Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Serial 105: City of Death

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Romana II

Written by: David Agnew (a.k.a Douglas Adams, Graham Williams, and David Fisher)
Directed by: Michael Hayes

Background & Significance: "City of Death" has a bit of a... reputation. For one, it stars the most famous and popular Doctor, Tom Baker. It's the one that is most universally loved of Doctor Who stories, and if you talk to fans of the original series who've seen a good portion of episodes, you'd not be hard pressed to find ones who would say "City of Death" is not one of their favourites. It's on Top Ten lists, top five lists, even "my most specialist favourite" lists. It's also got three of the four highest rated Doctor Who episodes. Ever. (and the only one that isn't in the top four (Part One) still is in the top twenty most-watched episodes with 12.4 million viewers, while Parts Two, Three, and Four were watched by 14.1 million, 15.4 million, and 16.1 million viewers respectively).

That's "City of Death" for you.

My opinion? It's not my favourite, but god damn is it up there.

It's hard for me to not be a naysayer about certain things. I've spoken out many times about my views on the Graham Williams era. I've spoken out a bit about my less-than-enthusiasm for the era's growing focus on silly fantasy and goofy humour rather than the good science fiction/adventure storytelling that makes me love Doctor Who so much. I've also spoken at length about my lack of love for Drunk Tom Baker's post-Hinchcliffe/Holmes interpretation of The Doctor as his portrayal descended into self-parody and his demeanor mutated into divo-narcissism. I mean, when he's trying he's great, phenomenal even, but when he's phoning it in and thinking that HE is The Doctor (and no one else is or ever should be) it makes me passionately dislike his portrayal despite desperately wanting to like him.

See? Not much stacked in the "in its favour" column.

And yet. The most amazing thing about "City of Death" is that with all this stacked against them, Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Graham Williams, Douglas Adams, and the rest of the Doctor Who team shipped off to film internationally for the first time (and in Paris no less) and pulled off a quintessential Doctor Who story. They made it thrilling, well told, funny, exciting, gorgeous, timeless, and ridiculously classic. If only they could have seen what makes this story so good and applied it to the rest of the Williams' era, maybe I wouldn't be so hard on them.

Ah well. At least we'll always have this and its awesomeness.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Because I really think of "City of Death" as a wonderfully perfect Doctor Who story that is… entirely quintessential, I think it would be prudent to discuss why I think it’s so quintessential.

The thing that strikes me most about this story (at least initially) is its structure. Assuming that the ideal classic story is four parts, each story should follow a specific particular structure, divided into four parts: Part one is the part that starts everything. It’s setup. It introduces all the main characters and perhaps the main problem that The Doctor needs to figure out. Additionally, it should set up a series of interesting mysteries that pique our interest and, while slow, it should end with a strong cliffhanger that will keep us coming back for part two. If it can do all of that, it’s a good part one.

The first part of "City of Death" does everything part one of a Doctor Who serial is supposed to do. We’re introduced at the beginning to the shot of a Jagaroth ship under the command of pilot Scaroth blasting off from a planet and exploding (and we won’t come back to this moment for another three episodes). We meet the three major players who we’ll be most acquainted with over the course of the story (Detective Duggan, Count Scarlioni, and his wife, the Countess Scarlioni). And then we deduce at the end that Count Scarlioni is the same one who was in the Jagaroth ship at the beginning.

All in all, it sets everything up elegantly and the story moves along at a reasonable pace. The way the mysteries unfold is all quite wonderfully done. There’s the mystery of the time warps and time loops. There’s the mystery of what’s going on in Scarlioni’s lab. There’s also the mystery of what’s going on in the Louvre with the Mona Lisa. All these things point to a plot that they promise to expand upon in the next episode. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, just the opposite. There's nothing people watching a story love more than intrigue. It's excitement and interest and it'll keep them coming back. It's like a guarantee.

I mean, the first episode tells us everything we need to know. The Doctor and Romana are on holiday in Paris. There’s some weird time distortions. Count Scarlioni is up to no good (and he’s a gross lookin’ alien). And something’s going on with the Mona Lisa (and perhaps more) and Detective Duggan is on the case. And it’s all done so effortlessly that you don’t quite notice all the information that’s being thrown at you.

