Doctor Who: City of Death (Story 105)
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In a story written by Hitchhiker's Guide's Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana ta a holiday in Paris where they unravel a mystery involving six original Mona Lisas!
The late Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) co-wrote this enormously popular four-part story from 1979, which pits the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) against a time-traveling alien (Julian Glover) whose body, fragmented by an accident, spurred evolution millions of years ago. Now restored to his full (and horrific) form, he plans to travel back in time and prevent the destruction of his ship--which in turn would profoundly affect the course of humanity. A terrific blend of science-fiction thrills and humor (well-played by Baker and Ward), City of Death also benefits from its Paris locations and terrific performances by Glover and Space: 1999's Catherine Schell, as well as a pair of unexpected cameos from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as art critics. The story's high caliber was rewarded with phenomenal ratings (reportedly, the largest ever for Doctor Who), and has remained a fan favorite ever since.
Thanks to its popularity, the two-disc DVD of City of Death comes with an abundance of typically topnotch supplemental features. The commentary by Glover, co-star Tom Chadbon, and director Michael Hayes, is the longest and most informative of the extras, but it's well-matched by Paris in the Springtime, a 45-minute making-of featurette that offers rare archival interviews with Adams and many of the cast (but not Baker or Ward, sadly) and crew. Paris, W12 offers 20 minutes of studio footage taken from 1/2-inch videotape, while Prehistoric Landscapes and Chicken Wrangler are very different views of the story's special effects (the latter is a particularly amusing glimpse at the challenges of working with live animals). Finally, there's Eye on Blatchford, a wry parody of BBC "human interest" news items, here focusing on another alien attempting to live peacefully in the rural English countryside. Production notes and photos and a batch of well-concealed Easter eggs round out this highly enjoyable set. --Paul Gaita
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Top customer reviews
Aside from these filming scenes, which understandably are used mainly to justify the extraordinary expense of the time to actually go to Paris, the pacing is spot on, the models/special effects for once actually look good, the acting superb all around, and the mixture of Science Fiction, History, and Humor absolutely spot on due to the co-writing efforts of David Fisher (of whom I am not a fan of), Graham Williams (of whom I am really not a fan of), and Douglas Adams (of whom I am a great fan of but often suffered from a lack of story organization discipline). Fortunately, the three manage to make a gestalt whole that produces a solid adventure. For those familiar with Adams' own work will recognize story elements here that he later uses in his own DIRK GENTLY novel. Adams was always about recycling good story ideas, as seen throughout this particular season.
Julian Glover's role as the human villain, Count Scarlioni is genuinely creepy and marvelous to behold, and the somewhat slapstick role of the intrepid, fist-swinging British private investigator Duggan, played by Tom Chadbon, really hits that perfect balance of believable seriousness and bumbling silliness that Peter Sellers had achieved in the PINK PANTHER movies. The other two supporting villains both add to, not detract from, a focused, entertaining mystery of who, why, and especially when. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are in consummate interaction stride, and all the internal plot lines crisscross and culminate in a very satisfying whole.
I found the audio commentary a bit bland, and the extra documentaries are a tad fluffy, but if you are seeking just the best of early Dr. Who, this is a must-buy.
The camera work featuring the city of Paris was spectacular with wonderful angles on various shots that help gravity to the pieces of art seen throughout the story. The dialogue, the character interactions, and surprise cameos that are only a bonus on top of a wonderful story make this one of the best Doctor Who stories ever.
The Claws of Axos is the third story from the eighth season of the show, broadcast in the late winter of 1971. Starring Jon Pertwee in his second season, this was the third consecutive story to feature the Doctor and his U.N.I.T. colleagues facing the renegade Time Lord, The Master, on present day Earth. Even by this early stage, the repetitive use of The Master was beginning to bore, as was the "The Doctor exiled on Earth" storyline that had been in place since the start of season seven in 1970. However, there is a twist to this adventure in that The Doctor and The Master do manage to leave Earth briefly in the Doctor's TARDIS to defeat the Axon aliens.
