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Apr 11, 2006

City of Heaven

I’ve been really looking forward to this review, and not only because it means we’re close to season 28. It’ll be interesting to see what people choose – there’s bound to be a lot of firsts & favourites. Unfortunately, my first, and last until 2nd April*, glimpse into Doctor Who was the 1996 TV Movie and there are only so many ways of asking ‘Why?! Why make it like this? Why do they kiss? Why, why, why?’ So instead, it’s my favourite to date: the sublime City of Death.

Originally I set about it like an over-zealous terrier: examining character, dialogue, plot, direction, costume and sets – nothing was safe. At least ten pages were full before I realized my mistake. Needless to say, everything came out of the ordeal spotless but in ripping it apart so ruthlessly I missed the subtle joy which makes it such a unique piece of DW.

That’s not to say I won’t have a prod, only that I’m not intending to examine the nuts and bolts, more the structure as a whole.

Central to this story, and so many others, is the energy and delight with which Tom Baker goes about the role. In a way which was never matched, (except possibly by McCoy and hopefully David Tennant) he loses himself in the character, which is surely the aim of every actor. Either that or it’s him being himself and the character was built around him. But down to the tiniest details it’s flawless – ‘you’re a very beautiful woman, probably...’ so much is summed up in that last word. It’s the Doctor at his best – acting the fool, but saving the day against all the odds.

Then there’s Romana Mk II. Beyond the usual role the companion plays, she is the Doctor’s equal and doesn’t need the fine points of time-travel etc explaining, meaning their delightful banter isn’t ruined. Importantly, though, she still lacks the sense of the Doctor and needs his help in the end. It’s horrible when the dynamic is messed around – Grace knowing everything suddenly toward the end of the TV Movie - ! – but Lalla Ward is the perfect compliment to Tom’s bounciness and they make a formidable double act.

Even though there are relatively few other characters, they are all perfectly realised. Julian Glover was born to play the Bond villain style Count/Scaroth, simply oozing charming suavity and menace. Catherine Schell manages to convince as the ambitious Countess and she boasts the best costume. Of them all, Tom Chadbon's Duggan is the most developed – I love the way he opens a bottle of wine by smashing it off the side-board. Professor Kerensky, blissfully unaware of the truth behind his work poses one of the story’s big themes, (more of later).

It would be a crime to write a review without noting how good it looks. Because the amount shot on film and on location it has a very polished feel but the studio material blend in nicely.

Padding, because padding it undoubtedly is, had never been so good – Tom Baker and Lalla Ward cavorting around Paris, showing off all the monuments and teaching children how to risk their lives crossing busy roads.

What City of Death has, is an ethos...

The sets, however, deserve an award. The sheer level of detail in the chateau’s salon and cellar is astounding. Down to the cobwebs downstairs and the ornaments upstairs it’s every inch a mad scientist’s cave or collector’s display room. Even the equipment looks more credible than usual, although there is a passing resemblance to some super-sized Lego hooked up to a ghetto blaster.

No matter, though, because this is still one of the most beautiful pieces of DW I’ve ever seen – the new series has the gloss but there’s still nothing to match this, yet.

The use of the Mona Lisa as a central plot device is a brilliant stroke and she acts as a barometer for every character – how they view her, and art as a whole, defines what they value. Along with Kerensky she poses the other theme.

Both ideas deal with the brilliant – genius, and its shortcomings; art and how we see it. As I’m avoiding the nuts and/or bolts, I won’t go into exhaustive detail but what City does is examine the two subjects, always drawing it back to the characters and, ultimately, the Doctor. The others’ views on the themes and their reactions show up their weaknesses and so their behaviour later on, when the drama comes to a head, it comes as no surprise what they do, only seamlessly realistic.

It’s a beautifully appropriate fact that this is a story about genius and art, which manages to be a work of both. Because of the wonderful characters, it never has to stoop to the obvious and its message is subtly explored and resolved.

In truth, I’m not a skilled enough writer to sum up in less than 2000 words what makes this so amazing. It’s one of those that I wouldn’t be at all ashamed to watch with people who don’t generally like the series. The DVD extras alone are worth buying it for – much wittier than any others I’ve seen and downright hilarious in parts. It’s also chock-a-block with Easter eggs – I love the one where Douglas Adams talks about his night out in Paris.

But beyond the bits I’ve tried and failed to avoid, it’s the wider principle of what our funny old show can be when it’s given a little more budget and the care in production it deserves. What City of Death has, is an ethos – and it’s one the new series’ team have taken to heart. It’s too soon to see whether David Tennant is going to be on a par with Tom, but certainly he’s thrown himself into it. Little things like, being interviewed on location for the Christmas Invasion, he say ‘I,’ talking about the Doctor rather than ‘he,’ which Eccleston invariably did.

In the end, there’s only one thing to say about it: exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.

*Not a mistake – I forgot Rose was on and only tuned in for The End of the World. Looking back, that was no bad thing.


Excuse the justified text - it looks silly but I only realised after I posted it and Typepad's been testing my patience to the limit with it's 'can't do rich text etc' so I won't edit it yet.

"City of Death" is my favourite Doctor Who story of all time too. It is just simply sublime and would work on its own without the Doctor Who trappings. That's what makes it a truly great story.

As for Tennant being on par with Tom Baker, I would have to disagree with you on that point. I just don't get why Tennant is so good. Perhaps in a few weeks I will understand, but at the moment I still remain to be convinced.

City of Death's special edition DVD release is what I got my Da for christmas this year. It was kind of a "thank you" for getting me hooked on Doctor Who reruns, staying up 'til 1 in the morning watching Star Trek TNG(and later DS9), then Doctor Who and Red Dwarf on PBS. He loved it, too, watched it all in one sitting.

Tennant pulls better levers than Baker. Fact.

Typepad prfers it if you do your formatting in the Typepad software. The other alternative is to just paste in plain text.

All fixed, thanks for that.

No one would have know HOW to pull the levers if Hartnell hadn't gotten it right. He had such a dignified flourish to everything he did at the console.

Meaning that the levers themselves are better levers, or that he just pulls them better?

Presumably Baker's levers were just too cheap to stand up to such frenetic, 'I AM the Doctor' type manhandling...

Oh, and d'you think we'll still be talking about levers come July 8th?

What I should have said is this: "Tennant gives good lever".

Better than saying 'Tennant gives good 'leverage'', certainly...

And who gave bad lever?

I think it's a mistake to judge David Tennant solely on 20 minutes of a Christmas Panto. I've seen his other work, I know what a great actor he is, but great actor doesn't mean great Doctor. Leave it for 23 days, then he'll have had Cassandra, a Werewolf, and the Doctor's ultimate challenge, K-9. Leave it a little over three weeks, and we'll know how he fits in to the series.

I'm just wondering whether they'll all have to crouch down to talk to K9, or let him wheel about 30 feet ahead, then catch up, let him wheel ahead, catch up, etc, etc, ad nauseum like old-school K9. I saw him circle-strafe in the previews, so I'm assuming his wheels/treads/antigravs/hamsters have had an upgrade.

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