Event Reviews / Home Entertainment

Doctor Who: City of Death (1979) review and Blu-ray preview [BFI Event]

City of Death is quite possibly the crowning achievement of producer Graham Williams‘ three-year tenure on Doctor Who. When David Fisher‘s scripts for A Gamble with Time proved unsatisfactory, Williams and script editor Douglas Adams – yes, *the* Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame – had only a weekend to completely re-work the scripts. The end result is a stone-cold Doctor Who classic: witty dialogue, memorable characters, a fun story and a good baddie to go up against. With the story set to be released on Blu-ray in Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 17 (released on 20th December), it made sense for this fan favourite to be screened as part of the ongoing series of events at the BFI Southbank.

It’s easy to see why City of Death is such a beloved serial. Tom Baker is on fine form as the Fourth Doctor, clearly revelling in Adams’ witty dialogue, while his chemistry with Lalla Ward‘s Romana II is pitch-perfect. The two are joined by Duggan (Tom Chadbon), a rather thuggish detective with a penchant for punching and/or breaking things, who seems utterly bewildered by the events unfolding around him. Julian Glover – an actor who has specialised in playing baddies in Star Wars, Indiana Jones and James Bond – is utterly sublime as the Count Scarlioni / Scaroth. Charming, menacing and with a distant alien quality, he makes a terrific foil to Baker’s Time Lord. Catherine Schell is given a great arc as the Countess, as she begins to understand her husband’s machinations, and even the bit-parts have some fun moments to shine; a particular highlight is cameos from Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as two art critics inspecting the TARDIS in Part Four.

The scripts are filled with quotable dialogue (“what a wonderful butler – he’s so violent”), memorable characters and some truly brilliant concepts. Scaroth being split across various time periods and having to piece himself back together by communicating with his other splinters is the sort of idea that leads itself to all sorts of questions and plot holes, but it’s absolutely ingenious as a narrative conceit. Part Two’s cliffhanger reveal is a brilliant twist, and the story rattles along at such a great pace that you don’t even have time to question the logistics of…well, time. Michael Hayes‘ direction is superb, while the location filming in Paris looks gorgeous – particularly on the big screen – and Dudley Simpson provides arguably his most hum-able score. The production isn’t faultless – prehistoric Earth set really does look like a set as opposed to a hostile environment, while Scaroth’s “seaweed” head is so huge it makes you wonder how he can fit a human mask over the top – but the faults are so minor and the story so entertaining that you can forget about them instantly. If you haven’t seen the story, it’s well worth watching.

While the BFI screening on 5th December may have been slightly mistimed (I saw a few fans leave early to ensure they got home in time for the series finale of Doctor Who: Flux), there were some wonderful treats for those who were able to stay throughout. Tom Baker himself introduced the four-part serial, appearing in front of the Jaggaroth spaceship on screen, while Julian Glover discussed his time as Scaroth in a Q&A with host Justin Johnson. Glover looked back on City of Death with fond memories, and even spoke a little about his earlier Who role as Richard the Lionheart in the partly-missing 1965 serial The Crusade. Production assistant Rosemary Crowson talked about her role in the production, commenting on the Paris location filming, while co-host Dick Fiddy read out some comments from costume designer Doreen James, accompanied by her sketches from the production.

Audio maestro Mark Ayres presented two clips from the new Blu-ray release: the “enhanced” 5.1 surround sound mix for Destiny of the Daleks, featuring – amongst other great tid-bits – a newly-modulated Davros voice (sadly lacking from the original production); and the new six-part edition of Shada, featuring improved animation and a brand-new picture and sound remaster. A preview of special feature Tom Talks saw Mr Baker reminisce about his guest role in Blackadder II, while the late great Douglas Adams is fondly remembered in a look at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Douglas Adams. Season 17’s Behind the Sofa teams – Colin Baker, Matthew Waterhouse, Katy Manning, Nicola Bryant, Mat Irvine, Jude Hudson and Graeme Harper – encountered Erato, also known as The Creature from the Pit, while Return to Skaro offered some behind the scenes insights into the making of Destiny of the Daleks.

Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 17 is filled to the brim with engaging special features to accompany the new HD remasters of all six stories, and looks to be well worth a purchase. For a full breakdown of everything on there, head to our announcement article. In the meantime, Doctor Who fans will just have to wait until Christmas week…

Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 17 is out on 20 December from AmazonZavviRarewaves and HMV.

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