Thursday, 24 November 2016

City of Death

Chapter The 35th, which concerns a work of art.

On holiday again in Paris in 1979, the Doctor and Romana get mixed up with a con-man Count and his wife, who are planning to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. They team up with a private detective, Duggan, and try to stop the Count - who is really Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, a wiggly green alien with one eye wearing a really good mask.

After an accident with his spaceship's warp drive on primeval Earth, Scaroth is splintered through time, with each of his splinters leading separate lives in separate time zones, Clara Oswald stylee. He needs the proceeds of selling the Mona Lisa, as well as six copies of the same that his Renaissance splinter coerced Leonardo into painting, to fund a time travel experiment to avert the spaceship's accident, save his people, and reunite himself. But, it turns out his accident was inadvertently responsible for kick-starting life on Earth, so can't be stopped. Our heroes rack their brains for a way to prevent Scaroth from undoing millions of years of history and prehistory; Duggan decides just to thump Scaroth. It works!

Me and the boys (one aged 10, one 7) watched the first couple of episodes on a rainy Saturday. Then various members of the family drifted in and out for the last two episodes which we caught up with over the following few days. A markedly different reaction to Spearhead from Space which kept them glued to their seats throughout each episode, and demanding the next one immediately afterwards. Why was the difference in their reaction so pronounced? I asked the boys during the second episode - after they'd looked at me askance while I was guffawing at one line or other - whether they thought this story was particularly funny. They hadn't noticed any humour at all. I was reminded of when I rewatched, when I was a few years older, the comedies I'd seen when I was about their age - Blackadder, The Young Ones, etc. - and wondered exactly how I'd found them funny first time round, given that most of the jokes must have sailed over my head. Maybe the same thing was happening to my boys. The humour of City of Death is mostly verbal and cerebral; if you miss that, what you're left with is more talky and much less action-packed than Spearhead from Space.

The time it took to watch the story is the main reason why it's taken a while to get this post published; that, and the depressing and ghastly news from across the Atlantic impacting my productivity for a while; but, I can best serve the world by tending my own garden, and my favoured horticulture involves posting nonsense about Doctor Who, so here you go...

First-time round:
My first viewing of City of Death was on VHS. It came out early in 1991 on the same day as Planet of the Spiders, which I've already covered for the blog here; as I said then, I bought both of them in Volume One in Worthing on the first day of their release, while playing hooky from Sixth Form. A pretty fine double bill, that's for sure. In the nearly 18 months since I wrote the Spiders post, I have come to think that - though I did no doubt agonise over the decision - I would have watched City of Death first. It's two episodes shorter, and has a better reputation. Be warned: don't judge a VHS by it's cover; City of Death is widely acknowledged to be one of the best classic Who stories, and it has what's widely acknowledged as one of the worst cover illustrations of the period.

I haven't rewatched City of Death for a number of years, and after the first two scenes, I was worried. The dialogue, which I expected to sparkle, was technobabbley to the point of alienation in the first scene, and smug and forced in the second. Both scenes looked great. Despite his being dressed in that first scene with a beaded monstrosity that better belonged over the back of a mini-cab driver's seat in 1979, Scaroth's take off is wonderfully depicted in both studio and model theatre. And, though it looks a little cold, Paris is beautiful, and affords us a few more 'shoe leather' scenes of our heroes wandering about than would normally be acceptable. But looks aren't everything. Were my expectations artificially high? Was it simply not as good as I remembered? Shortly, though, the plot kicked in, and everything was fine.

Though it's fun, funny, and full of verve, the real jewel in City of Death's crown, or eye in its tentacled head, is its inventive plot. Never before had Who spliced the crime caper subgenre into its DNA, and the graft is seamless; also original is the art world setting. The Douglas Adams touch serves to lift the main story. But the main story is more than good enough anyway, so this lift pushes it up towards the stratosphere - this isn't like, say, Robots of Death, where if you stripped away the clever design and memorable lines, you'd be left with a standard genre potboiler; City of Death would be a good story even with dialogue by Pip and Jane Baker. The wit is never there just for its own sake, but is always pushing along a plot that is corkscrewing through a set of wonderfully paced turns and reversals.

