Chapter 157. Doctor Who – City of Death (2018)

Synopsis: An emergency take-off on a barren world sees a spaceship explode, wiping out the last of the Jagaroth. Millions of years later, the Doctor and Romana are enjoying a holiday in Paris when they bump into a detective investigating a group of art thieves. What appears to be a simple heist turns out to have implications that echo through Earth’s history – and which will ensure it has no future.

Chapter Titles

  • Prologue: Escapes to Dangers
  • 1. Decision for the Doctor
  • 2. The Deadly Arrivals
  • 3. In the Hands of the Enemy
  • 4. Meeting with a Monster
  • 5. Sentenced to Death
  • 6. The Doctor Disappears
  • 7. The Face of the Enemy
  • 8. An Army of Monsters
  • 9. Return to Peril
  • 10. In the Power of Scaroth
  • 11. The Doctor Fights Back
  • 12. The World Destroyed
  • Epilogue: A Kind of Victory

Background: Despite the misleading credit on the cover, this is by James Goss, rewriting his longer novel, which was based on various drafts of scripts written by Douglas Adams, based on a storyline by David Fisher, as televised in 1979. All of the chapter titles are new to this edition, which is a slight shame as there were some corkers in the original.

Notes: The old ‘Changing Face of Doctor Who’ blurb is resurrected on the title page with the explanation that the Fourth Doctor’s appearance later changed ‘when he lost an argument with gravity’. We’re also told that the cover shows ‘the 12th incarnation of Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth’. The prologue has the glorious title ‘Escapes to Dangers’. Scaroth’s ship is called Sephiroth. Romana made use of the TARDIS food machine before reaching Paris. K9 chose not to accompany his Master and Mistress on their jaunt around Paris due to the many cobbled streets he detected. After 40 novels, it’s an utter joy to find an author creating a new way of describing the Fourth Doctor: ‘The overall impression was of someone who had been completely knitted’. 

The earliest Scaroth splinter –  the Primary Fragment – is a caveman who brings fire to a tribe of primitives who worship him as a God. The Primary Fragment is closer in time to the disaster, so is able to direct the course of his future selves; this becomes harder with those splinters that are further forward in time, which is why the final Scarlioni-Scaroth is initially ignorant of his real identity, blindly following his sense of purpose for a greater goal. It’s only when an itch leads him to peel away Scarlioni’s face in ribbons that he finally learns the truth. The face mask is self-repairing and is a ‘pan-polymeric protoplasm’, the product of alien technology that was recovered by Phidias, a previous incarnation of Scaroth. Phidias gave the material to a sculptor, who used his own face as a model. In addition to Tancredi, the other fragments are: A pope in the Vatican; a crusader in Jerusalem (whose resemblance to Richard the Lionheart must have been confusing – see The Crusades); an Irish martyr burned at the stake; a senator in a Byzantium court; an English nobleman in Venice; the architect of the Great Pyramid at Cheops; an astronomer in Babylon; and the inventor of the first wheel, living on the banks of the Euphrates. 

Countess Scarlioni’s first name is Heidi, while the tour guide at the Louvre is Madame Henriette. The Doctor namedrops Catherine de Medici and Oscar Wilde in addition to Shakespeare. It’s made explicit that the seven names in Duggan’s address book who are interested in buying the Mona Lisa were the same people who hired him to investigate Scarlioni. The TARDIS is parked in an art gallery owned by a Monsieur Bertrand (on TV, it’s not clear that this isn’t just another wing of the Louvre).

Romana is surprised by the Doctor’s fury as he rebukes her for helping Scarlioni build his time machine (he later apologises for his rudeness). She sees Scarlioni as a better class of villain than Davros, whom she struggles to imagine offering her a fruit platter. She counts among her achievements the triple-first she got from the Time Academy, her position as ‘favoured scion of the House of Heartshaven and her skills in the ‘trans-temporal debating society’ – but her only reaction when the Doctor explains the extent of Scaroth’s plans is ‘Huh?’

Trapped inside the time bubble, Kerenski lives out his life completely; from his perspective, it’s the other inhabitants of the cellar who are frozen in time and he eventually dies of boredom as much as old age. Romana sets the time bubble reset for three minutes, not two. Scaroth doesn’t die in the implosion, but is cast into the vortex, where he experiences the sensation of his past selves all turning their backs on him. The Doctor places the surviving Mona Lisa into Duggan’s hands for it to be returned to the Louvre. The detective waves the Doctor and Romana off and then sees them depart in the TARDIS.

Cover: Anthony Dry’s artwork shows the Doctor, Romana, Scaroth and the Jagaroth spaceship.

Final Analysis: For the first time since The Crusades, we have a Target book making its debut in a different imprint. As referenced in the ‘background’, Doctor Who novelisations took an interesting turn in the 21st Century; almost certainly inspired by the success of JK Rowling’s boy-wizard books, and with the added attraction of being based on scripts by Douglas Adams, Gareth Roberts’ novel of the great lost work Shada came out in hardback in 2012 to critical acclaim. The first edition of The City of Death, published in 2015, was a similarly weighty 320-page hardback volume. Three years later, James Goss condensed and rewrote his previous novel into a 185-page novel with a Target logo – at last!

The Target edition is less meandering, much more faithful adaptation of the TV story, Iosing some of the extended backstories (notably Heidi and Hermann, but also the entire subplot of the critics, which seemed to make little sense until the exact moment it slotted into the scene from the broadcast episode, at which point it became the Best Thing Ever). Luckily, it retains the sheer seductive joy of Goss immersed in a Douglas Adams mindset – as the opening paragraph of the prologue illustrates: 

It was Tuesday and life didn’t happen.

Wednesday would be quite a different matter.

Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, was in for a surprise. For one thing, he had no idea he was about to become the last of the Jagaroth

The destruction of the Jagaroth’ ship, Sephiroth, is presented as one of the universe’s little ironies – an entire species wiped out and leaving nothing behind of any significance except a trail of death. It’s a tiny observation, but it underlines the twist of fate that sees Scaroth fated to accumulate some of Earth’s greatest cultural artefacts while failing to appreciate their value, aside from how much they can be flogged on the black market to greedy collectors. 

At the beginning of the first chapter, the scene is set in such a knowing, cheeky way:

A man and a woman stood on top of the Eiffel Tower, every inch in love, if not with each other then certainly with life itself.

As in his previous version – and in the grand tradition of Terrance Dicks – James Goss smooths out some of the TV story’s plot wrinkles. The revelation of Scaroth’s true form, which is dramatic but slightly ludicrous on TV, is beautifully horrific here, as the artificial skin shreds away in ribbons to reveal a monstrous single eye set into a writhing mass of tentacles. The relationship of the Count and Countess Scarlioni is justified, making sense of exactly how an attractive wife can fail to be aware of her husband’s true nature – and in turn uncovering something altogether more unsettling about wealth, greed and human nature. Goss makes sure we never see the Countess as a victim – the truth is, she has a sickening taste for violence.

Admittedly, it helps that the story came from David Fisher and Douglas Adams – both fine minds with the skills to present the universe as basically absurd. While Goss captures the breathless energy of Adams especially, there’s never a sense that he’s showboating; he’s merely serving the story in an appropriate style. As a result, this may well be elbowing its way into my all-time top-five Target books. Just don’t tell Ghost Light.

6 thoughts on “Chapter 157. Doctor Who – City of Death (2018)

  1. I own both versions (and even the earlier unofficial New Zealand “Time Space Visualiser” one) but haven’t read either yet; I don’t know why, I enjoyed Shada, but am slightly worried, I guess, that it will feel like Goss is “trying too hard to be Douglas Adams”. No offence to Eoin Colfer but I have avoided the “sixth Hitchhikers book” for the same reason.

    Then again, I read the first couple of Terry Pratchett books when they came out, and felt that Pratchett was an Adams knock-off (how wrong that turned out to be, Pratchett had lots of good ideas and styles of his own; I’ll never be his biggest fan but do find him a pleasant read). In reality, Douglas Adams’ post-Hitchhikers books felt a lot like he was trying to be Robert “Brentford Triangle” Rankin…

    Maybe I should just hold my nose and dive in. After all, I ruddy love David Fisher’s Target books (especially Creature From the Pit and The Leisure Hive).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The problem – if you want to call it that – with Eoin Colfer’s HHG book is not so much that he’s trying too hard to be Douglas Adams, but that’s he’s not enough like Douglas Adams in outlook. Colfer is just too optimistic to write Hitchhiker’s Guide; whether that’s actually a sin or a welcome effect of having a new author on board doing things his own way is up to you. There are some lovely bits and Arthur’s relationship with his daughter, Random, is a highlight, but this book takes place in universe that doesn’t feel nearly as absurd and out to confound sensible people as Adams’ books. It’s a light, fluffy read that I enjoyed while reading it but promptly forgot most of immediately afterwards. That said, I suppose it makes a soothing chaser after the cynicism of “Mostly Harmless,” which even Adams thought was too bleak.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, could be. I thought the radio version of Mostly Harmless rectified the ending quite well, in a way that could be ignored by purists too. Maybe I should listen to the radio version of And Another Thing… (or the Hexa-whatsit Phase) one day.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. …and I just flipped through “Mostly Harmless” for the first time in yoinks and realized that all the stuff about Arthur and Random I thought I was remembering fondly from “And Another Thing…” is actually in “Mostly Harmless.” Getting old is fun.

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  2. There’s something rather fitting about Douglas Adams’s “Who” works being adapted and re-adapted over the years. His stories have a habit of squirming under the idea of being the immutable singular “one”. Ever since the “Hitchhiker’s” radio/novel series. What would we call that? The Adams Effect? It’s got to be something like that.

    I think the first version of “City of Death” I read was the TSV version by David Lawrence. Quite a different beast from James Goss’s take on the tale, but both have their own merits. Goss clearly has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The story bounces along in almost conversational tones. Lawrence, on the other hand, opens the book with the Hermit’s recounting of the Jagaroth to a young, pre-exile Doctor. It’s rather mythic. Then we shift to a marvellous little scene of the Doctor’s birthday party (with Leonardo, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Dickens, etc.) and it has a wonderful frivolity, but it’s very wry and methodical.

    In the pages of one book, the Doctor’s efforts to impress Romana at the Eiffel Tower are rather spontaneous, born out of a fear of becoming conventional. In the pages of another, they’ve been arguing about artistic merits for literally centuries and Paris is the latest in a long line of efforts for the Doctor to broaden Romana’s horizons. On the one hand, we have the Countess charmed into Scarlioni’s life of crime because of shared tastes. On the other, we have her blackmailing her way into the marriage explicitly for the wealth. It’s fascinating to see all the same notes hit (sometimes literally, as with Duggan) as in the televised story, but the details themselves end up being so remarkably different.

    It’s very difficult to describe. Like the difference between flippant wit and dry wit. It’s all terribly witty, but accented quite differently from approach to approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Took me a bit to figure out how to find this but I absolutely love this bit of waggery from the rec.arts.drwho days, from a thread in which folks speculated about how the art critic scene should be handled should “City of Death” ever be novelized:

    (You may need to scroll up a hair as the link isn’t precise. The post is by Daniel Frankham and begins with “Johann Clues liked art.”)

    Liked by 1 person

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