Is no one interested in history?
For all the fantastical planets and places Doctor Who has presented on screen, its location shooting has tended, for obvious financial and logistical reasons, to center within a day’s coach drive of Television Centre, making David Agnew’s “City of Death” (Story Production Code 5H) all the more striking for its quite exotic setting: Paris. Rather than dress up a London street as the City of Lights, the production team skipped over the Channel, providing some of the best location shots in the series to date. Normally, scenes of the Doctor and companion running around would be dismissed as filler, but here, the pleasant dissonance of seeing Tom Baker scampering down the middle of the Champs-Élysées, scarf flying, with nonplussed Parisian pedestrians paying him no mind, yields ample justification for the narrative interludes. No alien planet could provide such a backdrop.
Pleasantly, the story on offer lives up to the grandeur of the location. The pseudonymous duo of producer Graham Williams and former script editor Anthony Read delivers a smart tale that makes time travel integral not only to the outcome but also to the intermediate complications in which the Fourth Doctor and Romana find themselves embroiled. Just as their prior story together, “The Invasion of Time,” delved deeply (if at times awkwardly) into Gallifreyan history, adding to the series’ lore while simultaneously mining it for plot beats, Williams and Read here use the full measure of the series’ core conceit of time travel, having the Doctor travel through time within the story—itself a rarity—only to discover the Doctor’s urbane foe, Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover), got to Renaissance Florence first. Or did he?
That Scarlioni, first encountered in Paris in 1979 funding experiments and plotting grand larceny, is somehow linked to Scaroth, a green tentacled, one-eyed creature known as a Jagaroth seen in the opening scene of the first of the story’s four episodes, is obvious from the beginning; their names alone give it away. It’s the nature of the linkage that drives the intrigue and interest, with the audience learning the details slowly along with the Doctor. Indeed, there’s so much going on by the end of the first episode—time slips, thugs in Parisian bistros, an artist drawing Romana with a broken clock for a face, a plot to steal the Mona Lisa, wild experiments with chickens, and a gung-ho gumshoe—that it comes as a mild shock when Scarlioni rips off his human face to reveal the Jagaroth beneath.
More curious still, however, is why an alien might need to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre when he already has six of them walled up in a long-undisturbed cellar in his Parisian château…
While on vacation in Paris, the Fourth Doctor and Romana take in all the sites, as tourists do, and during lunch at a bistro, they are overcome by a slip in time caused by the experiments of Professor Kerensky (David Graham), who toils in the employ of Scarlioni to create a device that can accelerate the passage of time in a small space, ostensibly to raise farm animals more quickly as a means of preventing hunger. A subsequent time slip happens when the Time Lords are admiring the Mona Lisa, and as the Doctor nearly faints, he happens to purloin a bracelet off of a bystander, the Countess Scarlioni (Catherine Schell). The bracelet contains advanced technology to scan the alarms and security devices protecting da Vinci’s masterpiece.
The sleight of hand is noticed by Duggan (Tom Chadbon), a private investigator hired by several British art dealers to learn more about Scarlioni, who has been selling previously unknown, and apparently genuine, art works from the Old Masters. The character of Duggan, accompanied by brassy music reminiscent of detective and noir films, ushers in a humorous side to the story, giving both the Doctor and Romana someone slightly dim to play off of while providing a bit of muscle and directness as the plot demands. His tendency to solve problems with a fist or a charging shoulder comes in handy more frequently than might be initially expected.
The Count’s goons track down the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan, bringing them to the château where, in classic villain style, Scarlioni locks them up in a room adjacent to his laboratory, intending to question them before dispatching them. (And, indeed, Julian Glover would go on to play a similarly foolhardy yet genteel Bond villain in For Your Eyes Only just two years later.) Upon breaking out of the locked room, courtesy of the Sonic Screwdriver, the Doctor engages with Professor Kerensky and learns of the experiments with time, while Romana locates a secret room, sealed for five hundred years, containing the sextet of Mona Lisas. In order to figure out how, and why, Scarlioni has these paintings, all originals from da Vinci’s hand, the Doctor pops off in the TARDIS to Florence in 1505, leaving Romana and Duggan to attempt to foil the imminent theft of the Louvre’s copy of the enigmatic maiden’s portrait.
When the Doctor arrives in Leonardo’s atelier, he is apprehended by a guard and held until Captain Tancredi of the Borgia arrives. To both men’s surprise, they recognize one another: Tancredi is none other than Scarlioni, and even more alarming, he knows the Doctor as well. Williams and Read do well to bridge the revelation of whether Scarlioni, too, travels through time as a cliffhanger, one of the more potent episode breaks in recent memory. The answer arrives in overwrought, yet still satisfying, fashion.
Some four hundred million years prior, the last surviving members of the Jagaroth, a vicious, warlike species, were attempting to leave Earth after their ship crash landed. When taking off again, a problem with their warp engine resulted in Scaroth, the pilot, being splintered into twelve parts, scattered throughout the ages, while the rest of the Jagaroth perished. Driven by an obsessive desire to go back in time to prevent himself from taking off in the first place, the twelve parts of Scaroth guide humanity in an attempt to nurture a culture advanced enough to create the technology needed for such a feat. (Never mind that several other forces have, throughout the course of Doctor Who, similarly guided humanity’s development over time. At the very least one would think they might all get together and compare notes.)