But what about the rest of it? What about it as just another Doctor Who episode?

The story, as with “Arc of Infinity” several years later, was shot on location abroad, this time in Paris and they really don’t take an opportunity to not show it off. But where “Arc of Infinity” was spotty moments in Amsterdam and then an extended chase sequence through the streets for about ten minutes of footage, “City of Death” does a nice job of showing off the city and being self-indulgent without being overly gluttonous about it. They do a really nice job of rationing out the location footage and the first episode feels like a hearty meal that doesn’t leave me wanting more. (Well it does, but that's just because Paris is gorgeous. It leaves me content. How about that. Does that work for you? I hope so.)

Also of note here are Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. You can tell the two are having a rollicking good time (and as their romance was newly budding at the time it's not that difficult to see or understand why) and... I mean, come on. They're in Paris. What's not to love?

As a result of all this, Tom Baker, despite all odds, really does seem to care about what he's doing here. His performance is strong and confident but also keeps his certain flair for the aloofness his character has. Lucky for all of us, though, it’s never over the top and his jerk side (as we know can come out) doesn’t really surface too bad in here. He's very tempered in what he's doing. It's totally a developed version of early Tom Baker, which is the Tom Baker I love.

Other than that, it’s hard to talk about. We get some terribly funny moments (the part where the artist crumples the piece of paper is a favourite of mine and made me laugh every single time he did it (which was twice. Because of the time loop)) but nothing too crazy yet. Again, we have a focus on telling a good story and having some strong characters, as opposed to focusing on Tom Baker being his own improvisational self and letting him run through the streets with the script, dancing however he wants because he’s Tom Baker, Best Doctor Ever.

Sorry, that was harsh.

But yes. It's just excellent at setting up all the pieces. And we get intrigue, a flavour for the sort of romance that this story feels like. Not romantic, though. Just like... Romantic story. Like a romantic hero. But in a story context. It's the sort of thing, I think, that Graham Williams excels at. It goes back to a line from "The Invisible Enemy", when The Doctor says something like "Let us journey into the world of fantasy and imagination". That's what I think of when I think of Williams, and simply by setting it in Paris, Williams has brought a level of magic to the show that, to this point, simply had never existed. The score, the setting, the setup... It just works and feels like Williams doing some really great rompy Doctor Who storytelling.

It’s hard to talk about too much because it’s all just very, very well executed setup. The fun is about to start.

Part 2:

Whenever I think of part two of City of Death, my mind always comes back to its cliffhanger, which is, in my opinion, one of the best and most memorable Doctor Who cliffhangers there is. But I’ll discuss that in a little bit.

To get some of the more housekeeping stuff out of the way (specifically, to lead us back into the discussion of why "City of Death" works from a structural story standpoint…), why does part two of "City of Death" work to make it a particularly good Doctor Who story?

To our discussion of structure, if part one is the section that sets up all the mysteries and propels the story into the cliffhanger that keeps us interested in tuning in next week, part two is the part that sees the story start to expand and really get into what I (as a screenwriter) know as the “Fun and Games” section, where the story starts to fulfill the promise of the premise. It expands all the mysteries and sees the writer start to have fun with the story. We introduce any B-plots and start to see more of the characters and get to know them a little bit better.

As such, no character, I think, is better served in part two than Detective Duggan. We first meet him back in part one and he’s a bad ass dude who’s trailing The Doctor and Romana through the streets of Paris and carrying around a gun and investigating the potential thievery of The Mona Lisa and he’s an all around cool guy. I mean, the guy has the pimpest trenchcoat around. But (and we learn this very, very early on in episode two) he's a bit of a bruiser. Actually. That's not really quite so accurate. He's a whole heck of a lot of a bruiser.

And it’s friggin hilarious.

Like seriously. Duggan's resorting to brute force is straight comedy. He uses it when it’s not necessary (on the scientist in the lab and The Countess when they make their escape) and to get them out of tight situations (when he picks up the chair in the meeting at the beginning. Because that will totally work. Or when he throws the lantern at Scarlioni). But that doesn't really matter. The point is that it's funny. Once you understand the conceit that he's a bruiser with no rationalizing skills, every time he does something physical, it's funny. And it just keeps building on itself.

