City of Death

cityofdeathThe appreciation of art can easily be extended to film and television.  It is not a giant leap to interpret Doctor Who as art, and more than once a story has actually taken a work of art as the starting point of its inspiration.  But what is the function of art?  What is the point of it?  For me, the same answer works for art created with a brush and art created by a writer, director and actor: it moves us in some way.  For art to actually function as art there should be an emotional response: an appreciation of beauty, a frisson of fear, excitement, melancholy, humour.  You could put together a long list, but there has to be something.  Boredom probably doesn’t belong on that list, which is a basic criticism we can level at many a television programme, film, book or alleged work of art.

So where am I going with this?  Well, City of Death is a Doctor Who story that critiques art appreciation, while simultaneously being a Doctor Who story that falls squarely into the category of television as art itself.  The starting point of inspiration for the story is the Mona Lisa, or more accurately the theft of the Mona Lisa and its resulting implications for art appreciation.

In 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen by an ex-employee of the Louvre named Vincenzo Peruggia.  It was not a difficult theft.  He walked in dressed as a Louvre worker (wearing a white smock), took the painting off the wall, wrapped it in his smock, and walked out.  It was not returned to the Louvre for two years.  One theory, quite possibly complete nonsense as it is based entirely on the reported posthumous claims of one con man, is that the painting was stolen so forgeries could be passed off to collectors as the original.  That brings us to the starting point of City of Death, the idea that people would (a) be happy to own something and keep it to themselves for the sake of ownership and (b) an exact copy only has artistic value if it is mistaken for the original.

City of Death has fun with that, and at its heart is a biting critique of art appreciation.  The kind of mentality that would lead somebody to appreciate a piece of art for its monetary value alone enables Scaroth to fund his experiments, working towards an ultimate goal that will wipe out humanity.  The human race is being brought down by its warped appreciation of art.

When art appreciation is going wrong, the first thing most people who are not pretentious or delusional would think of is modern art.  I mentioned above that the function of art could be seen as something that creates an emotional response.  By its very nature a blank canvas or paint randomly splashed across a wall are unlikely to do that.  Or if they can, anything can, so you might as well stand and appreciate the emulsion paint on your walls at home if that’s art.

So we have in modern art something similar to modern classical music (and I don’t mean film music).  The Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome.  It’s basically a lot of sheep following the herd, and if anyone tries to call them out on that they “don’t understand”.  There’s a condescending absurdity about that, but history will eventually decide who the joke’s on there.  All credit to those who have found a way to make a fortune out of fooling the sheep.  Baaaaa.  I suspect most of them know exactly what they are doing, and good luck to them.  City of Death has a bit of fun with the modern art phenomenon, with that glorious cameo from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron.  If you enjoy modern art you mustn’t find that funny though.  Tut tut.  More significantly, City of Death is a critique of the popularity of the Mona Lisa as something that has fame and monetary value, which also gets us to the heart of the herd mentality of art appreciation.

The thing is, the Mona Lisa was known before its theft in 1911, but it was only after that event that it became the most famous painting in the world.  The art world is full of competent portraits of relatively unattractive women, and as far as art that stirs the emotions it should be fairly low on the list.  But we all grow up hearing about the Mona Lisa: the most famous and valuable painting in the world.  We all follow the herd.  If I were to make a list of the greatest paintings of all time, it wouldn’t even make the top 1000.  It is appreciated because others appreciate it.  And therein lies the distortion of the value of art.

A similar thing tends to happen with Doctor Who.  Fan appreciation tends to go in phases.  Everyone loves a particular story for a decade or so, and then everyone hates it.  Some stories rarely swing back and forth in the opinion of fans, sometimes because they deserve their reputations, sometimes because their reputations are too entrenched.  For what it’s worth, City of Death deserves every word that is written in praise of it, because it pricks the bubble of art appreciation as monetary value or the herd mentality, and then manages spectacularly to function as a piece of art itself.

There are many reasons for this, but let’s just reflect on those moments of Tom and Lalla joyously exploring Paris.  The story would function perfectly well without that sequence, but it stirs the soul: two people, clearly in love, enjoying each other’s company in the romantic setting, accompanied by the most gorgeous score any composer ever produced for Doctor Who.

The combined talents of Douglas Adams, Michael Hayes, Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and Dudley Simpson: now that’s art.   RP

(I have always wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower and shout “BYE BYE DUGGAN!”  I do hope lots of Doctor Who fans do that, and confuse all the tourists.)

