Doctor Who
City of Death

Starring: Tom Baker
BBC Video
BBCV 7132
Certificate: U
Available now

The Doctor and Romana visit Paris, where they stumble upon a dangerous experiment with time and a plot to steal the Mona Lisa...

Fan opinion is deeply divided as to whether Graham Williams' three years as producer of Doctor Who were wonderful or dire. Certainly this era offered some woefully cheap-looking and embarrassingly-acted atrocities, but this Season 17 story is definitely at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The principal Paris location, together with a cutaway to Renaissance Florence, and a plot that revolves around artistic matters, all suit Baker's Bohemian Doctor down to the ground. The undergraduate humour of Douglas (Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy) Adams, who co-wrote the script with Williams under the pseudonym of David Agnew, allows Baker's eccentricities to shine through with knowing self-mockery without ever becoming cringe-worthy. Memorable lines include, "What a wonderful butler - he's so violent!" This story, more than any other, also demonstrates the chemistry that existed between Baker and Lalla Ward (playing Romana), both on and off the screen.

Opposing the Doctor is Count Scarlioni, portrayed in a stylish turn by Julian Glover, who turns in a far more memorable performance than he did as the Bond villain, Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only. He, too, gets his fair share of classic lines; when his wife (Space 1999's Catherine Schell) speculates that the Doctor might not be as stupid as he seems, Scarlioni replies, "My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems!"

The intrinsic humour of the piece, which also includes a hilarious cameo by John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as a couple of art critics, lifts what could easily have become a leaden and over-complicated tale of time paradoxes. Instead, the technobabble is merely paid lip service without being taken too seriously. The thrills aren't just of the light-hearted variety, either; this four-parter also boasts top-notch cliffhangers.

Before I get too carried away with superlatives, however, let's not overlook the story's weaker aspects. Given that the Mona Lisa is pivotal to the plot, it's a shame that the props department couldn't have supplied a more convincing mock-up of the famous painting. And while the series' first-ever location shoot to be conducted outside of the UK provides some beautiful images, director Michael Hayes is too self-indulgent in his use of these exterior scenes, spending far too long showing Baker and Ward running around Paris instead of progressing the plot. Also, the story fails to answer the question of why the artist who sketches Romana in the café depicts her with a broken clock for a face.

For the most part, however, watching this adventure is a truly leisurely experience, rather like taking a long, relaxing soak in the bath. This previously released but long-since deleted title makes a very welcome return to video.

Richard McGinlay