Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora Review
If ever there was a competition for Best Ever Doctor Who title (and knowing Gallifrey Base, if there isn’t one going already it won’t be long) The Masque of Mandragora would surely be one of the leading contenders. Most of the time these days we get slightly boring, even banal episode names (am I the only one who thinks that The End of Time was a very weary title?), but the era when Producer Philip Hinchcliffe was in charge in the mid Seventies was particularly good at coming up with thrilling, evocative titles which promised great things to come. Terror of the Zygons, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Hand of Fear: this was the stuff you wanted to see listed in the Radio Times (even if you didn’t know what a Zygon was, you could tell from the name it was pretty bloody petrifying), and The Masque of Mandragora, is another prime example. Before even reading the synopsis you’d instinctively get the impression that here was a story almost certainly set in Renaissance times featuring some elemental force coming along to ruin an Italian nobleman’s party, and that there’ll probably be stuff about science vs superstition (a perennial Doctor Who trope) and almost certainly a bit where someone takes off a mask to reveal that they aren't who everyone thought they were. It's certainly a lot more exciting than other prospective names writer Louis Marks came up with, like Doom of Destiny (over-egging the pudding a bit) or The Secret of the Labyrinth (meh). Even just saying the title out loud is fun.
And sure enough the story fully lives up to the promise held in those four words, with the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith (Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen) materialising in San Martino in Fourteen Something or Other, unknowingly dragging with them an alien presence from the Mandragora Helix, a shiny, floaty energy spiral in the galaxy which was their last port of call. No sooner have they set off to explore than said energy sneaks out of the TARDIS and starts flying about the place looking for a suitable host to possess to help it act out its Evil Plans. The poor sod it eventually settles on is Hieronymous (Norman Jones, channelling Marty Feldman), the court astrologer of the newly elevated Duke of San Martino Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong), who it chooses because he also happens to be the leader of an underground cult who worship the old Roman God Demnos. The Helix Energy intends to use this Brethren to help spread its power over the whole world, removing “all sense of purpose” from mankind and thus rendering them too lazy to make any further scientific discoveries. For the Mandragora Helix is a very unsociable sort of floaty energy spiral, and is concerned that one day humans will reach for the stars and move into its neck of the woods, usurping its place in the cosmos, and it doesn't fancy playing second fiddle to these stupid apes one bit. The Doctor, of course, discovers all this, but his attempts to enlist the aid of the new Duke in defeating the scheme are hindered by the machinations of the Duke's Evil Uncle(tm) Count Federico (Jon Laurimore) who has designs on the Dukedom himself. Can the Doctor reconcile all the various players in this drama before the Lunar Eclipse, when Mandragora will seize control?
Watching Louis Marks’s story it’s easy to see why Season Fourteen – and the Hinchcliffe era as a whole – is regarded as a golden period in Doctor Who’s history. Everything is firing on all cylinders. Baker is at his peak of his powers, totally assured in his portrayal but without that element of parody and petulant self-indulgence that would mar it in later years. This is a Doctor grins happily when faced with imminent decapitation and plainly revels in being chased by a group of angry castle guards, but whose mood can turn in an instant to deadly seriousness when the life of his companion is at stake or the fate of the universe is up for grabs. He is a hero both confident and also reassuringly childlike, his hand-clapping glee at the end when his plan has come together mirrored by a steeliness earlier on when he discusses with Sarah the very high stakes for which they are playing. Despite Mary Whitehouse's moans the scares are pitched at just the right level, robed figures dancing round a stone altar very intentionally referencing Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (a primary source of inspiration for this most gothic of tales) and a robed figure whose blank interior would surely have been as much of a shock to that generation as the empty faces of The Idiot’s Lantern were to this one. Supporting the action are Barry Newbury's sumptuous sets, as authentically baroque and rich in detail as one would expect from the classiest of the Beeb’s classic serials of the time, these being complimented by the exteriors filmed in Portmeirion - it takes a brave producer to try and film a genre series there following The Prisoner but Hinchcliffe at the time was unaware of that legacy (OR SO HE SAYS) and the filmed sequences aren't as instantly recognisable as Patrick McGoohan's former stomping ground as you might expect. All in all, it’s a serial brimming with confidence, at a time when the series had much to be confident about.
However, while the four episode length and gothic spectacle mean that you could never call it a dull adventure, it is a curiously uninvolving one. While all the ingredients are there for a cracking story, and Marks’s scripts have enough smarts in them to make them a superior example of the genre, the characters themselves are unremarkable, even stereotypical, while much of the actual plot revolves around the old Who stand-by of capture and escape. As an enemy the Mandragora is a bit of an esoteric foe, not nearly well defined enough to make for a first division baddy (at one point Sarah even has to belabour the point by saying “We’re in trouble, aren’t we?” as though without that the viewers might not realise anything very much was at stake) and Hieronymous, while a pleasingly bug-eyed hammy nutter, doesn’t have enough to distinguish him from other bug-eyed nutters, or do anything especially evil, to render him either a pitiful or fearsome figure. Indeed, there’s a bit of a trend for villains not being quite villainous enough about the thing, with Federico spending his time laying deep Machiavellian plots to usurp someone who, if we're being honest, is a bit of a wet while being so self-absorbed that he doesn't realise that the end of the world is happening right under his feet. It's not surprising that the Doctor, after their initial encounter, almost completely ignores the old fool, or that in the end he's rather unceremoniously tossed aside a full episode before the story ends. His character isn't exactly padding, but it's not far off.