The view from across the pond:

I recently reviewed the TARGET novelization of City of Death so some of this might feel repeated, but I still say this is one of Tom Baker’s most enjoyable stories.  The chemistry between Tom and Lalla Ward is amazing and that translates magnificently on screen. Julian Glover plays Count Scarlioni and he is utterly delightful.  Catherine Schell was one of my first TV crushes as Maya on Space: 1999 (although it took me years to realize she was the Countess!) so her involvement adds a little something for me personally.  Then there’s Duggan, the detective wearing his Inspector Clouseau jacket and “thumping” everything he can; he adds so much comedy to the situation, it’s easy to see Douglas Adams trademark style (he can’t hide behind a pseudonym!)  In short, the cast is stellar.  Even the brief comedic appearance of John Cleese makes this story stand out as something truly special.

Duggan: What’s Scarlioni’s angle?
Doctor: Scarlioni’s angle? Never heard of it. Have you ever heard of Scarlioni’s angle?
Romana: No, I was never any good at geometry.

The episode is atmospheric, but not in the typical frightening way; this one captures a sense of the atmosphere of Paris.  It’s the mix of footage from Paris along with the music that meshes perfectly creating this joie de vivre for the “City of Death”.  The artist sketching Romana is a nice touch, enhanced by the image he has drawn containing the face of a clock!

In direct opposition to the title, this story feels like a comedy.  Count Scarlioni seems to delight in being the villain and has such fun bantering with the Doctor that an entire series based on him would have been a delight.  Take this for instance:

Doctor: Can I ask you where you got these?
Scarlioni: No.
Doctor: Right. Or how you knew they were here?
Scarlioni: No.
Doctor: They’ve been bricked up a long time.
Scarlioni: Yes.
Doctor: I like concise answers.
Scarlioni: Good.

Unlike many other stories, this one is hard to talk about as a whole when so much of it is made up of a series of jokes, one-liners and the delightful chemistry of the cast.  That may define the story more than anything else: a series of perfectly delivered one-liners that push an overall story arc to an enjoyable conclusion.

Doctor: What a wonderful butler!  He’s so violent!

On their own they may not work, but as part of the whole, they are flawless.  And Baker is in his element being the star of the show.  The key elements to a Doctor Who story are the characters and the story itself.  The entire cast is superb and the story is fun.  It again gives us a dawn of humanity story explaining how we came about and how we were influenced during the building of the Pyramids (we’re such a pathetic lot, we always need alien help to do anything).  This is the first time we’ve seen the spark that created life on earth.   Couple this with the space freighter that wiped out the dinosaurs (Earthshock) and you’d swear we have more luck than should exist in the entire cosmos!  What we really have to ask is: how does the Scaroth build the pyramids when supposedly Sutekh had a hand in that?  (Pun intended!)  Oh, or was the hand Sutekh had in it, actually a Jagaroth one?

Perhaps there are better stories out there, but there are few that are as much fun to watch as City of Death.  To paraphrase the Doctor, it’s a beautiful story, probably!  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Creature from the Pit

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Art, Doctor Who, Entertainment, Fourth Doctor, History, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to City of Death

  1. Mike Basil says:

    1979 was a year when SF/horror in British TV, which was popular in the mid 70s for Dr. Who, was finding its more exclusively genre-driven fruition in Sapphire & Steel and The Omega Factor. So I can look back on City Of Death even more fondly now for how it particularly breathed new life into Dr. Who that year. Most particularly for how the story’s atmospheric style is more predominant on the modern Who. For the first Dr. Who story with location footage filmed abroad, it’s easy enough for the powers that be to find all the motivation and creative resources needed to put together one of the show’s best, which for Season 17 inevitably topped the DWAS poll. The creative method in introducing its villains, with the help of distinguished guest actors like Julian Glover and Catherine Schell, all the twists and turns centered on an alien monster stranded on Earth (simultaneously in several Earth eras including Leonard Da Vinci’s during the birth of the Mona Lisa), and a comedic sidekick in the form of Duggan played nicely by Tom Chadbon (with his own companion potential and maybe even spinoff potential) all fit swimmingly into place. One obvious gem for fans would be the casting of David Graham (one of the very first Dalek voices) as Prof. Kerensky.

    John Cleese and Eleanor Bron for the special cameos are now more interesting with Bron’s return later on as Kara in Revelation Of The Daleks. Seeing Cleese in a second Who guest role that can be more pivotal may feel long overdue for fans. There was the hype as I recall that Cleese was in one of the rumored movie projects considered for the role of Dr. Who. Quite naturally, the rumors of that were satisfying enough. Peter Halliday making one of his last two Who guest roles for this one (as the nameless Soldier who astonishingly never questions the blatant madness of those he works for, not even a self-declared ET in the year 1505) makes it more memorable for me with all I’ve come to know about his acting legacy. He did Cybermen and Silurian voices and was a blind priest for one pivotal scene in the 25th Anniversary opener. He is greatly missed.

    For Douglas Adams’ creative contributions to Dr. Who, City Of Death is additionally compensation for Shada’s original fate. So when Shada finally gets around to DVD stores in North America, this Christmas as I last read, I’ll look forward to share my reviews on it and reading yours.

    Thank you both for your reviews on the City Of Death

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s