Really, it’s all about expanding on what’s already there. The writing takes what already existed (comedy) and makes it funnier. The story takes what's already been established and expands it and shows us that there's more to what's going on than what we think. The Doctor’s discussion with Scarlioni is nothing short of both informative (we'll talk about Julian Glover's Scarlioni. I can't not! Next part!) and entertaining (and at most chuckle-funny), especially because Scarlioni answers using only one word answers.

Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound funny when I say it like that, but it really is! I promise!

But beyond just the comedy, this is definitely some “the plot thickens” stuff. We discover six exact, perfect, Leonardo-DaVinci-crafted Mona Lisas stored safely in a hidden room in Scarlioni’s basement. But why would he need this many Mona Lisas? And we learn that he plans to steal the “real” one which is in the Louvre.

What I find most interesting about this is it’s a great structure. Going into part two, you’re supposed to just think that this is a museum heist story (which, that said? Awesome), and part two definitely hints at this being that. But it becomes clear very quickly that this isn’t just your average story. No. Scarlioni is an alien and he’s funding really expensive and high concept temporal R&D. But what for? And yet all this feels like it’s background to the art heist.

It’s like a magic trick. Like all good writing. They get you to look at the shiny red ball (and a museum heist story starring The Mona Lisa is totally a shiny red ball) while their other hand performs the sleight that makes the trick possible (I just ruined magic for you. Sorry).

And that’s what makes this episode’s cliffhanger so terribly powerful. It landed as The Fourth Doctor’s best cliffhanger in a terribly wonderful article over at Den of Geek (warning: spoilers), and I’m hard pressed to disagree. And just so you know I’m paraphrasing what the article’s writer said, so he gets the credit….

So yes. Why does this work? Or really, why do the best cliffhangers work as well as they do? The best cliffhangers are the ones that change the game or twist the story into a direction you either didn’t see coming or didn’t expect. That’s all the best cliffhangers. The ones that never work are the ones that threaten The Doctor’s life or see him or his companion with a gun pointed to his head. He’ll get out of it. We’ve seen it a million times. There’s nothing it really brings to the table. You have to do something more. You have to change the rules. You have to do something more than just base danger. Base danger is easy. Those are fake stakes. Fake stakes are cheap and lame.

But this. This is how you do a cliffhanger. The Doctor heads back in time to visit Leonardo DaVinci and ask him about the six other Mona Lisas to see what’s going on with those. And then he gets captured and by the guard of a Captain Tancredi, the patron of Leonardo DaVinci. And then we discover that Captain Tancredi is Scarlioni. And things get real and it’s a whole new ball game. Cuz now we know the temporal story is really something, and the museum heist story. Well…. It was just a shiny red ball.

Here’s the scene in glorious youtube. And it’s… yeah. It’s just really well done. This is how you do a cliffhanger.

See what I mean about it being a game changer? It's just made of win and it makes you want to know what happens next. Great cliffhanger.

Also, before we go onto part three, I thought I would mention that Tom Baker is killing this. It really feels like he’s still invigorated and he can tell it’s a good story and he's giving it his all. He’s not nearly so drunk as he is in other stories around this time, and the way he can be so convincingly aloof plays to his strengths in the best of ways. I know I’m exceptionally hard on him a lot (I demand a lot from people who play The Doctor) and the way he doesn’t give a crap. But man. He is so good in this. It’s really some of the best Tom Baker I’ve seen. He’s funny but also terribly Doctor but also terribly HIS iteration of The Doctor, and with all of his Doctor’s best qualities and with few of his negatives.

So really, what we have is a very strong part two that continues on the work started in the equally strong part one. Keep it up, and the story’s going to be super fine.

Part 3:

As stated in other places around the blogosphere, part three of a four part Doctor Who story is the hardest part of the story to write. While part one is all the set up into the fun we’re about to have and part two is all the fun and games of the story, part three is the part that focuses on the “What is really going on here” and heightening the stakes and tension of the story as we lead into the conclusion and climax of the story in part four. But you have to do all this without providing any sort of major story payoffs or turning over of your major cards, because all that is coming in part four. So you can still do Fun & Games, but you actually have to do a decent job of getting some solid work done while you do.

