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Doctor Who story number I've Lost Count
City of Death is something special. It wins (or places highly on) polls for "Best Doctor Who Story," or "Favourite Story," or "Best story David Agnew Wrote". It's the story so good The Discontinuity Guide compared it to having Emma Thompson gently massage your feet with aromatic oils. It's probably not that good, but if someone sends Emma Thompson to me, I'll undertake a painstaking investigation of all the things that one can do with Emma Thompson that are better than this story. All for the sake of completeness in objective Doctor Who reviewing, of course. Leaving that line of enquiry aside for the moment, this is one of the best Doctor Who stories.
David Agnew is, in fact, a BBC pseudonym for writers who can't be identified due to not wanting to be (as in the case of the defunct Hollywood pseudonym "Alan Smithee"), or their contract rules. In this case it was because script editors weren't allowed to be credited for writing the show they worked on, even if they had to rework the whole story. In this case, it was the producer and the script editor. The producer was Graham Williams. The script editor was someone who had previously written a radio play about hitchhiking. The name escapes me at the moment, but I'm sure it will come to me in a minute.
David Fisher submitted a script that was largely a parody of "Bulldog" Drummond - this apparently overwhelmed the rest of the story, and thus it was deemed a bad script in need of an overhaul. Consider that this is the show that used to have writers submitting scripts featuring women twisting their ankles in place of actual character development, and think about how much worse you have to be to warrant a major re-write by the producer and script editor.
The other reason for the heavy script changes was the need to set the story in modern-day Paris. They'd figured out they could afford to take a quick trip across the channel and get some location footage in the French capital, yet there was no way the BBC could afford to dress up city streets in another country to look like the 1920's of the original script. Actually, the location filming in Paris is rather redundant to the story; in fact it feels like it's been set in Paris so they could go and film in Paris. But it does make a nice change to the previous strategies of either faking up the top of the Empire State Building or simply not bothering to have the story set anywhere other than near famous London landmarks - a fine thing in the 60's, but really, how often can we be expected to believe that the aliens take a sightseeing tour of London when they turn up to destroy the human race?
Another important fact about this story is that it is one of the three Doctor Who stories from the original run that was never novelised by Target. Why? Because they couldn't afford the fee for the author who would have done it, and I've been skirting the issue for a while because everyone goes on about it and I want to be different: The third writer was Douglas Adams, who was the script editor for season seventeen. But all is not lost... He used the central plot of this story (coupled with some elements from the uncompleted story he wrote called Shada) as the basis for the superior Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. How much better is it? This much: Don't read my plot synopsis for this story, and don't watch the story either. Go and read Dirk Gently first, then come back. You'll hate yourself if you don't.
Public service announcement over, it's time to start raving about the good parts: This is a great story excellent dialogue, Eleanor Bron and John Cleese and as art snobs, the Doctor using the TARDIS to do detective work in history, a side character who isn't completely boring, a villain who isn't a cardboard cutout, references to real-world events, a decent supporting cast, and chickens galore. Also worth noting is that this is one of the very few Doctor Who stories that deals with time travel. No, really: Usually the TARDIS is an excuse to drop the characters down in a spot and let them have Adventures In The Future. Or, more accurately, Adventures In The Past With Aliens, as it's easier to fake up the past than fake up the future (especially for the BBC). This story is about time travel and the ramifications, something that's been done in, oh... five stories - maybe. The thing is, usually "a story about time travel" in Doctor Who is really "a story where the secret of time travel is a Mcguffin" or "Time travellers will change history and must be stopped!", hence the relatively low number of stories actually about time travel.
This story is available on DVD. It's got a lot of extras, but even I'm not a die-hard enough Doctor Who fan to care about a digital copy of the 1980 Doctor Who annual, or a montage of unused effects shots.
If you really want to read a novelization of this story, the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club published one by someone called David Lawrence. I haven't even looked at it. I tell you what, I'll go and look now and let you all know what it's like...
...Oh god, my eyes! It's bad. Considering what it's competing with, I'm not surprised. Look, go and read Dirk Gently, okay? You'll thank me.
(Pseudonym for Douglas Adams, David Fisher and Graham Williams)
This story has 4 episodes.
We witness a spaceship attempt to take off on a barren planet, the hideous pilot being told to take off despite the dangers. The endeavour is doomed to failure - the craft explodes violently before it's barely cleared the rocky wasteland.
The Doctor and Romana, inexplicably dressed as a schoolgirl, are enjoying a holiday in Paris, 1979. They notice time distortions: time skipping backwards and giving the Doctor a colossal headache (he's very sensitive to time distortions due to continually being blasted by Dalek time destructors, human time reversal machines, keys to time, etcetera). The Doctor then decides to take Romana to the Louvre, because she's dismissive of human art. Meanwhile, Professor Kerensky is telling his employer, Count Scarlioni, that he will need more money for the experiments he is conducting. Scarlioni calmly tells his butler they will need to sell "One of the Gutenbergs".
