City of Death

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105 – City of Death
Doctor Who serial
Directed byMichael Hayes
Written by"David Agnew" (pseudonym for David Fisher, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams)
Script editorDouglas Adams
Produced byGraham Williams
Executive producer(s)None
Music byDudley Simpson
Production code5H
SeriesSeason 17
Running time4 episodes, 25 minutes each
First broadcast29 September 1979 (1979-09-29)
Last broadcast20 October 1979 (1979-10-20)
← Preceded by
Destiny of the Daleks
Followed by →
The Creature from the Pit
List of Doctor Who episodes (1963–1989)

City of Death is the second serial of the seventeenth season of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which depicts the adventures of a time-travelling humanoid alien known as the Doctor. It was produced by the BBC and first broadcast in four weekly parts between 29 September 1979 and 20 October 1979 on BBC1. The serial was written by "David Agnew" – a pseudonym for David Fisher, Douglas Adams, and Graham Williams – and directed by Michael Hayes.

City of Death features the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion Romana (Lalla Ward). Set mainly in Paris in 1979, the plot concerns a scheme by Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover), in reality an alien called Scaroth, to steal the Mona Lisa to finance experiments in time travel in the hope of averting the accident that killed the remainder of his race four hundred million years previously, which began the existence of life on the planet as well.

The serial's original storyline was devised by Fisher but was heavily re-written by script editor Adams, aided by producer Williams. It was the first Doctor Who serial to film on location outside of the United Kingdom; the production team worked in Paris during April and May 1979; studio work was completed in June.

Broadcast during a strike that took ITV (the BBC's rival) off the air, City of Death scored high ratings. The fourth episode was watched by over sixteen million viewers, the highest UK television audience ever attained by an episode of Doctor Who. Although, in retrospect, it has been regarded as one of the best serials from Doctor Who's classic run, the initial reception was not as positive, with criticism of the humorous tone.[1]


While in Paris, the Doctor and Romana sense a time distortion. They observe the Countess Scarlioni using an alien device to scan the security systems housing Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The pair meet Inspector Duggan, who suspects the Countess to be involved in an ongoing art theft scheme with her husband, Count Scarlioni. Duggan joins the Doctor and Romana in investigating the Scarlioni mansion. There, they find equipment used by Dr. Kerensky to experiment in time, the source of the time distortions, as well as six exact copies of the Mona Lisa. The Doctor instructs Romana and Duggan to continue investigating while he returns to the TARDIS to visit Leonardo, a good friend of his. After the Doctor leaves, the Count returns after successfully stealing the Mona Lisa and captures Romana and Duggan. Learning that Romana is familiar with time, he kills Dr. Kerensky and forces Romana to continue the tests.

In the past, the Doctor arrives at Leonardo's home but is captured by Captain Tancredi, who is Count Scarlioni. Tancredi reveals he is really Scaroth, a member of the Jagaroth race. They had arrived on Earth 400 million years ago, but due to an explosion in their craft, all of the others died and his own body was fragmented across time. Collectively, the fragments of Scaroth have manipulated humanity so that by the 20th century, they will have technology that will enable him to go back in time to stop the explosion. Tancredi is currently employing Leonardo to create copies of the Mona Lisa in order to finance Scarlioni's work. After Tancredi leaves, the Doctor knocks out his captor, marks the blank canvases with a felt-tip pen with the phrase, "This is a fake", and leaves a message to Leonardo to paint over his writing before returning to the present.

The Doctor learns Scaroth threatens to destroy Paris if Romana does not continue the work. He tries to gain the Countess' help by showing the Count's true form, but he kills her. Romana completes the work and Scaroth uses it to travel to the past. The Doctor ushers Romana and Duggan into the TARDIS, fearing that the ship's explosion was the spark that started the development of life on Earth, and if Scaroth should prevent it, humanity would not exist. They arrive in time for Duggan to knock Scaroth out before he can reach the ship. Scaroth returns to present Earth, where he is discovered in his alien form by his bodyguard Hermann, and they get into a fight which damages the equipment and sets the mansion on fire. Hermann escapes, but Scaroth burns to death. By the time the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan arrive, the original Mona Lisa and 5 of the 6 copies have been burned in the fire, but the last copy remains safe. Duggan argues that they've lost an invaluable piece of art, but the Doctor assures him that the copy, still done by Leonardo's hand, will go unnoticed, and that art is worthless if its monetary value is all that matters. The Doctor and Romana say goodbye to Duggan at the Eiffel Tower.


Conception and writing[edit]

The episode was co-written by Douglas Adams.

