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Time travellers Doctor Who (Tom Baker) & Romana (Lalla Ward) take a
vacation from saving the universe in Paris & visit the Louvre to see
the Mona Lisa ... But trouble is never far for the Doctor: At first he
& Romana experience ripples in time, then he discovers a highly
advanced bracelet used to spy out the Louvre on the arm of one of one of
the visitors of the place - who will later turn out to be the Countess
Scarlioni (Catherine Schell) -, then he & Romana meet insurance
detective Duggan (Tom Chadbon), who loves punching people & thinks the
Doctor & Romana are art thieves, bent on stealing the Mona Lisa, &
at long last, the Doctor, Romana & Duggan all become captives of the
Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover), just because the Doctor couldn't resist
stealing the Countess' bracelet.
The Count Scarlioni is a prolific art dealer who has a sheer endless
supply of priceless masterpieces, all authentic. So much so in fact, that
the company Duggan works for has grown suspicious of him ... & for
some reason they think he wants to steal the Mona Lisa ...
But Scarlioni also has a few darker secrets, he has a laboratory in his
cellar where the ingenious but naive scientist Kerensky (David Graham)
tries to build a time machine for him (but thinks he is merely looking for
a way to speed up the growth of chickens), and eventually, the Doctor
& company learn that he has actually six authentic Mona Lisas walled
up in his cellar.
After the Doc & company have escaped, the Doctor travels back to
16th century Florence to visit Leonardo Da Vinci, then in the
Borgias' employ, & learns he was commissioned to paint 7
identical Mona Lisas by a certain Lord Tancredi - who turns out to be
Scarlioni himself. & Scarlioni it turns out is the last of the
Jagaroth, whose spaceship was blown up 40 million years ago - an explosion
that started life on earth as it is - & his being scattered across
history in telepathically linked entities - which explains why he in the
20th century has a limitless supply of priceless masterpieces. But
Scarlioni is not happy on earth, & thus wants to go back in history to
prevent himself from blasting his spaceship, & thus he needs a
timemachine. Only, without the blast, life on earth would never have
Then, the Mona Lisa from the Louvre is stolen, by Scarlioni's gang of
hoodlums ... but what, might you ask, ahs that to do with going back in
time 40 million years - easy, to build a tim,e machine, Scarlioni needs
Unfortunately, eventually Scarlioni finds out that the Doctor &
Romana know a thing or two about time travelling, gets rid of Kerensky
& persuades Romana - who fails to grasp the bigger picture - to help
him build the time machine.
Soon, & before the very eyes of the Doctor, Duggan & Romana,
Scarlioni goes back to the beginning of life, & now have to rush to
the Doctor's time machine, the TARDIS, to prevent Scarlioni from
preventing himself from blowing up his ship ... which is when Duggan does
what he does best, as he knocks Scarlioni out. The spaceship blows up
& life on earth is saved once more ...
John Cleese & Eleanor Bron have an amusing cameo appearance as
museum visitors who mistake the Doctor's time machine (that looks like a
London police phone box) for a work of art.
Many fans think City of Death to be the bet Doctor Who episode
ever - which I find vastly exaggerated. As I see it, the fact that the
episode is held in such high regard is mostly based on massive &
impressive namedropping - written by Douglas Adams fresh from his success
with the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy-radio series, a cameo by
John Cleese, then immenself succesful with Fawlty Towers,
& Julian Glover & Catherine Schell as impressive villains - &
its extensive Parislocation-shooting to boost up production values (in
fact, the series otherwise rarely left Great Britain, often not event he
studio as such).
I have to admit it, Adams' story about an alien that has become a
crooked artdealer to build himself a time machine is quite funny in a
twisted but intelligent way, however the overall tone of the episode
doesn't fit the theme of the story. For the most part, it looks as if Tom
Baker & Lalla Ward are on a romantic holiday (which might even be true
to a point, in real life they got married a year later), time is actually
wasted with them parading in front of famous tourist sites (the Eiffel
Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, an extensive Metro-ride) instead of telling
the story, and the whole thing just looks so darn happy, just like a light
romantic comedy - when really it is about the erradication of life as it
That all said, in the context of the Doctor Who
television series it isn't bad as such, it's just nowhere near the best
By the way, City of Death was the episode with the highest ratings for Doctor
Who - the classic series at least - ever, but partly that can be
attributed to a strike at rival network ITV at the same time that
seriously limited competition.