Scaroth’s temporally disparate segments somehow communicate with one another across the eons, filtering knowledge back and forth, accounting for the sixteenth century version having the twentieth century version’s awareness of the Doctor. Similarly, Tancredi knows to force da Vinci to create seven total copies of the Mona Lisa because in 1979, there are a grand total of seven people wealthy (and avaricious) enough to buy the Mona Lisa for their private collections—but they would only do so if the “original” copy in the Louvre were stolen, in order to be purchased in the first place. And with the money from the sale of seven da Vinci originals, Scarlioni intends to ramp up Kerensky’s project from aging chickens to de-aging an entire planet.
Meanwhile, Romana and Duggan fail to foil the theft of the Mona Lisa, but do manage to get captured by Scarlioni again. Knowing, now, that the Doctor and Romana travel through time, Scarlioni forces Romana to help stabilize the time field caused by Kerensky’s device, threatening (plausibly) to destroy Paris if she refuses. She surreptitiously sets a limit of two minutes total duration in the past into the stabilizer she whips up, but that should still suffice for Scarlioni to warn Scaroth not to start the warp engine.
The Doctor’s opposition to Scaroth and the Jagaroth surviving by preventing the explosion stems from his insistence that history not be altered, at least at first. (Of his own interventions in history, he demurs that he is a professional.) From the Pyramids through to the present day, the twelve segments of Scaroth affected humanity and its history intimately, and the Doctor will not allow that outcome to change. Upon confronting Scaroth on a barren, primordial field four hundred million years in the past, the Doctor realizes that life on Earth itself results from the explosion of the Jagaroth ship, the radiation jump starting the amino acid soup whence all life slithers. Beyond mere principle, the Doctor needs to stop Scarlioni to save humanity itself.
Thankfully, Duggan tagged along for the ride, so he just punches ol’ tentacle face, knocking him out until he is pulled back to 1979 by Romana’s sabotage. There, Scarlioni’s majordomo, Hermann (Kevin Flood), sees his master for what he really is and kills him, destroying the château—and six of the seven Mona Lisas—in the process.
If it is possible for something to not make much sense and also be extremely clever, “City of Death” pulls off the trick with some style. The very premise—an alien steals the Mona Lisa to fund a time travel experiment—seems so outlandish as to be a parody of the science fiction genre, yet Williams and Read, with help no doubt from new story editor (and occasional science fiction humorist) Douglas Adams, manage to keep proceedings just this side of serious, providing a reasonable, if not plausible, course of events to drive the snappy plot.
The quality of the guest stars helps the story enormously, with Julian Glover in particular bringing much power to the role of the time-splintered Scaroth, even when burdened by the shaky quality of the Jagaroth mask. He simply feels dangerous on screen, even when being a perfect gentleman—or gentlealien, as the case may be. Catherine Schell uses her limited screen time wisely as well, helping sell the extent to which Scarlioni manages to keep his alien nature hidden from even those closest to him. Kevin Flood and Tom Chadbon play their heavies with skill, the former being an ideal henchman, unquestioning as his master unveils new masterpieces to sell, the latter remaining curiously incurious for a supposed detective. And, of course, John Cleese’s cameo as a pretentious art gallery patron admiring the TARDIS as a work of aesthetic genius remains noteworthy to this day.
Tom Baker seems utterly at home in the streets of Paris—and in the Fourth Doctor’s skin. The script works to his strengths, giving him equal measures of wit, action, and buffoonery. More importantly, with his penchant for humor sated, he’s also capable of hitting more serious notes as the story demands. When the Fourth Doctor steadfastly refuses to allow Scaroth to change history, there’s steel in Baker’s voice, more powerful still for the contrast to his otherwise breezy delivery.
Thanks to the presence of Duggan as a foil, Lalla Ward is allowed to play Romana as independent, intelligent, and driven by her own motivations. Romana’s instincts lead to the discovery of the hidden room with the Mona Lisas, and though she does develop the time stabilizer for Scarlioni, much to the Doctor’s dismay, she sets a limiter in it that contributes to the final, successful outcome of the story. Ward and Baker continue to display an ease on screen with one another; the mild antagonism between Mary Tamm’s Romana and the Doctor has disappeared almost entirely with this duo, as much from scripting as from chemistry.
That third member of the TARDIS crew, K-9, remains sidelined in this story, name-checked by the Doctor once but not seen at all.
Paris, itself, deserves billing as part of the cast in “City of Death.” Far too often of late, the settings in Doctor Who have loomed over the story, simply because the alien worlds and cultures demand unpacking, but Paris speaks for itself, instantly recognizable and quickly understood. Director Michael Hayes, a frequent helmsman of late, deftly integrates the location shooting with the studio work, allowing the street and subway scenes of Paris to provide just enough spice that viewers don’t mind accepting a fake version of the Louvre as the real thing.
Though filled with spaceships and fast-growing poultry, explosions and aliens, “City of Death” remains a character-driven piece, one of the reasons it stands among the best stories not just of the Fourth Doctor’s era but of the series as a whole. It tells a story only Doctor Who could tell, and keeps the Doctor central to affairs even as his companion stands on her own and the villain has depth and pathos. Indeed, because the supporting cast works so well, the Doctor himself is elevated. Throw in a healthy, though moderated, dose of humor and a plot that remains consistent within itself despite its overall absurdity and you have a classic, set in a city whose inherent magic is but enhanced by seeing a long striped scarf dangling from the top of the Eiffel Tower…
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Post 108 of the Doctor Who Project