Doctor Who: City of Death
(4 episodes, s17e05-e08, 1979)
The story starts on a rocky, desolate plain where a spider-like ship is attempting to take off. An alien pilot argues with his control team, then begins lifting off before distorting in time and space and then exploding. Transition to Paris in 1979 where the Doctor and Romana are on vacation, taking in the view from the iconic Eiffel Tower before retiring to a local restaurant. While there, Romana attracts the attention of a local artist, but a time distortion changes her face to a broken clock, literally signifying a crack in time.
Completing the setup trifecta at a nearby château, Professor Kerensky is petitioning his employer for more money to perform his experiments. Count Carlos Scarlioni agrees, but notes that he will need to sell more of his rare book collection to earn more money. The Count is obsessed with the professor’s work and demands results now.
The Doctor chalks up the time slip to their frequent travels and takes Romana to see the Mona Lisa, partly as an example to Romana that computers cannot produce art like living beings and partly to show her one of the great treasures of the universe. Romana is unimpressed. Another time slip occurs, and the Doctor collapses. He is assisted by a stranger – who is, as he points out, carrying a gun – before leaving the museum. The trenchcoat man follows, as does a darker man (after being prompted by a woman) who seems a bit more sinister. The Time Lords go to another café where Romana reveals that they have been followed. The Doctor shows her a micromeson scanning bracelet – an advanced piece of technology for a Level Five civilization – that he lifted off the woman at the Louvre. The trenchcoat man arrives and orders the Time Lords inside at gunpoint.
The woman at the Louvre is married to the Count, and the Doctor is mugged for the bracelet by the sinister fellow and a cohort. The trenchcoat man, a detective named Duggan, includes them in his investigation of the Count, the rise of precious paintings on the market, and a plot to steal the Mona Lisa. As the Countess orders the trio to be brought before the Count, two new henchmen arrive to take them away. She goes to find her husband, but the Count is behind a locked door. As he removes his face, he reveals his true identity as one of the aliens from the prologue.
The Time Lords and Duggan are shown to the Countess – “I say, what a wonderful butler. He’s so violent!” – and the Doctor tries to disarm the tension through tomfoolery, but the Countess has none of it. Ramona solves the puzzle box containing the scanning bracelet, which commences a quick discussion with the Count and Countess over the peculiar trinket before the group is imprisoned.
That entire exchange was so much fun. It restores the Fourth Doctor to his original whimsical nature that has been declining since Sarah Jane’s departure.
The Doctor attempts to escape, but his sonic screwdriver is on the fritz. After Duggan applies a little mechanical agitation, the sonic unlocks the door. The Time Lords take the opportunity to investigate the laboratory – Romana had remarked earlier that the geometry of the room suggested some hidden spaces – as Professor Kerensky arrives and conducts a temporal experiment. The Doctor and Kerensky discuss the nature of his experiments – at one point, the Doctor reverses the polarity – and as the Doctor sees the alien creature from the prologue in the time bubble that the experiment has created, Duggan knocks out the professor. Meanwhile, Romana discovers an area in the cellar that has been walled off for centuries.
Upstairs, the Count and Countess conduct a walkthrough of the Mona Lisa’s theft via the bracelet’s holodeck setting. He entrusts the bracelet to the Countess and announces that they will perform the heist for real within hours.
Back in the cellar, the Doctor breaks into the walled off area with a little help from Duggan’s brawn, and they discover several genuine versions of the Mona Lisa. Counting the one hanging in the Louvre, there are seven versions which coincide with seven buyers lined up to purchase the painting. They are interrupted by the Count who, after a small discussion, is knocked out by Duggan. They also knock out the Countess and escape the château. Romana looks after Duggan as the Doctor takes the TARDIS to Renaissance Italy to see Leonardo daVinci. The master is nowhere to be found, but the Doctor encounters a Captain Tancredi who looks a lot like the Count in the future.
