Visual Culture

Which is the best Doctor Who story?

Miles Booy looks at how 1979’s ‘City of Death’ became a Doctor Who fans’ favourite.

City of Death: The Making of a Dr Who Fans' Favourite

Media academic and Doctor Who fan Alan McKee has written a number of essays about fan preferences: ‘Which is the best Doctor Who story?’ and ‘Why is ‘City of Death the best Doctor Who story?’ [1] These aren’t inane queries. Fan preferences are strong indices of their preferred reading(s) of the programme in question, and often of the interpretative techniques current within fandom. Nowadays, most Who fans would count themselves too sophisticated to accept the terms of the ‘best story ever’ question. They would argue that no one single story encapsulates all of the show’s values.  (They would then vote for something which was on when they were eight). ‘City of Death’, however, is certainly popular.

The story was transmitted as part of the programme’s seventeenth season in 1979. It was produced by Graham Williams, then in his third year on the show, and written by Douglas Adams (on the verge of writing superstardom as author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). The plot is certainly original, and might well surprise those with a dim view of the programme. An alien being called Scaroth, the last of his kind, attempts a take-off from prehistoric Earth, only for his ship to explode around him, having the unusual effect of splintering him into twelve people scattered throughout human history. Although trapped in their distinct timezones, they collude to raise humanity up to the level of technology required for time travel, so that one of them can travel back from 1979 to the original explosion and stop his original self from attempting the take-off. The time travel experiments require massive funding which they acquire by playing fast and loose with Earth’s cultural history. One splinter, trapped in the Renaissance, commissions Da Vinci to paint six additional Mona Lisas which are then kept safely hidden for his 1979 self to find and sell on the black market. Of course, that requires stealing the original from the Louvre, so the major part of the story is about Parisian art theft – not your normal Who material.

Dialogue, music, direction and humour are all rich in the story and there’s a running joke/theme about the point and value of art. The Doctor admires Leonardo’s artistry, but others count the painting in financial terms. The one returned to the Louvre isn’t the same one which was stolen, so what’s that worth if it’s not the Mona Lisa? The themes of artifice and artistic construction played out here are familiar from this period of the series when the programme’s satirical edge was often turned upon its own conventions: the Doctor, for instance, pointing out that wherever he goes there are guards pointing pistols at him, or taunting the Daleks because they can’t follow him down a chute. All very clever, all very post-modern (at least as the term was casually used in the eighties). Does all of this add up to the best story ever?  Not at first.

We can learn something about shifts in fan opinion by inserting the historical analysis which McKee avoided. John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado, researching the programme in the early 1980s, uncovered only qualified praise for the story when prominent fan Ian Levine ‘grudgingly admitted that he ‘liked City of Death … It was certainly the best in that lamentable season’. [2] A 20th Anniversary ‘greatest story poll’ conducted by the Doctor Who Appreciation Society in 1983 saw ‘City’ come in at 18 – not bad until you realise that voters could only choose from 20 stories, one from each season of the programme. Two other Graham Williams productions filled places 19 and 20. That post-modern edge? In the seventies and early eighties, fans hated it, seeing it as ‘silly’. Drawing attention to the generic conventions was seen as an appalling act of betrayal upon a programme which should be ‘taken seriously’ as realist drama. ‘Season Seventeen’ became a byword for incompetence and slapdash production. When Williams left in 1980, he was replaced by a new producer, John Nathan-Turner, who, being very self-consciously serious about the programme himself, took out the self-reflexive gags, and the fans breathed again. The story which won the poll, typically for the time, was a Jon Pertwee adventure ‘The Daemons’. That story, and the Pertwee era in general, was then acclaimed by fans and its cast alike for its serious adventure format.

City of Death

Despite needing to outfox Scaroth’s plans to steal the Mona Lisa, the Doctor and Romana are still able to pose for this charming holiday snap.

Things changed later in the eighties. From 87-89, the programme rediscovered its self-reflexive edge, encouraging the sort of reading strategies which best-suited ‘City of Death’. Moreover, fans with degrees in Media Studies, Cultural Studies or Literature had theories of postmodernism and self-reflexive art with which to appreciate those same moments which had been decried as ‘send-up’ a decade earlier. These graduate fans were witty, articulate, and trained to deduce big systems from small textual moments. They expressed their views in fanzines with slightly silly names derived from the programme’s more recondite references (Perigosto Stick, Spectrox). Their boldly-expressed preferences played havoc with the traditional canon of judgments. ‘City of Death’ took up full-time residence in the top ten of any sizeable poll whilst the stock in Pertwee stories tumbled. A 2009 poll by Doctor Who Magazine (DWM), with 6,700 respondents found the once mighty ‘Daemons’ crashing down to 34 (and no Pertwee higher than 32) whilst ‘City’ finished 8th of 200. The magazine came in a choice of four covers the month that it announced the results, each representing a particularly acclaimed story. Researching in the loft where I am forced, by concerns of space and matrimony, to keep so much of my Who stuff, I find that I did indeed select the cover devoted to ‘City of Death’. ■

Miles Booy is the author of our new book, Love & Monsters: The ‘Doctor Who’ Experience, 1979 to the Present, the first historical account of the public interpretation of Doctor Who. Miles also has a PhD, so you can call him ‘The Doctor’.

[1] McKee, Alan ‘Which is the Best Doctor Who story?  A Case Study  in Value Judgements Outside the Academy’  Intensities: the journal of cult media no 1. 2001.  Find it now at ;
McKee, Alan  “Why is ‘City of Death’ the best Doctor Who story?” in Butler, David (ed.), Time and Relative Dissertations in Space  (Manchester, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2007).  P. 233-245
[2] Tulloch, John and Alvarado, Manuel  Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text  (MacMillan, London, 1983).  P. 328.

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