City of Death

Posted in Episode by - January 21, 2017
City of Death

Aired 29 September – 20 October 1979

Due to a historical quirk where ITV was on strike during the time of its broadcast, ‘City of Death’ is the highest-rated classic Doctor Who serial. Fortunately, with Tom Baker and Douglas Adams at the height of their comedic power and with a tight scrip filled with superb performances and wonderful science fiction concepts, ‘City of Death’ is undoubtedly one of the very best classic Doctor Who serials as well, a testament to the Graham Williams production era that sometimes failed to find a steady tone within its scripts.

There are some that feel the story veers too far into comedic territory like many other tales of the time, and while there are a lot of genuinely funny moments from every character, ‘City of Death’ is helped by the fact that only the Doctor is actually playing for comedy at times, though even then it’s more subdued than usual because of the immense threat at hand. Thus, while the Doctor is unafraid of being captured and playing dumb as means of gathering information and always has a quick quip to lessen the tension, everyone else treats the situation with the needed gravity to sell the magnitude of the events at hand, a wonderful balance that highlights the drama at a great pace.

Julian Glover’s Scarlioni is one of the most intriguing villains in the long history of Doctor Who, a being splintered throughout time who is aware of each of his different selves concurrently, an incredible idea that instantly opens up so many possibilities while also bringing time travel into the fold. Indeed, the moment where a version of Scarlioni in Renaissance Italy is familiar with the Doctor whom he will not meet for some 400 years in Paris is incredibly intriguing and one of the most powerful cliffhangers in the franchise’s history because of the immense uncertainty it introduces. Glover is magnificent in this role, bringing an amiable but undeniably cooler edge to the character, and the fact that Scarlioni has, in essence and without any sense of pride, been steering mankind along in order to progress technology to the point that he can go back in time to primordial Earth to right a personal wrong and wipe out humanity in the process is a wonderful conceit. Of course, having the power to bring about the genocide of a species before it has the chance to form is all too familiar for the Fourth Doctor after his early visit to Skaro, and he obviously takes up the defence of humanity while proclaiming that history must unfold as it has since Scarlioni already had the opportunity to roll the dice.

The Paris setting and location shooting also add a tremendous amount of ambience to the story, and the Mona Lisa subplot as the Doctor visits da Vinci’s villa and brazenly scrawls across canvases to state the falsehood of the paintings is another clever idea that pays tremendous dividends throughout the story, at the same bringing up the question of what really makes art valuable. Part of what makes this setting work so well, aside from the novelty of being on Earth but outside of Great Britain, is that it contains a sense of romanticism and familiarity that help to humanize the very alien Doctor and Romana as the increasingly absurd and dangerous stakes manifest. However, it’s a setting that is used to great effect, and it’s hard to imagine the story working quite as successfully in any other location even if the requisite changes were made to the script.

Of course, ‘City of Death’ is also famous for including one of the biggest cameos of the classic era as John Cleese and Eleanor Bron appear at two overly-pretentious individuals critiquing the TARDIS as a piece of high art. There’s a strong sense of self-awareness throughout the story, but this scene, in particular, is a nice nod to those in real life trying to find deeper meaning in what really is an absurd piece of entertainment. Even with the Paris setting, there’s an immensely quaint British feel throughout, and this brief cameo is as poignant and riveting as it is ostentatious.

While ‘City of Death’ may not quite be able to reliably bring across primordial Earth or the true version of Scarlioni due to budget, the story itself is a testament to the imagination and skill of all involved in Doctor Who. With an excellent balance of comedy, superb performances, and truly brilliant ideas, this is a story that easily stands the test of time and unquestionably deserves its place among the very best episodes to ever air.

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