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17x2. City of Death
Writer: David Agnew (David Fisher, Douglas Adams, and Graham Williams)
Director: Michael Hayes
Script Editor: Douglas Adams
Producer: Graham Williams

[DISCLAIMER: I had my entire review for this serial completed, and then accidentally erased it. If this version seems a bit rushed and sloppy, chalk it up to my impatience with the process of rewriting the thing.]

Synopsis: The Doctor and Romana are on vacation in Paris when they become wrapped up in what appears to be a plan to steal the Mona Lisa, but in fact goes well beyond that: the mastermind, the wealthy Count Scarlioni, is in fact Scaroth, a member of an alien race called the Jagaroth. Having survived his ship's destruction 400 million years ago (with the explosion having jump-started evolution on Earth), he has become "splintered in time" and now seeks to undo the past - potentially wiping out humanity in the process.

Review: After several somewhat ho-hum outings in a row, Doctor Who is back on form with "City of Death." On paper, it might seem like a fairly conventional story about an alien threat to Earth, but between its creative use of location shooting, some strong guest characters, and top-notch dialogue and humor, it manages to stand out as fairly unique in the Doctor Who canon.

The "Time Lords on holiday" aspect is certainly part of the serial's appeal. Strictly speaking, the Doctor and Romana aren't really doing anything of significance for most of the first episode, even deciding to ignore the initial time disturbance on the grounds that they're on vacation. The banter between the two of them is believable as that of two hyperintelligent aliens, and it's a nice change of pace to see the characters in this sort of relaxed setting. It's also here that the location shooting is most essential: it is difficult to imagine these scenes carrying the same appeal if they were taking place in a more conventional British setting. Douglas Adams, who reportedly did the bulk of the actual script-writing himself, proves more than capable of bringing his oddball sense of humor to the proceedings, even when the story itself turns more serious. "What a wonderful butler, he's so violent!" the Doctor exclaims when he's rather roughly dragged in to speak to Countess Scarlioni, and when he can't seem to flag down a taxi to get back to Romana and Duggan, he shouts at the Parisian drivers, "Is no one interested in history?!" We also see some development of Romana's new incarnation in this serial: she's more trusting and less cynical than her previous self, and interestingly, she actually makes a big mistake in believing that Scaroth will forgo any further violence or destruction if she helps him travel back in time.

The main ally to the Doctor and Romana is Duggan, a somewhat oafish detective with an enthusiasm for "thumping" people who is nonetheless competent. He correctly deduces the nature of Scarlioni's scheme to steal the Mona Lisa, then sell seven copies of it to collectors wealthy and vain enough to buy what they think is the real thing as an "expensive gloat." At the end, after traveling back to prehistoric times with the Doctor and Romana, he delivers what the Doctor describes as possibly "the most important punch in history" when he knocks out Scaroth and keeps him from preventing the explosion of the Jagaroth ship. Scaroth himself also proves to be an effective guest character. While never exactly sympathetic, he does at least have an understandable motive in wanting to go back and prevent his race's destruction, and the idea of his being "splintered in time" and thus able to manipulate events simultaneously in multiple timelines is an unexpected and creative one. (Though, wouldn't he have had to be comparing notes with the Fendahl? Oh, never mind.) Julian Glover plays the character well, displaying a sophistication and smarm that makes it easy to see why he was later cast as a Bond villain, while eventually turning more frantic as his scheme nears its endpoint.

Doctor Who has taken on a somewhat lighter, more escapist tone under Graham Williams' term as producer, as compared to the darker style of the Philip Hinchcliffe era. "City of Death" continues in that vein, though there is also something of a theme here regarding the decadence of wealth. In both the 1979 and 1505 timelines, Scaroth has underlings who are content not to ask too many questions as long as he keeps them well-paid. Countess Scarlioni, meanwhile, barely blinks an eye when he orders the execution of two goons who didn't complete a mission quite to his satisfaction, and it's clear that he's basically bought her lack of curiosity with his wealth. The potential "expensive gloaters" who are the likely buyers for a stolen Mona Lisa are another example, and while I didn't pick up on it myself, the DVD special features point out that the serial also reflects a variety of approaches to art itself. It is a means to an end for Scaroth, a status symbol for Countess Scarlioni and the potential buyers, a subject of abstract theory for the two museum patrons (one of them a famous cameo by John Cleese) who mistake the TARDIS for an exhibit, and primarily of aesthetic value for the Doctor, who seems considerably less concerned than Duggan that one of the "fake" Mona Lisas ends up hanging in the Louvre when the real one is destroyed at the Scarlioni mansion.

With its unique setting, inventive approach to the characters, and clever plotting and dialogue, "City of Death" earns its place as a Doctor Who classic.


Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

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