Inevitably, part three is almost always about exposition and wheel spinning. The trick to this is to make it such good exposition and such good wheel spinning that you don’t let your audience notice that what you’re really doing is killing time until the credits roll. It's really hard but do it well enough and no one will notice that you've just spent a lot of time without paying off anything except maybe some info dumpage.

And what we get is "City of Death" doing just that. Part three (as with parts one and two before it) does exactly what it’s supposed to do and does it so well that you don’t even notice that it’s doing it.

Most of this is accomplished through the geniusness of Julian Glover as Scarlioni/Scaroth/Tancredi. We haven’t talked about him yet, but this guy is just a huge mega pimp and Glover pulls it off like a frakkin master. In a show full of memorable villains (and some terribly not so memorable ones) Scaroth is definitely one of my favourites. The best villains (and this is trite, but it’s worth repeating) are the ones with a clear goal based on self-interests and who are entirely self-righteous and devout in their belief.

In that, Scaroth is one of those villains who just works. And Julian Glover pulls off someone who is smarmy, smooth, suave, and deliciously villainous but without all the baggage carried by someone like Soldeed, who was a bit of a loon.

This episode features a LOT of Scarlioni, and we learn about what he wants to do (not the actual specific of his plan, but it has something to do with saving his species, the Jagaroth, from extinction) and that an explosion some 400 million years in the past (which we can deduce was the one we saw in the opening minutes of part one) caused Scaroth to temporally fracture and scatter throughout time, which is why he can exist in both present day Paris and Renaissance Florence.

Not only that, but there’s also a particularly delicious scene in which he starts rambling to The Countess about how he shaped the course of humanity by inventing the wheel and designing the pyramids and it’s just wonderful. The megalomania Glover brings to the part only enhances Scarlioni and his suave badass of a villain. There’s nothing quite as good as a charming bad guy, the kind that's so cool he makes you forget that he's a villain. Putting Glover in the role and cladding him in a white suit (and giving him a kimono and some sweet locks of Renaissance hair to change it up) all help elevate Scarlioni to win status. Major win status.

What’s amazing is looking back on this story and realizing how much just didn’t happen. We see Duggan continue to escalate into hilarity (there’s a part with a wine bottle that just makes me laugh every time) and Romana start to figure out what’s going on without The Doctor’s help and gain more insight to Scarlioni and his plot and the technobabble behind the story.

But really, it does just what it needs to. We’re still missing the exacts of Scarlioni’s plan, but that can come later. We know that he’s up to no good and he’s got some crazy temporal shit that can blow up the world. And that’s enough for now. He has to be stopped.

And I know. I know. I keep praising him, but my goodness Tom Baker is good in this. He has just the right level of aloof and just the right level of humour but also just the right levels of compassion and questing to do the right thing without being annoyed by it all. It's a total shot in the arm for him. Just when I thought he had gotten his most complacent, he's back here in full force. More developed than the very tremendously fantastic but raw performance of "Robot", but almost back to that level that makes me understand why he's most everyone's favourite Doctor.

So we’ve watched them pull off three parts with relative excellence and seeming ease. Do they pull off the fourth?

Part 4:

The final part of a Doctor Who story is, of course, the one that contains the entire end game of the story. It ties up all the strings into a package and wraps up the story with flair and excitement and possibly a big explosion (depending on the story).

Given that everything else up until this point in the story has been well executed and well done, this part should be a mostly walk in the park. It should be fairly effortless and mostly smooth sailing. Tie up all the loose ends, pay off what you want to pay off, bring the story to its closure point. Easy.

That is, of course, assuming the story is well done.

“City of Death”, as we all should have guessed by now, is one of those stories that is quite well done and pulls off part four with considerable flair. We learn of Scaroth’s ultimate plan and we watch him attempt to execute it and we witness The Doctor defeat him.

More than that, there’s really not that much to say. Scaroth’s plan is a very simple one: go back to the day he pressed the wrong button and caused the Jagaroth spaceship’s take off and subsequent explosion and stop himself from pressing the button, causing a time paradox that will destroy humanity before it can even be created.

