Doctor Who #515: City of Death Part 4

"To me, one of the most curious things about this piece is its wonderful afunctionalism." "Yes, I see what you mean. Divorced from its function and seen purely as a piece of art, its structure of line and colour is curiously counterpointed by the redundant vestiges of its function." "And since it has no call to be here, the art lies in the fact that it is here."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.20 1979.

IN THIS ONE... Scaroth goes back in time to stop himself from pressing a button. Also, the famous John Cleese cameo!

REVIEW: Romana decides to help Scaroth because she doesn't realize what it will do to history anyway, but she does put a time in the stabilizer she builds so he can't then abuse it. But Scaroth didn't just manipulate human culture and science, his ship's explosion provided the spark to the primeval soup that would become all life on Earth. Despite the obvious paradox which the episode doesn't address, his own actions throughout history have made it imperative he be prevented from taking himself out of it. What's even more clever is that in the end (or the beginning, I guess), it's Duggan, our dumb, thuggish representative that throws the "most important punch in history" and stops Scaroth in his tracks. It's a victory for the ape in all of us. And if Scaroth hadn't taken off his mask to meet himself, his return to the 20th century might not have been met by an attack from violent Hermann, and he might have been alive to try again. It's all very tightly plotted.

Before it all has to be resolved, we get a rash of entertaining moments between the various characters. Scaroth is delightful when he takes Romana's "inhuman" insult as a compliment ("Quite so"), and the Doctor tries to find cracks in the Scarlionis' marriage by pushing the Countess on what he calls "willful blindness". Without going into anything unseemly, it asks questions about their relationship. Surely, it's not physical. Fans have long considered theirs a partnership of convenience, where the Countess believes herself the "beard" of a gay aristocrat. When he goes up to say his farewells to his wife, you're led to think differently, but alas, he just wants his bracelet back and coldly kills her. Scaroth isn't really capable of human affection, only profit motive (or don't you think he married her to pool her money with his?).

Though Adams has fun with it in the epilogue, allowing only a "fake" Mona Lisa to survive unscathed in the fire caused by Scaroth's return, this element becomes something of a blind alley. Romana's gadget allows Scaroth to go back in time without further investment - though that's glossed over pretty quickly - so the paintings are never sold. It still works, I think, because the situation remains fluid throughout, with the villain and the heroes amending their plans as the story progresses. The Doctor's throwing everything at Scaroth (including a distraught wife), but the Last of the Jagaroth keeps bouncing back. Until he can't anymore. And while the story moves quickly towards its resolution, the episode still takes a short time-out for a memorable comic scene in which John Cleese and Eleanor Bron show up to critique the TARDIS where it stands in an art gallery. It does nothing for the plot, of course, but it's a great surprise, doesn't wear out its welcome, and feels more relevant today than it ever was before. The TARDIS has become a cultural icon, subverting the "police box" from its former context and function. A lovely little moment.

THEORIES: So did the Doctor meet Shakespeare before The Shakespeare Code? That episode would say not (he doesn't recognize him right away), but here he claims to have taken dictation of Hamlet for him. The simplest answer is that he's toying with the Countess when he makes these claims.

No Target novelization was done for this story, Douglas Adams having reserved the right to do it himself, then never following through.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Clever on many levels, dialog, themes, nuts and bolts, ideas... A strong finish.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - It hardly gets any better than that. One of the high points of Doctor Who in its 50 years. It's smart, funny, and star-studded too. If you could only watch one Classic Who to see if you could get interested in watching more, this would have to be it.


Zundian said...

Yes, let us hope that when they get around to the 4th Doctor retrospective on BBC America they run this as the example story.

'Talons' might be a better example of the Gothic period, but they have only gone for four-parters so far.

Siskoid said...

And Talons, for all its qualities, still has that off-putting racism issue.


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