James Goss – Douglas Adams: City of Death
HOW DOUGLAS ADAMS WROTE THE MOST POPULAR DOCTOR WHO STORY IN A WEEKEND. (and other things to shame all other writers)
If you’re not a Doctor Who fan, the chances are you’ll have met one at a party. They’ll have backed you into a corner, saying “No, but seriously, have you seen City Of Death? It’s really, really good. I mean, it’s by Douglas Adams and it’s set in Paris and it has Tom Baker in it and…”
At that point you’ll either be excusing yourself to lunge at the guacamole, or you’ll be hooked. And City Of Death is well worth your time. True Doctor Who fans (especially the ones blocking your path to the ham and pineapple pizza) will perhaps opine that it’s not the best Doctor Who story ever, but it’s certainly the most popular. On its original broadcast it got the show’s highest audiences ever – thanks in part to ITV being on strike, but we prefer to ignore that and concentrate on how brilliant it is.
City Of Death is a breezy story about time travel, art theft and a villainous Parisian Countess. It’s also terribly, terribly annoying – because Douglas Adams wrote it in a weekend. You look at the hundreds of other Doctor Who stories out there – some dogged by the elaborate excuses of late authors, some rewritten on the studio floor, and some painstakingly developed over the course of years – and then there’s City Of Death. When the original script fell through, Adams was grabbed by the show’s producer and stuck behind a typewriter until it was done.
Could such a thing be done now? 1979 was such a primitive time for the internet that it had never even got cross about Katie Hopkins (imagine that). Without the distraction of emails, texts, and wikipediaing Paris’s geography, Adams was forced to rely on his wits and a lot of coffee. And he got through it, and produced something brilliant – a story that’s genuinely funny, and a fiendishly complicated time travel plot that just works.
That’s the real legacy of City Of Death – one that haunts the rest of us. Anyone who’s ever used the “#amwriting” hashtag; Anyone who’s ever handed in a first draft and said “It’s rough but we’ll get it right in a few goes”. Douglas Adams wrote City Of Death in a weekend, and they pretty much started filming that first draft on Monday. It’s a fact which haunts everyone.
In fact, next time a writer friend of yours Facebooks to say “Managed 2,000 words today and nearly reached the summit! #Phew #SmashedIt”, why not just reply “Douglas Adams wrote City Of Death in a weekend”? I’m sure they’ll thank you.
City Of Death – Douglas Adams & James Goss – BBC Books
The Doctor takes Romana for a holiday in Paris – a city which, like a fine wine, has a bouquet all its own. Especially if you visit during one of the vintage years. But the TARDIS takes them to 1979, a table-wine year, a year whose vintage is soured by cracks – not in their wine glasses but in the very fabric of time itself.
Soon the Time Lords are embroiled in an audacious alien scheme which encompasses home-made time machines, the theft of the Mona Lisa, the resurrection of the much-feared Jagaroth race, and the beginning (and quite possibly the end) of all life on Earth.
Aided by British private detective Duggan, whose speciality is thumping people, the Doctor and Romana must thwart the machinations of the suave, mysterious Count Scarlioni – all twelve of him – if the human race has any chance of survival.
But then, the Doctor’s holidays tend to turn out a bit like this.
City of Death is published by BBC Books and is available in paperback and digital format. You can order a copy here.
James Goss is the author of two Doctor who novels: The Blood Cell and Dead of Winter, as well as Summer Falls (on behalf of Any Pond). He is also the co-author, with Steve Tribe of The Doctor: His Lives and Times, The Dalek Handbook and Doctor Who; A History of the Universe in 100 Objects. While at the BBC James produced an adaptation of Shada, an unfinished Douglas Adams Doctor Who story, and Dirk is his award-winning stage adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. His Doctor Who audiobook Dead Air won Best Audiobook 2010 and his books Dead of Winter and First Born were nominated for the 2012 British Fantasy Society Awards. His new book, Haterz, is out now.