Monday, May 26, 2014


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 33: City of Death

Tonight I bring cheer with, unusually, a great Doctor Who scene that isn’t all death and disaster – counting down more of my Fifty with a dash of romance. And what better time for it? Today is exactly five months until Richard and I marry (and since I posted number 34, Britain’s first same-sex weddings have been celebrated and we’ve received our first invite to another couple’s. Hurrah!). Not only that, but yesterday’s Towel Day commemorated Douglas Adams, while Saturday would have been the birthday of Graham Williams, the two principal writers of this glamorous and many-authored Tom Baker story… If you thought Number 34 was a bit Douglas Adams-y, today’s is properly so, and it’s much happier than the end of the world. More the other end.
“It has a bouquet…”

City of Death is a mostly remarkable Doctor Who story. It’s regularly voted among the best in all the series’ fifty years; it got the series’ highest ever ratings (though, to be fair, with no Internet and, thanks to a lengthy ITV strike, only BBC2 and the radio for competition); even more remarkably, it manages to unite many fans who scorn 1979’s other Doctor Who stories in agreement that this is ‘the good one’ (personally, I love some of the others too). But perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is how it was made at all – a glimpse of alchemy. Brilliant writer David Fisher wrote the first draft, then couldn’t do the rewrites… So the series’ Lead Writer Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams) and Producer Graham Williams rewrote it from top to bottom in a weekend and a few flashes of genius, before actors like Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and the fabulous Julian Glover rewrote more of it as they went along. Though it’s only Mr Adams, Mr Williams and Mr Fisher who are usually understood to form the BBC compound entity “David Agnew” credited on screen. And part of the new script was to swap the original 1920s setting for – mostly – 1979, which sounds less interesting, but not when Production Manager John Nathan-Turner had worked out in another flash of genius, this time with the accounts, that they could shoot it in contemporary proper Paris as cheaply as in a studio’s fake Monte Carlo of fifty years earlier. It was the first time the series had ever filmed outside the UK. And then there’s an intricate story that would today be called “timey-wimey,” but thankfully wasn’t in 1979, some outstandingly witty scenes and cameos from the likes of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese.

So I’m mildly unusual in finding it a bit of a mixed bag in parts, but thinking the bit that’s absolutely, blissfully perfect is the first five minutes. Because that’s the part before the important bits like the plot and the monster and most of the funny lines get going, and which quite a few fans who otherwise love the story say should have been cut because it’s just aimless faffing about*. Personally, I’m very drawn to aimless faffing about.

The thrilling blue swirl of the time tunnel – still the greatest title sequence ever made – parts on an eerie, barren landscape that looks thoroughly alien, as does the spider-like spacecraft squatting over the rocks. It’s an impressive piece of modelwork, aided by echoing music from regular composer Dudley Simpson and a sweeping camera pan across the plain to make it look enormous. And the alien voices within the ship are arguing with each other – the pilot protesting as the crew insist he take off on warp thrust, despite the dangers. Marvellously, it references Star Wars in their telling him “You are our only hope,” as he’s closer to a frog than a beautiful princess. To thunderous chords, the ship lifts slowly into an appropriately Turner-ish red and black-clouded sky… Only to crumple in on itself, shimmer and explode, the crew’s pleas echoing in desperation. You’d think that in today’s Doctor Who this would be made as a pre-titles sequence, but it’s all the better not for being so because of the fascinating non-sequitur that follows instead. The falling sparks of the explosion fade into blossoms, and again the camera moves left to right, echoing the extended pan and giving the world that came first an equivalence with modern Paris as the Eiffel Tower comes into view behind the flowers, the panning shot across the rock to the latticework gantry spaceship the natural precursor to that across the blossom to the latticework gantry tower. It’s a brilliant directorial choice, not least because, like the script and the French filming, it was something that wasn’t the original plan and was an inspired late improvisation: the director went for the blossoms instead when the special lens brought to zoom out from the top of the Tower didn’t fit the cameras. What director Michael Hayes came up with on the fly is the perfect bridge between two very different visual and storytelling styles, and the perfect opening to one of Doctor Who’s most cinematic sequences.