The Doctor experiences another time distortion while viewing the Mona Lisa, and collapses onto a bench next to a woman reading a book. A man in a trench coat tries to help him up, and the Doctor leaves. The man in the coat follows them, and the woman with the book sends one of her men to follow all three. Out in the streets the Doctor tells Romana that the woman in the Louvre was wearing a bracelet that comes from another world - but the Doctor stole it and slipped it into Romana's pocket. It's really a "micromeson scanner" that she was using to scan the alarm systems. The man in the trench coat confronts them, and orders them into a cafe. The man in the coat is Duggan, an art detective investigating Count Scarlioni, and his wife, who the Doctor nearly sat on in the Louvre.
Before anything else happens, some more thugs turn up and recover the bracelet. Duggan thinks the Doctor is working for Scarlioni, who has been selling paintings that have been missing for centuries - and they're not fakes. Then two more thugs in hats turn up to take them all away for more exposition.
The Countess interrogates the Doctor, and then the Count has his insanely psychotic butler lock them in a room off the cellar laboratory. The doctor opens the door in a few seconds and he and Romana start poking around the basement. Kerensky arrives, and starts experimenting on chickens again. The Doctor pretends to have just arrived, and starts talking about time manipulation with the professor, but gets distracted by an alien visage in the time distortion field. Duggan knocks out Kerensky while the Doctor is absorbed by the vision in the time field. Romana interrupts their argument about hitting people with the discovery of a bricked up room in their cell.
Upstairs, Scarlioni is detailing his plans to steal the Mona Lisa. Downstairs, the Doctor is explaining that this is what the Count is up to. Duggan comments that he has the names of seven people who would buy the painting, and explains to Romana that some people would be happy to have a priceless piece of art they could never tell anyone about just so they could gloat over it. But when they break into the sealed room, they find six more - all originals by da Vinci. Duggan concludes that all seven potential buyers will think they're getting the one stolen from the Louvre.
Why the Doctor can't figure this out, we do not know. But there's no time for wondering why the detective who is only in it for the thumping is more on the ball than the Time Lords, because The Count confronts them, but Duggan knocks him out while the Doctor is talking. The three beat a retreat from the chateau, during which Duggan knocks out the gun-toting Countess with a priceless Ming vase. The Doctor sends Romana and Duggan to check on the Louvre, while he is off to talk to an Italian about a painting.
The Italian in question is Leonardo da Vinci. He's not at home, but a guard who watches da Vinci's residence is at home, and informs the Doctor that da Vinci is doing important work for Captain Tancredi, who arrives at that moment to question the Doctor. Tancredi is the exact double of Count Scarlioni - and he wants to know what the Doctor is doing in the 16th century.
Duggan and Romana find the Louvre open for business, despite it being the middle of the night and all the alarms on the building deactivated (Duggan callously includes the dead security guards in this assessment). The Mona Lisa is gone, and Duggan sets of the alarms on the painting's niche when he checks it's absence in disbelief. They flee by creating a gaping hole in the priceless French windows. Meanwhile, Kerensky finds the unconscious Count and six copies of the Mona Lisa. The Count is talking in his sleep - saying the same things Tancredi is saying in Florence, 1505. Tancredi wants to know how the Doctor managed to come back in time, but gets no real answer. He informs the Doctor that he is the last of the Jagaroth, and also the saviour of the Jagaroth (making his job easy). The Doctor knows of them - they destroyed their race in a war some 400 million years ago. Tancredi says that not all perished: Some fled the war in a spacecraft, and arrived on a desolate, lifeless planet. The ship exploded, and the pilot, Scaroth, was splintered through time. The twelve parts are all identical, yet incomplete. Tancredi wants to know what the blue box in the corner is, and leaves to get the implements of torture.
The Doctor distracts the guard with the horrific, soul-stealing powers of a Polaroid camera, and then notices the original Mona Lisa next to a pile of six blank pallets. He scrawls "This is a fake" on them all, then puts them face down with a note telling Leonardo to paint over the top. Before he can get into the TARDIS, however, Tancredi returns with the thumbscrews.
Four hundred and seventy-four years later, Count Scarlioni wakes. Kerensky is very confused and wants to know who the "Jagaroth" are. The Count tells him that he's been working for the Jagaroth. The Professor thinks this means the Jagaroth need a lot of chickens (Kerensky believes his work can be used to mature livestock to adulthood quickly, thus ending world hunger), and the Count marvels that Kerensky's amazing genius comes with such a limited focus (which is a little unfair, all things considered). Then Scarlioni starts to hear the voices of his time-fractured selves. He's probably been driven mad by living twelve concurrent lives and having awareness of each one. He shows Kerensky what he wants made, and Kerensky refuses. It's destructive, dangerous, and flies in the face of the good work Kerensky thought would be done with his time accelerator.
Romana uses her own sonic screwdriver to break into the cafe. Duggan simply smashes a window. She expresses contempt for his destructive ways, but he doesn't care, smashes the top off a wine bottle, and pours her a glass of wine (a few seconds cut from the final story showed him going to drink from the broken bottle and cutting his mouth). They are at a loss to figure out what to do about the paintings - Duggan wants to know how the Count knew the copies were there in the first place. At the chateau, the Countess is gleefully admiring the criminal genius of her husband - who tells her that stealing a painting is nothing compared to what he's really done. From fire and the wheel, to mapping the heavens, to building the pyramids... all were taught to mankind by Scaroth. As the voices start he tells her to "Leave us! Leave me!" and then communicates with his other selves.
