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Oct 01, 2006

More of a Table Wine

How to review one of Doctor Who’s all-time classics? It’s a question that keeps popping up at least once during all of our Stripped Down sessions; and in the case of arguably one of the most literate stories - from a time when Doctor Who was little more (and little less) than ’The Tom Baker Show’ - the temptation is to just transcribe the script verbatim and have done with it. Still, like an onion there’s always one more layer to peel off - I guess I’ll just have to be prepared for the tears in my eyes…

City of Death Part 1

We open on an Ian Scoones-sculpted landscape of prehistoric, paper-mache vistas. In an incongruous, spider-legged spaceship a green, single-eyed alien is test-driving his ship’s latest warp-drive enhancement with all the skill of a seventeen year-old joy-rider with his Burberry hat over his eyes. Before you can say ‘engines canna take no more, cap’n’ said ship and its pilot are scattered across the landscape and we fade onto the sunny façade of a spring day in Paris (the significance of which would have surely left the viewer none the wiser back in 1979). Here the Doctor and Romana are struggling to find the apposite epithets with which to describe their latest holiday destination, sounding like a pair of middle-class interlocutors who have suddenly discovered the delights of life outside of a Dorset sand-pit. Pretentious? Possibly. Almost insufferably self-satisfied? Certainly. Yet if we study the following formula we can put into context the difference between such annoying - yet strangely endearing - social sequiturs with more recent forays into the realms of twattability:

Doctor & Romana / Doctor & Rose X Intelligence / Smugness = Likeability

As you see, the formula for achieving a successful mix of know-it-all loftiness with audience identification is a tricky brew. But let’s not be ostentatious about this, the combination of Tom at the height of his mesmeric self-indulgence with a companion who seems only too happy to keep up with his stream of consciousness persona completely knocks Tennant and Piper into a severely cocked hat.

a green, single-eyed alien is test-driving his ship’s latest warp-drive enhancement with all the skill of a seventeen year-old joy-rider with his Burberry hat over his eyes

As always, I digress. But given the sheer amount of location footage that this first foray onto foreign soil afforded the show has yielded, this is perhaps understandable. The most difficult thing to accept about ‘ City of Death’s opening episode is how little actually happens. Yet because it all doesn’t happen so beautifully we never notice that our heroes have merely swapped walking aimlessly around the corridors of TC1 for walking aimlessly around the sights and smells of gay Paris. Quite rightly the production team have taken full advantage of the chance to bring some real gloss to the usual studio / quarry-based programme. And they’re so in the moment of being abroad that they’re bloody well gonna make the most of it, goddammit!

But as always the plot’s afoot. Basically Julian Glover - purring his way through the role of a post-modern Bond villain as though he’d be doing the very thing a couple of years later - has got a Ronnie Barker-lookalike Professor holed-up in his cellar conducting experiments on time (the effects of which the Doctor and Romana periodically experience whilst sightseeing at the licence-payer’s expense). To what end these machinations are for is yet to be revealed, but safe to say they’re serious as their funding requires the Count to flog off as many copies of the Guttenburg bible as to make sales of The Da Vinci Code seem pale in comparison.

And though it seems almost rude to distract our heroes from their Gallic gallivanting, a visit to the Louvre alerts the pair to an attempt to breach security and purloin a certain scribble by one Leonardo da Vinci (understandably so, as it is a very pretty painting). Reeling from another of the time-slips as though his alter-ego has enjoyed a particularly good night on the Soho tiles, the Doctor attracts the attention of both a two-bit private detective (who proceeds to follow him and Romana around Paris like a bad smell) and the Count’s (very probably) beautiful wife, who includes amongst her bling armoury a very curious bracelet which detects alarms and is about as likely to turn up in this year’s Argos catalogue as the Sash of Rassilon.

The Doctor reels from another of the time-slips as though his alter-ego has enjoyed a particularly good night on the Soho tiles,

Stealing the bracelet like the tea-leaf ragamuffin he is, the Doctor is soon finding all manner of guns shoved in his face as first Duggan (the private dick…think a slightly more buffoonish Harry Sullivan with lashings of Mickey) and then some of the Count’s goons (who clearly think black is very in this season) take turns in getting all heavy with the handguns. While back at the chateau, the Count’s gone for a sabbatical down in the cellar; during which he rips off his perfectly coiffed bonce to reveal - der der derrrr - the face of the hopeless one-eyed alien who had totalled his space-ship just twenty-five minutes previously.

So, before next time I leave you with the following imponderables to ponder…

  • Why does the Count feel the need to unmask save for the sake of a good cliff-hanger? Is this some kind of Jagarothian onanism?
  • Can you identify three scenes in which Tom and Lalla have just had an off-screen tiff and three in which they’re so hopelessly drowning in each others’ ardour as to literally make the TV glow with sexual frisson?
  • Why does the Doctor need to slice open his novel before speed-reading it (a la ‘Rose’) in the Paris café? Does Gallifreyan literature come shrink-wrapped?

Answers on a priceless painting - marked ‘This is a Fake’ - by next time…

(The Bumper Book of Made-Up ‘Doctor Who’ Facts has this to say about City of Death 1: as a cost-cutting exercise to maximise the amount of budget that could be spent on the Paris location shoot, the entire cast and crew were paid in glasses of water)

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