What I find most interesting about this whole thing is that, in the end, everything that’s going on is incredibly simple. I just wanted to point that out here, though. Scaroth’s fractured self-pieces scattered throughout all of history all work towards Scarlioni’s ultimate vision of going back in time and stopping himself. The Mona Lisa thefts being just a part of the puzzle: the pieces themselves are merely instruments in generating more money for Scarlioni to fund his Temporal R&D basement. It's this sort of layering that makes the story so impressive. Scarlioni had six other genuine Mona Lisas made so he could sell each one off to one of the seven different art dealers who would pay top notch for the Mona Lisa. That's what Doctor Who in this format can do best: start with something small and insignificant and build it into something truly huge and remarkable.

As with all the other parts, there are certain moments that just keep staying with me. The moment The Doctor confronts the Countess about her husband and planting the seeds that lead her to slowly come to the realization that Scarlioni is really Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, is interesting to watch, especially because she doesn’t believe The Doctor initially. But the way he plants doubt in her mind is just what The Doctor needs to do for people who won't stand for bad things. It's the idea he plants in Harriet Jones's head that causes her to self-destruct her administration in the new series. I love it when The Doctor does that. His weapons are his words. And we get to watch them fester and grow in her head until she comes to realize that it’s the truth… It’s just well done. It’s a strong character point for us to watch and props have to go to Catherine Schell to playing it up so well.

Then of course there’s the bit where we find out that Scaroth is responsible for all of life on Earth, his ship’s explosion causing a huge release of energies that jump started the amino acids and building blocks of life and what-have-you-nots is… Well… I have a confession to make. I generally HATE stories like this. The ones that say “All of life was created by an alien spaceship” or “And this is how The Big Bang happened.” In my mind, they’re all things that don’t exactly… They don’t need explaining to me and it’s really easy to, in a show like Doctor Who, where all of time and space is open to exploration, we get definitive answers on all that. I’m not saying they all have to be God based (in fact, I’m totally fine if they aren’t), but there are far more interesting things to explore on a character level that have nothing to do with “The creation of…” stories.

And yet what we’re left with here is exactly one of those stories and I kinda fail to care. Maybe it’s because it’s just a terribly silly story that also happens to be terribly well done. Or maybe it’s that I’m just having so much fun with it that it doesn’t really matter, or it actually takes effort to not cop out and say “Well isn’t this cooler now that it’s a ‘the creation of…’ story?” I don’t really know. And quite frankly, I don’t care. Just goes to show you I can handle anything so long as it’s done well. As an example, I am not a fan of rap or hip hop music, and yet there are certain assorted (not many, mind you) rap and hip hop songs that I do, in fact enjoy. But I think that's a rule. Just show something the best or coolest example of something or something that speaks or resonates with them, and they'll totally change their mind. At least for that one exception anyways....

Anyways. Back to commentary! The lead up to this end game at the dawn of life stars Scarlioni looking like Scaroth and holding a gun and then he disappears and then The Doctor, Romana, and Duggan racing through the streets of Paris (still gorgeous) to get back to the TARDIS in order to stop him (featuring a marvelous, marvelous cameo by John Cleese in which he contemplates the nature of the TARDIS as art). All this just ratchets up the tension, and once we get to the past, we’re left wondering how in the world The Doctor is going to stop Scaroth from doing what he needs to do.

And going back through it, I had a hard time remembering how The Doctor managed to stop Scaroth from reaching his ship in time to stop him from telling his other self not to press the button. Because really, all The Doctor can do is talk, and it wasn’t something lame like “Scaroth ran out of time and got sent back to the future because of the limitations on Scaroth’s ability to time travel”.

Ha ha. No. What really happens is nothing short of hilarious.

Now I know I spoil the hell out of these stories, but… sometimes I need to leave a little surprise for you in there. Needless to say, it’s… magical. It just works and speaks to why so many people love this story. Were the conclusion a non-sequitor, the result wouldn’t be nearly as funny. And yet, going through it, it’s only because they’d spent something like three episodes setting up that this is what was going to stop the bad guy that it works. From a writing standpoint, that’s brilliant, and it’s a terrific moment of tremendous comedy and wonderful character work, but also some glorious fist pumping.

Oh screw it. Here. I youtubed it for you.

It kills me that that’s how they ended it. Love that. LOVE IT.

