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Doctor Who: City Of Death by Douglas Adams and James Goss (book review).

‘City Of Death’ is regularly seen as a highlight of the SF show’s original run, receiving the highest viewing figures of any ‘Doctor Who’ story ever, though industrial action over at ITV may have nudged up the numbers a bit. ‘City Of Death’ also regularly ranks highly in ‘Best Ever’ polls for the best ever ‘Doctor Who’ story. Unsurprising really as it has a script by Douglas Adams (based on a story by David Fisher), Tom Baker on sparkling form, alongside Lalla Ward and the always brilliant Julian Glover, high production values with the show being filmed in Paris and even an appearance from Eleanor Bron and John Cleese.


Yet ‘City Of Death’ never received something that was very important to the original series; a Target novelisation. Yes, despite the fact that almost every original ‘Doctor Who’ story was immortalised in print with, let’s face it, varying degrees of success, ‘City Of Death’ never found its way to bookshelves. This was mainly due to Douglas Adams being wildly successful and Target advances being enough to buy a wet weekend in Cleethorpes. That, coupled with an unwillingness by Adams to let anyone else to novelise the story, meant that it stayed firmly on the TV screen.

But ‘Doctor Who’ is rather popular again nowadays and, despite the fact that he had the bad manners to go and die in 2001, so is Douglas Adams. Thus, ‘City Of Death’ finally makes it way to the printed page written by Adams and James Goss, a veteran of many a ‘Doctor Who’ spinoff.

The Doctor (the fourth one, aka Tom Baker, the one who is all teeth and curls) takes his companion Romana (the second one, Lalla Ward, aka the one who runs around in a school uniform and went on to marry Richard Dawkins) to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Paris. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself embroiled in a plot that involves numerous versions of the Mona Lisa. Scaroth, an alien who keeps giving people the eye, plenty of strange things involving time and some art critics who seem vaguely familiar. Cue lots of running around, some very inventive threats and an interesting take on the evolution of humanity.

The knockabout energy of the original TV story transfers to the page well with the narrative moving on apace. Of course, what actually happens will be familiar to many, not only to fans of ‘City Of Death’ but to those of Adams as he was prone to re-use some of his ideas. So it’s to Goss’ credit that he utilises the original shooting scripts as the basis of his novel and adds extra motivation to some characters, especially that of Scaroth, though it’s also nice to see the art critics given a bit of back story. He also smoothes out a few unexplained plot points from the original and throws in a couple of cheeky references to the modern series that should raise a smile or two as well.

Goss also gets the characterisation pretty spot-on. The heroic, yet decidedly odd and alien, Doctor and the slightly snooty Romana are all rendered well on the page while Scaroth is made villainous yet sympathetic. There are also a number of effective sequences, including the death of one character that is chillingly protracted, both literally and figuratively.

Goss does sometimes seem to try too hard to ape Adams’ writing style. Adams had a wonderful way of pricking the pomposity of SF by juxtaposing grandiose ideas with the utterly banal. While Goss sometimes manages to hit the nail on the head with a wry comment and simile, more often than not it feels slightly forced.

There is something very wrong with it being a hardback. Let’s face it, a large amount of people buying this book will be doing so to wallow in nostalgia. So can we get a paperback version looking exactly like a Target book please?

The novelisation manages to be a rollicking adventure which adds just about enough to its source material to be a worthwhile endeavour.

Now, hands up who wants to have a go at ‘The Pirate Planet’?

Laurence Boyce

June 2015

(pub: BBC Books. 320 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-84990-675-3)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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