So, leaving you in anticipation for what happened to the alien pilot (and indeed plot), the story proper instead opens with the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion Romana (Lalla Ward) swanning about at the top of la Tour Eiffel being frightfully laid back and witty as they just enjoy themselves.
“It’s the only place in the Universe where one can relax entirely.”
“Mmmm. That bouquet.”
“What Paris has… It has a – an ethos… A life. It has—”
“A bouquet?”
“…A spirit all of its own. Like a wine, it has—”
“A bouquet.”
“…It has a bouquet, yes. Like a good wine – you have to choose one of the vintage years, of course.”
“What year is this?”
“Ah well, yeah. Well, it’s 1979, actually. More of a table wine, shall we say. Ha!”
Tom is charming and worldly, Lalla superior but utterly charming with it, and eager to see the wonders of Earth. The two actors have marvellous chemistry in this story above all stories, and it’s no surprise that off-screen they were soon to marry and almost sooner to divorce. While in some of their stories they can barely bring themselves to look at each other, here they’re evidently having a wonderful time on every level, diegetic, extra-diegetic and extra-curricular. How natural they look is another part of the serendipity that makes so much of City of Death come together so well.

There’s a building fanfare of music, and then they’re off! The thrilling, intimate cinematography of the side of the train rushing towards us on the platform, then the Doctor and Romana simply joyous beaming at each other and the Paris Metro, planning dinner, dashing across the road by Notre-Dame hand in hand, all to what could be a career-best score for Dudley Simpson, a gorgeous, playful theme that chimes perfectly with the bouquet. It’s sheer happiness, the closest the series comes to a musical, and I’m always astounded when other fans say it’s padding and want to get on with the plot instead. It’s art.

Then there are two last pieces of serendipity, of alchemy, as they run past a poster for an exhibition on “3 Millions d’Années d’Aventure Humaine”, and the camera at last springs away from them to the threatening wooden carving of a gorgon-like snakes-headed grotesque… But that would be the plot, so it’s time to stop.

*Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s impressive and opinionated About Time 4, for example, starts an otherwise complementary review by complaining “the first episode features five whole minutes of the Doctor and Romana jogging through Parisian streets… Often regarded as the only major flaws in this story, and certainly the only bits that video viewers regularly fast-forward through…” Whereas I frequently put the first five minutes on to cheer myself up, and leave it at that. Maybe they’re just not music lovers, for all that they claim to sing along “Running through Paris” to the tune.

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotations – The Androids of Tara

Tripping back a year to 1978, another gorgeous holiday of a story from a complete David Fisher script, this time on the Ruritanian planet of Tara and in the middle of the quest for The Key To Time. It’s enormous fun, especially where the dashingly dastardly Count Grendel of Gracht (Peter Jeffrey) is involved. It is, though, something of a cautionary tale about marriage, as the Doctor’s companion Romana (in her first body, Mary Tamm) discovers in Part Two when the Count shows her his dungeon – in it, her exact double…
“Is it an android?”
“Good heavens, no, my dear. That’s the Princess Strella. First Lady of Tara, a descendant of the Royal House, Mistress of the domains of Thorvald, Mortgarde and Freya. In fact, Tara’s most eligible spinster! Shortly to become – in rapid succession – my fiancée, my bride, and then… Deceased. Yes – it will be a tragic accident. A flower blighted in its prime. And naturally, as her husband, I shall claim her estates and her position as second in line to the throne, as provided for under Taran law.”
“I see. But since you’ve already got a Princess, what do you need me for?”
“Well, the Princess does not entirely agree with my plan.”
“I can’t say I’m wildly surprised.”
In Part Three, Romana is confronted with another double (she’s missed one more in between). This one’s technically less royal and more, well, technical. To the Count’s moustache-twirling satisfaction, she’s been built to assassinate the Doctor (Tom Baker)…
“You see before you the complete killing machine – as beautiful as you, and as deadly as the plague. If only she were real, I’d marry her.”
“You deserve each other.”
And in Part Four, the still-scheming Count, that well-known champion of widows and orphans, welcomes the Head of the Church of Tara to the charms of Castle Gracht for two weddings and a funeral…
“Ah, Archimandrite! Welcome.”
“What is so urgent that I must leave my duties and hurry here like this?”
“I am sorry, Archimandrite, but there is a ceremony you must perform.”
“Here? What ceremony?”
“A marriage.”
“Your own chaplain could have done that.”
“Not this marriage.”
“Why? Who is to be married? And to whom?”
“The King – to the Princess Strella.”
“The King? Here?”
“He has placed himself under my protection, your Eminence. Sadly, I have to tell you – he is sick. In fact, he is very near to death.”
“Oh, dear, dear, dear. He did not look well at the coronation. Not himself at all.”
“No… No, I did note that, Archimandrite.”
“But near to death, you say?”
“Indeed he is. It would be as well if you stayed here. I fear he will be in need of the funeral rites very soon after the wedding.”
“Oh, how sad.”
“Mmm, yes. And after the funeral rites, there will be a second wedding for you to perform.”
“A second wedding? May I ask whose that will be?”
“My own. I shall be marrying the poor King’s widow.”