Writer David Fisher had contributed two scripts to Doctor Who's sixteenth season – The Stones of Blood and The Androids of Tara – and was asked by producer Graham Williams for further story ideas. Fisher submitted two proposals; the first of these became The Creature from the Pit while the other, The Gamble with Time, concerned a plot to rig the casinos in Las Vegas to finance time travel experiments.[2] Williams asked Fisher to rework The Gamble With Time as a spoof of Bulldog Drummond, a fictional adventurer from the 1920s.[2] Fisher's draft script centered around Scarlioni, a member of the Sephiroth race, who had accidentally become fractured in time. The script was mainly set in the year 1928 with the Doctor and Romana, aided by Drummond-esque detective "Pug" Farquharson, on the trail of the stolen Mona Lisa, pursuing Scarlioni from Paris to Monte Carlo where his partner, the Baroness Heidi, is using time travel technology to cheat at roulette at the casino to fund Scarlioni's time travel experiments. Other settings included Paris in 1979, Leonardo da Vinci's studio in the year 1508, and prehistoric Earth.[3] At this point, production unit manager John Nathan-Turner had worked out that the production team could afford to film on location in Paris with a stripped-down crew.[4] This necessitated a rewrite to Fisher's scripts to move the action to Paris and, for cost reasons, to drop the 1920s setting.[4] The Doctor's robotic dog companion K9 also had to be removed from the script as the cost of bringing the robot dog and his operators to Paris was prohibitive.[5]

However, Fisher was going through a divorce, and his personal situation meant that he was unable to perform the rewrites.[3] This meant that script editor Douglas Adams, aided by Graham Williams, had to perform a complete rewrite of the story over the course of a weekend.[6] According to Adams, Graham Williams "took me back to his place, locked me in his study and hosed me down with whisky and black coffee for a few days, and there was the script".[7] The revised script, now titled The Curse of the Sephiroth, was credited to "David Agnew", a standard pseudonym used by the BBC and which had been previously used on Doctor Who for the season fifteen serial The Invasion of Time.[8] The serial was subsequently retitled City of Death on 8 May 1979.[9] Adams would later reuse elements of City of Death, along with the unfinished Doctor Who serial Shada (1979; 2003), in his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987).[10]

In Part One, Lalla Ward as Romana makes a throwaway reference to a great art gallery called the Braxiatel Collection; the Virgin New Adventures novel series would later expand on this, introducing the character Irving Braxiatel, a Time Lord.[11] Braxiatel also appears in the Bernice Summerfield series of novels and audio dramas and in the Gallifrey series of audio dramas which starred Ward as Romana.[11]


City of Death features a cameo by comedian and actor John Cleese.

Julian Glover was a well-established character actor who had previously appeared as Richard the Lionheart in The Crusade (1965). He was reluctant to don the Jagaroth mask as he felt the mask would impede his performance. As a result, he is doubled by Richard Sheekey in those scenes.[12] Tom Chadbon was cast as Duggan on account of his resemblance to the Franco-Belgian comics hero Tintin.[13] Peter Halliday had previously appeared in several Doctor Who serials including The Invasion and Doctor Who and the Silurians.[14]

Douglas Adams knew John Cleese and Eleanor Bron through his connections with Monty Python and the Footlights.[15] On learning that both would be working in BBC Television Centre on the day the art gallery scenes were to be recorded, he persuaded them to make a cameo appearance in a short scene written for "two Englishmen".[15][16] Cleese and Bron agreed on the condition that there be no pre-publicity regarding their appearance; Cleese wanted them to be credited as "Helen Swanetsky" and "Kim Bread" but the BBC declined.[17] Cleese liked the name "Kim Bread" and used it in later projects.[18] During recording, Cleese and Baker also recorded two short comedy skits for the BBC Christmas tape.[17]


City of Death director Michael Hayes had previously directed The Androids of Tara (1978) and The Armageddon Factor (1979).[19] He also had experience filming in Paris, having worked there on adaptations of Maigret (1960–63) and other Georges Simenon stories for the BBC.[13] Location filming took place in Paris between 30 April 1979 and 3 May 1979.[4] It proved a difficult shoot as the dates coincided with the May Day holiday period, which meant that many of the locations chosen for filming were closed, necessitating considerable improvisation on the part of the cast and crew.[4] Model filming was conducted at Bray Studios between 8 May 1979 and 10 May 1979.[20] These concentrated on the shots of the Jagaroth spacecraft taking off from the prehistoric Earth and were overseen by Ian Scoones, a veteran of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds.[20] Following rehearsals, production moved to BBC Television Centre where the remaining scenes were recorded in two blocks; the first between 21 May 1979 and 22 May 1979 and second between 3 June 1979 and 5 June 1979.[21]

