Classic Doctor Who: “City of Death” (1979)

After I was completely captivated and enchanted by the new Doctor Who, it seemed only logical to go back and catch some episodes of the original series to see how good they still are. I have very mixed memories of the series, which I probably last watched around 20 years ago. I remember really enjoying the work of Tom Baker and especially Peter Davison. I remember having a crush on Davison’s mouthy companion Tegan, and I vaguely remember assorted scenes from assorted episodes that brought me great joy. I also remember some very cheesy special effects courtesy of the penny-pinching BBC, and some very daft plotlines. I also have fond memories of reading about the long and interesting history of the program, and I’m fond of looking back at something I liked in high school as being a sort of dated dcument.
 
So I decided to try out "City of Death." This episode has a reputation as one of the finest Baker episodes, and is also known as the episode where Monty Python‘s John Cleese appears. The reputation is right. "City of Death" is prime Who, a clear reminder of why I found the series so enchanting.
 
The plot of this episode is secondary to the terrific chemisty and character interaction between Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as his companion Romana. Unlike nearly every companion, Romana was clearly the equal of the Doctor. The Doctor is a Time Lord, Romana a Time Lady, and she was clearly intended to be the Doctor’s equal in every way. In this episode, the chemistry between the two actors playing the two characters is palpable. I don’t know if it’s the story’s Paris setting that brought romance to the air, or that Baker’s and Ward’s reportedly tempestuous relationship was at a high point when the episode was filmed, but this episode positively crackles with high energy and chemikstry between these main characters. Their repartee is quick and wonderful, their rapport effortless. It’s no surprise that Baker and Ward later married; in this story, they seem to be completely enchanted with each other.
 
They’re aided by a terrific script co-written by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. Adams was on staff of Doctor Who as he wrote the Hitchhiker’s  radio plays; Adams is predictibly outstanding at bringing his light and humorous writing style to the story. The Doctor is so insoucient and charming with the villains of the story that he’s nearly irresistable. Baker seems to float above the plot while also being true to it. The Doctor acts as if he’s above it all because he is above it all. He’s been through so many adventures similar to this one, defeated so many other evil foes worse than these villains, that he knows he will be able to defeat the villain without too much trouble. It makes Baker’s Doctor irresistable and charismatic, a truly formidible foe.
 
The only weak point is that, as I alluded to, the main plot of the episode is somewhat ordinary. There is a strange being scattered across time in differnet bodies, and they all want to reunite to destroy humanity. More or less, that’s the plot. But main actors Julian Glover and Catherine Schell are fine in their roles, and Tom Chadbon as the Doctor and Romana’s brutish ally Duggan is great as well.
 
Now I’ve done it. I’ve gotten hooked on the classic old stuff. Now I have to come back for more.
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