Follow TV Tropes


Recap / Doctor Who S17 E2 "City of Death"

Go To
"Hey, anyone know who this lady is?"
"You're a beautiful woman... probably."
The Doctor, failing to respond to the Countess as planned

The one where Doctor Who meets Carmen Sandiego.

Written by Douglas Adams, Graham Williams, and David Fisher (under the pseudonym David Agnew). This four-episode serial first aired from September 29 to October 20, 1979.

The Doctor and Romana II go on a holiday in Paris, and soon find themselves accidentally investigating a fracture in time. They meet up with a very confused detective named Duggan, whose job up until now had mostly involved divorce cases, and who plans on solving the mystery of the day by punching things. While the Doctor and Romana merrily confuse him even more, they all get captured by a local rich guy named Count Scarlioni.

Scarlioni turns out to be an alien who's having a bit of trouble with his spaceship. He also owns six copies of The Mona Lisa. All of which appear to be authentic. Oh, and the original is still hanging in the Louvre. Fed up with having to cater to Scarlioni's zany schemes, the Doctor just walks back to his TARDIS, vworps over to Italy and plans to ask Leonardo da Vinci himself what's going on. But his old friend isn't at home, and instead, another version of Count Scarlioni greets the Doctor in Leonardo's house.

The six Mona Lisas (Monas Lisa? Monae Lisae?) are all Count Scarlioni's legit property, who (as if all the Monas weren't enough) has a scanner for recording the Louvre security system, cleverly disguised as a bracelet on his wife's wrist. The wife, however, isn't aware that her husband is an alien, and gets the shock of her life when he takes off his mask and reveals a face full of writhing green tentacles. He's actually Scaroth, last of the warlike Jagaroth. As it turns out, when his spaceship exploded at the dawn of Earth time, his consciousness was scattered throughout history. His plan revolves around reuniting all of his selves.

All six paintings are original Mona Lisas, all painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century. Scarlioni intends to steal the one in the Louvre and then carefully sell each of the Monae to a different private collection. The proceeds will fund Scarlioni's time travel to prevent the crash from ever occurring. Romana, carrying the Idiot Ball of the day, helps him out a bit.

The Doctor doesn't especially mind all that... until he discovers that the crash of Scarlioni's spaceship was the "spark" that kicked off the development of life on Earth. Now they must work out how to defeat a being who's had four hundred million years to plan his escape. Eventually, Duggan solves the whole thing by just punching Scarlioni really hard in the face. Humanity saved!

As if all that weren't enough, John Cleese and Eleanor Bron have cameos.

For extra credit, spot the plot elements that Douglas Adams recycled into Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

This story was the first one filmed outside of Britain and Tom Baker has commented that it was a bit startling to do shooting without the crew having to hold back throngs of fans, since Doctor Who hadn't been exported to France, at this point. It also has the distinction of being the most-watched Doctor Who story to date, with a peak of 16.1 million viewers for the final episode, although this becomes a bit less impressive when you learn that ITV, then the only other major channel in the country, was off-air at the time due to a strike.

It was never adapted in the Target Doctor Who Novelisations range because of rights issues surrounding its complicated authorship, Douglas Adams' existing contract with his own publisher, and the question of money. It finally got one in May 2015, with an abridged, Target-style reissue (complete with a new cover) in April of 2018, alongside a slate of New Who novelizations.

Tropes from the episode:

