City of Death features the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion Romana (Lalla Ward). Set mainly in Paris in 1979, the plot concerns a scheme by an alien, Scaroth, to steal the Mona Lisa to finance experiments in time travel in the hope of averting the accident that marooned him on Earth four hundred million years previously, which began the existence of life on the planet as well.
The serial's original storyline was devised by Fisher but was heavily re-written by script editor Adams, aided by producer Williams. It was the first Doctor Who serial to film on location outside of the United Kingdom; the production team worked in Paris during April and May 1979. The studio work was completed in June.
Broadcast during a strike that took ITV (the BBC's rival) off the air, City of Death scored high ratings. The fourth episode was watched by over sixteen million viewers, the highest UK television audience ever attained by an episode of Doctor Who. Although, in retrospect, it has been regarded as one of the best serials from Doctor Who's classic run, the initial reception was not as positive, with criticism of the humorous tone.
While leisurely enjoying the city of Paris with Romana, the Doctor feels the effects of time distortion. At the Louvre while admiring the Mona Lisa, he encounters the Countess Scarlioni wearing an alien bracelet used to scan security systems. The Doctor and Romana meet Inspector Duggan, who has been tailing Count Scarlioni for some time; Scarlioni has placed a large number of lost art treasures on the market, and Duggan fears the Scarlionis are looking to steal the Mona Lisa. Though the three are briefly captured by the Countess, the Doctor helps them to escape and explore the Count's mansion, where they discover equipment by Dr. Kerensky to experiment with time, the source of the Doctor's time distortions. They also discover, behind a wall, six exact copies of the Mona Lisa, each painted by Leonardo da Vinci himself.
Leaving Romana and Duggan to continue to investigate in the present, the Doctor uses his TARDIS to visit Leonardo's workshop. There he is captured by Captain Tancredi, whose appearance is the same as Count Scarlioni. Tancredi reveals he is Scaroth, the last of the Jagaroth race, stranded on Earth and fragmented through time due to an explosion of their spacecraft on Earth 400 million years ago. Seeking to restore himself and his race, Scaroth has aided human technological advancement, while remaining in contact with the other fragments of himself. Tancredi, in this era, has convinced Leonardo to paint 6 copies of the Mona Lisa, so that when Scarlioni steals the known painting in 1979, he can then sell it seven times, substantially funding the completion of Dr. Kerensky's work. The Doctor uses a felt-tip marker to write "This is a fake" on the six blank canvases and leaves instructions for Leonardo to paint over the text, as to allow them to track the copies in the future by X-raying them. The Doctor escapes when Tancredi suffers a temporary collapse caused by his other selves.
The Doctor returns to the present and learns that Scaroth has succeeded in stealing the Mona Lisa. Furthermore, Scaroth has killed Dr. Kerensky and threatens to do the same to the entire city of Paris if Romana does not complete Kerensky's work. The Doctor convinces the Countess that her husband is not human, and she sees his true face, but the Count kills her before she can react. With the time equipment fixed, Scaroth uses it to travel back 400 million years in hopes to stop the explosion of his ship. Though Romana reveals that the equipment will bring him back after two minutes, the Doctor asserts that it is enough time for Scaroth to stop the explosion of the Jagaroth ship, itself the source of the spark of energy that created the beginnings of life on Earth; should Scaroth prevent the explosion, every native living being on the planet will never have existed. The Doctor, Romana, and Duggan race to the TARDIS and travel back to intercept Scaroth. Duggan punches Scaroth unconscious before he can stop the ship. Scaroth's body returns to the present as the ship attempts to take off and explodes, assuring the development of life on Earth.
In the present, Scaroth is killed by his henchman Hermann, who does not recognise him without his human mask, and a failure in the time equipment sets the mansion ablaze. By the time the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan arrive, the original and five of the six copies of the Mona Lisa have been destroyed, but one of the copies remains untouched. The Doctor proposes that since a copy of a painting by the original artist is not a fake, the painting should be considered the real work of art, reminding Duggan that art is worthless if its monetary value is all that matters. The Doctor and Romana say goodbye to Duggan at the Eiffel Tower.
Conception and writing
The episode was co-written by Douglas Adams.
Writer David Fisher had contributed two scripts to Doctor Who's sixteenth season – The Stones of Blood and The Androids of Tara – and was asked by producer Graham Williams for further story ideas. Fisher submitted two proposals; the first of these became The Creature from the Pit while the other, The Gamble with Time, concerned a plot to rig the casinos in Las Vegas to finance time travel experiments. Williams asked Fisher to rework The Gamble With Time as a spoof of Bulldog Drummond, a fictional detective from the 1920s. Fisher's draft script centered around Scarlioni, a member of the Sephiroth race, who had become fractured in time in an accident. The script was mainly set in the year 1928 with the Doctor and Romana, aided by Drummond-esque detective "Pug" Farquharson, on the trail of the stolen Mona Lisa, pursuing Scarlioni from Paris to Monte Carlo where his partner, the Baroness Heidi, is using time travel technology to cheat at roulette at the casino to fund Scarlioni's time travel experiments. Other settings included Paris in 1979, Leonardo da Vinci's studio in the year 1508 and prehistoric Earth. At this point, production unit manager John Nathan-Turner had worked out that the production team could afford to film on location in Paris with a stripped-down crew. This necessitated a rewrite to Fisher's scripts to move the action to Paris and, for cost reasons, to drop the 1920s setting. The Doctor's robotic dog companion K-9 also had to be removed from the script as the cost of bringing the robot dog and his operators to Paris was prohibitive.
