Doctor Who #512: City of Death Part 1

"It's 1979 actually. More of a table wine, shall we say. Ha! The randomiser's a useful device but it lacks true discrimination. Should we sip it and see?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Sep.29 1979.

IN THIS ONE...
The Doctor and Romana in Paris, time slips are disrupting their holiday, and Count Scarlioni is a Jagaroth.

REVIEW: Uncontestedly Douglas Adams' Doctor Who masterpiece (credited to the pseudonym David Agnew), City of Death has some wonderful comic dialog and gorgeous location work as the production goes outside of the Britain for the first time. Part 1's real triumph, however, is how it misleads the audience and sets us up for refreshing surprises in the next chapters. For example, Count Scarlioni's selling of treasures from across history seems to be related to his time travel experiments, but they're not. Duggan showing up at the Louvre with a gun seems to paint him as a villain, but he's not. The cool opening shot on what looks like an alien planet (with a huge model) will turn out to be primeval Earth, and Scaroth the hero of the Jagaroth, is actually the serial's villain, shockingly revealed to be the Count in disguise (the hint is that the time machine has three "legs" like the ship from the prologue). So it's a playful script, and not just in the words spoken.

Director Michael Hayes uses Paris as much as he can, and his camera work is inventive. He shoots the Doctor and Romana from a just-emptied postcard slot, or lingers on blossoms in a tree in view of the Eiffel Tower before jumping up to the top where our heroes are. Dudley Simpson inserts a riff on An American in Paris' score in the music. They're clearly having fun with it, and it's a good thing too because it relieves us from the monotony of so much walking. There's entirely too much of it in this episode, and Parisians on the street can't be trusted not to look right down the camera. These sequences alternate with sparklingly witty scenes, so I'm not as bothered as I might otherwise be, and besides, they fit the leisurely feel of the Time Lords' holiday/honeymoon. They take in the sights, eat in the cafés, read books at incredible speeds (a bit referenced in New Who's "Rose") and let bizarre artists sketch them from afar, surrealistically tapping into the "time slips" caused by Scarlioni's experiments. Their banter is peppered with puns, and a visit to the museum has the Doctor hilariously rant about the patrons gawping at his enthusiasm for human culture. As for Romana - wearing that school girl uniform, take note boys - she's at once unrecognizable from the first model (knowing and liking bouillabaisse, for example), and yet still being the snob from Gallifrey (preferring computer pictures to real art, though she can rattle off a list of art galleries, like the Braxiatel Collection which gets its first mention here).

And while the Time Lords are very entertaining throughout, let's not forget the guest characters. Julian Glover and Catherine Schell play the Count and Countess, a couple obviously in an unhealthy relationship, but both incredibly charismatic. Impossibly rich and trying to get their hands on things they can't have (time travel, the Mona Lisa), they're like James Bond or Avengers villains, and I can't wait for them to properly interact with our heroes. And then there's Duggan, the thick English copper who thinks real hard about things, but is hopelessly out of his depth trying to figure either couple. Where Adams' Pirate Planet felt silly (the robot parrot may have had something to do with it), City of Death plays the comedy in the dialog and plays the plot straight (co-writer Graham Williams' influence?). It's the better for it.

REWATCHABILITY: High -
Very funny, with an intriguing plot and some classy guest-stars. It's easy to forgive its indulgent travelogue through the streets of Paris.

5 comments:

snell said...

My very first Doctor Who story...

Siskoid said...

By choice or by chance?

By which I mean, were you drawn to it as a fan of Douglas Adams, or was it just luck?

snell said...

Chance...a college friend decided to turn me on to Doctor Who, and this is the episode that was showing...then, my trip home the following weekend, the local PBS station was showing The Five Doctors. Fairly charmed introduction to the show, I must say...

Toby'c said...

My second Baker story (fourth classic story overall), and I guess my favourite, since it's the only classic story that I'm willing to give 10/10 ratings to every part on IMDb (then again, I haven't seen it in nearly seven years now for some reason).

Siskoid said...

Time to give yourself a treat!

 

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