Doctor Who – “The Masque of Mandragora”

After an encounter with the deadly Mandragora Helix, the Doctor and Sarah Jane land in 15th century San Martino. In the midst of danger, secrecy, and intrigue, they witness the flowering of the Italian Renaissance.

As the masque to celebrate the accession of the new Duke of San Martino approaches, the Doctor realizes that a third visitor has arrived with him in the TARDIS. It is a force with the power to wipe out human civilization forever. The Doctor has brought it to Earth – and only the Doctor can stop it.

Tom Baker is the Doctor in The Masque of Mandragora.

X X X X X

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Count Federico – John Laurimore
Hieronymous – Norman Jones
Captain Rossini – Antony Carrick
Giuliano – Gareth Armstrong
Marco – Tim Piggott-Smith
High Priest – Robert James
Brother – Brian Ellis
Soldier – Pat Gorman
Guard – James Appleby
Guard – John Clamp
Pikeman – Peter Walshe
Pikeman – Jay Neill
Titan Voice – Peter Tuddenham
Dancers – Peggy Dixon, Jack Edwards, Alistair Fullarton, Michael Reid, Kathy Wolff
Entertainer – Stuart Fell

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Writer: Louis Marks
Director: Rodney Bennett
Original broadcast: 4 September – 25 September 1975

Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cq1e1OjMpug

X X X X X

The Masque of Mandragora is the debut serial for Season 14 of Doctor Who, returning to the historical stories of the First Doctor with a science fiction twist and some absolutely gorgeous location shooting and studio filming. Boasting both a solid plot and top notch acting, this story is a major example of Philip Hinchcliffe’s goal to bring a more mature attitude to the show. While The Masque of Mandragora is a fantastic story and a vital part of what some consider to be the best season in the show’s history, the confusing and rushed nature of the story’s finale prevents it from being considered one of the all time classics.

During a tour of the TARDIS, the Doctor and Sarah Jane come across the ship’s secondary console room, a more intimate space decked out with wooden walls and brass fittings. And there’s also the Mandragora Helix, a being o f living energy that makes its home inside the Time Vortex, which the Doctor flies THROUGH in an attempt to escape from it. In the process, the TARDIS is redirected to 15th century Italy. The Duke of San Martino lays dying. His brother, Count Federico, proclaims that the Duke’s passing is the will of the gods as foretold by the court astrologer Hieronymous. The Duke’s son, Giuliano, believes that his father was poisoned by Federico. And the Doctor is caught in the middle, not by choice, but because a portion of the Mandragora Helix had stowed away inside the TARDIS and its decided that the 15th century. Between the Dark Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance, its the perfect time to take control of the Earth…

After the success of Pyramids of Mars, producer Philip Hinchcliffe wanted to produce another serial set in Earth’s past. This didn’t sit too keenly with script editor Robert Holmes, who found such stories boring and tedious. The two men reached a compromise – the opening story for Season 14 would be a story steeped in Earth’s history as well as include the science-fiction elements that Holmes’ writing often focused on. Instead of meeting a famous figure like Marco Polo or becoming involved in a major historical event such as the Reign of Terror, Hinchcliffe was inspired by Roger Corman’s version of the Edgar Allan Poe classic tale The Masque of Red Death to set the story in Renaissance Italy. And for a story set in that time period, there was only one man in mind for the job – Robert Marks, writer of the previous season’s Planet of Evil as well as holder of a PhD in none other than Renaissance history. With Rodney Bennett, director of The Ark in Space on board, the cast and crew traveled to the Welsh resort town of Portmeiron, chose for its Mediterranean architecture and perhaps best known as the filming location of the mysterious village from Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. During production, the title of the script was changed several times, from Catacombs of Death to Doom of Destiny to Secret of the Labyrinth to The Curse of Mandragora and finally to The Masque of Mandragora.

