The 13th Doctor will be making her glorious arrival this fall and we here at FANGRRLS couldn’t be more excited. In honor of her, and to catch up a few of our FANGRRLS who haven’t yet experienced Doctor Who, our resident Whovians will be helping some of our less TARDIS-fluent FANGRRLS get up to speed on their favorite Doctor. Since we didn’t think any of us could binge 840 episodes, 36 seasons, and numerous specials before the 13th Doctor’s arrival, we’re writing a series of special Late to the Party: Doctor Who articles.
I got into Doctor Who several years ago, when a colleague of mine threw down the gauntlet in an unexpected way. "How do you not watch Doctor Who?" he chided. "You're into all that nerd sh*t."
Condescending tone aside, he had a point. I'm a genre geek who loves a winding, wild series. And despite having watched every episode of the spinoff Torchwood, I'd never seen a single ep from the long-running show that inspired it. So, when modern Doctor Who hit Netflix, I dove in starting with the Ninth Doctor, and have kept up ever since. Still, I haven't seen any of classic Who, in part because it used to be tricky to find, in part because the Whovians I know were divided on whether or not it was worth my time.
If anyone could get me to take a chance on the old-school Doctors, it's Riley Silverman, a Whovian who loves the show so intensely you'd think she has two hearts. So, I took the opportunity to have Riley clue me in on why cosplayers go so mad for the Fourth Doctor, who I know only as "the one with the scarf." From 172 episodes across seven seasons, she chose the 4-part "City of Death" storyline from season 17.
"City of Death: Part 1"
In an unidentified planet, a Cyclops/alien whose face looks like chrome-painted Top Ramen is speaking to some unknown base from his walking-eye spaceship. He's apparently their only hope for… something. And he's going to do something risky. And then his ship hovers and vanishes into thin air.
Cut to: Paris, 1979 where the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) play tourist, checking out the cafes, the Louvre, and in particular the Mona Lisa. But their sightseeing is interrupted by brief time loops and a mysterious man with a gun. The Doctor steals a bracelet off a posh but sneering Countess Scarlioni, then tells Romana it's alien tech intended to help steal the Mona Lisa. The Countess is part of a team that includes harried scientist Kerensky, and is led by her husband Count Scarlioni, who swaggers about in a white leisure suit (because 1979) is revealed at the end of the episode to be the Top Ramen-faced alien in disguise (because Doctor Who).
I'm pretty confused! First off, these episodes are only 24 minutes long! I'm accustomed to twice the length in Doctor Who. This doesn't leave for a lot of time to get the plot rolling, and this story isn't developed enough for the reveal of the disguised alien to feel much like a twist or a cliffhanger. I just don't get what's going on. What's Kerensky building in the basement? What's bracelet do? What does the Mona Lisa have to do with any of it?
Nonetheless, I like the Doctor's attitude. His accent is posher than I expected from his motley costume, which includes not just that insanely long scarf but also a kicky broach that boasts an artist's palette, teeny paintbrush, and three tubes of paint. I like his sense of humor, which has the daffiness of Matt Smith's Doctor and the irreverence of David Tennant's, and the banter which feels a bit like the jaunty Doctor/Donna era. Still, I don't have any sense of who his companion Romana is from this ep.
She dresses like a school girl but has an old soul vibe. How old is she? Is she not from Earth? Because she speaks about our planet with a certain level of disdain whenever the Doctor praises it. What's their relationship like? Teacher/student like the Doctor and Bill? Flirtatious like the Doctor and Rose/Amy/Clara? Combative yet friendly like the Doctor and Donna? I'm not totally sure.
Still, I'm intrigued. So that's a start.
"City of Death Part 2"
Secret alien Count Scarlioni plots to use tech to steal the Mona Lisa. Meanwhile, the beleaguered Kerensky works on a device that speeds up time, turning an egg into a full-grown chicken in just moments. And the Doctor and Romana are pitched into the basement laboratory as prisoners, but soon discover a treasure trove with six Mona Lisas, none of them counterfeit!
Inspector Duggan—the Doctor's latest ally—says there are seven would-be buyers for a stolen Mona Lisa, but purchasing the world-famous painting would mean you'd have to keep it hidden. So, Scarlioni has somehow stolen six (soon to be seven) so he can sell to each of these coveting collectors, none of them any the wiser. But how did he get all these Mona Lisas? To make sense of this mystery, the Doctor jumps back to Florence 1575 to speak with Leonardo Da Vinci, but he's shocked to find Scarlioni there! He's got a period-appropriate look but is just as posh and obnoxious as ever, though he's known as Captain Tancredi.
The shortness of the episodes is maddening. I can't imagine waiting for a whole week for a new one and making so little progress in a story. What a difference 20 more minutes make.