Originally conceived as a seven-part adventure, the writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin who had never written for the show before, struggled with the cuts that were needed to bring the story initially down to five episodes and later to four. Clearly for
the writers, they were somewhat out of their depth; and it shows. Some of the concepts explored in the storyline don't seem to go anywhere as a result of the cuts and the science, particularly the nuclear science, is preposterous. Ignoring the weakness of the plot and script, there is still a lot to enjoy here. The design is truly astounding, particularly the organic Axon spaceship, and the striking lighting is remarkable. The alien costumes are very well executed and the assembled cast certainly put in very impressive performances, with the exception of a British government official who's just plain annoying. It's a simple, enjoyable romp and the commentary provided by producer Barry Letts and two of the show's regular cast, Katy Manning and Richard Franklin (making his DVD debut) provides a genuinely interesting and charming bonus.
In addition to the commentary and on-screen captions, there are also many other goodies to enjoy as bonuses. Unused studio footage and out-takes from episode one, a look at the locations used throughout and a short documentary about the making of the program are all genuinely interesting and entertaining, kept just to the right length. The same cannot be said for the companion release, City of Death, broadcast in 1979 as the second story of season seventeen.
City of Death enjoys exalted status in the Doctor Who canon, as it was penned by possibly the most famous and illustrious writer ever associated with the series, the late Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's fame. This was the second of three scripts he contributed to the show, albeit in tandem with the show's producer Graham Williams from an aborted script by David Fisher, under the pseudonym, David Agnew. Adams had written one story for the previous season, the popular Pirate Planet and had been appointed the show's script editor as a result. A job, quite frankly, he was not entirely suited for. Indeed, season seventeen is widely regarded to contain some of the weakest scripts in the history of the series. Which is something of a paradox when you consider this season attracted the highest viewing figures in Doctor Who's entire forty plus year history. At this time, the UK only had three TV channels, and the most popular of these, ITV, was off the air due to a strike. With only BBC1 and BBC2 to watch, the BBC's ratings naturally soared and Doctor benefited from this is much as any other programme, with this particular story achieving ratings in excess of fifteen million. But what viewers saw clearly wasn't impressive to them as the ratings plummeted once ITV returned to the airwaves.
City of Death is indeed a very enjoyable and accomplished story, which does stand out in an otherwise dreadful season. The guest cast is highly impressive, featuring Julian Glover, Catherine Schell and David Graham amongst others, with John Cleese and Eleanor Bron making surprise cameo appearances in episode four. The script simply sparkles with wit and clever dialogue and the overseas location filming in Paris, a first for the show, makes the story even more impressive. All rather surprising considering that the scripts had to be written from scratch over one single weekend, with filming due to start the following week. Tom Baker is certainly at the height of his powers, and for once his over the top humorous acting does seem to fit the bill. Lalla Ward as Romana is still finding her way in this, her second story, but their relationship is building nicely and the addition of the British detective Duggan (Tom Chadbon) is a good foil for both characters. As a stand alone story, you probably can't beat this adventure, but in the context of the wider season, it's an oasis in a desert for sure. Adam's next (and last) script was abandoned midway through filming due to a BBC strike and he didn't continue beyond this season as the script editor. Nor was Williams retained as Producer. Why that should be is explained in the documentary bonus that comes on disc two, where pretty much everyone involved in the production admits Adam's limited abilities in this area.
Normally the bonuses are what make the Doctor Who DVD's worth every penny, regardless of the quality of the particular story. In the case of City of Death, this is not the case. For no justifiable reason whatsoever, all the extras for this show have
been added as a second disc, jacking up the price quite unnecessarily. In addition, these bonuses aren't all that great. They're too long in the main and simply repeat information available in the text that accompanies the episodes. Some of the extras completely fall flat, particularly a mock-umentary about the alien character's life after the show. The commentary is also very disappointing, with neither Baker or Ward (nor obviously the late Williams or Adams) taking part with the job left to the director and the two main guest actors, Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon. Both actors think very highly of the show and are clearly delighted to see it again, but their limited Doctor Who experience and knowledge means it's impossible for them to relate to anything other than these four episodes and there are long silences for sure.
All in all, this is a disappointing release, the two disc format being totally unnecessary. The fact that I enjoyed the disc of the weaker, earlier adventure the Claws of Axos more, is quite shocking in many ways. Hopefully the BBC won't get carried away in terms of bonuses for the sake of filling space in the future which mars the otherwise excellent City of Death.