There’s no denying that The Masque of Mandragora is one of the best looking serials in the history of Doctor Who. Bennett uses every inch of Portmeiron to his advantage, shooting the Doctor and Sarah Jane running through forests, descending flights of stone steps, running along woodland trails, escaping from outdoor plazas, and skulking through hidden passageways and underground crypts. For the portions shot inside a studio, it looks like the wardrobe and prop departments ransacked a BBC production of Romeo and Juliet. The costumes look like something one would expect from a properly funded BBC drama series. Every room, from the bedroom of the dying Duke to the torture chambers in the bowels of the castle and even the crypt that the cult of Mandragora calls home, look like someone in the BBC budget department loosened the purse strings for just one story. And there’s even the brand new TARDIS exterior (bigger light, flatter roof, less likely to collapse on the actors inside) and, for a few episodes anyway, a brand new control room. This secondary control room, outfitted in brass and wood, lacked the central time rotor and had a more subtle set of roundels on the walls, with a few of them framing a stained glass window.

The script for The Masque of Mandragora almost reaches the level of its visual production. It’s a pretty damn good script by Marks, blending Hinchcliffe’s historical bent with Holmes’ science-fiction leanings and perhaps even throwing in a little bit of Hamlet with the inexperienced Prince and his companion against the older and craftier Duke. There’s palace intrigue, there’s swordplay, there’s thrilling heroics and escapes, an evil cult, and the eternal question of faith vs. science. On the “faith” side of things are Count Federico and the court astrologer Hieronymous. Jon Laurimore chews the HELL out of the lush scenery as the scheming Federico who is one of the hammiest villains in the show’s entire history. With a permanent scowl on his face, he kicks his lackeys about, threatens anyone who crosses his path, and issues threats such as ”fail me and you shall breakfast on burning coals!” His partner-in-crime, the astrologer Hieronymous, is played by Norman Jones who is making his third appearance in the series, having also starred in The Abominable Snowmen and Doctor Who and the Silurians. He’s a sort of sad sack figure, taunted by Federico and ignored by Giuliani, so it’s no wonder he (and the cult he leads, a creepy masked group who worship the Roman god Demnos) eventually turns to the Mandragora Helix for a semblance of respect and power. His story is a fine example of how villains get made, while also being an example of how someone can act with a GREAT BIG BUSHY BEARD!

The Mandragora Helix itself is a strange villain (that looks just a bit silly as either a crystallized circle or a beam of red/orange energy) who seizes the chance to conquer the Earth by using the gap between the Dark Ages and the scientific progress of the Renaissance to form a new religion, one that will spread over the planet and stop humanity from becoming enlightened enough to spread out among the stars. It’s another tip of the hat during Hinchcliffe and Holmes’ run about how humanity will leave Earth and take their rightful place in the galaxy, for better or for ill.

The “science” portion of the plot is portrayed by Gareth Armstrong as Giuliani and his companion Marco played by Tim Pigott-Smith, making his second appearance on the show along with The Claws of Axos. Both actors are in fine form as the cautious Giuliani takes advice from the headstrong Marco, whose dedication to his friend makes him one of the more memorable secondary characters in the show’s history. In the behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD, Pigott-Smith proclaims that throughout his long acting career, his turn on Doctor Who is still one of his favorites. Indeed, all the actors interviewed for the documentary talk about how much fun and exciting working on this story was. It’s easy to see why – the script has plenty of scares for the little kids while also having an interesting and compelling plot to keep the attention of the parents/older viewers.

One area where the script sadly suffers is with regards to how it treats Sarah Jane. Elisabeth Sladen was prepared to leave Doctor Who at the end of Season 13, but the pre-production of this story convinced her to stay on for two more stories. Perhaps it was the historical setting or the filming locations that interested her, because it couldn’t have been how the character was portrayed. Almost twenty seconds after landing in San Martino, Sarah Jane is kidnapped, almost sacrificed to Demnos, rescued by the Doctor, kidnapped again, and then brainwashed into attempting to kill the Doctor. Granted, it is mixed in with several moments between Sarah and the Doctor (such as where Sarah Jane helps the Doctor with a little basic math), but for the most part Sarah Jane is a damsel in distress during this story which is simply a damn shame.

