If there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t think that “City of Death” is one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, then naturally, that little contrarian would be sitting on the sofa with us, complaining that Julian Glover is too evil a villain, and that his alien other-self is too creepy and scary. I’ve shown several people this story over the years. Trust our seven year-old to be the first and certainly the only one to grumble about it being creepy.
Never mind him. “City of Death” is a magically witty, silly, and clever story with hilarious characters and some of the most consistently funny dialogue in the history of the program. The serial has an unusual origin. It started life as “The Gamble With Time,” a four-parter written by David Fisher and set in Monte Carlo, where the Doctor and Romana teamed up with a detective meant to be a pastiche of Bulldog Drummond to investigate a mysterious count using alien technology to manipulate casinos. At the eleventh hour, with most of the serial actually cast and rehearsals set to begin, “Gamble” was finally abandoned, in part probably because nobody in 1979 still cared about Bulldog Drummond, and, over four frantic days, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams rebuilt it into “City of Death.” They rushed off to France to film everybody jogging around Paris, and everything just clicked completely.
The rest is history. Accompanied by a publicity blitz surrounding Doctor Who‘s first overseas filming, “City of Death” hit the hugest ratings in the program’s history. In part that’s because ITV was actually on strike for the first three Saturdays this aired, but part four still had an audience of more than 16 million people. It’s one of the most amazingly quotable Who stories, although our son was baffled why I burst out laughing when the Doctor tells the countess “Well, you’re a beautiful woman, probably.”
Joining Julian Glover for this wonderful romp, there’s David Graham – still the voice of Parker from Thunderbirds – along with Catherine Schell, Tom Chadbon, and Peter Halliday in a small role. You’ve got seven Mona Lisas, timeslips, Louis XV chairs, alien technology, running through Paris, and a detective who’s very anxious to “thump” anybody. Even if this was creepy and scary, which it most certainly is not, I can’t imagine not loving this completely. Ah, well, our son does tend to enjoy the second half of Who adventures more than the first, so we’ll see what tomorrow night brings!