In Review: Doctor Who and the City of Death

Doctor Who: City of Death - Novelisation

Novelised by James Goss from the script by Douglas Adams
Publisher: BBC Books
On Sale: 21st May 2015
ISBN-10: 1849906750

Review by Russell Cook

It must have been a truly vintage day in the Doctor Who production office in early 1979 when Producer Graham Williams discovered that, thanks to his Production Unit Manager John Nathan-Turner, filming in Paris for a few days to accommodate the exterior scenes required for David Fisher’s commissioned script The Gamble with Time would be cheaper than the whole crew jumping on a bus to Ealing.

While you could of course have fun in Ealing, with its soundstages complete with papier-mâché models of the Eiffel Tower, filming abroad…  and in Paris!  There was, surely, no contest.

While Nathan-Turner and Graham Williams hurriedly renewed their passports however, divorce proceedings meant the usually reliable David Fisher was unavailable to perform the rewrites necessary to transfer scripted 1928 Paris/ Monte Carlo scenes exclusively to the Paris of the then present 1979.

Instead, that task  fell to series script editor Douglas Adams. Williams dragged him away from working on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Destiny of the Daleks (storyline by Terry Nation), telling him he had, oh, 48 hours or so to come up with a new script.. a request that  caused Adams to react in a manner not perhaps typical of a Doctor Who Script editors. He fell to the floor and lay on his stomach, screaming with frustration.

“Not a pretty sight!” remarked Production office secretary Jane Judge, who witnessed this scene, shortly before being told by her boss, with his best fixed smile, that he and Douglas had a journey to go on, a very long journey and could she man the office whilst they ran down Wood Lane in search of a taxi to take them to Williams’ home. A script needed to be written.

With a generous thank you to Nescafe and Bells, ideas floated by Williams, caught and refined by Adams who then weaved his magic, The Gamble of Time faded from view reforming splinter like into The Curse of the Sepiroth before finally settling on the pretty succinct City of Death. As Adams typed The End/ Fade Out at the climax of an adrenalin fuelled weekend, little did he know that he had written what is now generally regarded as one of the finest Doctor Who stories of all time.

But although extensively documented, and highly praised, despite the memories of a glorious Paris in the Springtime, this Doctor Who story, unlike the majority of others in the series original twenty six year history, did not transform itself into a Target book novelisation. Adams had other things to do but at the same time didn’t want anyone else to do either – leaving a significant gap in the 150 plus book run, a space that needed to be filled.

With the success of Douglas’ Adams’ Shada, finally appearing as a novel in 2012, it was clear that a book of City of Death would be welcomed by Doctor Who and Adams devotees alike. What could be better than seeing a another shiny glossy hardback sitting in the new titles section of a bookshop with “DOCTOR WHO: DOUGLAS ADAMS” shouting out at you from the spine?

Well, now’s your time to find out as that is now a reality.

What immediately strikes the reader is the busy cover as it acknowledges the original story from David Fisher with the novel credited to James Goss, who has proved his Doctor Who/ Douglas Adams credentials over the years with several Who novels, plus an award winning stage adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. All against a seemingly dancing Eiffel Tower watched over by the half smiling La Joconde.

This adaptation of Doctor Who’s most viewed story draws on the original scripts by David Fisher and the coffee and whisky stained Douglas Adams complete rewrite, honing and embellishing the material with scenes that never made it to the final cut. This, along with Goss’ own excellent prose results in a beautifully crafted reworking of the 1979 TV serial, keeping faith to the original and making it stand alone as a novel in its own right.

You don’t have to have a degree in Doctor Who minutiae to appreciate the sparkling wit that bounces from page to page, that also drives a cleverly constructed story with a concise beginning, middle and end.

The original TV serial never really pauses for breath: it’s one hundred minutes of  stylishly directed storytelling. Running, art galleries, more running, witty dialogue, the odd rain coated detective punch here and there; seven portraits of the Mona Lisa, a savage warlike alien splintered throughout history with the crack in time charm of an on form George Clooney and a Doctor as portrayed by Tom Baker at his mad, scene stealing best. Mix that with the best of Parisian culture, an eccentric and crabby scientist, a glamorous countess with an infectious bored giggle. Then add an eager, newly regenerated Time Lady Romana on a life learning curve along with the impassive Hermann portrayed as if he’s just stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel – and you’ve got a tale to tell.

All of the characters are given a back story and a reason to do what they do, including the Time clock artist and various sightseers. Count Scarlioni and his eleven splinters come off especially well as his motivation is explained and expanded upon as the reader gets a historical glimpse into the last of the Jaggeroth, his various personalities and how at times it is probably best not to aggravate that annoying itch. Goss portrays the alien so well; a smile can mean many things.

Doctor Who companions over the years, especially in the now termed Classic series, were often just ciphers to feed the Doctor’s motivations to an inquiring audience. Here, Lalla Ward’s Romana is portrayed as a slightly naïve 125 year old, experiencing different cultures for the first time. We see into the personality of an alien separated from the Doctor thinking she knows best, an opinion that is challenged from a Parisian night out with Duggan through to dealings with Scarlioni and her embracing of the world of sticky back plastic.

Turning this most rich of TV stories into a stand alone novel has been a dream of Doctor Who fans since the golden age of the Target books. In those classic book days, however, if it had been novelised, then we would possibly have got 126 pages of plain and simple, faithful retelling. Thankfully, this novelisation has been thirty six years in the making and is much more than that.

City of Death will appeal to Doctor Who fans, Douglas Adams devotees but most importantly can be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys good imaginative storytelling. Take the lift or fly to your nearest bookseller and enjoy. As Kim Bread says, “Exquisite”

Review by Russell Cook

Doctor Who: City of Death is available from all good book shops and online retailers, including AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

With thanks to Tess Henderson and BBC Books

Special thank you to Jane Judge for the Douglas Adams memory!

Categories: Books, Doctor Who, Other Worlds, Reviews, Television

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