The Doctor takes Romana for a holiday in Paris – a city which, like a fine wine, has a bouquet all its own. Especially if you visit during one of the vintage years. But the TARDIS takes them to 1979, a table-wine year, a year whose vintage is soured by cracks – not in their wine glasses but in the very fabric of time itself. Soon the Time Lords are embroiled in an audacious alien scheme which encompasses home-made time machines, the theft of the Mona Lisa, the resurrection of the much-feared Jagaroth race, and the beginning (and quite possibly the end) of all life on Earth. Aided by British private detective Duggan, whose speciality is thumping people, the Doctor and Romana must thwart the machinations of the suave, mysterious Count Scarlioni – all twelve of him – if the human race has any chance of survival.
But then, the Doctor’s holidays tend to turn out a bit like this.
City of Death is considered to be one of the bona-fide classics of the original series of Doctor Who. Originally broadcast in 1979, the serial was penned by “David Agnew” – a pseudonym for a combination of David Fisher, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams. Averaging 14.5m viewers across it’s four episodes, the serial is one of the highest rated in the history of the show, with the fourth episode remaining the show’s highest ever audience with 16.1m tuning in.
Reaction to City of Death these days is almost universally positive, regularly placing in top ten lists and highlighted as one of the serials that changed the show as a franchise, contemporary critics were frequently divided on the lighter tone of the serial however, feeling the show and it’s star Tom Baker had gone too far into the realms of parody, largely through the input of Douglas Adams.
Attempting to novelise anything by the late great Adams is no easy task for the most skilled of writers, yet alone an iconic story such as City of Death, yet James Goss takes up the challenge left by the excellent Shada and Gareth Roberts and is proven a shrewd choice for the adaptation, having worked both on the Shada webcast and Dirk, a 1990s stage play adapted from the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency that Douglas Adams was said to be delighted with.
The plot of the novel remains faithful to that seen on TV, needing little introduction. Having arrived in the then contemporary Paris of 1979, the Fourth Doctor and companion Romana are taking-in the sights of the French capital when they become aware that somebody is tampering with time itself. Who is the mysterious Count Scarlioni and why does he seem to be scattered throughout time? What role does Leonardo Di Vinci and the Mona Lisa play in proceedings and why does the Count what to steal the world’s most famous painting?
Cutting a fine-line between novelising the scripts as broadcast and adding new material to give a deeper backstory and fill the holes, James Goss has done both Adams and the iconic story proud, producing a very current and genuinely enjoyable novel that more than lives up to it’s billing. Full of descriptive and high quality prose, City of Death gives the perfect sense of character and location, giving more depth to the characters and a wonderful evocation of Paris. The author is not satisfied in merely relying on what Adams had already done as surely he could have, here we see an expanded City of Death, the Doctor, Romana and the Scarlionis faring particularly well.
The comedy that was so devising in 1979 is on full display here and if you’re looking for hard and serious sci-fi, this one isn’t for you. With one-liners and surrealism throughout, the novel brings an immense smile to the face, Goss seemingly understanding exactly what it is about Douglas Adams that appeals, his own additions being the equal of any of the originals. The City of Death quote book just got a lot thicker!
A very special blend of the Adamsian surreal, with atypical comedy, drama and fantasy, City of Death is a work of an immense imagination, one that like so much of Adams work successfully mixes the normal with the outrageous, yet it doesn’t attempt to mimic the late author, Goss’ own voice added to the City of Death talent pool. Immediately readable, memorably entertaining and a perfect example of adding depth to a story, the novel is one of the best novelisations of the original series that has been produced. An essential purchase.
It's City of Death!
It's Douglas Adams!
If you didn't like it the first time... you'll probably like it even less this time.