  • Affably Evil: The Countess Scarlioni. Count Scarlioni projects this, but it's just a facade.
  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated: The Doctor himself seems to appreciate human art. On the other hand, Romana didn't seem as impressed when they visited the Louvre.
  • Ancient Astronauts: Scaroth.
  • Artistic License – Art: Every copy of the Mona Lisa, including the original, is shown to be painted on a canvas. The real-life Mona Lisa was painted on a panel of poplar wood and a lot smaller than shown here.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Accelerating the flow of time around a chicken egg might allow it to hatch faster, but there's no explanation for how it is able to rapidly mature inside the time bubble instead of simply starving to death in a matter of moments when there's no food in there with it.
  • Artistic License – Paleontology: 400 million years ago was the Devonian period, also known as the "age of fish". For the beginning of life, 4 billion years ago would be a better fit. To be precise, the landscape would probably be covered by forests of moss and primitive ferns that would probably be quite thick without major herbivores. The first proper trees had yet to evolve, though.
  • Background Body Part: There's a scene where the Fourth Doctor is forced to his knees by a man with a rapier who has taken him prisoner. The whole scene is shot so that the horns on an ibex skull mounted on the wall appear to be coming out of the Doctor's head as he looks on defiantly.
  • Battle Butler: Hermann. "What a wonderful butler, he's so violent!"
  • Been There, Shaped History:
    • The Doctor ensures that the "spark" that kicked off the development of life takes place.
    • The Doctor, reading the manuscript for Hamlet, recognises his own handwriting.
  • Big Bad: Scaroth.
  • The Big Guy: Duggan fulfils this role while teaming up with the Doctor and Romana.
  • Bigger on the Inside: When Scarlioni removes his mask to reveal his true alien form, Scaroth's head is bigger than the mask (having, in real life, been a mask over Julian Glover's head). Characters are shocked to find he's an alien, but none seem to notice the size difference, meaning they Failed a Spot Check. (Though years later, "Aliens of London" would establish some Applied Phlebotinum that addressed this exact problem, so don't worry about it too much.)
  • Book Safe: The Scarlionis' secret collection of priceless historical books and manuscripts includes a book that's hollowed out as a hiding place for some Egyptian papyri.
  • Busman's Holiday: The Doctor and Romana take a holiday in Paris and get caught up in the plot.
  • The Cameo: John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as art critics. They were both filming at the BBC and Cleese knew Douglas Adams.
  • Captain Obvious: Duggan: "THAT is a spaceship!" (To be fair, it's a very unusual-looking spaceship).
  • Catholic Schoolgirls Rule: Romana wearing a very St. Trinian's style uniform. Lalla Ward, judging by interviews and the production notes, came up with the idea and had no concept it was a fetish.
  • Chairman of the Brawl: The Doctor stops Duggan from attacking the Count with an antique chair.
    Duggan what are you doing...that's a Louis Quinze!
  • Chekhov's Skill: Mainly mocked and taken the piss out of, but also played straight. Duggan's tendency to randomly punch people comes round useful as he knocks Scarlioni out one last time, landing "the most important punch in history".
  • Cliffhanger: The first episode seems like it's going to be a basic, run-of-the-mill art heist. Then Count Scarlioni removes his face to reveal something else underneath.
  • Clueless Detective: Duggan claims to get results, but he's all at sea when meet him here. To be fair, when he's faced with time-travelling aliens and six genuine Mona Lisas, he can legitimately claim to be out of his depth. And to his credit, he is quicker than either the Doctor or Romana to figure out why someone with six fake Mona Lisas would need to steal the real one; you can't sell faux paintings as real when the genuine article is still in the museum!
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: More like Cold Handed Torture. Tancredi orders the Doctor tortured using thumbscrews. However, the Doctor relents before the torturer can even begin, because the guy has cold hands.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Professor Kerensky, faced with the revelation that his research, which he thought was about providing expanded food supplies to famine-stricken countries, is being funded by the alien Jagaroth for their own ends, asks, "It's the Jagaroth that need all the chickens?"
  • Computer Equals Tapedrive: Among the equipment in Kerensky's laboratory.
  • Continuity Nod: The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver, which he notes he last used against the Daleks on Skaro.
  • Cool Guns: Everyone from Duggan to Hermann and the Count's Mooks use Walther P38 handguns. The Countess also has a nifty little pearl-handled revolver.
  • Creator Cameo: Douglas Adams and Michael Hayes make cameo appearances in the story; Adams is seen as a man having a drink in a bar, while Hayes is the shifty-looking man wearing a cloth cap and carrying a metal case who exits the train at Boissière Metro Station after the Doctor and Romana. Hayes additionally provides the voice of the guard who tells the Doctor that the Mona Lisa has been stolen.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: A throwaway line by Romana about the "Braxiatel Collection" became massive Canon Fodderinvoked in the Doctor Who Expanded Universe, and Braxiatel himself stars in a handful of spinoff series nowadays. According to the Expanded Universe (including Big Finish), he's the Doctor's brother.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Romana's running commentary on Duggan's tendency to punch people and smash stuff.
    Duggan: You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs.
    Romana: If you wanted an omelette, I'd expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames, and an unconscious chef.
  • Dumb Muscle: Duggan isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but a blunt instrument can do an awful lot of damage by thumping things, which the Doctor notes is Duggan's preferred tactic.
  • Emerging from the Shadows: Captain Tancredi's entrance.
  • E.T. Gave Us Wi-Fi: Scaroth gave humanity a lot of technology, leading them towards building him a time machine.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: For all his faults, Duggan is the first to grasp a key thing.
    Doctor: I don't understand why someone who has six Mona Lisas would go to the trouble of stealing a seventh.
    Duggan: Come on, Doctor, I told you, there are seven people who would buy the Mona Lisa in secret, but no one is going to buy the Mona Lisa if it's hanging in the Louvre!
    Romana: Of course! They'd each have to believe they were buying the stolen one!
  • Even Evil Has Standards: A minor example, but when Scarlioni decides that thugs had underperformed in retrieving the bracelet and orders to kill them, Hermann asks with some hesitancy "the detective and his friends?" When Scarlioni clarifies his order to kill the thugs, Hermann does so without question, implying that he had more qualms about murdering an officer of the law as opposed to a couple of hired goons.
  • Exposition of Immortality: The Doctor comes across several copies of the Mona Lisa which are all genuine. He travels back in time to Leonardo da Vinci's workshop and encounters the Count Tancredi, whom he's already met in contemporary Paris as Count Scarlioni, and who looks exactly the same. Scarlioni is revealed to be a 400 million-year-old alien.
  • Expy Duggan was conceived as a parody of Bulldog Drummond.
  • Failing a Taxi: There's never one around when you're trying to save an entire civilisation.
    Doctor: Is no one interested in history?
  • Faux Affably Evil: Count Scarlioni, with his exquisite manners, his refined taste, his debonair wit, his plan to undo 400 million years of history and wipe out the human race...
  • Forbidden Chekhov's Gun: The Doctor keeps getting annoyed at Duggan for hitting people but praises him decking Scaroth at the end as "possibly the most important punch in history".
  • For Science!: What Kerensky thinks is the reason for his research.
  • Giving Radio to the Romans: Each instance of Scaroth guides humanity's development so that the final "him" will have the technology he needs to go back in time and prevent his spaceship from exploding.
  • God Guise: One of the artifacts in Scarlioni's collection depicts Scaroth being worshipped as a god by the ancient Egyptians.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: Duggan's favourite way of dealing with anything. And the existence of life on Earth owes itself to his fists.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: The Countess is rarely ever seen without her cigarette holder. And yes, she was a villainess of the supremely classy type.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Parodied; Duggan wants to be this, but aside from punching people he's clearly not very good at it.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Just after the Countess figures out the truth behind her husband he kills her.
  • Hollywood Science: The Mona Lisa plays a significant role as MacGuffin, but the painting shown is much larger than the actual Mona Lisa (most people who have never seen it in person would be surprised by how small it actually is). It's also depicted as being painted on canvas, not wood.
  • Improvised Weapon: Several times while captive at the chateau, Duggan uses whatever object is handy as a weapon, from an oil lamp to a Priceless Ming Vase. This results in the Doctor complaining about his reckless treatment of valuable antiques.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: The Doctor, trying to rendezvous with Romana and Duggan, remarks that they surely wouldn't be so foolish as to try breaking into Scarlioni's chateau again; a moment later, he is handed a message from them informing him that they're going to try breaking into Scarlioni's chateau again.
  • Insult Backfire: Scarlioni takes being called "inhuman" as a compliment.
  • It's All About Me: Scarloni only cares about putting himself back together-the fact that doing so would result in all life on Earth being RetGone doesn't bother him one bit.
  • Just Between You and Me: Averted early on ("Can I ask you where you got these?" "No." "Or how you knew they were here?" "No." "I like concise answers." "Good."), but played straight later, when Captain Tancredi does a full-on "Since I'm about to kill you, I may as well tell you my entire plan first".
  • Large Ham: Kerensky.
