DOCTOR WHO - CITY OF DEATH
Region 2 (UK) Edition (also Region 4)
Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Julian Glover, Tom Chadbon
By 1979, when this four-part story was
made, Tom Baker was nearing the end of his tenure as the Doctor. He'd made
more episodes than Patrick Troughton, precisely as many episodes as Jon
Pertwee, and was a couple of stories away from passing William Hartnell as
the most prolific actor to play the role. The show, and Baker in
particular, had been embraced by a new generation of fans; merchandising was
plentiful, thanks in no small part to a tin dog named K9; and ITV was on strike.
It's not surprisingly, then, that the show was
racking up record viewing figures.
Some would argue, though, that Doctor
Who was past its
creative peak. Spiralling inflation and budget cuts were taking
their toll, and the show had been cowed by Mary Whitehouse's bruising
attacks on it's gothic violence.
Most fans agree that City of Death
is one of the best Doctor Who stories of the 1970s. It owes the
lion's share of its reputation to its its author, a promising young chap
Adams. You may have heard of him.
City of Death had a troubled
production path. It had mutated from a complex script called A Gamble With Time,
written by David Fisher. It was decided that the story needed a
substantial re-write to bring it within Doctor Who's reach, but Fisher wasn't available.
The task fell to
Adams, who would have to re-shape the story in a matter of days.
The resulting story is about an alien
creature, Scaroth, who is stranded on Earth when his space-ship explodes,
in the Palaeozoic era. The explosion splinters his being, scattering his
persona through time. For centuries his various incarnations have been using his
advanced scientific knowledge to
manipulate mankind's evolution, so that he'll eventually be able to build a device to
reconstitute himself, and finally escape. He funds this work by acquiring
artwork and books, and selling them hundreds of years later when they have
become valuable antiques. In Paris, in 1979, Scaroth is masquerading as
Count Scarlioni, and his experiments in temporal manipulation have begun to create
fractures in time, which brings his activities to the attention of the
Doctor, who is visiting Paris with his Time Lord assistant, Romana.
Even after Adams's re-write, City of Death is
a very ambitious story, and
simply bursting with his formidable talent. It has a strong
plot, robust production values (it's enhanced enormously by
some very cost-effective filming in a number of Paris locations), and
sound direction, by third-time Doctor Who helmsman Michael Hayes.
Tom Baker is in fine fettle as the Doctor,
enjoying sparkling rapport with his assistant, Romana, played by the
charming Lalla Ward. The story also boasts a strong guest cast, led by
suave Royal Shakespeare Company actor Julian Glover, a mere two years away
from starring as the villain in the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only.
The story also features Catherine Schell, fresh from her year as a
shape-shifting alien on Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999, and
experienced character actor Tom Chadbon, who had recently appeared in the
BBC's science-fiction space opera Blake's 7.
Within eighteen months Doctor Who's
fortunes had changed significantly. Adams had moved on, finding fame and
wealth beyond the dreams of analysts with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the
Galaxy; a new producer had revitalised the show, with the help of a
budget increase; and Tom Baker had passed the reins to Peter Davison. An
era was over, and City of Death was one of its brightest jewels.
Because this is something of a special
release, (and, presumably, because the series is enjoying its highest
profile ever, and because it will be the last Doctor Who DVD
released before Christmas), 2 Entertain and BBC Worldwide have allowed
City of Death the luxury of a two-disc edition. This was a very smart
Normally a four-part Doctor Who story is
released on a single disc, with about an hour's worth of bonus material,
(to ensure the picture quality doesn't suffer too much). Releasing this
story on two discs gives the episodes plenty of room, and allows for a
whole disc of bonus material.
The story was originally recorded on 2" PAL
quad videotape, a format that was phased out a couple of years later. The
master tapes include a mixture of material shot on location (on 16mm film) and
material shot in the studio (on videotape), as was usual for the BBC in those days. This practice usually resulted in very
high-quality well-lit studio footage, and slightly murky, often flickery, and
usually dirt-speckled exterior shots.
