Monday, 10 December 2012

Review: Doctor Who Classic: City of Death

Stop flirting, you two.
Doctor Who - Season 17, Story Two - City of Death
Written 18/9/12

Isn't Paris a b-e-a-utiful city? Beautiful damsels serenaded through the streets with the language of love, aeriel views of the Champs Elysée from the Eiffel Tower, little cafés and bookshops littered with quirky personalities. In this story, written by Douglas Adams under the name David Agnew (whom we last met as a coverup for the disgraceful Invasion of Time), said quirky personality turns out to be a little more exotic; a little more out there, a little more cyclops-y. City of Death is often lauded as one of the best stories of the entire Baker era, and certainly the only saving grace of this season, but is its reputation deserved, or is it just being a bit prétentieux?
     The Doctor and Romana go on a date to Paris together, where they flirt madly, in a scene that becomes a lot more understandable once you realise that the longing looks between the actors originated in Baker and Ward's real-life relationship. They spend a rather long time wandering randomly around Paris, crossing roads and running down pavements, while vaguely sinister and completely inappropriate music plays behind them. Eventually The Doc takes Romana to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, and is shocked to find an aristocratic woman wearing a broach capable of high-tech scanning. On their way out, they are shadowed by bumbling undercover British cop Duggan (Tom Chadbon, later to be Merdeen in The Mysterious Planet) who tries to confront them about their possible role in an attempt to rob the Mona Lisa. Two goons come to pick them up, however, revealing the true villain in the charming Count Scarlioni, also known as Scaroth of the Jagaroth, whose experiments in Time Travel turn out to be an attempt to return to the dawn of time and stop his spaceship from blowing up. Realising that the explosion of Scaroth's spaceship was the cause of abiogenesis on Earth, The Doctor pops back to the beginning of life and makes sure that the spaceship still explodes. Scaroth dies, life evolves on Earth and The Doctor and Romana go off for lunch.
     The direction of the episode feels strangely reserved, often more like some kind of documentary film where the cameraman is observing the Baker and Ward in their natural habitat, and the soundman has somehow gotten the documentary audio mixed up and hasn't bothered to tell anyone. I dubbed them "transport scenes" in my first watch, and it felt like a parody of how fiction is supposed to work. Usually, when we see characters moving between different locations, we get the journey inbetween cut out because that's not very interesting. Bah, says City of Death, let's throw in those scenes anyway! What results is a series of long, tedious and incredibly dull scenes which, while naively pursing the Doctor Who maxim of "lots and lots of running," do nothing but stretch out the runtime.
Adrian Glover is deliciously suarve as Scarlioni
     So why, then, is this story so loved? Well, if there's one thing that Adams is good at, it's characters, and the characters in this story are pretty much brilliant. The standout is Count Scarlioni/Scaroth (Julian Glover), whose villain, while not as complex as he could have been, is incredibly witty and erudite to the point where it seems like he knows exactly what you're going to say and why you're going to say it; mainly because most of the time, he does. I personally thought the Scaroth mask was hideously fake, but in his human disguise Scarlioni is one of the most enjoyable villains this side of Count Grendel. Also great is Duggan, whose character is written splendidly and provides both the role of a straight man and the bumbling comic relief, an ordinary foil for the intellectual Time Lord Twosome.
     City of Death is certainly a very good story in the script itself, and for the most part I had a lot of fun watching it, but certain aspects of the direction of the story and in the way that it executed its ideas made it very difficult to love. I'm sure I'd get used to it on repeated watchings, but I have little to no inclination to watch the two lovebirds stroll around Paris for the first episode without anything happening until the last five minutes. I want to love it, I really do, and the performances make it so brilliant. It's like a diamond that's been smeared with mud on the tip. It may still sparkle under the right light, like nothing else you've ever seen, but that doesn't stop it from stinking when you try to handle it.


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