  • Laser Hallway: A variation; as Count Scarlioni demonstrates how he plans to steal the Mona Lisa, he shows a holographic recreation of the famed painting in the Louvre. He shows a laser grid in front of the painting which will trigger "every alarm in Paris" if tripped. Using a device that will "alter the refractive index of the air itself," he bends the laser beams so the Mona Lisa can be removed safely.
  • Last of His Kind: Scaroth's entire plan is to stop being this.
  • Latex Perfection: Scarlioni has a head which is a mass of tentacles with a single eye in the center. Despite this, a latex mask enables him to perfectly appear as a human being complete with eyes, tongue, facial expressions, et cetera.
  • Liquid Assets: Dr. Kerensky is aged to death.
  • Man of Wealth and Taste / Badass in a Nice Suit: For '70s clothes, Scarlioni's suit is seriously badass.
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam: The episode takes this to ludicrous levels. The con: Count Scarlioni plans to steal The Mona Lisa from the Louvre. He's set up a silent auction among a group of unscrupulous art collectors who think they're about to get the most valuable painting in the world, and they mail in their checks. Here's how it would normally work: The thief would steal the Mona Lisa, only for the Count to refuse it. The Count gets the money, the thief goes to prison, and the art collectors eat humble pie—they can't raise a fuss at the risk of incriminating themselves. Here's how it works on Doctor Who: the six art collectors get their Mona Lisas, each of which is a legitimate copy that was painted by daVinci himself. The Count is really an alien splintered through time, and he's been working a long con throughout human history so that he can eventually save his own species at the cost of preventing humanity from ever existing. The good Doctor saves the day by aiming to visit daVinci, missing intentionally, and writing "THIS IS A FAKE" in permanent marker on the canvases reserved for the commissioned Mona Lisa replicas.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Trying to steal a painting —> Trying to erase the entire history of life on Earth.
  • Missing Steps Plan: It's not clear what Scarlioni intends to do to help the Jagaroth in the long run. If they don't blow themselves up with their warp drive, they'll be stranded on Earth with no sublight engines.
  • Mistaken for Exhibit: John Cleese and Eleanor Bron cameo as art appreciators who mistake the TARDIS for a sculpture — understandably, as it's sitting in an art gallery. They're particularly impressed when the Fourth Doctor and Romana run inside, and it dematerializes.
    Female Art Critic: ... Exquisite.
    [Male Art Critic nods sagely]
  • Nerves of Steel: Romana's reaction at seeing Scaroth horrifically murder his scientist to illustrate his threats to force her to cooperate? Smile and agree, while working out how to subtly sabotage his scheme as best she can. While having just faced up against the Daleks shows she's a quick learner in such dangerous situations, the trope just below has more of The Doctor's reaction...
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Nice job fixing up Scaroth's time machine, Romana. She did try to sabotage it so that it would only allow him to spend a few minutes in the past before getting snapped back to the present, but the Doctor points out that a few minutes is all Scaroth really needs to complete his business there.
  • Noodle Incident: The Doctor's already quite familiar with Leonardo da Vinci when he goes back in time to meet him.
  • Not Actually the Ultimate Question: Early in the serial, Romana and the Doctor board a train, at which point she asks him where they're going. The Doctor asks if she means the question in a literal or philosophical sense; when Romana answers "philosophical," the Doctor responds "then we're going to lunch."
  • Not-So-Badass Longcoat: Duggan is quite badass in himself, but his trench coat does nothing to suggest it.
  • No Warping Zone: The Jagaroth ship was destroyed because they tried to use its warp thrust to take off from Earth.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The Doctor, but the Scarlionis see right through it.
    Countess Scarlioni: I don't think he's as stupid as he seems.
    Count Scarlioni: My dear, no one could be as stupid as he seems.
    • She even tells the Doctor the more stupid he tries to seem, the less she believes he is.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Scaroth knows full well the consequences of his plan of trying to stop his ship from exploding, as in it would prevent all indigenous life on Earth from ever existing, and he couldn't care less.
  • One Character, Multiple Lives: Scaroth is living multiple lives throughout Earth's history simultaneously and using his shared knowledge of these lives to further his plans.
  • Panspermia: All life on Earth was started by an exploding alien spaceship.
  • Priceless Ming Vase: One of the many things Duggan breaks — in this case over the Countess's head.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Captain Tancredi's soldier. "I'm paid to fight," he insists casually. He isn't particularly menacing and bears the Doctor no ill will despite being prepared to torture him on Tancredi's orders.
  • Rapid Aging: Used by Scaroth to kill Professor Kerensky by aging him to death.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Probably inspired by an unconfirmed theory that the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 resulted in the conspirators selling six copies to American collectors, each convinced they had the real one.