Back in the Renaissance, the Doctor is about to be tortured, but Tancredi starts to hear the voices too. The guard runs to help him, but is told, "Leave us! Leave me!" and so he flees. The Doctor unscrews the thumbscrews with his mouth and runs to the TARDIS. He watches Tancredi on the scanner, and then returns to 1979. Tancredi sees this, and informs the other splinters.
Romana wonders if Scarlioni has a time machine, but the equipment Kerensky has makes two adjacent time continuums, and they cannot interface. Duggan has no idea what she's talking about, so she suggests they return to the chateau, where at least he can hit people. Once there, they are held at gunpoint. The Count wants a field interface stabilizer, and he knows Romana can make one. He tricks Kerensky into the machine and turns it on, ageing him to a blasted skeleton in seconds. He threatens to do the same to all of Paris unless he gets what he wants. Scarlioni explains that he's been split in to twelve parts and thrown through time, and he guided human advancement to achieve what he wants - not to reunite himself, but to simply go back and stop himself pressing the button that will splinter him through history. Romana starts to work on the device, planning to build a two-minute limitation in the time travel capabilities so that it cannot be used for anything else.
The Doctor breaks into the chateau, and meets the Countess. He tries to explain to her that she's been married to a time fractured alien being with a one-eyed mass of green tentacles for a head, but for some reason she doesn't believe that. The Doctor is taken to the cellar, and the Countess rifles through a secret safe - hidden amongst the first drafts of Shakespeare and piles of Gutenberg Bibles, she finds a hollow tome containing a scroll with pictures of the Egyptian gods - and the last one is a previously unknown deity with a green blob for a head and a single eye.
Count Scarlioni enters, and reveals his true face and identity to the Countess. She is horrified, and he kills her using the bracelet she wears. He comments that shortly this won't have happened. In the cellar, the Doctor has deduced the same thing - all of human history will be changed if Scaroth can go back in time and prevent the event that leads to his interference in the development of the human race. They break out of the cell again, just in time to see Scaroth disappear into history. The controls explode, and the Doctor decides the only option now is to get to the TARDIS and follow the path of the alien through time - if they can make it halfway across Paris before Scaroth changes history forever.
400 million years ago, on what will one day be the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the TARDIS materialises. The Doctor points out two things: The first is the Jagaroth ship, and he says they were a callous, warlike race that won't be missed. The second is the primordial soup that holds the future of the planet - after the Jagaroth ship explodes and causes the chemical reactions that will create life on Earth. Scaroth won't change human history by preventing the explosion, he will wipe it out forever.
The Scarlioni fragment of Scaroth arrives and the Doctor tries to reason with him, but cannot. Duggan solves the matter by knocking Scaroth out, saving the entire human race from extinction (at no extra charge). The alien returns to Paris, where the butler is horrified to see a hideous alien materialise out of nowhere. He throws the first thing he can grab into the time field, and it causes an explosion, killing the Scarlioni fragment of Scaroth and setting the chateau ablaze.
Atop the Eiffel Tower, Duggan is rather distressed. He's just learned that the only copy of the Mona Lisa that survived the fire was one of the six with "This is a fake" written underneath the paint in black marker. If anyone X-rays it, they will see the words. Of course, it is actually an original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (just not the first one in his impressive run of seven identical paintings). This is a slight conundrum, but not one that concerns the Doctor and Romana. They say goodbye to Duggan and leave. Duggan shrugs and buys a postcard of the Mona Lisa, then waves to them as they cross the Champ de Mars to the underground station.
- Julian Glover - Count Scarlioni/Captain Tancredi/Scaroth/Various unnamed Scaroth splinters
- Tom Chadbon - Duggan, Jagaroth Voices
- Catherine Schell - Countess Scarlioni
- David Graham - Professor Kerensky
- Kevin Flood - Hermann, the Wonderfully Violent Butler
- Pamela Stirling - Louvre Guide
- Peter Halliday - Soldier, Jagaroth Voices
- Walter Henry - Cafe Patron
- James Charlton - Artist
- Jane Bough - Maid
- John Cleese, Eleanor Bron - Art Gallery Patrons
- K9 is not present in this story. The Doctor greets his robot dog when he enters the TARDIS to go to Italy, but gets no response.
- Apparently half the places the crew went to film in Paris were closed due to a public holiday.
- For a story called City of Death, there's only two on-screen deaths and three off-camera. "City of Not Much Death" doesn't sound as good though, does it?
- No, none of the prop copies of the Mona Lisa are particularly good copies. This would have been okay... except Duggan's actual postcard of the actual Mona Lisa is shown - and wow is the original better than the BBC prop department replicas!
Duggan, why is it that every time I start to talk to someone, you knock him unconscious? - The Doctor