The script also falters with a fourth episode that feels very rushed and anti-climatic. The cult is attacking the village, scattering its resident with bolts of fire, and Giuliano wants to cancel the big masquerade to celebrate his ascension to the Dukedom only for Marco and the Doctor to convince him otherwise as doing so would be a sign of weakness. So you have all the important figures and nobles in Italy gathered in one ballroom having a good time while outside a cult is killing the peasants (how, dare I say, Masque of Red Death while down in the crypts the Doctor is confronting the Mandragora Helix armed with only a breastplate and a grounding wire. As the Helix shoots bolt after bolt of fiery energy at the Doctor, hitting him and driving him to his knees, the cult breaks into the ball, kills some people, herds the rest to the crypt for the “ultimate sacrifice,” the Helix descends…and the cult keels over dead as the Helix consumes their bodies. The cult leader takes off his mask, revealing himself to be the Doctor who simply states that “energy squared” drove off the Helix.

And that’s it.

There’s deus ex machina, there’s handwavium, and then there’s the climax to this story. There’s little time devoted to the Doctor/Helix showdown and the editing when the cult attacks the masquerade ball makes it look like nearly all of Italy’s princes and intellectual elite have died in a hail of red energy (which, again, how Masque of Red Death), and the Doctor showing back up without explaining just how the hell he defeated the cult leader…not the energy being turned back on him, not the wire grounding the energy into Earth, just Tom Baker’s beaming smile as the day is saved by the Doctor. To be fair, Baker’s grin does go a long way towards forgiving the fourth episode’s sins. There’s a bit of the Third Doctor in Four’s actions during this story, from the sword fighting and horse riding to the daring escapes (the first act cliffhanger and its resolution is very well done), the suffering of buffoons and the use of science to save the day in the end. Baker puts it all into this one with his charm and wit, only getting serious when it’s obvious Sarah Jane is in danger and needs to be protected/rescued. Until then, he spars verbally and physically with the best of them. The putting of an orange on a sword’s point is a nice touch.

Cygnia – I really need to adapt “Masque of Mandragora” into one of my 7th Sea campaigns one of these days…

As a kid, I always got Frederico and Giuliano got mixed up. Echoing Cobi, this is a serial with beautiful sets and costuming. Always dug the masks at the end (loved Four’s lion mask) and Sarah Jane’s white (damsel in dis)dress.

And the secondary control room of the TARDIS! Of all the nods to nostalgia in the modern series, I admit, I’d like to see that make a cameo, even a brief one. But as a story, I actually forgot how it ended. I remember the red-orange light — and that’s about it…

As an aside, the Mandragora Helix does make a return in “Beautiful Chaos” by Gary Russell with Ten and Donna. More importantly, Wilf’s in it too, being awesome! It also has the first appearance of Wilf’s girlfriend Minnie Cooper (who plays an important part in the climax) as well.

As someone who’s a fan of swashbuckling, The Three Musketeers, and 7th Sea, The Masque of Mandragora is definitely a story worth watching, and that’s without the lush settings, grand costuming, great acting, and intriguing plot. It’s only the treatment of Sarah Jane and the rushed climax that bring this story down, and even then it’s only from an “A” to an “A-.” A melding of Philip Hinchcliffe’s attempts to grow up and mature Doctor Who and Robert Holmes’ use of science-fiction to enhance the script, The Masque of Mandragora is a solid episode to open up what some consider to be the best run of stories in the show’s history.

Random Thoughts
– The three cliffhangers are all pretty well done, with the Doctor’s imminent execution at the end of episode one, Giuliano at the mercy of the guards and Sarah being kidnapped at the end of the second episode, and the reveal of the Helix’s power to end the third episode.
– In a tribute to the show’s past, the secondary console room contains a frilled shirt and a recorder, items associated with the Third and Second Doctors respectively.
– We get the first mention of the TARDIS’ translation circuit when Sarah asks how she can understand 15th century Italian, and the Doctor explains it’s a Time Lord gift he’s sharing with her.

Cobi’s Synopsis – A gorgeous story that mixes history and science-fiction, The Masque of Mandragora combines science, faith, swordplay, 15th century Italy, Machiavellian machinations, and an evil cult dedicated to a Roman god all combine to provide what might be the best looking serial in the show’s history.

Next up – After a miraculous survival, Sarah Jane is found frantically clinging to a large stone hand…

Tom Baker is the Doctor in…The Hand of Fear.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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