  • Reluctant Mad Scientist: Kerensky thinks he's building a Rapid Aging machine that will raise crops and livestock in seconds to feed the hungry rather than a time machine that will end all life on Earth.
  • RetGone: Since the explosion of Scaroth's ship was responsible for creating life on Earth, his plan to prevent the explosion from happening would ensure that the planet remained a barren rock.
  • Reverse the Polarity: What the Doctor does to Kerensky's equipment to demonstrate that it can move backwards through time as well as forwards.
  • Rubik's Cube: International Genius Symbol: In a variant, Romana finds an antique Chinese puzzle box at Scarloni's and is told by the Countess that she'd never be able to solve it. It's open within seconds.
  • Scenery Porn: Ahhh, Paris...
  • Series Continuity Error:
    • Romana states her age as 125, when in her first appearance, she was 140. Though, she could be lying.
    • The Doctor gets the TARDIS to go exactly when and where he wants to three times in a row, when a mere two stories previously, he had rigged it to travel completely at random.
  • Shut Up, Kirk!:
    Doctor: Count, do you realize what would happen if you try to go back to a time before history began?
    Scarlioni: Yes, yes I do. And I don't care one jot.
  • Spheroid Dropship: The main body of the Jagaroth ship is almost perfectly spherical, although its legs mean it also has shades of Tripod Terror.
  • Stable Time Loop: Life on Earth would never have begun had the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan not been present back then to stop Scaroth.
    • Alternatively, there was an original timeline in which Scaroth's ship exploded creating life on Earth; and an altered timeline where Future Scaroth tried to stop the explosion, but the Doctor, Romana and Duggan prevented his interference, resulting in a very Close-Enough Timeline.
  • Stealth Pun: In French, "City of Death" is "Cité de la Mort", which sounds almost exactly like "Cité de l'Amour" (City of Love, a nickname for Paris). Oooh la la!
    • Not to mention that the title is a translation of the Greek-based word necropolis. And what is the famous necropolis found in Paris? The Catacombs of Paris, located under the city itself.
  • Strongly Worded Letter: After Duggan knocks Kerensky unconscious:
    Doctor: (angry) If you do that again, I'm going to take very serious measures!
    Duggan: Like what?
    Doctor: [Beat] I'll ask you not to.
  • Super-Senses: The Doctor can identify Leonardo's brush-work ("It's as characteristic as a signature") and pigments with little more than a glance.
  • Super-Speed Reading: "Not bad. Bit boring in the middle."
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: In the end, almost all the copies of the Mona Lisa were destroyed, except for one that the Doctor wrote on the board in felt tip marker, "THIS IS A FAKE." Unlike Duggan, that doesn't bother the Doctor in the least since a copy of a painting by the original artist is not a fake, and anyone who would want to bother x-raying the painting to find his writing to determine its monetary value doesn't appreciate the real value of art anyway.
  • Tap on the Head: Duggan knocks a few people out with no long-term consequences.
  • Trojan Prisoner: The Doctor and Romana allow Count Scarlioni to take them and Duggan prisoner (much to Duggan's chagrin), so the Doctor can learn more about Scarlioni's plan.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Those people in the café seem extremely unconcerned with the multiple armed holdups that occur during the serial.
  • Why We Can't Have Nice Things:
    • The Doctor writes THIS IS A FAKE on the back of the Mona Lisa with a felt pen.
    • Subverted when Duggan is about to smash a chair over Hermann's head.
    "Duggan, what are you doing? Put it down! For heaven's sake, that's a Louis Quinze!"
  • Wicked Cultured: Scarlioni.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Duggan knocks out Countess Scarlioni with a vase. Justified, as she was pointing a gun at him. The Doctor is more concerned about the vase.
  • Visible Boom Mic: An entire microphone boom is clearly visible in the background of one shot during the 1505 sequence in Episode Three, when the Doctor says "No life to brighten it [Earth] up. No life..."
    • This does not go uncommented on in the DVD/Blu-Ray triva commentary subtitles, where the track almost does a Face Palm over how nobody on set, in the editing booth or at transmission managed to notice it till it was too late.
  • Visual Pun: Duggan's method of attacking Count Scarlioni at one point.
    Scarlioni: Could you throw any light on this?
    Duggan: I can!
    Duggan throws the lantern he is holding at the Count, knocking the gun out of his hand.
  • The X of Y
  • You Have Failed Me: Sort of. Two of Count Scarlioni's henchmen have actually successfully recovered his wife's bracelet which the Doctor stole. "Good," he tells them. "But not good enough." He then has them killed and replaced with two different guys. Considering they got the bracelet, it's anyone's guess as to why he thinks they underperformed. It certainly can't be punishment for not being discreet, considering their replacements are just as brazen.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Scaroth kills both Kerensky and the Countess once they do everything he needed them for, and he was planning to do the same to all of humanity (who he only considered tools in his wider plan to undo the explosion of his ship, which would prevent humanity from existing).