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Curse of Fenric

If that’s not warning enough about the dangers of dalliance, let’s turn to what’s possibly my beloved’s favourite story, and one of mine, too. It was 1989 for most of us, 1943 in the story, and half-way into Part Two (or 40 minutes into the story, if you’re watching the movie-length DVD Special Edition). While the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) investigates vampires rising from the waters off the North-Eastern coast, stony pillar of the church Miss Hardaker has other reasons for taking against the local beauty spot. She doesn’t mince her words when she finds her two teenage East End evacuee lodgers have been swimming at Maidens’ Point…
Nothing for you but pitiless damnation for the rest of your lives! Think on it!”

Miss Hardaker was played by the marvellous Janet Henfrey, who returns to Doctor Who later this year. Richard and I met her in 2009 and, rather than the usual ‘Best wishes’ signed by an actor, we persuaded her to give us a different benediction on our The Curse of Fenric DVD.

Thanks to the Internet (though I’ve lost track of where, so contact me if it was you and you’d like it removed), I was also able to proffer this motivational poster to lovely The Curse of Fenric author Ian Briggs after he talked about some of the underlying themes in his story and the inspiration of Alan Turing. He laughed.

Bonus Not Necessarily Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Armageddon Factor

It’s another Doctor Who story from 1979, and another opening scene from Part One. This one’s not quite so celebrated as City of Death, and you’ll have to watch it to put it into context (though I’d watch the other five stories of The Key To Time series first), but I couldn’t resist. Miss Hardaker would be appalled.
“Men out there – young men – are dying for it!”

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Rose

And finally… From one of the most uplifting of all Doctor Who stories, the great return nine years ago, not the opening moments but the close. Rose has saved the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and the world from the Nestene Consciousness, and he in turn has rescued her from its exploding lair. After that brief trip in the TARDIS, the Doctor and Russell T Davies offer her and us more – to come with him, anywhere in the Universe. That’s one option: reckless, hopeful, open-minded. The narrow, sour, closed-minded alternative is put by her unhelpful boyfriend Mickey, who despite also having been rescued by the Doctor gives him a mouthful of xenophobic abuse as “an alien – a thing.” It’s a clear choice… And for a moment, Rose hesitates. Mickey pulls her to him, holding her back, taking her for granted, and she says no. The TARDIS dematerialises.

Rose, left on the street, just stares into the suddenly empty night as the wind of the TARDIS’ passing whips her hair. If she could have that choice again… And, suddenly, the TARDIS blazes back into reality, the Doctor stepping out to deliver the best pick-up line in history:
“By the way, did I mention – it also travels in time?”
Choose your own life, and run into the future.

Next Time… The scariest place for anyone

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The greatest moment in City of Death for me was:

"You. What are you doing here?"
"I think that is exactly the question I ought to be asking you. Doctor!"
Thank you - that's another very fine one (the end of Part Two, for casual readers, and both of these on the Horror Channel this very evening).

I love Julian Glover's delivery of this line, too.
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