Happily, Doctor Who has a loyal
group of technical experts dedicated to improving the creaky old master
tapes (and films), the
Doctor Who Restoration Team. They've given the story a
wash-and-brush-up, and the result is a story that undoubtedly looks better
now than it would have in 1979. This is especially noticeable with the
filmed inserts. A detailed article about how this was
achieved can be found
Generally the image quality on the new disc
is remarkably good, especially considering the series was made more than
quarter of a century ago. Detail, colour balance and contrast for the
studio scenes are all typically excellent. The film sequences are stable, have naturalistic
colour, and are practically free of signs of wear and tear (and
dirt!) There are a couple of sticky patches, though. Some of the darker studio
scenes (the Count imprisons the Doctor, Romana and Duggan in a gloomy
cellar at one point) struggle a little; and there are signs of a video
fault called "banding"
(horizontal bands of differing intensity and noise levels) in the Paleozoic
Earth scenes at the end of the story, but they were probably there when
the series was recorded, and it would have been very difficult to fix
them (just about anything is fixable, if you throw enough money and
resources at it). Under normal viewing conditions, no-one has any right to
The bitrate isn't easily determined (the
usual software tools aren't giving an accurate average). It can be
estimated by on-the-fly measurement, though: it hovers around the 8.8-9.0Mb/sec
region, and it shows. On a reasonably-sized screen most viewers should be
able to see the difference that a high bitrate can make. Comparing the
well-lit studio scenes of City of Death to
similar recent discs, of similar provenance, like the PAL episodes of
Claws of Axos, or Horror of Fang Rock, the difference is
The audio is standard BBC mono (at 192kbps), which is to
say that it's generally fine. This too, has been expertly tweaked, and
there are certainly no significant flaws to report.
The four episodes have English subtitles.
Sadly there are no subtitles on the accompanying commentary track, because
of a recent money-saving policy change made by 2 Entertain. There are
subtitles on the bonus materials on the second disc.
If you've seen any of the BBC's classic-era
Doctor Who discs you'll know what to expect from the menus. They're
all very similar. It's a rather ugly template, and now very dated, but
There are two
bonus features on the first disc: the Production Notes subtitles, and an
audio commentary track.
track is by the story's director, Michael Hayes, and two of its guest
stars, Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon. No doubt some people will be
slightly disappointed that neither Tom Baker nor Lalla Ward are
participating. Well, Tom Baker - who I adore - remembers very little
that's specific to any particular story, and is best used sparingly. As some of you may know, Tom
married Lalla about a year after this story was transmitted. The marriage
lasted less than two years, and a reunion for a commentary track was
always unlikely, (let alone for one where the chemistry between the two
leads is almost tangible!)
The main benefit
of choosing people who only worked on one or two Doctor Who stories is
that they tend to remember things! If you worked for a company for several
years, you're unlikely to remember a couple of specific weeks, if they
were much the same as all the others. Hayes, Chadbon and Glover prove to
be a good combination, prompting each other's memories. It's not one of
the best commentaries, but it's quite amiable.
Notes subtitle stream, written by the estimable Dr Martin Wiggins,
provides some well-researched and learned trivia, presenting some hard
facts to compensate for the commentary track participant's hazy memories.
These play throughout the entire story, with barely a hesitation.
The remainder of the
bonus material is all on the second disc (a DVD-5: 2 Entertain's
largess doesn't quite stretch to a second dual-layer disc!)
The key bonus
feature is a superb forty-five minute documentary, titled Paris In The
Springtime, produced by Ed Stradling. It tells the story of City of
Death, from the original script (which is amusingly re-told in synopsis
form, with the help of some illustrations by Jason Lythgoe-Hay), to
Adams' re-writes, to the location filming in Paris, to the studio filming
back at Television Centre.
It features interviews with many of the
story's production staff, (notably absent is the show's producer at the time, Graham Williams,
who died in
tragic circumstances in 1990). The documentary also includes footage from two
interviews with Douglas Adams, which cover his time on Doctor Who in general,
and his work on City of Death in particular, in some detail. Other contributors
include Catherine Schell (interviewed in France), former script editor
Anthony Read, A Gamble With Time writer David Fisher, and Pennant Roberts,
who directed Adams' earlier contribution to the series, 1978's The
Pirate Planet. Two writers from the Christopher Eccleston series of
Doctor Who also pay tribute to Adams' talents, Steven Moffat and Rob
Shearman. The documentary has a witty script (by experienced Doctor Who
book author Jonathan Morris), which is expertly delivered by Toby Longworth (who has appeared in numerous Big Finish audio plays). It's a
very polished production, well up to broadcast standard.
is a twenty-minute compilation of material salvaged from four hours' worth
of raw studio feed footage, rescued from an archaic domestic video recording
format. The black and white footage has been painstakingly restored. There are flaws, and they're quite
disruptive by normal standards, but the material is fascinating, and such
distractions are easily ignored, under the circumstances. The footage provides a priceless glimpse
into the recording process, and includes many moments that will thrill
Doctor Who fans. Only a handful of recordings of this type are known
to survive. Some of them have already been included on other Doctor Who
discs (on The Talons of Weng-Chiang, for example), but this is
by far the most interesting. Whatever stalwart efforts and costs were
expended to rescue this footage were well worthwhile.