Tropes from the novelization

  • And I Must Scream:
    • It shows Kerensky's Rapid Aging from his own point of view. Spending decades trapped in a bubble watching the others take years to move inches.
    • We see that all the iterations of Scaroth wander separately through the Time Vortex for all eternity after he's defeated.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: A past version of Scaroth was pope at one point.
  • Elemental Baggage: The Nestene Consciousness had to abandon an invasion because it landed on Earth thousands of years before plastic was invented. Luckily it left behind enough technology for Scarloninto make his mask.
  • The Fog of Ages: The different Scaroths have different levels of awareness that they're alien and connected to eachother. Count Scarlioni is the weakest and thinks himself human for most of his life.
  • God Guise: One of the artifacts in Scarlioni's collection depicts Scaroth was being worshipped as a god by cavemen and the ancient Egyptians.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: Scaroth stockpiled any alien technology he could find and that his mask was made from material left behind by an alien who was implied to be the Nestene Consciousness.
  • The Needless: Here we see Kerensky's Rapid Aging death from his own perspective. He spends decades in the bubble hoping he'll die of hunger or thirst but eventually dies of boredom.
  • Oddly Small Organization: The Sephiroth is the only spaceship that the Jagaroth have.
  • Other Me Annoys Me: The past versions of Scaroth think the current Count Scarlioni is an idiot
  • Time Stands Still: How Kerensky's Rapid Aging his portrayedfrom his perspective, he has to watch the others barely move for decades.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: The script and novelization show that Scarlioni doesn't realize he's an alien for most of the story.


Video Example(s):


...Absolutely exquisite

Two people in museum mistake the Doctor's TARDIS for an art piece after he parks it there.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / MistakenForExhibit

Media sources: