Fearful Symmetry

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Doctor Who – The City Of Death

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Two timelords

Two timelords

‘The City Of Death’ remains one of the most well-loved stories of classic Who and also the one that retained the highest viewing figures (no doubt helped by the ITV strike going on at the time, leaving nothing much else to watch…) The story featured, for the first time in Who, filming outside the UK, namely on the streets of Paris. This was seen as a first-time experiment for more overseas filming to expand on the over-used limited range of landscapes that were a short hop from London – mainly various quarries – that had doubled for alien planets. So, instead of lots of endless running down corridors, we get endless running down Parisian boulevards… Actually that’s a little harsh – some of those scenes are exceptionally well shot for a television show of the time and border on the cinematic

The Doctor and his then companion and fellow time lord Romana (in her school-girlish Lalla Ward incarnation) are having a holiday in the French capital; seeing the Eiffel Tower, visiting the Louvre. Things become more interesting when, in a café, they Doctor experiences a couple of some sort of time slip. Then, whilst viewing the Mona Lisa, he spots an attractive lady with a strange bracelet of alien technology and surreptitiously takes hold of it.
The two timelords are soon apprehended by thugs in the employ of Julian Glover’s villainous Count Scarlioni, the husband of the lady of the bracelet.

Scarlioni isn’t exactly all that he seems… being the alien Scaroth in disguise. Plus it turns out he’s been funding experiments in time technology via some ingenious art thefts. It has been these experiments that have caused the time slips.



Scaroth has an interesting detail of costuming – a touch of green to match his ‘real’ ‘spaghetti’ head in everyone of his main appearances -the green cravat and handkerchief of the count or his green dressing robe of the green details of his uniform in his medieval incarnation, that the Doctor bumps into in his time travels within the story.

A further complication comes by the way of Tom Chadbon’s character the detective Duggan who has been investigating the art thefts. Duggan makes a great secondary character, solving every problem presented to him with a well placed right hook or a shoulder charge. It’s a pity we don’t see more of him beyond this story as I’m sure he would have made a interesting (or at least entertaining) permanent companion to the Doctor.

Douglas Adams, of Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy fame, was the script editor of Who at the time and this story has a much larger than normal input by him. The writer is credited as David Agnew but was an BBC in-house pseudonym. David Fisher, the original writer, was going through a divorce so was unable to finish the script, which was completed by Adams and producer Graham Williams. Adams’ contribution shows in the many clever one-liners and other humour in the story (though some Who fans claim that this isn’t ‘proper’ Who. They are wrong). But, because he’s not writing it on his own, the story’s wit is balanced with some clever plot twists along the way – we don’t get the plot problems – ie not having any plot to speak of – that have slighted some of Adam’s other work.

Tom Baker was really hitting his stride here as the Doctor, giving a great performance with clever humour without falling over into the too jokey and self-parodying style that (alone with some terrible scripts and filming) let down the show towards the end of his run. Him and Lalla Ward make a great screen couple and there’s real on-screen attraction between them (which extended behind the screens too…) The sets and special effects are, for the most part, as wonky as ever but don’t take too much away from the script and the cast’s spirited performance – especially Glover as the main baddy. It’s not surprising that ‘The City Of Death’ is always highly rated in fan-polls.

Although ‘City of Death’ is one of the best Whos out there, and the DVD is pretty solid it does unfortunately have one of the worst extras I’ve ever experienced. An horrifically shoddy and un-funny sketch called Eye On Blatchford stuffed full of the sort of nerdy in-jokes that give fans a bad name. Last time I looked it had scored a massive 1.1 on the Internet Movie Database, so I’m not alone in hating it. The films writer/director was apparently a friend of the DVD’s producers… This sort of nepotism is pretty unfortunate.


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