Anyways. Yes. Just yes. And it leaves us with the knowledge that The Doctor wrote “This is a fake” on all of the Mona Lisas, so it leaves the whole situation to doubt. Romana and The Doctor get to go off into the sunset into their next adventure. Duggan gets to walk off knowing that he saved the day and that the world is a totally bonkers place and jacking people in the face can work sometimes. It’s just a delightful ending part that totally wraps everything up and does so with some wonderful character work and a bunch of humour that doesn't come at the expense of the story.

And what more could you want?

Final Thoughts!: "City of Death" is one of those stories that's always on top ten (if not top five) lists, and rightly so.

Believe me, no one went into this story more skeptical than me. I'm generally not a fan of the Williams era. I'm not a fan of Tom Baker at this time. But... this... It has everything that I would want out of the Williams story. If you go back and listen to what he had to say about his work on the show, he was big in just trying to make it the best he could be, to tell wonderfully fantastic stories in wonderfully fantastical settings. While not always successful, there are, of course, gems in the era that are just tremendous tremendous fun.

This all boils down, of course, to the writing. You can have all the talent you want on something, but without good writing, that thing is going to suck. That's why I spend so much time talking about writing. It all starts there. (And look at all the good Doctor Who stories. If the writing's not good, the story always fails. Prove me wrong. I dare you.)

"City of Death" is just masterful. It's not that it does anything mindblowingly high concept or terribly ridiculously important. There's no Daleks, Cybermen, or Master. There's no regeneration. There's no crazy high concepts and generic insanity (a la, say, "Ghost Light" or "The Deadly Assassin"). So then what makes it so masterful?

Look at it. It doesn't try to be stunning or the greatest thing that ever happened. It's a very simple story but told extremely well. It's insanely compelling, elegantly put together, and built on a series strong, simple elements. It's tightly structured, well plotted, got some terribly memorable characters, and it doesn't really do anything new or amazing. It's beautifully and expertly shot by Michael Hayes (of "Androids of Tara" fame, which was also fairly wonderfully well done) who does a great and breathtaking job of shooting Paris and pulling some truly wonderful performances out of his actors. But beyond all that, it's a VERY standard, run-of-the-mill Doctor Who story, but done with exceptional grace.

To me, that's the lesson of "City of Death". All a story needs is a tight structure, a good plot, and a solid telling. Good writing, and it builds everything up and gets everyone energized and excited. Have those, and you'll really have something on your hands. I'm not diminishing the role everyone else played (cuz it really is a tour de force on everyone's part), but people love "City of Death" because it's an excellent story that's funny and compelling and well told. Everything else builds off of that basic truth. And it's stronger for it.

And you know what? Sometimes, Graham Williams can really surprise me. And I really, REALLY don't mind that at all.

Next Time!: 7th Doctor! The 60s! Levitating Daleks! Tons of Mystery! A Dalek Civil War! And the most useless Davros ever! "Remembrance of The Daleks"! Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. Its just a shame Graham Williams and Douglas Adams could not maintain more of this standard in Season 17.

    My favorite aspect of this story is the Doctor and Romana skipping around Paris, just enjoying each others' company. There is something much more beautiful about this than the more obvious attempts at sexing-up the Doctor in the BBC Wales series.

  2. What Celestial Fundy said. Plus Romana's outfit is so adorable/sexy.

  3. Really cool series of episodes. Along with the Caves of Androzani, this is my favorite Doctor Who story. A classic.

  4. I'm just loving your blog--the essay-style reviews are very entertaining and enlightening. I like all the talk about structure, something the film industry doesn't seem to understand. These days, the film adaptation of the last book in a series is being split into two movies. That's especially problematic for the third in a trilogy (i.e. Hunger Games, Divergent). The writers split the last book into two parts, and your talk of the four-part structure shows why that method fails. The third act of three is the race to the finish, but when you split it into 2, making a trilogy a four-parter, you have to keep the ending off for as long as possible, leading to a part 3 of 4 that doesn't push the plot along much. While you can wheel-spin (I love that term for it) for 25 minutes on a TV show whose resolution airs next week, you can't do the same for a 2-hour film whose conclusion you won't see for over a year. It's dramatically unsatisfying. The second book should really the one be getting the split treatment if companies want to extend the number of films. Book 2 should be movies 2 and 3, and book 3 should be part 4.

    I know that didn't really have anything to do with Doctor Who, but all your talk of structure brought the movie splits to mind.