There are two
short items of visual effects unit footage presented on the disc:
Prehistoric Landscapes (which shows Ian Scoones' excellent scale model
work for the primeval Earth spaceship explosion sequence), and Chicken Wrangler
(which shows Scoones struggling with various chicks and chickens, for a
sequence where an egg is aged in a time bubble). Both of these were
sourced from 35mm off-cuts discarded by the BBC, and rescued by fans. The
quality is excellent, especially considering that they've passed through
various hands over the years. In both cases the mute film has been paired
with appropriate sound effects or music, to good effect. Both run under
three minutes, and don't overstay their welcome.
A Photo Gallery
groups together dozens of photo's from various sources, some of them
quite rare, and
presents them, slideshow-style to sound effects from the story. There are
no huge surprises, but it's a nice feature, nevertheless, and helps to
make the disc a definitive archive for the story in question.
Blatchford is a thirteen-minute spoof from the same team that produced
the Oh Mummy! skit on the Pyramids of Mars DVD. It recounts
the day-to-day life of Sardoth, the second-to-last of the Jagaroth. It's
safe to say that if you didn't like Oh Mummy!, you'll hate Eye
on Blatchford. There are some wonderful sequences (chiefly one
featuring the delightfully barmy Gabriel Woolf (Sutekh in Pyramids of
Mars) as a dotty professor), but these are countered by others that
would shame a sixth form video. The idea behind the skit is stretched
somewhat, and the production values are very patchy (some elements are
very impressive, others a bit embarrassing). Still, it's a bit of fun, and
even if you only watch it once, you should get a few laughs out of it (you
might get a few more if you keep your finger poised above the pause
button, to catch some fleeting text gags). I hope director Mark Frost and
producer Matt West and
their team contribute to other Doctor Who discs, but will perhaps
acknowledge that a firmer editorial hand may benefit their work.
The disc also
contains a PDF file, offering scans of the 1980 World & Whitman Doctor
Who annual. The scans are of very
high quality (it's a shame you can't say the same about the original
artwork!) It's a very simple bonus feature, but it's been perfectly
There are several
unadvertised Easter Eggs on the disc. To read about them, click and drag your mouse
over the following paragraphs...
There are (at
least) four Easter Eggs.
The first appears
at the very end of the final episode: it's a recording of the original BBC
continuity announcement for the next story, The Creature From The Pit.
The others can be
found on the second disc, on the main menu page.
The first is a
spoof video instruction manual from the Jagaroth Battlecruiser Inc
company. This is another production from the Eye on Blatchford
team, and takes advantage of the CGI Jagaroth ship model created for that
The second is a
six-minute interview with Douglas Adams, who recounts an amusing anecdote
about a drunken trip to Paris that Douglas made with another Doctor Who
director, Ken Grieve ("one of the world's most stupendous and marvellous
The third is
Good Woolf Bad Woolf, a two-minute outtake from Eye on Blatchford
featuring the great Gabriel Woolf.
Finally, there's a
classic gag taken from one of the legendary in-house BBC Christmas Tape
compilations, featuring Tom Baker and John Cleese on City of Death's
Louvre set: "Tom, sorry to bother you. Sign this for my little godson,
would you? Nice little kid, he's blind..."
City of Death is one of the best
Doctor Who stories, from any period of the show's long history.
The DVD boasts an almost perfect
presentation of the four episodes. The marvellous package of bonus
material offers something for everyone, from the most casual fan, to the
most dedicated. The Paris In The
Springtime documentary is highly impressive, and the Paris, W12
footage the disc's piece de resistance. The commentary and Production
Subtitles are perfectly complementary, and provide excellent value for money. The
other bits and pieces are the icing on the cake.
City of Death is another excellent
DVD from the Doctor Who Restoration Team, 2 Entertain and BBC Worldwide!