Tom Baker found filming in Paris to be very different from what he was used to in the UK where crowds would gather to watch the filming and meet the stars. Doctor Who was not shown in France at the time and so the cast and crew were largely ignored.[12] Lalla Ward found City of Death the most challenging Doctor Who serial she worked on but was pleased with the outcome, saying, "We had to film loads of scenes in the rain and cold... there was no glamour in it at all... it was different from the ordinary stories too and I like the finished result".[22] Seeing her costumes as an important part in creating the role of Romana, Ward clashed with costume designer Doreen James, rejecting the silver catsuit James had designed for her for the story.[23] Ward came up with the idea for the schoolgirl costume she wore in conjunction with Baker, recalling, "I thought it would be fun to wear something that little girls probably hated wearing because it might cheer them up... I didn't bank on the fact that I'd also get loads of letters from their fathers saying 'Cool School uniform!'".[24]

Broadcast and reception[edit]

EpisodeTitleRun timeOriginal air dateUK viewers
(millions) [25]
1"Part One"24:2529 September 1979 (1979-09-29)12.4
2"Part Two"24:336 October 1979 (1979-10-06)14.1
3"Part Three"25:2513 October 1979 (1979-10-13)15.4
4"Part Four"25:0820 October 1979 (1979-10-20)16.1

City of Death was broadcast on BBC1 over four consecutive Saturdays beginning on 29 September 1979.[26] At this time, industrial action had blacked out rival broadcaster ITV and as a result, the serial scored very high ratings, averaging 14.5 million viewers over the four episodes; 16.1 million watched the fourth episode, the largest audience ever recorded for an episode of Doctor Who.[26] The story was repeated on BBC1 across four consecutive evenings from Tuesday to Friday, 12 – 15 August 1980, achieving viewing figures of 6.3, 5.5, 5.6 and 5.9 million viewers respectively.[27]

Audience appreciation ratings for the first two parts of City of Death were a respectable score of 64%.[26] Radio Times published two letters from viewers regarding City of Death. Les Rogers of Hastings praised the serial's cast and the location filming; less impressed, however, was Paul R. Maskew of Exeter who felt the show was being played for laughs.[26] Responding to similar criticisms from viewers, Douglas Adams wrote, "If the programme didn't move and take a few risks then it would have died of boredom years ago".[28] Several viewers wrote to point out the discrepancy between the start of life on Earth of 4,000 million years ago and the date given in City of Death of 400 million years ago. Graham Williams replied, "The good Doctor makes the odd mistake or two but I think an error of 3,600 million years is pushing it! His next edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica will provide an erratum".[28] Another viewer wrote that the atmosphere of the primordial Earth would have been poisonous to the Doctor and his companions; Douglas Adams responded to this criticism, citing artistic licence.[28]

City of Death was voted seventh in a 1998 poll of the readers of Doctor Who Magazine to find the best Doctor Who story; the magazine commented that it "represented the height of Doctor Who as popular light entertainment for all the family".[29] In 2009, Doctor Who Magazine readers voted it in eighth place.[30] In a more recent 2014 poll, the magazine's readers voted it fifth best Doctor Who story of all time.[31] A 2008 article in The Daily Telegraph named City of Death one of the ten greatest episodes of Doctor Who.[32] John Condor, writing in the fanzine DWB in 1991, hailed the story as "the best blend of kitsch, surrealism, fantasy, and comedy-drama seen in our favourite Time Lord's annals".[33] Vanessa Bishop, reviewing the serial's DVD release, described it as "imaginatively written, well-performed and beautifully made, City of Death is a story where pretty much everything works".[34] Reacting to the serial, as part of Doctor Who Magazine's ongoing "Time Team" feature, Jacqueline Rayner said "you're suddenly, almost violently, made aware this is happening in our world... with people just getting on with their business and two Time Lords walking through it. I don't think I've ever experienced that with Doctor Who up till now... it's the tiny touches of mundanity amid the fantastical that lift the story even higher".[35] Charlie Jane Anders and Javier Grillo-Marxuach of io9 included it on their list of "10 TV Episodes that Changed Television", citing "the sharp dialogue and clever use of time travel [that] prefigure everything Steven Moffat has done with the series in recent years."[36] The A.V. Club reviewer Christopher Bahn described City of Death as the "gem" of the seventeenth season, finding Adams' subtle comedy script "easily the funniest and most quotable the series ever achieved". While he praised Scarlioni's costume and the mask, he felt that more could have been done with using Paris as a filming location.[14]

