It took me less than a week to complete my reading of Target books’ City of Death. It’s not a difficult feat to accomplish that because the book is under 200 pages, but maintaining a job, family and school, and still not losing time with my video games (an important part of a healthy diet), it says a lot about the quality of the writing. It kept me reading, which as any writer knows, is the real trick!
City of Death was one of Douglas Adams masterpieces that he wrote for Tom Baker’s era as the Doctor. Adams was a great writer, giving us such gems as The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and within Doctor Who, The Pirate Planet, Shada and this fantastic story. If I’m to be completely fair, the writing dovetails beautifully with the acting from a cast who are all spectacular. I can’t say it was my favorite Tom Baker story because that would be horribly unfair to so many other great stories, especially during his first few seasons. It’s like being asked “what’s your favorite movie?” You can ask “what’s your favorite comedy… sci-fi… horror… etc” but you can’t cluster it all together. So many of Baker’s early episodes are stunningly good and often quite scary. City of Death adds a huge amount of humor, while not losing any of the menace, so it is easy to see why it would be a favorite for many and often considered Baker’s all-time greatest hit.
James Goss does a fantastic job capturing Douglas Adams’ style and bringing the episode to life. What’s truly amazing is how much of the story I found replaying in my mind as I read the book. When I say “brought to life”, I mean my brain replayed entire scenes from the story. Many forgotten moments popped back in startling color and occasionally added dimension to characters that were little more than background players, like the tour guide in the Louvre telling her cats what happened to her during the day. Impressively, this is not a radical departure to fill pages; it’s a sentence or two to add some color to a character who was otherwise ancillary to the story. And it wouldn’t be City of Death without the John Cleese scene captured on the page precisely as he was in the story. Frequently I found myself laughing out loud at various points, specifically internal thoughts, often by Romana. One in particular had Romana considering the class of villain she gets, compared to those of the Doctor. Somehow it seemed totally natural and extremely comical.
I recall reading The Speckled Band, part of the Sherlock Holmes canon, while watching the Jeremy Brett version and being absolutely amazed at how much was lifted right out of the book. Similarly, when the Doctor and Count Scarlioni interact, it is perfectly rendered. The main cast was captured so well on paper, I could not get over how often their voices rang out in my mind; from the Count and Countess, Duggan, the Doctor and Romana. Even “la patron” in the café is captured, even though he never says a word. The confrontation in the lab, in particular, is described so well, it was as if Julian Glover were reading it to me. In many ways, this is the script for the story being placed into novel form which may not be as challenging as the reverse, bringing a book to movie format, but it was no less impressive as I read it. No matter what, it’s still an impressive skill to get the right balance. There’s not a lot of new material, although it is not entirely devoid of it either. I like having some added dimension, but I want to avoid feeling like the author made things up just to hit a certain page count. This book strikes an impressive balance adding just enough to the story without ever feeling like he was making things up to meet a quota.
For me, the real joy is hearing Tom Baker as he complains that a torturer has cold hands, or joyfully complimenting ones violent butler, and this book actually made that happen. I did like that we finally got a name for the Countess, which for the life of me I can’t recall being in the televised episode but, copying Douglas Adams, I’ll leave that big reveal for you to find out when you read it!
The big question that I think has to be answered is: for fans of the new series (those who have not seen the original), will it be enjoyable? It’s a hard thing to answer since I do know the original series so well. But if you can’t get your hands on the DVD, this does a fine job recreating it. It would help to know the characters to enjoy them, but it won’t hinder the enjoyment if you don’t.
I confess that I’m biased. Those Target books were such an instrumental part of my youth that I am automatically swayed in their favor, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable read and well worth the money and the time. Pick it up and you too can learn just what is Scarlioni’s angle… ML