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Being Seduced Finally by “City of Death”

June 25, 2015

city of death

I’ve always been irritated to see quite how highly “City of Death” seems to score in polls.  Having rewatched it for the third or fourth time, I’m now less irritated.  It still doesn’t quite crack my top ten list of Tom Baker adventures but I believe now that I can understand the appeal.

Perhaps it’s all just a bit too touristy for me.  They play their very first bit of foreign filming for just a bit more than  it’s worth.  It’s a bit too much “look at us – we’re in Paris.  Yes we are.  We’ll prove it.  See – Paris! Us.  In Paris!”

However, it does have a certain mood.  We all miss Douglas Adams a lot, of course, and so we want his script to be perhaps a bit better than it is.  It’s a very funny script, mind – though I find it gets a bit wearing after a while.  And of course with Adams comes the chance for the comedy cameos of his friends Eleanor Bron and John Cleese.

Dudley Simpson provides one of his best (of very many) scores – contributing something that sounds like the soundtrack to an Alain Delon movie.  Sadly this would be one of the last Simpson scores before Jon Nathan Turner took him out for a meal to tell him that his services would no longer be required.  One of JNT’s worse moves.

The plot is satisfying ludicrous.  Scaroth, the last of the Jagaroth is attempting to go back in time to correct the horrible take off that destroyed the last of his race and splintered him across earth’s history.  In order to finance 1970s time travel experimentation, his early 16th century self gets Leonardo Di Vince to paint six extra Mona Lisas so that they can be bricked up alive and sold 460 years later (remembering to steal the one in the Louvre so that each of his seven buyers can think that their version is the one and only version.)  Oh yes – and – crucial point – the Jagaroth space ship disaster had been responsible for kick starting the development of life on earth so if he succeeds, then none of us get to exist.

The Countess Scarlioni, oddly enough, has not a clue that her husband (married for years apparently) is not of this earth and is, in reality, a squidgy looking green cyclops.  I got to thinking this only illustrates the comparative innocence of 1979.  A twenty first century audience would demand some sort of nod to its naughty speculation that years of presumed intinate marital relations must surely have involved just a few odd moments.  The twenty first century which hinted at a very very rude joke in “Love and Monsters” would not permit the countess’s blithe unsuspecting innocence.  Then again, the twenty-first century would probably have a problem with Romana’s inexplicable (or at least unexplained) decision to dress up as a schoolgirl for the duration.

Julian Glover is, of course very wonderful – one of the best camp villains of the Baker era – just behind Tony Beckley from “Seeds of Doom”.  And then there’s Duggan – a masterclass in brute stupidity – a man for whom the alpha and omega of detective work consists of thumping someone into unconsciousness and then forgetting to ask any questions later.  He does, however, provide (as the Doctor tells us) the most important punch in history. None of would be alive today if Duggan hadn’t punched out the Jagaroth.

“City of Death” still doesn’t crack my list of Tom Baker top ten episodes.  There’s not enough menace in it and there’s not enough passion or wonderment.  It is, however, a deal of fun, and it is knocking on the door of my top ten list, continually waving its distinct credentials.

To really appreciate “City of Death” you need to switch off a few critical inhibitors and surrender to the silly.  Its affinities are with things like Prisoner of Zenda  “Androids of Tara” and with last year’s “Robot of Sherwood”.  The Doctor has, in essence, gone on holiday and he’s on holiday – in a sense – all the way through.

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