However, Doctor Who fandom's initial response was not so positive; John Peel, writing in the fanzine TARDIS in 1979, decried it as "total farce... I simply couldn't believe this was Doctor Who... the continual buffoonery is getting on my nerves".[33] A similar view was held by Gary Russell who, reviewing the VHS release in 1991, said, "City of Death, like most Douglas Adams material, is overrated and misses the mark for me, falling between the stools of good pastiche and bad parody and making fairly unsatisfactory viewing".[37] Vanessa Bishop countered that it was "the Doctor Who story it's alright to laugh at... we must now accept that City of Death is funny — because if we didn't the Crackerjack-style sleuths, scientists and all... would leave it knocking about near the bottom of all the Doctor Who story ranking polls"[38] and, responding to the criticisms about the levels of comedy, that "it's precisely these things that make it seem so special".[34] Reviewing the serial in 2011, Patrick Mulkern of Radio Times awarded it three stars out of five, stating he disliked the smug tone to the humour and Ward's "snooty" portrayal of Romana. Despite this, he noted that the serial had good production values and direction, as well as a few jokes that he enjoyed.[39]

Commercial releases[edit]

In print[edit]

Doctor Who – City of Death
AuthorJames Goss
SeriesDoctor Who novelisations
PublisherBBC Books
Publication date
21 May 2015

City of Death is one of five Doctor Who serials from the series' original run (1963–1989) not to have been novelised by Target Books; the others are The Pirate Planet, Shada, Resurrection of the Daleks, and Revelation of the Daleks. Target approached Douglas Adams to write a novelisation, offering their standard advance of £600; Adams replied, "I don't want to be embarrassing but I do have a tendency to be a best-selling author".[40] Target, concerned that their regular authors would seek better terms, refused to increase I their offer.[40] Several years later, Target editor Nigel Robinson offered an advance of £4,000 – double what was the standard advance at the time – but Adams again declined.[41] Adams was unwilling to allow another author to write the novelisation.[41] However, after Adams' death his estate allowed Gareth Roberts to write an adaptation of the unfinished serial Shada, which was published by BBC Books in 2012. In 2013, Roberts announced that he was working on a novelisation of City of Death,[42][43] to be published on 21 May 2015.[44] Roberts later announced that James Goss was working on the book instead.[45][46] An abridged version was published as part of the Target Collection 5 April 2018.[47]

Home media[edit]

