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Oct 08, 2006

Exquisite

Can never remember - and can never be bothered to look up, frankly - whether it’s this episode or the last that still holds the record for Doctor Who’s most watched episode (something like 17 million viewers, yes?). And as we all know in the days of three-channel television - especially with the other big-hitter taking an unplanned sabbatical - such a figure was somewhat artificially enhanced. Still, at least the ITV strike didn’t coincide with something like ‘Underworld’, eh? And I bet JNT would have sold his entire Hawaiian shirt collection for a similar event in 1989...

City of Death Part 4

The story so far: Romana and Duggan have been captured by the Count, with the former blackmailed into producing something called a ‘field interface stabiliser’ in order for Scaroth to go back in time and reunite his twelve fragmented selves. As a fitting demonstration of his megalomaniacal powers he has just reduced the loyal - but dumb - Professor Kerensky to a heap of background scenery from Steptoe and Son and threatens Duggan with a similar end unless Romana helps him.

Meanwhile the Doctor has arrived back at the chateau, where he immediately name-drops Shakespeare and reveals that it was he and not the bard who wrote (or at least transcribed) Hamlet; as ol’ Bill was resting his wrists at the time (a spurious claim which next year’s Globe-set episode will almost certainly avoid mentioning). The Countess is suitably impressed and we are at least given some reason why she hasn’t questioned her husband’s activities in the cellar, not to mention his fetish for rubber masks (apparently all the bling and fur coats clouded her judgment). But what’s great about this scene is how it perfectly illustrates Tom Baker’s almost unique ability to go from jovial charm to sinister intensity in a (double) heartbeat. No-one has - and I fear no-one ever will again - combine these two Doctorly traits in quite the same way.

Tom’s still on ‘don’t f**k with me’ form when he goes down into the cellar to confront the Count. And after several minutes of ‘you can’t stop me / I must stop you’ type verbal duelling, the Count realises that his marriage is over and goes to break the news gently to the Countess. In some bizarre parody of a break-up scene he first reveals to her that he is an alien called Scaroth, then pulls his face off to unveil the green, one-eyed truth beneath. The Countess - rather understandably - is a little distraught at this unlikely turn of events, having hoped instead for a quiet night in and a game of checkers before bed that night. And we can only be thankful in these pre-RTD days that Scaroth didn’t go the full Monty and show the Countess what he had really been packing all these years in the trouser department.

With the Countess put out of her misery - in a death with provides a solemn warning about the perils of wearing too much alien jewellery - Scaroth makes his departure in Romana’s hastily-arranged time bubble. And the Doctor, Romana and Duggan find themselves, not for the first time, holed up in the cellar. Escaping with the help of the private dick’s typically no-nonsense attitude to doors, the trio rush through some more padded-out location work in Paris to get to the TARDIS and follow the last of the Jagaroth all the way back to 400 million years ago (a Sunday I think).

There, two art curators have mistaken the police box for some avant garde addition to the gallery’s collection and wax lyrical for several seconds about the wonderful a-functionalism of the time machine’s presence until the Doctor and co arrive to whisk it away in front of their eyes. The fact that cameo-ing as these two budding Mark Lawsons are a) the star and writer of a then very, very popular comedy show and b) one of the best-known women satirists of the past fifteen years makes you all the more relieved that the current production team would never pull a cheap, attention-grabbing stunt in these enlightened days. No, sirrree!

Back in 400 million years ago, the TARDIS has handily arrived mere yards from the about-to-go kablooey Jagaroth ship and it’s left to Duggan to save the day by providing the most important punch since (until?) Henry Copper floored Cassius Clay in the sixties. With his time - quite literally - out, Scaroth is flung back to the mansion where Herman loses points on his employee loyalty card by blowing the green-skinned git into extinction.

And we end as we began - atop Eiffel Tower with the Doctor and Romana extolling the aesthetic qualities of Paris to a still-bemused Duggan. There’s almost a post-modern comment about fandom in the closing message about art being meaningless if you have to be told that it’s worthy (a point that several super-fans since the 1980s would do well to heed). Then it’s just a charming farewell and an inconceivably quick descent from the tower before the credits crash in.

Someone once said that Doctor Who - at least until 2005 - ended as a populist drama following the original transmission of this story. I’m not too sure of that - as the show would once again reach a peak of mainstream success with the early Peter Davison stories - but ‘City of Death was certainly a watershed story both in 1979 and in terms of the direction the show would take the following year. Out would go the post-grad humour (and arguably, fun) of these stories; in would come ‘real’ science and a solemn Doctor pondering the end of the universe. There’ll always be proponents for each style and I’m not about to launch any debate about the merits of one over the other now.

Not here. Safe to say though that, no matter how changing attitudes come to regard Doctor Who as a body of work, for now at least - for today - we’ll always have Paris…

(The Bumper Book of Made-Up ‘Doctor Who’ Facts has this to say about City of Death Part 4: John Cleese and Eleanor Bron only stepped in to perform cameos after ‘George and Mildred’ stars Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce declined as a result of a filming clash)

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