Tuesday, May 7, 2013

City of Death - "I say, what a wonderful butler! He's so violent!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - City of Death - Details

Series 17, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #105) | Previous - Next | Index

Scaroth, getting the DW version of the "You are our only hope"
speech before getting splintered across time.

This is the one ... well, at least one of the ones ... everybody says is a must-see Tom Baker classic. It's the one with John Cleese in it after all! The thing is, I don't remember actually liking it that much. It's been ages since I watched it so settling in for a re-watch, I'm hoping to discover whatever I found tedious and disappointing about it all those years ago on the first couple times watching was in my mind and not actually faults with the story.

Critiquing the TARDIS as art, hah! How ridiculous is that, amirite?
Wait a minute ... *questions own life*
Frankly, I don't remember much about it at all. In the Fourth Doctor retrospective broadcast as part of the Doctors Revisited series, Moffatt selected a clip from this one as an example of Tom Baker's ability to impose his character on a situation (or control the narrative?) by force of will and charm. And Baker does it brilliantly. With that big, toothy grin and the wide eyes, he really sells that he disarm, figuratively, his captors by being sort of outrageous and presumptive. (Can't help but wonder if Derren Brown's advice about how to handle aggressive situations isn't in some way just a little bit inspired by Tom Baker.) I remember the brief Cleese cameo, a bunch of Mona Lisas, that Romana II was the companion, and a bit about Count Scarlioni being Scaroth the Jagaroth, splintered throughout time -- perhaps like Clara Oswin Oswald? (Nah, that theory's a non-starter for Series 7, right?)

It turns out my bad memories weren't entirely inaccurate, but all the bad ones were almost all from Episode One. It's really not a bad story on the whole, quite the opposite. It's just, I don't think they knew what to do with themselves in Paris; so, they had Tom and Lalla run across a bunch of streets to get places in a hurry. There's a lot of street crossing and Metro riding that definitely establishes the setting. We get it, you're filming in Paris, but if you're going to film your actors on the Metro, maybe just don't have them sitting there looking self-conscious about their costumes? (Although, to be fair, one of my favorite lines is in an early Metro scene. Romana: "Where are we going?" The Doctor: "Do you mean geographically or philosophically?" Romana: "Philosophically." The Doctor: "Then we're going to lunch.")

This story owns the record for most scenes of street crossings. 

Repetition works against Episode One in other ways. During the first experiment scene in the lab at the chateau, we are shown how Scarlioni's working the professor like a dog, keeping imprisoned and exhausted, and also telling him about the importance of time. Count Scarlioni says "time" a lot. A lot, a lot in that first scene. Then, after a brief scene of The Doctor and Leela crossing streets or something,  we have yet another scene where he's forcing the professor to run another experiment. It's almost as much of a slog for us as it is for the character at this point. Then there's a couple time slips, so in addition to watching our heroes cross the road several times, we also get to watch a few of their bits a of dialogue a second time through. And, there's that seemingly interminable stroll after they leave the Louvre where Duggan is following them, and following them, and following them. Again, yes, we get that they're being followed through the streets of Paris. Enough.

But after all that, things really do pick up and we get into the investigation of what the Count is up to, and how important it is to stop him. (Odd there, how the Doctor is callously indifferent to the fate of the Jagaroth race, when we've seen him so torn up about whether to do away with the Daleks. "The universe won't miss them," he utters offhandedly.) The trip to Da Vinci's room, the discovery of the other Mona Lisa's, all that sleuthing and adventuring works well. Romana/Lalla Ward's charm is endearing and you can tell The Doctor/Tom Baker is having the time of his life with her.

One of the key themes of the series is also played out in this story. Both the professor and the Countess are guilty of putting self-interest ahead of an understanding of what they're doing, and what they're enabling, by not asking questions. "Where does the money come from?" is truly one of the most important questions we need to be asking, all of us, all the time. The professor, a scientist, ought to know the importance of asking questions, it's a moral failing not to. He may have had virtuous motivations when he started with Scarlioni, but he clearly has let his ambition and vanity turn him into a witting dupe.

This theme of caution about scientists and technocrats, not because they do science and not of science itself, but because they do science in systems lacking controls and accountability to the truth and social justice, runs through Doctor Who across the decades.

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