An exceptionally well told tale that only just falls short of true greatness, ‘The Masque of Mandragora’ is the first story of what I personally consider to be the absolute best season Doctor Who ever produced.
The Doctor and Sarah find themselves in San Martino, Italy during the 15th century, the time between the ending of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. Mankind is on the verge of leaving ignorance and superstition behind and embracing the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. But in the meantime there are secret cults, ritual sacrifices, fledgling science, Machiavellian nobleman, brutalized peasants and magnificently bearded astronomers who dress like Mystic Meg. It’s the perfect setting for a Doctor Who story and I’m surprised more haven’t been set there. One of the Doctor’s chief aims, besides thwarting bad guys, saving planets and being pretty sort of marvellous, has always been to enlighten those he encounters and help them better understand the ways of the universe.
Portmerion in Wales (which I’m contractually obliged to remind everyone was immortalised for all time as The Village in The Prisoner) is perhaps not the most obvious stand-in for Renaissance Italy, but somehow still manages to work perfectly. The production team excel themselves in creating a living and breathing 15th century Italy (including the bad hair styles). In fact the only thing that shatters the illusion is the distinctive Cockney twang of the palace guards.
To say that Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are both brilliant would be redundant because I’m sure everyone knows that already, but what the hell, they’re absolutely bloody wonderful. Elsewhere, Joe Laurimore and Norman Jones both make for terrific villains, with Jones getting extra evil points for sporting that truly frightful beard. At the other end of the acting spectrum, Gareth Armstrong is rather stiff as the naïve Duke and it doesn’t help that his best mate is played by Tim Pigott-Smith, a far superior actor who manages to blow Armstrong off the screen without even trying.
A five star classic, then? Almost. While the entire production looks terrific, the plot quickly runs out of steam before the end. The characters, although well played, are mostly just recognizable archetypes (cruel uncle, noble prince, wicked sorcerer, etc). The Mandragora Helix is not the most compelling of adversaries and its final defeat reeks of anticlimax. And it’s disappointing that Sarah Jane, in her penultimate adventure, doesn’t get to do much besides being repeatedly kidnapped and brainwashed by the bad guys.
Notes and Quotes
--This story features the introduction of a brand new TARDIS console room (just past the ‘boot cupboard’) that is radically different from previous designs yet seems perfectly suited to Tom’s bohemian Doctor. Sadly it was scrapped after this season (rumor has it was due to water damage) and the old console room was reinstated.
--The title sequence has been slightly altered, featuring a new style of lettering, in a serif font.
--The Doctor explains for the first time how he and his companions are able to understand what everyone says no matter where or when they are. He describes it as a 'Time Lord gift'.
--That’s one hell of a big boot cupboard.
--The Doctor’s reasoning for knowing Sarah has been brainwashed is complete bollocks.
The Doctor: "Well, it depends, doesn’t it?"
Hieronymous: "On what?"
The Doctor: "Well, on whether the Moon is made of cheese, whether the cock crows three times before dawn, and twelve hens lay addled eggs."
Sarah Jane: "Well just how big is the TARDIS?"
The Doctor: "Well how big is big? Relative dimensions and you see, no constraints."
The Doctor: "Humans have got such limited little minds. I don't know why I like you so much."
Sarah Jane: "Because you have such good taste."
The Doctor: "That's true. That's very true."
Sarah Jane: "The worse the situation, the worse your jokes get"
The Doctor: "Guiliano, you're not afraid, are you?"
Guiliano: "Afraid? Well, no."
The Doctor: "Funny. Most people would be."
Hieronymous: "Had it not been you, there would have been other travellers drawn into Mandragora's Helix. Earth had to be possessed and checked. Man's curiosity might lead him away from this planet until, ultimately, the galaxy itself might not contain him. We of Mandragora will not allow a rival power within our domain."
Three out of four astronomers who dress like Mystic Meg.