‘Have to be a complete re-write.’ After two episodes of amusing inaction (bike chase aside) we get… another episode of mostly amusing inaction. Rather than being stuck in Chronotis’ study chatting about a book, now the Doctor and Romana are stuck in Skagra’s spaceship chatting about a book. By this point in City of Death, they’d run round Paris, visited the Louvre and uncovered a plot to steal it, been captured and escaped, nipped back to the 16th Century to discover a time-travelling alien, and then back to 1979 in time for a showdown. This is moving at an entirely different speed.
I suppose partly it’s an intellectual joke on Douglas Adams’ part to see how far he can get without having to tax the budget (the invisible space ship is, in that respect, truly a stroke of genius), and when you’re as witty a writer as he was you can get away with pacing that makes The Ice Warriors look like a masterclass in high-octane action. What stops it from being at all boring is the constant stream of jokes and the steady drip of reveals (here, Chronotis’ study turns out to be able to travel through time). This is the Doctor Who that’s most like one of those Sherlock Holmes stories where he solves the whole thing sitting in Baker Street.
This also means the animation doesn’t need to do much more than indicate who’s talking and where, which it does well. More admirably, there are several nice touches (like the slow zoom into Romana and Chris’ prison cell) that give it a bit more style and life than the earlier BBCi serials. The only distracting bit is Clare’s BDSM collar (is she a goth? If so, why the pink fluffy jumper). The funniest bit is K9’s sad ‘Coming, mistress’ as he has to negotiate cowpats in a muddy field.
Again, animation is required to do a lot of the heavy lifting as the story reaches the parts that were nixed by the studio lock-out. It’s better looking than the 2003 animation, but, given how talky the episode is, it largely doesn’t make things easier to follow. Kudos, though, to whoever did the animated Skagra’s cruel smile, which perfectly captures Neame’s performance.
They did manage to record the prison cell scenes, and these look a bit better than the show’s average late-1970s spaceship sets, suggesting Adams understood exactly what was doable for the money (even if he was clearly pining for a Star Wars budget – Chronotis’ Obi-Wan disappearance; K9’s ricocheting blaster bolts straight from the trash compactor sequence).
Again, some of the visuals help this version: the sphere’s attack on a hapless fisherman makes it look like an evil Toclafane creature rather than a simple tool; Daniel Hill’s hopeful-then-crushed expressions as K9 considers his questions; Skagra rather shockingly unlocking the TARDIS and dragging Romana in.
Next episode: Shada – Episode Four