At the Louvre, Duggan and Romana trip an alarm and are forced to flee. Meanwhile, Kerensky awakens and finds the vault of Mona Lisas. He tends to the Count, who appears to be living events in modern day Paris and Renaissance Italy simultaneously. In the past, Tancredi explains to the Doctor that he is the last of the Jagaroth, a species that was nearly destroyed four hundred million years ago. During the escape attempt in the prologue, Tancredi’s original self was fractured across time. The captain is also very intrigued by the TARDIS and how the Doctor travels. Tancredi leaves the Doctor under guard and leaves to collect torture tools, but the Doctor escapes and, understanding how Tancredi is duplicating the Mona Lisa in the past, marks the canvasses with messages to the future. His escape attempt is stopped as Tancredi returns.
Kerensky begins to understand his role in the whole affair as Romana and Duggan (literally, in his case) break into the café. The professor cannot believe the scope of the Count’s vision, calling it monstrous and too expensive. On cue, the Count’s henchman arrives with the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, which is worth around $100 million. The seven of them will easily fund the plan.
Real world trivia: That value comes from an assessment of the painting on December 14, 1962. Accounting for inflation, the 2016 value is around $790 million. That’s a lot of time bubbles.
In the past, Tancredi interrogates the Doctor, who reveals that he is a Time Lord. The Doctor asks how the Jagaroth splinters communicate across time, but is deflected. Back in the present, the Count is hearing voices and, after bragging about all of accomplishments, asks the Countess to leave as all of his splinters enter a stupor. The Doctor escapes as the twelve splinters proclaim that the centuries dividing them shall be undone, and realizes the importance of the Time Lords in his plan.
The Doctor returns to the present day as Romana tries to puzzle out how the Count can travel in time. Romana and Duggan leave the Doctor a note before heading for the château. The Doctor receives news of the art theft at the Louvre, then retrieves the note at the café. He follows them to the château where the Count has Romana and Duggan at gunpoint. The Count interrogates Romana about time travel and shows her to the laboratory under threat of destroying the city should she give him any trouble. As a demonstration, he uses the experiment to kill Kerensky through accelerated aging, then offers to do it to the entire city unless Romana can stabilize it. She attempts to bluff her way out, but the Count calls her on it by threatening to kill Duggan. The Count wants to return to where his spaceship is in time and prevent himself from taking off.
The Doctor arrives and is captured. He engages the Countess in a debate about being willfully blind before being escorted to the laboratory, and the Countess begins to ponder on the Doctor’s words. The Doctor tries to stop the Count – his plan to save his people will erase all of history – but the Jagaroth locks them all away and orders their execution. The Count goes upstairs and is confronted by his wife. At the business end of a gun, he explains everything to her, then kills her with the bracelet.
Romana reveals that she has rigged a trap in the Count’s time machine, but the Doctor knows that the trap is not sufficient. They break out of the cell just in time for the Count (now Scaroth) to use the machine, so the Time Lords and Duggan use the TARDIS to follow.
The travelers arrive in what will become the Atlantic Ocean, and the Doctor realizes that the explosion that splintered Scaroth was also the catalyst for the birth of the human race. Scaroth attempts to stop the launch, but Duggan capitalizes on the running gag of him using strength to solve his problems by punching out the Jagaroth. Scaroth is catapulted forward in time where his butler accidentally kills him by throwing something at the newly arrived alien. The time machine explodes, and the threat is over.
The only version of the Mona Lisa to survive the blast is one painted over the Doctor’s “this is a fake” messages. They have a quick laugh about the value of art before the Time Lords depart for their next random adventure.
From what I can gather, this is one of the most beloved serials in the franchise’s history. It’s easy to see why, given the beautiful cinematography of Paris and the relatively tight story. The antagonist is Julian Glover, last seen in Doctor Who as King Richard the Lionheart, but also in some of my faves as General Maximillian Veers, Walter Donovan, and Aris Kristatos, among so many other roles. It has a humorous cameo from John Cleese as an art critic analyzing the TARDIS. It has the return to whimsy for the Fourth Doctor. But it also has that side trip to Renaissance Italy that, while necessary to explain the Jagaroth threat, really slows down the narrative.
I settled on a high three for this one, which I rounded up based on the custom of these reviews. It’s a fun serial, but I don’t hold it in the high regard that many do in fandom.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Creature from the Pit
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.