I understand why people like Baker's Doctor, he's smart and playful with a rakish whimsy. And I'm finally getting a sense of Romana, who is clearly very clever, as she solved a Chinese puzzle box like it was the maze on the back of a cereal box, then discovered the secret room containing the many Mona Lisas. But the plot leaves something to be desired.
I quite like the villains' banter about the Doctor, though. It's deliciously withering.
"My dear, I don't think he's as stupid as he seems."
"My dear, no one can be as stupid as he seems."
"City of Death Part 3"
In Florence 1575, Tancredi explains he is the last of the Jagaroth, an alien race that destroyed each other in war 400 million years ago. That was when Scarlioni/Tancredi came to Earth but found it a merciless and uninhabitable rock. When he tried to leave, his ship exploded and he was shattered, parts of himself sprinkled across time "all identical, none complete." So, that's what we saw at the start of the first episode.
Scarlioni has stolen all these Mona Lisas to "save his own race!" The money from the shady art deals will fund the building of a time machine that will allow him to undo the accident that splintered him across time, or as he ominously puts it, "The centuries that divide me shall be undone!" That's bad news for mankind, who shared many of those centuries.
Realizing Romana knows a lot about time travel, Scarlioni threatens to destroy Paris unless she helps him with Kerensky's time machine. He then uses the device to kill the poor professor who built it.
It's strange to see guns so casually slung about in Doctor Who considering the modern Doctors hate guns and give hell to any ally who carries one. Duggan keeps whipping his weapon about, and it's played for laughs. He's the oafish detective who breaks things (vases, wine bottles, windows) and is quick to pull out a gun no matter how useless it might be. This feels like a willful mockery of the tough guy with a gun stereotype, but the levity is odd or arguably dated.
Romana knows a ton about time travel and says she's 125 years old. So… she's not human? I am googling this. Oh! She's a Time Lord! That tracks. Wait. We had a female Time Lord in 1979, and Steven Moffat still acted like making the Doctor a woman was somehow some Herculean task?! Cool Cool.
"City of Death, Part 4"
The Doctor warns the Countess that her husband is not only an art thief but also a murderous extraterrestrial whose machine might destroy all of human history. So, she turns on her husband. Wearing a sensationally chic black pantsuit, she hisses, "What have I been living with all these years!?" But she is not prepared for the answer. Scarlioni mocks her, then kills her. Her gun doesn't save her. And his won't save him.
Scarlioni uses the time machine, and the Doctor and his friends must race back 400 million years to stop him from undoing his fateful mistake. They do. Then shenanigans atop the Eiffel Tower.
OMG, a John Cleese cameo! Mustachioed and pompous, the Monty Python star pops in as a museum patron waxing poetic about the TARDIS, assuming it’s a display. Okay. There's been ups and downs. But that right there made this all worth watching.
This final act feels more the like the Doctor Who I know. There's running! Death! Drama! And a twist that rewrites human history, in this case, that the radiation from Scarlioni's ship exploding jumpstarted the evolution that led to the human race. The Doctor and his friends saved the day and the human race! Not by wit or diplomacy but by the impulsive and violent Duggan punching Scarlioni in the face. Hm.
Watching the modern Doctor Who with its Daleks and Cybermen, I often had to remind myself these designs were refurbished from decades-old practical effects. I was curious to see what old-school Doctor Who monsters and effects looked like and how they held up. The answer is: not great. But I was charmed by that. The show's visual effects are still a bit low-budget and wonky, which I accept as part of the aesthetic; a feature, not a bug. It's interesting to see how that style evolved. Rubbery masks with dull eyes and dissolves that transform a man into a skeleton, all aided by some delightfully theatrical performances, it felt timeless in a way.
The biggest difference between classic and modern Doctor Who is the pacing. With just 24 minutes an episode (and the first 2 to 3 minutes dedicated to replaying the end of the last one), classic Doctor Who doesn’t have a lot of time to lay out exposition, yet it takes its sweet time about it, leisurely repeating key plot points ep after ep. Though short, these episodes weren't meant for binge-watching, and they suffer in that setting. Modern Doctor Who clocks in at nearly twice the length, and wedges in quickly spoken exposition to keep things rolling. Plus, there's a lot more running and action with the newer Doctors, which gives a jolt of energy that I sorely missed here.
Still, it was fun to see how some of the elements of the show I know and love were born. Tom Baker's Doctor has a sprightly energy that ties to my favorite Doctor (Matt Smith!). I especially liked when the Doctor reminisced about helping William Shakespeare write out the first draft of Hamlet, because "he'd sprained his wrist writing sonnets." And his dynamic with Romana is one of respect, excitement, and intellectual curiosity. They seem to enjoy the world and each other, which entices me to watch more of their adventures.