The idea of Scaroth's splinters, for example, was good enough for Steven Moffat to squeeze a whole series out of it. The script never rests: even in the resolution scene, there's another little twist where the only Mona Lisa to survive is one of the 'fake' ones. The acting, too, is fantastic, because it's uniformly working for the script, not just sitting as a layer of comic icing atop it. Julian Glover is pitch perfect, but he's pipped to the post of best performance in the piece, by - and who would have thought it - one Tom Baker. Clearly, the material and the small but great cast inspired him to up his game. Just watch the subtle modulations of tone, turning on a sixpence, as he goes from playing the fool to playing it deadly straight. Tom Chadbon is good enough to be a companion - clearly at the time, they'd noticed that the Doctor and Romana are too otherworldly and need a male doofus to balance things. David Graham overplays it a little in places, but it's fine. (An aside: the boys felt the Count and Kerensky were like another double act:  Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman in Pointless - I can see it, sort of). Lalla Ward, excellent, Catherine Schell, peerless. Even Herman the Butler and the little lady in the louvre sparkle.

The music is stunning, the sets are great, the episode endings are fantastic - particularly the end of part 2, and I love how glasses fall down Kerensky's nose as he ages to death at the end of part 3.  I could keep going forever.

Both four episodes, both broadcast in the 1970s, both really good. What more do you need? Alright: both feature professional investigators, both involve an effort to bring together fragments of one overall entity that's had an impact over millions of years (elapsed since Scaroth's spaceship blew up, the length of time the Nestenes have been conquering other planets). Both have 'borrowed' a lot of  their plot - City of Death was a riff on a plot provided by David Fisher's unmade story proposal 'The Gamble with Time', and the featured plan to sell six forged Mona Lisas was possibly inspired by possibly real life events.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Playing tennis with twenty nets, one on top of the other. The success of City of Death's script is all the more gratifying when you consider the circumstances of its creation. Its principal author, Douglas Adams, was famously never very good at plotting - ideas and jokes he could do better than anyone, yes, but plots? No. Adams had taken up the role as Doctor Who's script editor that year, a job for which he was ridiculously wrong: he was relatively inexperienced, he could not at the time (never really could) get to grips with the disciplines of story structure or deadlines. Of everyone who wrote for Who, he was the most in need of a good script editor. It's so insane that anyone would think he could fit that role himself, it's almost poetry. Added to all this, he was ferociously busy - at around the same time he was supposed to be script editing a season of Doctor Who, he was suddenly very much in demand.

That anything got made of season 17 is surprising enough. Somehow, though, City of Death came together so very successfully. There was some luck involved for sure (John Cleese being nearby to do a cameo, a strike demolishing the competition on broadcast), but mainly it came down to talent and hard graft applied in fertile circumstances. Any Doctor Who fan understands that creativity can be enhanced by restrictions: we’ve watched a 50+ year experiment gradually but irrevocably confirm the hypothesis. But City of Death had so many obstacles, it could quite easily have fallen apart altogether. That it didn’t is one of those quirky wonderful events that could make one believe in sanctifying grace.

Two days before the director was due to start work, there was no workable script. Producer Graham Williams and Adams had to lock themselves in for a weekend, and – as legend has it - hose themselves down with whisky and black coffee in order to produce the blueprint for what got made. It would not be the last time that Adams was locked in a room and forced to complete a story, but I’d argue that it was the most successful. Why? Well, for a start, he had the script editor he so needed on hand in the person of Williams. The producer of Doctor Who at this time had very strong storytelling skills, and clearly kept Adams on track.

The second big plus was that Adams had a ready-made plot from David Fisher, so didn’t have to struggle to come up with one. In fact, he had too much plot: most of the concepts in City of Death originate from Fisher, but Adams cuts out loads more, and simplifies and polishes what remains. For Destiny of the Daleks, broadcast immediately before City of Death, Adams had the opposite issue – not enough material. His rewrites, filling in the blank spots on Terry Nation's canvas with silly jokes, are much less impressive. He was clearly more of a sculptor than a painter. In his later career this becomes more obvious, as he remoulds many plots – including key bits from City of Death – over and over; and, in the whole of his subsequent professional life, he iterates through reshape after reshape of the material of Hitch-Hiker's Guide in different versions and different media.

In a way - and I know it’s almost sacrilegious to suggest imposing non-original material onto such an imagination and intellect, which wanted to zoom off anywhere in time and space - it would have been very interesting to see him attempt an adaptation. In some parallel universe, just an Improbability Drive away, they’re screening a P.G. Wodehouse series as conceived by Douglas Adams. I’d pay to see it.

City of Death deserves its record-breaking audience, even if it was over-inflated. The biggest piece of luck we have is that it exists, alongside Adam’s other fingerprints on our favourite show. Had Hitch-Hiker taken off just a little quicker, Adams might never have written for Doctor Who at all, and we’d have been deprived of one of its most enjoyable stories.

In Summary:
Exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.

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