However, Fisher was going through a divorce, and his personal situation meant that he was unable to perform the rewrites. This meant that script editor Douglas Adams, aided by Graham Williams, had to perform a complete rewrite of the story over the course of a weekend. According to Adams, Graham Williams "took me back to his place, locked me in his study and hosed me down with whisky and black coffee for a few days, and there was the script". The revised script, now titled The Curse of the Sephiroth, was credited to "David Agnew", a standard pseudonym used by the BBC and which had been previously used on Doctor Who for the season fifteen serial The Invasion of Time. The serial was subsequently retitled City of Death on 8 May 1979. Adams would later reuse elements of City of Death, along with the unfinished Doctor Who serial Shada (1979; 2003), in his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987). In Part One, Romana makes a throwaway reference to a great art gallery called the Braxiatel Collection; the Virgin New Adventures novel series would later expand on this, introducing the character Irving Braxiatel, a Time Lord. Braxiatel also appears in the Bernice Summerfield series of novels and audio dramas and in the Gallifrey series of audio dramas.
City of Death features a cameo by comedian and actor John Cleese.
Douglas Adams knew John Cleese and Eleanor Bron through his connections with Monty Python and Cambridge Footlights. On learning that both would be working in BBC Television Centre on the day the art gallery scenes were to be recorded, he persuaded them to make a cameo appearance in a short scene written for "two Englishmen". Cleese and Bron agreed on the condition that there be no pre-publicity regarding their appearance; Cleese wanted them to be credited as "Helen Swanetsky" and "Kim Bread" but the BBC declined. Cleese liked the name "Kim Bread" and used it in later projects. During recording, Cleese and Baker also recorded two short comedy skits for the BBC Christmas tape.
City of Death director Michael Hayes had previously directed the Doctor Who serials The Androids of Tara (1978) and The Armageddon Factor (1979). He also had experience filming in Paris, having worked there on adaptations of Maigret (1960–63) and other Georges Simenon stories for the BBC. Location filming took place in Paris between 30 April 1979 and 3 May 1979. It proved a difficult shoot as the dates coincided with the May Day holiday period, which meant that many of the locations chosen for filming were closed, necessitating considerable improvisation on the part of the cast and crew. Model filming was conducted at Bray Studios between 8 May 1979 and 10 May 1979. These concentrated on the shots of the Jagaroth spacecraft taking off from the prehistoric Earth and were overseen by Ian Scoones, a veteran of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. Following rehearsals, production moved to BBC Television Centre where the remaining scenes were recorded in two blocks; the first between 21 May 1979 and 22 May 1979 and second between 3 June 1979 and 5 June 1979.
Tom Baker found filming in Paris to be a very different experience to what he was used to in the UK where crowds would gather to watch the filming and meet the stars. Doctor Who was not shown in France at the time and so the cast and crew were largely ignored. Lalla Ward found City of Death the most challenging Doctor Who serial she worked on but was pleased with the final outcome, saying, "We had to film loads of scenes in the rain and cold... there was no glamour in it at all... it was different from the ordinary stories too and I like the finished result". Seeing her costumes as an important part in creating the role of Romana, Ward clashed with costume designer Doreen James, rejecting the silver catsuit James had designed for her for the story. Ward came up with the idea for the schoolgirl costume she wore in conjunction with Baker, recalling, "I thought it would be fun to wear something that little girls probably hated wearing because it might cheer them up... I didn't bank on the fact that I'd also get loads of letters from their fathers saying 'Cool School uniform!'".
Broadcast and reception
Serial details by episode
Viewers (in millions)
29 September 1979 (1979-09-29)
6 October 1979 (1979-10-06)
13 October 1979 (1979-10-13)
20 October 1979 (1979-10-20)
City of Death was broadcast on BBC1 over four consecutive Saturdays beginning on 29 September 1979. At this time, industrial action had blacked out rival broadcaster ITV and as a result, the serial scored very high ratings, averaging 14.5 million viewers over the four episodes; 16.1 million watched the fourth episode, the largest audience ever recorded for an episode of Doctor Who.
