Visiting Paris, the Doctor and Romana (Lalla Ward) detect a time distortion. They see the Countess Scarlioni (Catherine Schell of Space 1999 fame) using an alien device to scan the security systems at the Louvre, near the Mona Lisa. Inspector Duggan (Tom Chadbon) suspects the Countess of being involved in an art theft scheme with her husband Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover). Investigating the Scarlioni Mansion, the Inspector and the time-travellers find equipment useful for time-travel and six exact copies of the Mona Lisa.
The Doctor travels back to Leonardo’s home in 1505, but is captured by Captain Tancredi, who is both Count Scarlioni and Scaroth, a member of the Jagaroth race of aliens. They had come to Earth 400 million years ago (This is wrong; it should be 4000 million years ago, but never mind.) but the explosion of their spaceship killed everyone except Scaroth, and his body was fragmented across time. These parts have manipulated humanity ever since and now they have the ability to go back in time and stop the explosion.
Leonardo has been employed to create copies of the Mona Lisa which Scarloni will sell as the stolen original to finance his mission. After Scaroth leaves, the Doctor knocks out his captor, marks the blank canvasses with a felt-tip pen “This is a fake” and leaves a message for Leonardo to use those canvasses. Then he returns to the present.
Back in Paris, Scarlioni is forcing Romana to work on his device. He will destroy Paris if she does not. The Doctor tries to recruit the Countess by revealing Scarlioni’s true form, but he kills her. Romana finishes her work and Scaroth travels into the distant past. The Doctor suspects that the explosion of Scaroth’s ship sparked the origin of life on Earth, and if it is prevented, the human species will never evolve. He takes Romana and Inspector Duggan back in the TARDIS, arriving just in time. Duggan knocks Scaroth out before he can reach his ship. Scaroth returns to the present time, is discovered in his original alien form. His bodyguard attacks him, and their battle destroys the time-travel device and sets the mansion on fire, killing them both. The original Mona Lisa and five copies, which were in the mansion, are destroyed. Duggan is devastated, but the Doctor points out that the copy in the Louvre was painted by Leonardo and is therefore real.
The City of Death was an extremely popular story as there was a strike at BBC’s rival ITV and there was little else to watch, but it remains about the most popular classic Doctor tale. Two tourists admiring the Mona Lisa at the Louvre were played by Eleanor Bron and John Cleese, with no credit. Romana has her own sonic screwdriver. Lalla Ward, unhappy with the silver catsuit provided, designed her own French schoolgirl outfit, and had no idea it would receive so much fan mail from older men. Julian Glover appeared in Space 1999, the British Avengers series, The Saint, Quatermass and the Pit, the Empire Strikes Back, For Your Eyes Only, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Troy, and Game of Thrones. The story, as usual, was criticized for Douglas Adams’ humour. I admit that I have found it irritating myself at times, but he was a brilliant comic writer and sometimes his jokes were the best part of the stories. I don’t believe there was a single wrong note in City of Death. The Doctor hiding a message to future examiners of the Mona Lisa paintings is an example of his cleverness, though the idea was stolen from non-criminal forger Tom Keating, who did the same to prevent his work from being sold as original.
The cast and crew heartily enjoyed filming in Paris, though it rained a lot. (April in Paris! Imagine!) The charming and light-hearted scenes with Tom Baker and Lalla Ward on the streets of Paris presaged the actors’ developing personal relationship. The Honorable Sarah Jill Ward (Her father was Edward Ward, 7th Viscount Bangor, descended from George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III) began her career in the Hammer film Vampire Circus. She played Ophelia to Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet on the BBC. Ward and Baker lived in a flat in Deptford. They were married in 1980, just before Baker left the series and were divorced 16 months later. Her friendship with writer Douglas Adams lasted much longer. In 1992, he introduced her to Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. They were married for 24 years. Her textile and ceramic art on the subject of rare and endangered animals was auctioned off for the Gerald Durrell Foundation and raised 24,000 pounds for the wildlife of Galapagos. Her great-grandmother, Mary Ward, was the first person on Earth to die in a motor vehicle accident.