City Of Death at 40
September 26, 2019 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Revisiting Doctor Who’s most-watched story. Den of Geek with a longread about the Douglas Adams penned Tom Baker starred adventure. Featuring Julian Glover (who became the go-to baddie for many movies after this), oh and a cameo from Eleanor Bron and John Cleese.
posted by Webbster (19 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The article really hits upon how City Of Death is a good example of Classic Who to show fans of NuWho. The pacing, the scenery, and the humor all translate well to the current run of the show (though I still prefer The Pirate Planet as my favorite Adams script, as it's the closest thing we would get to a true DW/HHGTTG crossover). I'm also glad that this article didn't touch on the other episodes from 1979, as Tom Baker's penultimate season was...erratic and slapdash, but that's an argument for a different time. COD is an enjoyable romp, where the actors enjoyed themselves while taking the script seriously, and their efforts are visible for all to see.

Oh, and a warning: the comments in the Den Of Geek article are filled with oldboys bellyaching about the current incarnation of the show. Caveat emptor and all that.
posted by stannate at 9:16 AM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

and their efforts are visible for all to see.

Hell, the linked article isn't even visible for me to see. After disabling my ad blocker, I am then obliged to click "agree" to
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My appetite for DenofGeek articles is not that strong.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:23 AM on September 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

I like to think that the Mona Lisa Crowley's got in his apartment in the TV Good Omens is one of the seven.

This is unquestionably the episode to put in front of anyone you're trying to persuade to dip their toes into the waters of classic Who. Guest stars are great (even when they're playing peat moss) and the pace is downright snappy by classic Who standards. Also the story more or less makes sense,'s more fun to watch an episode set in Paris than in some bleak quarries!

Also, all other things being equal, I like it better when the Doctor's companion is more of an equal.
posted by praemunire at 9:47 AM on September 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Just noting that the companion in this excellent episode, Romana II, is played by Lala Ward. Her run is one of my favorites.
posted by JawnBigboote at 10:10 AM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

love that Douglas Adams wrote it.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:11 AM on September 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Just noting that the companion in this excellent episode, Romana II, is played by Lala Ward. Her run is one of my favorites.


"It's one of those puzzle boxes, isn't it?"
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:18 AM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

You might not recognize her without the sideburns, but there's another interesting sci-fi crossover there.
posted by sonascope at 10:53 AM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

This was one of the few original Who serials not to get a Target Books novelisation, because it was hard to imagine anyone other than Douglas Adam novelising his own script, but by the time a book deal was proposed he was unaffordable. A few years ago it was eventually novelised by James Goss; I reviewed it at the time and was very impressed by the way Goss captured Adams' style, as the opening shows:

Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, was in for a surprise. For one thing, he had no idea he was about to become the last of the Jagaroth.

If you'd asked him about the Jagaroth a mere, say, twenty soneds ago, he'd have shrugged and told you they were a savage and warlike race and that, if you weren't happy about that, you should meet the other guys.

By and large, all life in the universe was pretty savage and warlike. Show me a race of philosophers and poets, said Scaroth, and I'll show you lunch. It would, however, be unfair to say the Jagaroth were completely without accomplishments. They did build very nice-looking spaceships, although they were not necessarily very good ones. There was a lot to recommend the Sephiroth. A vast sphere rested on three claws. It suggested formidable menace whilst evoking the kind of insect you'd not care to find in your bed. The tripod arrangement of the legs also meant that it could land on anything.

Which was ironic, as right now it couldn't take off from anything.

