Review of Doctor Who ‘City of Death’ (Series 17)

Neela Debnath

Romana 300x194 Review of Doctor Who ‘City of Death’ (Series 17)

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) in 'City of Death' (BBC)

In the run up to the 50th anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’ in November 2013, Neela Debnath, with the help of BBC DVD, will be writing a review focusing on one story from each of the previous 31 series of the show. Each review will offer readers a snapshot from every series of ‘Doctor Who’ and celebrate the longest-running science fiction television programme in the world.

Another year in the Tom baker era and a new companion joined the Doctor, well sort of. Mary Tamm decided to leave the Tardis after helping the Doctor to find all the pieces of the Key to Time.

It is believed that the actress felt that she had taken the character as far as she could and decided it was time to move on. Since the character of Romana was a Time Lady she could regenerate and did so in Destiny of the Daleks - some fans have dubbed her ‘Romana II’.

The new incarnation was played by Lalla Ward who had actually appeared on the show previously as Princess Astra in The Armageddon Factor, the final story of series 16. During her regeneration sequence, the Doctor makes reference to the fact that she is wearing another body rather than being an original form. His statement essentially makes a reference to Ward’s original appearance. Romana’s regeneration scene is very different to the Doctor’s own rebirth. While he changes in a single transition, she tries on different forms until she finds a suitable one.

City of Death was the second serial of series 17 and featured Scaroth (Julian Glover), an alien disguised as human in Paris, trying to build a time machine to go back in time and save his race the Jagaroth. The plan would also mean the destruction of the human race, so it is lucky that the Doctor and Romana happen to be on holiday in Paris when they stumble across Scaroth’s scheme.

It is a great adventure with a marvellous villain played by Julian Glover before he became a national treasure. He is callous and calculating as Scaroth and creates a classic Doctor Who villain. This was Glover’s second time on Doctor Who. Prior to his appearance as Scaroth, he portrayed Richard the Lionheart in series 2’s The Crusade which featured William Hartnell as the Doctor.

For those unfamiliar with Glover’s work, he has had a long and distinguished career in film and television spanning decades. Some of his credits include Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. More recently, he was the voice of Aragog in Harry Potter and the Chamber or Secrets and is currently starring in Game of Thrones.

There are only little three things that really detract from the serial. The first is the venturing back and forth between Scaroth’s chateau and central Paris which feels superfluous. It is something that happens a lot in classic Who and after a while it just gets tedious. There is always a capture, an escape and then a re-capture before the final escape, this cycle seems to be a time filler and is quite frustrating as a viewer because it keeps halting the plot.

The second gripe is with Romana’s costume, yes she is mirroring the Doctor’s eccentricity but at the same time she is dressed as a school girl. It just doesn’t feel like appropriate attire for an almighty Time Lady. She is super-smart and yet looks like she is skiving class – either that or she has fallen out of an Enid Blyton novel.

In the same way that each incarnation of the Doctor has a unique personality, so too does the different versions of Romana. Ward is more playful with her portrayal of the Time Lady compared to Tamm but she is still cracking as the second incarnation of Romana. She can be commanding and display her vast knowledge when she needs to but the school uniform is demeaning, especially the hat which is perched on her head at a ridiculous angle. Straw boaters are not cool.

The third issue with City of Death is the incidental music which is cringe-worthy at best. Yes, they are in Paris the city of love and yes, it is the Seventies but the music is just so out of place in Doctor Who. As a viewer I wanted to cover my eyes and ears in embarrassment as the Doctor and Romana frolicked through the streets of Paris, dining at cafés and wandering along the River Seine.

Interestingly, during the filming of this serial it is thought that a romance blossomed between Baker and Ward. In some of the rather sappy scenes coupled with the awful incidental music, the camera seems to have captured some of this fledgling relationship. Baker and Ward did later marry for a brief period.

Aside from these three things, City of Death is a superb piece of Doctor Who that contemporary viewers may well enjoy. Allowances should be made for the special effects in this case, particularly the scene where Scaroth takes off his human mask to reveal his true alien face. It should be shocking but as the camera goes in for the close up, the audience can actually see Glover’s nose underneath the Scaroth mask.

Saying this, Glover is great and the story is solid. The character of Inspector Duggan (Tom Chadbon) brings a lot of comedy to the serial by constantly using his muscle to get out of tricky situations, he smashes open a wine bottle instead of using a cork screw. There is even a cameo appearance from John Cleese. City of Death is definitely worth watching.

For more information about the classic series of ‘Doctor Who’

For more information about the ‘Doctor Who’ DVDs visit:

DVD & image credit: BBC

Tagged in: , , , , , ,
  • Geoff Tasker

    No mention here that this is the most viewed Doctor Who serial to date, due to the ITV strike, with 16m+ tuning in.

    Also, fact fans, this was the serial Julia Gardner most wanted the 2005 revival to build it’s tone around, albeit with a better structure and the drama moving a much faster (tying in with Neela’s comments above).

    Glover also plays a rather excellent villain on audio too – look up The Strange Case of Springheel’d Jack; he’s brilliant in that. No-one brings that sort of evil gravitas you need in SF or Fantasy like Glover does!

  • Runcible the Fatuous

    This has got to be my favourite serial of all time.
    And what on earth’s wrong with the music? It’s unusually tuneful for classic Who.

Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter