Doctor Who always makes mistakes, most of them from the late 70s onwards and most recently in the interminable Eleventh Doctor storylines. But whenever it does it creates these strange outposts along the way: excesses of violence, adult storylines, humour; dubious castings; unsuitable writers, directors, script editors. Producers even. Season 24. But I take the view that they all add up to the programme’s rich tapestry (apart from Season 24). Very few series can survive some of the nonsense and wrong turns Doctor Who has taken over the last 50 years; fewer still are enriched by their bad ideas.
Season 17 is such a bad idea: in my opinion it’s a low point in the series because it almost never comes off. Tom indulging himself, Douglas Adams’ slipshod approach to script editing and overreliance on humour, Williams’ apparent insistence on studio-bound pastiche (in fairness partially forced on him by effective budget cuts) and some of the worst directors to ever grace the programme. It feels like everyone is taking the piss, either actively or because they just can’t be bothered.
But somehow it all gels in City of Death – a half-written script from David Fisher, incorporating a series of unlikely stipulations from Williams and finished off by Adams over a weekend. Many writers will recognise how a deadline bearing down can stir them to creative heights. In 1979, powered by whiskey and coffee and under the sort of pressure that turns carbon to diamond, Douglas Adams turned out a perfectly-formed gem of his own.
It has glorious ideas: a rather louche alien scattered through history and secreting arts treasures for his later selves to sell – alongside copies that the originators have been strongarmed into creating – at inflated prices. The theft of the Mona Lisa; a scientist who thinks he’s feeding the world with time-travel chickens and a marriage that has failed to take into account that one half of it has one eye and green linguini for a face. Ridiculous!
It’s a high-wire act that relies on everyone being on the same page. In the majority of Season 17 something goes wrong: one or more elements are out of synch in the others, with sometimes disastrous results. I had always thought of Nightmare of Eden as a clever, rather nasty story with frightening moments and the odd splash of black comedy. That’s certainly how the book reads.
On screen it’s like a Crackerjack pantomime about space drugs. Destiny of the Daleks is a classic diminished-return Terry Nation runaround with added rubbish acting. Shada, something of a kissing cousin to City of Death is, as far as I can tell, as load of old tosh. It’s Douglas Adams coasting through it – it’s instructive that everything Adams wrote for Doctor Who ended up recycled in Hitchhikers or Dirk Gently novels at some point. Other stories in Season 17 have some very strong premises too but, somewhere long the line, they fail to come off – like a split sauce the elements just don’t rub along together.
Luckily the writer, director, composer and most of the cast are on the same page here. I say most, but not all. Kerensky, like Tryst in Nightmare of Eden, seems to have walked in from a Two Ronnies sketch and the Sam Spade private detectives are absurd, even for this. In another story Duggan, Herman, Kerensky, even Scaroth/Scarlioni and the regulars themselves would be beyond the pale – but City of Death casts them in a slightly different universe to the rest of the season.
The Doctor has ended up in a situation populated with people as daft as he is. The Doctor, Romana and Scaroth are determined not to allow the facade to drop and sweep everyone else along with them – their sense of attraction strong enough to reel in John Cleese and Eleanor Bron for a sublime cameo. It helps that everyone else in City of Death is similarly daft, but they’re primarily dancing to the tune the Doctor and Scaroth are playing. As such the whole story is conducted by characters as if they’re on stage: actors playing characters playing heightened versions of themselves. It results in some inspired moments.
Scaroth in his safari suit is a brilliant, irreverent image – he’s played as an urbane playboy by Julian Glover as if the Count simply is a gentleman thief. The idea that the Jagaroth has essentially created and guided the human race just so they can help him destroy themselves is another nice twist; a neat timey-wimey plot point that prefaces Moffatt by 30 years and pulls it off simply through some funny, throwaway lines. It’s the series doing time travel for one of only a handful of times in the classic run and it’s portrayed with a minimum of fuss and a lot of charm.
By the end of City of Death the Doctor has learned that the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre is a fake, with the words THIS IS A FAKE written underneath the paint, existing because he created it and put it there. No only that, it is part of plan by an alien to destroy, albeit coincidentally, the human race. Rather wonderfully the whole plot is explained through a little jaunt back to Renaissance Italy to catch up with Leonardo.
The Fourth Doctor is so completely the star of City of Death. Tom directs the whole tone and carries it off with utter conviction; in an Aristotelian sense this is the perfect Doctor – the one everyone thinks of. The eyes, the hair, scarf and silliness. Who wouldn’t want him as their best friend? There are so many funny, lovely moment it’s impossible to count them: Tom and Lalla, running around the French capital – the fact that it’s grey and overcast not mattering one whit – in love; a lovely score by Dudley Simpson – also nearing the end of his association with the series. “You, Duggan”. The artist’s sketch of Romana. “CAPTAIN TANCREDI?!”
At the end of the story, having bade farewell to Duggan, the duo have reached the bottom of the Eiffel Tower in what seems like seconds. Did they fly after all, powered by love and imagination and wit? It’s a even little bit poignant, if you want to go down that route – whatever the truth of the Doctor and Romana’s descent here, he can’t escape Logopolis’ fearful gravity. How remote, how different, do those two moments seem?
In City of Death Tom and The Fourth Doctor – seemingly interchangeable – shine one last time, spending the rest of the incarnation overacting wildly or in a massive huff. By next season it’s all cod technobabble, bleeps and synth, and unwanted companions; the smile gone from his face and the curl from his hair. With it, seemingly, his powers. The burgundy coat, E-Space and Adric loom large on the horizon, but we’ll always have Paris.