Script Editor Robert Holmes didn't particularly like doing historicals, partially I suspect because they had characters who all had to speak terribly stiffly with received pronunciation and he liked populating his stories with common Joe aliens who went round saying "Cor blimey," and "Lord love a duck." I think that's perhaps why Masque, despite all the great stuff going on, leaves me a little cold; its characters never manage to break free of that formal straitjacket and assume their own, individual personas above and beyond the needs of the script (something at which, of course, Holmes himself was a past master.) Even poor old Sarah Jane, in her penultimate adventure, gets a bit of a bum deal, spending her time chained up in a cell or lying on a slab waiting to be sacrificed, the helpless heroine a far cry from the girl we saw in last month's The Monster of Peladon banging on about women's lib. The Third Doctor would hardly have recognised her.
But against that there are a couple of delightful scenes with her and the Fourth Doctor, notably the opening to Episode One in which they explore the TARDIS and discover the secondary console room. Thinking over the whole, it feels positively churlish to suggest that The Masque of Mandragora is anything other than first-rate Doctor Who, and for the most part it is, with a witty Doctor, actors who stay the right side of hammy and an impressive look. But compared to other classics of that season it still falls short, having neither the memorable characterisation of Talons nor the unnerving feeling of The Robots of Death or the striking villain of The Hand of Fear. If you compare it to dross that was to come a few seasons later, it's in a different class, but set against the very high standards its own companions it's not quite in the same league. Great title though.
It’s business as usual for the year’s second Classic Who release, Masque coming on a single DVD encoded for Regions 2 and 4 and having no deviation from the standard menu set-up or case. As ever the Video image consists of both material shot on 2” video (for the interior sequences) and 16mm film (for the location shots) – generations of Who fans have grown up knowing the difference between the two because of that almost jarring transition between one and the other that occurs multiple times in most episodes from the Seventies. Unfortunately, Masque’s filmed sequences don’t look as good as many others from the time; the original film masters have been lost, the only copies being on tape, transferred using a process that results in an image that is, in the words from the Restoration Team’s article on the release, “soft and smeary.” The RT’s Peter Crocker has done his best to restore the look, but the clarity of the image, is notably less than on some releases, with shots in the greenery of the forest in the first couple of episodes somewhat fuzzy. Fortunately the interiors are fine, the prints looking nice and clean, with detail as good as it can be and there being no obvious compression artefacts. The Audio is of a similarly high quality, and all extras bar the commentary are subtitled.
The Commentary gathers together Baker, Hinchcliffe, Production Unit Manager Chris D’oyly-John (who has since passed away) and Armstrong for a genial chat. The Hinchcliffe era commentaries are always amongst the most relaxed – there’s no Chris Bidmead stridently justifying everything he does, or Davison and Fielding taking the mick, just a group of people happily appreciative of what they’re watching. Baker is at his most relaxed talking about this period – there’s none of the angst of his later years, and he and Hinchcliffe obviously got on extremely well and still do. Indeed, at one point Hinchcliffe even remarks what a joy it had been to work with Baker, unlike, he grimly adds, his relationship with leading actors on later shows he produced (now I wonder who he could be referring to?) Baker is on fairly tranquil form, and their two companions both join in fully in the reflections in a track which is ultimately unmemorable but still an enjoyable listen. Joined with the Production Subtitles, which are the usual diligently researched assembly of facts about all aspects of the story’s making together with the odd bits of trivia, and you have a pretty good account of the production.
Not all Who DVDs have a companion Making of these days, but this one does. The Secret of the Labyrinth (26:25) evidently organised a day trip to Portmeirion for the story’s luminaries, bringing an impressive number of both cast and crew back to their old stomping ground to reflect on what, in truth, seems to have been a fairly uneventful, if pleasant, shoot. There’s also a Now and Then (8:42) featurette which shows how the locations have changed in the past thirty years. In the past this strand has occasionally tended towards the pointless (“Here’s what this place looked like then – and hey look, it hasn’t really changed much!”) but this is one of the better ones, using a map of Portmeirion to pinpoint where exactly everything was shot. It still feels much like filler, mind, as, regrettably does Beneath the Masque (9:42). Former Doctor Who Magazine editor and DVD cover designer Clay Hickman and Gareth "The Shakespeare Code" Roberts are jointly responsible for the funniest Doctor Who story of all time but this faux documentary, in which they make jokes about the Seventies and dress up like them off of Blue Peter, is an indulgent bit of larking about that isn’t quite as witty as it thinks it is.
As ever, the release also gathers together the usual bits of ephemera connected to the story, PDFs of the original Radio Times listings and the Trails and Continuity (2:43) (“Saturday night entertainment on BBC 1”) from its first airing, as well as the usual boring Photo Gallery (7:37) of behind-the-scenes shots that I would be the first to complain about were it not present. I’ve not reviewed a Who DVD for a while, and only usually watch the story and commentary for those which I don’t write about, but looking at this DVD again it really does strike me how fortunate we are in each and every release, whether they are “bare bones” or not, with the amount of care and attention that is given to gathering even these peripheral items. And then, to top it all off, there’s a bonus item, Bigger on the Inside (19:03), an enjoyable dissertation on the TARDIS itself, a subject, by this stage, you would have thought would have already been covered on these releases but surprisingly not. Writer Robert Shearman is particularly insightful in this look at the old Type 40 down the years, and how nice to see for once the novels of the 1990s, such an important part of Who lore but all-too-often overlooked these days, getting a look in, albeit briefly. All of which combines to present a package as fine as The Masque of Mandragora could ever wish to see.
Next month, as the Coming Soon trailer (1:53) reveals, we have a Hartnell double bill of The Space Museum and The Chase, neither of which is a great title either but are still better than The End of Time.
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10