City of Death was released on VHS in April 1991 with a cover by Andrew Skilleter.[26] It was re-issued in 2001.[48] A DVD was released in 2005 with special features including commentary by actors Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon, as well as director Michael Hayes, and the behind-the-scenes documentary "Paris in the Springtime".[49] It was also released as part of the Doctor Who DVD Files in Issue 37 on 2 June 2010. On 1 January 2013, AudioGO released a two-hour soundtrack of the serial, narrated by Lalla Ward.[50] A vinyl release of the soundtrack was released in 2018 exclusively for Record Store Day.[51] Ian Scoones' storyboards for City of Death's special effects sequences were published in Peter Haining's book Doctor Who – 25 Glorious Years in 1988,[52] and a Scaroth figure was released by Harlequin Miniatures in 1999.[53]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "BBC – Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide – City of Death – Details". BBC. Archived from the original on 8 June 2012.
  2. ^ a b Pixley, Archive Feature. City of Death, p. 26
  3. ^ a b Strading & Morris, Paris in the Springtime.
  4. ^ a b c d Pixley, Archive Feature. City of Death, p. 27
  5. ^ Howe et al., The Handbook, p. 471.
  6. ^ "City of Death at 40: Revisiting Doctor Who's most-watched story". 26 September 2019.
  7. ^ Gaiman, Don't Panic, p. 49.
  8. ^ Barnes, The Fact of Fiction. City of Death, p. 16-17.
  9. ^ Pixley, Archive Extra. City of Death, p. 38.
  10. ^ Simpson, Hitchhiker, p. 232.
  11. ^ a b Barnes, The Fact of Fiction. City of Death.
  12. ^ a b Wiggins, Production Notes, Part One.
  13. ^ a b Hayes et al., City of Death DVD Commentary, Part One
  14. ^ a b Bahn, Christopher (8 January 2012). "City of Death". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 31 July 2012.
  15. ^ a b Wiggins, Production Notes, Part Four.
  16. ^ Pixley, Archive Feature. City of Death, p. 29
  17. ^ a b Pixley, Archive Extra. City of Death, p. 38-39.
  18. ^ "BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - City of Death - Details".
  19. ^ Lofficier, Programme Guide, p. 99
  20. ^ a b Pixley, Archive Feature. City of Death, p. 28
  21. ^ Pixley, Archive Feature. City of Death, p. 28-29
  22. ^ Marson, Richard (May 1984). "Lalla Ward Interview". Doctor Who Magazine (88): 20–24. ISSN 0957-9818.
  23. ^ Wiggins, Production Notes, Part Two.
  24. ^ Cook, Benjamin (3 March 2004). "Across the Universe...". Doctor Who Magazine (340): 14–19. ISSN 0957-9818.
  25. ^ "Ratings Guide". Doctor Who News. Retrieved 28 May 2017.
  26. ^ a b c d e Pixley, Archive Feature. City of Death, p. 30
  27. ^ "Doctor Who Guide: broadcasting for City of Death". Doctor Who Guide.
  28. ^ a b c Wiggins, Production Notes, Part Three.
  29. ^ Cornell, Paul (3 June 1998). "The DWM Awards: City of Death". Doctor Who Magazine (265): 14–15. ISSN 0957-9818.
  30. ^ Haines, Lester (17 September 2009). "Doctor Who fans name best episode ever". The Register. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
  31. ^ "The Top 10 Doctor Who stories of all time". Doctor Who Magazine. 21 June 2014. Archived from the original on 6 December 2019. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  32. ^ "The 10 greatest episodes of Doctor Who ever". The Daily Telegraph. 2 July 2008. Retrieved 14 October 2012.
  33. ^ a b Howe & Walker, The Television Companion, p, 478.
  34. ^ a b Bishop, Vanessa (7 December 2005). "Off The Shelf". Doctor Who Magazine (363): 60–61. ISSN 0957-9818.
  35. ^ Pritchard, Michael (1 February 2005). "The Time Team". Doctor Who Magazine (365): 55–57. ISSN 0957-9818.
  36. ^ Anders, Charlie Jane (29 May 2012). "10 TV Episodes that Changed Television". io9. Retrieved 24 June 2012.
  37. ^ Russell, Gary (15 May 1991). "Off The Shelf". Doctor Who Magazine (173): 18–19. ISSN 0957-9818.
  38. ^ Bishop, Vanessa (30 May 2001). "The DWM Review". Doctor Who Magazine (304): 45. ISSN 0957-9818.
  39. ^ Mulkern, Patrick (14 February 2011). "Doctor Who: City of Death". Radio Times. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
  40. ^ a b Simpson, Hitchhiker, p. 233
  41. ^ a b Howe, David J. (2007). "Appendix C: Off Target". The Target Book: The History of the Target Doctor Who Books. Tim Neal. London: Telos. p. 150. ISBN 978-1-84583-023-6.
  42. ^ Roberts, Gareth (2 October 2013). "Twitter: OldRoberts953". Twitter. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  43. ^ "Gareth Roberts is Novelising "City of Death"". SFX. 7 October 2013. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  44. ^ Doctor Who: City of Death: Douglas Adams, James Goss: Books. ASIN 1849906750.
  45. ^ "Gareth Roberts on Twitter: "Bit of news: the amazingly talented @gossjam is now doing the book of City of Death. It'll be fantastic!"". Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  46. ^ "Doctor Who News: Gareth Roberts no longer writing City of Death book". The Doctor Who News Page. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  47. ^ "Doctor Who: City of Death (Target Collection) by James Goss". Archived from the original on 13 November 2017. Retrieved 12 November 2017.
  48. ^ Barnes, The Fact of Fiction. City of Death, p. 23.
  49. ^ Roberts, Steve; Jonathan Wood; Mark Ayres (8 August 2005). "City of Death". Doctor Who Restoration Team. Archived from the original on 6 August 2007. Retrieved 23 May 2007.
  50. ^ "Doctor Who: City of Death (4th Doctor TV Soundtrack)". AudioGO. Archived from the original on 19 February 2013. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
  51. ^ Marcus (21 April 2018). "Vinyl Releases for Record Store Day". Doctor Who News Page. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  52. ^ Haining, Peter (1988). "Designs on Doctor Who". Doctor Who: 25 Glorious Years. London: W. H. Allen. pp. . ISBN 1-85227-021-7.
  53. ^ Pixley, Archive Extra. City of Death, p. 39.


External links[edit]

Fan novelisation[edit]