City of Death (1979) – Thoughts

So this one, generally regarded as the classic of the Graham Williams era and one of the top five or six ’63-89′ stories full stop. And yeah it’s deserved: it’s imaginative, witty and highly entertaining. Doing the locations shooting in Paris helps it to transcend (better than most of its neighbouring stories were able to) the genteel poverty of its period – it’s a classy story.

Firstly the imagination: as demonstrated by The Pirate Planet the year before, Douglas Adams’ creative resources were a cut above those of his peers. City of Death’s idea – deep in pre-history, the sole orphan of an alien race is splintered in an explosion, with the fragments scattered amongst various epochs, each piece of the alien working towards evolving human technology in order to enable the alien residing in late 20th century Paris to send himself back through time to prevent the original catastrophe – is a fascinating one, as the Doctor gradually realises (and we absorb in turn) what the alien posing as the Count is up to.

The performances of the cast are excellent. Particularly of course the villain of the piece, Julian Glover as Count Scarlioni; who (as with Iain Cuthbertson in The Ribos Operation) brings a delicious dramatic relish to his character. Scarlioni is a suave, sophisticated aristocrat figure who literally masks the ruthless and diabolical alien Scaroth (the cliffhanger to first episode is one of the great horrorshock moments of the classic series).

Duggan, the Doctor and Romana’s sidekick for this story, is a very different character to the Count. Adams has drafted him in from an unsympathetic genre, that of tough, hard-boiled crime, and placed him into this witty science fiction romp, with amusing results. As the plot plays out, poor Duggan finds the events and the characters of his allies all but incomprehensible; and they (and us) find him and his methods (fists first) endearingly oafish. Tom Chadbon is really good in this key support role. The other main actors do well too: Catherine Schell dovetails delighfully well with Glover, as the Count’s consort. And David Graham is good too, in the slightly thankless role as the mad foreign scientist duped by Scaroth.

This was the first Doctor Who story with Lalla Ward that I’ve watched. I’ve watched loads of Pertwee and plenty of Hinchliffe-era stuff and having watched the run of (admittedly well regarded) stories from Horror of Fang Rock onwards, that I’ve reviewed on here, to me the Williams-era is neglected and at its best was as good as anything that the show did.

Anyway, back to Lalla Ward. She is really able and engaging as Romana – who is more of a second banana to the Doctor than any other companion I’ve seen yet (something that I’m not yet totally convinced works by comparison with the contemporary young woman characterizations that the series mainly utilised). Tom Baker gives his usual obtrusively charismatically brilliant performance, this week with someone else over the net to give him a decent match.

Any negatives? The first episode is a bit slow, with the camera and Dudley Simpson’s piano labouring on the Doctor and Romana strolling around Paris (although I guess the notion of holidaying there was more exotic in 1979 then now). And the Tardis is relied up  to save the day once again (as with The Pirate Planet), this time in some style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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