Audience appreciation ratings were taken for the first two episodes of City of Death, and both episodes attained a respectable score of 64%. Listings magazine Radio Times published two letters from viewers regarding City of Death. Les Rogers of Hastings praised the serial's cast and the location filming; less impressed, however, was Paul R. Maskew of Exeter who felt the show was being played for laughs. Responding to similar criticisms from viewers, Douglas Adams wrote, "If the programme didn't move and take a few risks then it would have died of boredom years ago". Several viewers wrote to point out the discrepancy between the start of life on Earth of 4,000 million years ago and the date given in City of Death of 400 million years ago. Graham Williams replied, "The good Doctor makes the odd mistake or two but I think an error of 3,600 million years is pushing it! His next edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica will provide an erratum". Another viewer wrote to point out that the atmosphere of the primordial Earth would have been poisonous to the Doctor and his companions; Douglas Adams responded to this criticism, citing dramatic licence.
City of Death was voted into seventh place in a 1998 poll of the readers of Doctor Who Magazine to find the best Doctor Who story; the magazine commented that it "represented the height of Doctor Who as popular light entertainment for all the family". In 2009, Doctor Who Magazine readers voted it in eighth place. A 2008 article in The Daily Telegraph named City of Death one of the ten greatest episodes of Doctor Who. John Condor, writing in the fanzineDWB in 1991, hailed the story as "the best blend of kitsch, surrealism, fantasy and comedy-drama seen in our favourite Time Lord's annals".Vanessa Bishop, reviewing the serial's DVD release, described it as "imaginatively written, well-performed and beautifully made, City of Death is a story where pretty much everything works". Reacting to the serial, as part of Doctor Who Magazine's ongoing "Time Team" feature, Jacqueline Rayner said "you're suddenly, almost violently, made aware this is happening in our world... with people just getting on with their business and two Time Lords walking through it. I don't think I've ever experienced that with Doctor Who up till now... it's the tiny touches of mundanity amid the fantastical that lift the story even higher".Charlie Jane Anders and Javier Grillo-Marxuach of io9 included it on their list of "10 TV Episodes that Changed Television", citing "the sharp dialogue and clever use of time travel [that] prefigure everything Steven Moffat has done with the series in recent years."The A.V. Club reviewer Christopher Bahn described City of Death as the "gem" of the seventeenth season, finding Adams' subtle comedy script "easily the funniest and most quotable the series ever achieved". While he praised Scarlioni's costume and the mask, he felt that more could have been done with using Paris as a filming location.
However, Doctor Who fandom's initial response to the serial was not so positive; John Peel, writing in the fanzine TARDIS in 1979, decried it as "total farce... I simply couldn't believe this was Doctor Who... the continual buffoonery is getting on my nerves". A similar view was held by Gary Russell who, reviewing the VHS release in 1991, said, "City of Death, like most Douglas Adams material, is overrated and misses the mark for me, falling between the stools of good pastiche and bad parody and making fairly unsatisfactory viewing". This line was countered by Vanessa Bishop who called it "the Doctor Who story it's alright to laugh at... we must now accept that City of Death is funny — because if we didn't the Crackerjack-style sleuths, scientists and all... would leave it knocking about near the bottom of all the Doctor Who story ranking polls" and, responding to the criticisms about the levels of comedy, that "it's precisely these things that make it seem so special". Reviewing the serial in 2011, Patrick Mulkern of Radio Times stated he disliked the smug tone to the humour and Ward's "snooty" portrayal of Romana. Despite this, he noted that the serial had good production values and direction, as well as a few jokes that he enjoyed.
City of Death is one of five Doctor Who serials from the series' original run (1963–1989) not to have been novelised by Target Books; the others are The Pirate Planet, Shada, Resurrection of the Daleks, and Revelation of the Daleks. Target approached Douglas Adams on a number of occasions with a view to commissioning a novelisation, offering their standard advance of £600; Adams replied saying, "I don't want to be embarrassing but I do have a tendency to be a best-selling author". Target, concerned that their regular authors would seek better terms, refused to change their offer. Several years later, Target editor Nigel Robinson offered an advance of £4,000 – double what was the standard advance at the time – but Adams again declined. Adams was unwilling to allow another author to write the novelisation. However, after Adams' death his estate allowed Gareth Roberts to write an adaptation of the unfinished serial Shada, which was published by BBC Books in 2012. In 2013, Roberts announced that he was working on a novelisation of City of Death, to be published in 2014.
City of Death was released on VHS videotape in April 1991 with a cover by Andrew Skilleter. It was re-issued on VHS in 2001. A DVD of the serial was released in 2005, which incorporated numerous special features including a commentary by actors Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon, as well as director Michael Hays, and the behind-the-scenes documentary "Paris in the Springtime". This serial was also released as part of the Doctor Who DVD Files in Issue 37 on 2 June 2010. On 1 January 2013, AudioGo released a two-hour soundtrack of the serial, narrated by Lalla Ward. Ian Scoones' storyboards for City of Death's special effects sequences were published in Peter Haining's book Doctor Who – 25 Glorious Years in 1988, and a Scaroth figure was released by Harlequin Miniatures in 1999.