Goss has an interesting Afterword in which he discusses how he approached the novelisation. He does accept that, well-regarded as City of Death is, some elements of the plot are a bit thin, and he does a not at all bad job of trying to patch over them. As he says though, there are aspects of the Count and Countess' relationship that don't bear thinking about in too much detail...
posted by Major Clanger at 11:22 AM on September 26, 2019 [12 favorites]

"What a wonderful butler, he's so violent!"
posted by plastic_animals at 11:32 AM on September 26, 2019

Cleese and Bron's roles here were just (chef's kiss)
posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 12:33 PM on September 26, 2019

It doesn't make any sense if you try to think about it, but Scaroth and the Doctor's mutual astonishment at meeting each other in Da Vinci's workshop is easily one of the greatest cliffhangers of the classic series.
posted by AndrewStephens at 12:43 PM on September 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

My SO has been dipping into Classic Who lately and loved this one. I should rewatch it myself, I think the last time I saw it was when it was on the local PBS station in the eighties...
posted by egypturnash at 2:42 PM on September 26, 2019

COD is an enjoyable romp...

I may have a new tagline for Twitter.
posted by COD at 3:25 PM on September 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

The dialogue is just so quotable.

Countess Scarlioni: I don't think he's as stupid as he seems.
Count Scarlioni: My dear, no one could be as stupid as he seems.


Duggan: You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs.
Romana: If you wanted an omelette, I'd expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames, and an unconscious chef.


The Doctor to the Countess: You're a beautiful woman... probably.
posted by dannyboybell at 3:43 PM on September 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Love this episode. I'm a little puzzled by the way the framing of the article seems to imply that this was the first time Doctor Who had tried to be funny, which is .... really not the case?
posted by webmutant at 4:05 PM on September 26, 2019

Duggan: You know what I don't understand?
Romana: I expect so.
posted by praemunire at 4:38 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Given the number of times it was repeated on public television in America in the 80's, I clicked on the link preparing to be surprised that Douglas Adams had written Pyramids of Mars.
posted by straight at 4:52 PM on September 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Despite its accolades in the comments in that article, City of Death is a weirdly divisive story (which as a fan with an anthropology background, I find fascinating). The article mentions some fans at the time hated it [Who novel writer John Peel famously called it "total farce"] and a quick highly scientific survey this afternoon among my anorak tribespeople confirms that it still divides. Even in the About Time for that era the authors Lawrence Miles & Tat Wood write at length with differing opinions on the serial.

I think City of Death illustrates what I think is the front line of the conflict that Who fandom eternally struggles with - what is this show even? And that question extends to a million more variations - are we meant to laugh or be frightened or both? Is the Doctor a superhero? Is continuity important? Is this fantasy or sci-fi or both or something else completely? Who is the audience for this show? and on and on...

For me this serial is the best of this era of Who (which is defined as series 15, 16, 17 produced by Graham Williams). That period of the show really seems to be struggling with its concept of itself along with real world problems of strikes, budget cuts and an increasingly difficult relationship with its star. City of Death transcends those difficulties and in a way makes a decision as to what the show is - a fun, funny, scary show that a large general audience can watch without feeling that they just wasted their time or felt alienated by the subject matter. I agree with the always great Elizabeth Sandifer on this one -
"...[T]he first and foremost thing to realize about City of Death is that, like The Ribos Operation before it, it’s one of the first Doctor Who stories to learn the correct lesson from Star Wars, which was that after twenty years of science fiction being popular and another ten of it being irritatingly present due to its fetishists science fiction was so well-understood that you could just use its trappings for whatever you wanted...
[City of Death] spends all its sci-fi time on one model shot and a creepy alien mask and then uses that as a frame for a story that’s really about Tom Baker and Julian Glover insulting each other for 90 minutes with Douglas Adams dialogue. Which is fantastic, because the BBC is fairly lousy at sci-fi action sequences, but remains as good as anyone in the world at putting a camera on Tom Baker and Julian Glover while they insult each other for 90 minutes with Douglas Adams dialogue."

posted by Ashwagandha at 7:23 PM on September 26, 2019 [21 favorites]

I have an Adams-signed copy of one of his books. Right after I left the bookstore I immediately wished I had asked him to write 'THIS IS A FAKE' above his name. By the posting history of the Sky Demon, that would have been magnificent!
posted by zaixfeep at 3:43 PM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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