Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: City of Death DVD

By Jim Smith on 14 November 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The fact that Douglas Adams, author of a radio novelisation democratically elected as one of the British public’s best-loved books, wrote for ‘Doctor Who’ is a source of some pride to many of its fans. The happy state of affairs surrounding this is both ameliorated and confused, however, by a number of unfortunate facts.

Of his three ‘Doctor Who’ serials, the first (‘The Pirate Planet’) is a decent script kyboshed by risible production, directorial cluelessness and poor casting (and more, it’s four episodes of a twenty six part year long ‘story arc’) and the last (‘Shada’) was never completed due to industrial action at the BBC. (That’s unless you count last year’s derisory internet adaptation, an attitude there’s no excuse for, frankly).

Fortunately, the middle one (‘City of Death’) is a great ‘Doctor Who’ story, with a fine script, an excellent ensemble cast and generally solid production, including some impressive location filming in Paris. The only problem here is that ‘City of Death’ isn’t actually credited to Adams at all, it’s credited to ‘David Agnew’ because it’s actually a lightning quick re-write by Adams of the work on another screenwriter entirely.

The upshot of all this is that the there isn’t really a way that the “Can I watch Douglas Adams’ ‘Doctor Who’ stories?” request can be responded to; even handing over a tatty videocassette requires an accompanying printed out FAQ. (Q 1: Why isn’t Adams’ credited and who is this David Agnew? A 1:’The BBC has a number of in-house nommes-de-plume…’).

Celebrating his contribution to the series as a whole is a slightly phantasmal activity, because it’s difficult to pin that contribution down, never mind make programmes about it. That was true even before the man himself died at a stupidly young age, robbing us not only of future work but of his own definitive account of that period in his life. (Adams’ creative partner on ‘Doctor Who’, producer Graham Williams, is also deceased, incidentally).

Well, BBC DVD, bless ‘em, have tried to get around these problems with the way they’ve handled the release of ‘City of Death’ as a double-disc, feature-packed DVD. ‘Paris in the Springtime’ (45 minutes) is the primary feature of Disc 2 of ‘City of Death’ (we’ll come to Disc 1 later). Produced by Ed Stradling (responsible for some of the best documentaries to feature on ‘Doctor Who’ DVDs) and with a script by Jonathan Morris (who has written ‘Doctor Who’ novels, one of which was dedicated to Adams’ memory) it specifically deals with the production of ‘City of Death’ itself, but also finds time to celebrate what Adams brought to the series and both adumbrate and examine the issues surrounding his time working on it.

Adams himself contributes extensively to the documnentary thanks to a combination of archive interviews (including some that I, at least, have not seen before) while David Fisher (who wrote the story Adams’ re-wrote), Anthony Read (Adams’ predecessor as Script Editor on ‘Who’ and the man who hired him), director Michael Hayes, actors Tom Chadbon (Duggan), Catherine Schell (Countess Scarlioni) and Julian Glover (Count Scarlioni) supply new ‘to camera’ material.

Two more recent ‘Who’ writers Rob (‘Dalek’) Shearman and Steven (‘The Doctor Dances’) Moffatt are also interviewed, and they offer commentary on Adams’ work of the kind you can only really get away with if you’re also a highly acclaimed ‘Who’ writer who also happens to be an old time fan of the series. Moffat’s comment that what Adams’ brought to ‘Doctor Who’ was that he allowed us to see what it would be like if written by ‘a genius’, but that that’s not a lesson anyone else can learn from is typically Moffat; witty, pithy and containing actual insight. Of course, many who have seen Moffat’s own best work (‘Something Terrible’, ‘Head and Heart’, ‘There Are Crocodiles’, the sixth and twelfth episodes of ‘Joking Apart’) might like to cautiously venture the opinion that the (over-used, oft-devalued) G-word could be equally accurately used to describe Moffatt himself.

A plumy, witty voiceover, scripted by Morris and delivered by Toby Longworth (who plays a lot of aliens in the ‘Star Wars’ prequels) smothers the documentary and gives it a certain atmosphere that sets it apart from its less-successful DVD brethren. The only black mark against ‘Paris in the Springtime’ could be that lack of involvement of Tom Baker himself or Lalla Ward (who plays Romana in ‘City of Death’). Both have contributed to ‘Doctor Who’ DVDs before but neither was available for this one, but it’s a measure of the general excellence of the piece that it manages very well indeed without them.

Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are present, however, in ‘Paris, W12’ a collection of black and white video recordings of the serial’s studio sessions rescued from a videotape of an obscurantist format. We get to see two Tom Bakers in these ‘raw’ studio sessions, a funny, smiling, creative presence oozing charm and charisma and also a mercurial tyrant – at one point he rants, seemingly without provocation, about ‘This intolerable scene’. The whole thing is an interesting record of both the production of late seventies ‘Doctor Who’ in general and into ‘City of Death’ in particular. It seems quite clear that ‘City of Death’ was (the odd Baker tantrum aside) a very happy production with a lot of creative interplay between director and cast. Watch it with the production notes on, though; it’ll make a lot more sense if you do. Special mention must go to the team responsible for the DVD, who did a heroic job of rescuing this footage from a tape initially thought to be unplayable. Applause, please.

There are several other extras present on Disc 2, none of which quite come up to the standards of the above two. The best of the rest is ‘Pre-historic Landscapes’ a selection of beautiful model footage made for the show; including some left out of the final programme. It’s the work of longtime ‘Who’ FX guru Ian Scoones and is lovely stuff, although it reminds me of one of my pet hates, that there’s virtually no match up between this model work and the set for the ship’s cockpit as seen in the story. Try watching the opening scene of ‘City of Death’, that crane shot makes it clear that Scaroth is a tiny plastic cage with nothing behind it, not in the diamond-shaped window on the front of the model.

Scoones himself features on screen in ‘Ian Scoones – Chicken Wrangler’ a couple of minutes of hallucinatory madness, stark film footage of Scoones, placing chickens onto a pedestal in order to photograph them for an FX used in the story. If that sounds weird, please bear in mind that it’s backed by a loop of the original ‘Grange Hill’ theme music. If watched more than twice it’s possible this could trigger insanity in a viewer; the other possibilities is that it could, with the help of mind altering substances, become powerfully addictive.

Also included are PDFs of the 1980 ‘Doctor Who’ annual (dreadful book, but nice to see it, more please!) and ‘Eye on Blatchford’ a basically not very funny sketch about ‘Sardoth, second to last of the Jagaroth’ which long outstays its welcome. I’m not against comic items on these DVDs per se (‘Global Conspiracy’ on ‘The Green Death’ was excellent) but like the same team’s previous effort (‘Oh! Mummy!’ on ‘Pyramids of Mars’) this doesn’t really work for me.

There’s an extensive photo gallery as well, and two Easter Eggs (a CGI advert for a Jagaroth spaceship and a six minute clip of Adams’ telling a lengthy story about a Parisian pub crawl) complete Disc 2.

So, having disposed of Disc 2, I suddenly take to charging backwards like a time travelling Jagaroth splinter, and come to Disc 1. This basically has two things on it: the serial and the commentary track. The commentary (mercifully ‘moderation’ free) is entertaining, with Hayes, Chadbon and Glover watching the story and commenting on Paris, the difference between video and film, various Doctors approaches to the role and the evolution of special effects. I’d have thought the absence of Tom and Lalla would be felt more strongly here than in ‘Paris in the Springtime’ but the opposite is the case with those present offering an entirely different perspective on the making of this hugely celebrated ‘Doctor Who’ serial than that routinely trotted out.

What was that I said? ‘Hugely celebrated ‘Doctor Who’ story’ was it? Well, yes, it was. To call ‘City of Death’ the most overrated ‘Doctor Who’ story would be churlish and mean-spirited. It would also have a sizeable dollop of truth to it, although it’s only as true as it is because the serial has been so endlessly praised in the fifteen years since its initial VHS release. It’s funny, well-played, brilliantly plotted and generally very well made and these are – and this is important – all things that are absolutely, resolutely untrue of every single one of the other ‘Doctor Who’ stories made and shown in 1979, all of which are, to a lesser or greater degree, intolerably bloody awful.

‘City of Death’ is, and this is something Moffatt alludes to in ‘Paris in the Springtime’, an example of what late Seventies ‘Doctor Who’ should have been like but basically wasn’t. The good things about it are nearly endless (i.e. has lovely piano music which allows Dudley Simpson to drolly impersonate George Gershwin) and the minus points are so minor you feel like a git for pointing them out (i.e. the cut from the chateau catching fire to the final scene is far too abrupt).

It is (essentially) written by the most famous writer ever to work on ‘Who’, is funnier than any twenteith century ‘Doctor Who’ bar ‘The Gunfighters’ and the Paris film work is outstanding. For a change, someone has had think about what the story is actually about and in the last episode, John Cleese turns up in a cameo role.

As an example of a certain kind of deliberately arch, almost-but-not-quite self-mocking sort of ‘Doctor Who’ ‘City of Death’ is unsurpassed. What we shouldn’t ever forget is that that’s partially because every other time they tried it it was an obvious disaster.

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