Doctor Who: City of Death

Doctor Who: City of Death May 22, 2018

As we wait for Doctor Who to return to our screens (with a new logo and new incidental music as well as a new Doctor), it is about time for me to return to blogging about the classic series. I only have a few posts left before I will have blogged about every single one, and so it is inexplicable why it has taken me so long to return to this. Then again, if there is one thing that is fitting to the topic of Doctor Who, it is hiatuses…

The episode that I am up to in my blogging is actually one of my all-time favorites, “City of Death,” an episode from the Tom Baker era that was written by Douglas Adams and thus unsurprisingly laced through and through with comic elements. There is something ironic about the fact that this episode – which I believe to be the Doctor Who episode that I have seen the most times out of all of them – is the one that would be the victim of my delay in blogging.

The episode’s premise is a straightforward sci-fi one in many ways. The Doctor and Romana sense that there is time experimentation going on, and in investigating, they discover that a man named Scarlioni (an alien named Scaroth, a Jagaroth, who is disguised as a human) has been been funding research – which is funded by art theft, with a temporal twist of its own. It turns out that the alien has himself been splintered into separate lives scattered throughout history, and as a result, he is able to do such things as get Leonardo da Vinci to make multiple copies of the Mona Lisa. Then when the one in the Louvre is stolen in a later era when it is priceless, he can sell not just one but many copies to many different illicit buyers! The Doctor’s solution is to write “This is a fake” in marker on the canvases and to leave a note to Leonardo to paint over the words!

An interesting element from the perspective of religion is what we learn about how Scaroth came to Earth. His ship crashed back in the era of the primordial soup, and at the end of the episode we see his attempt to prevent himself being stranded fail, his ship explode, and the primordial soup infused with this life-giving spark.

The Doctor’s musings about authenticity and art are also quite profound, as he asks whether, if the Mona Lisa then hanging in the Louvre was painted by Da Vinci, and yet nonetheless contains “This is a fake” written in marker beneath the paint, that would make it any less an authentic Da Vinci – or any less a great work of art.

Have you seen City of Death? It seems to me to be one episode from the classic series that really stands the test of time. Do you agree?

If you haven’t seen it, or want to watch it again, you can now stream “City of Death” via BBC America (as well as finding it online on sites like Vimeo – see below). See also the IO9 article about Shada, which Douglas Adams also wrote.


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  • This is one of my favourite stories of the series, both because of Tom Baker’s performance and the writing. It’s one of the few stories I can recall directly where the Doctor uses his access to send a message to himself in the future. That, and this is my favourite Romana.

  • arghous

    Tom Baker is my favorite Doctor, Douglas Adams is my favorite script editor, and The City of Death is my favorite episode, followed by The Pirate Planet, which lags a bit in the middle. Douglas Adams went on to expand the concept of The City of Death and Shada and who knows what else to come up with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Dective Agency, my favorite book.

  • Steve in UT again

    It also has the best cameo spot in any of the original series episodes, with John Cleese and Eleanor Bron dissecting the TARDIS as a modernistic art work.