star Wars and Indian Jones villain Julian Glover who portrays the serve Count Scarlioni and under the mask the evil green skinned and one eyed warlord Scaroth. Please get this adventure for all Doctor Who fans
I am looking forward to the last great epics from the 1970s `The Mind of Evil' and `Terror of the Zygons' coming out later this year.
on 21 March 2006
"City of Death" was an excellent choice for a classic Doctor Who DVD release. The banter between the Doctor and Romana, not to mention their journey around Paris (why there run everywhere is never really explained!) reminded me of the Doctor and Rose in the first episode of the New Series, and showed that in many ways the formula for good Doctor Who has never really changed.
The story keeps moving along, the dialogue is sharp and often witty, and Tom Baker is at his best as the 4th Doctor. OK so the special effects could be better, but then this was made in 1979. The extras on this DVD are well worth watching too, with a good 45 minute documentary and about 20 minutes of behind the scenes (if infront of the cameras!) studio tapes.
If you knew the classic series as a child then this DVD will not disappoint. And if you have been introduced to Doctor Who via the New Series, then this disc is a good introduction to classic Doctor Who.
So BBC, can we have Full Circle (another classic Tom Baker story) on DVD now please?
Why couldn't I be like the bad guys here? I would have had a great life! Reason - never had the time to get that degree of STYLE. And besides, I'm just too old to even try now.
I'm thinking about the quotes particularly, but if I .... only... had the chops to turn out some of these, say, when I was 19 or so, my life would have been very different.
My wife regards this very highly, but ONLY for the immortal line
"... what have I been LIVING WITH for all these years???!!!!"
Can't imagine why. But in any case, this entire production comes very close to an "entire life management" kind of video. John Cleese was at this time filming his various and highly sucessful shorts on how to manage (or NOT to manage a company). I remember these if only because when we watched the one we had hired, half the guys in the room had to leave because, well, they could barely control themselves... And you can tell that Cleese is in top form here - completely straight and yet somehow, in a way that ONLY he can achieve, completely barking mad.
And Tom is equally possessed here. If he had occupied the stage like this in every story for the seasons following, the resulting cult movements established in drop dead hommage would have been astonishing. You really have to get hold of this to see what I mean, but Julian Glover, Tom Baker, and whatshimname Cleese make for a very potent mixture - you may well have to have a change of underwear close to hand.
If this is an attempt to pander to the many (male and adolescent) Doctor Who fans who want to empathise with (and in fact, become) a kind of shy, but fierce and fearless action man, Duggan is the perfect foil; a brilliant acted complicated and very moral bloke who should really have been a companion to the good Doctor, but for some reason didn't quite make it. THAT was a waste. What was it? Nerves? Self preservation? We'll never know now.
I simply cannot list the number of lines here that have shaped (or even DEFINED) the way I think about art galleries, monsters, memory regression therapy, the origins of man, theology and hairstyling. As far as prime ham goes, only "Image of the Fendahl" comes close - and this is definitely Ginger Beer and John Buchan territory (aka CS Lewis), and therefore eminnently watchable, nay, irresitable.
It's better than that - a real treasure.