Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora

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While I appreciate that I probably have something of an “avid Doctor Who fan” reputation, the truth is that my Whovian education is sorely lacking in some key areas. There are several periods of the classic series where I was not watching the series as it aired for some reason, and have somehow neglected to backfill my Who education even once it became possible with home video releases and via endless reruns on UK Gold in the 1990s.

One major gap is the middle period of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor, the classic series’ undisputed golden era. While I’ve caught up on a number of the most stand-out stories from this time (like “Seeds of Doom”, “The Robots of Death,” “Horror of Fang Rock” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” classics all) there have been others for which I have just never had the right moment. One such serial is “The Masque of Mandragora” from 1976, which means that despite knowing the basic story from episode guides, this week’s viewing of it is literally the first time I’ve seen it properly from beginning to end. A brand new Tom Baker adventure for me to experience – even if it is nearly 36 years old!

There used to be a saying in the mid-70s that if you asked the BBC production department for a science-fiction prop, they’d stick a piece of tin foil on a second-hand lamp and consider the job done; but ask for a historical setting and they would go all-out to deliver the most splendid and accurate items that they possibly could, expense be damned. The latter certainly seems true here, and the setting of 15th century Renaissance Italy seems to have particularly inspired everyone involved. The costumes are gorgeous, from the authentic period garb to the sumptuous velvety robes worn by the forbidden sect along with their beautiful but unsettling full-face gold masks. The sets and props are equally magnificent, both detailed and realistic – save for one oddly fake-looking underground crypt wall when a secret door is required. And this story also features the début of the Tardis’ sadly short-lived wood-panelled ‘second control room’ which in terms of interior decor is just to die for.

The quality extends to the location shooting undertaken at the Italian-esque folly of Portmeirion in Wales (better known as The Village from the Sixties TV series The Prisoner) which features impressive stunt work: fights, punch-ups, swordplay, fires and even a full speed horse chase are squeezed out of the programme’s budget. The FX department also raises its game to match: while the alien villain of the piece (the Mandragora Helix) is really just a sparkler superimposed into the picture, it’s the way that practical effects are used to create the physical effect of the Helix upon the environment that really sell it, especially as the sparkler overlay and the background FX are impeccably matched up. (Compare that to some later slipshod productions, where a laser beam would show someone getting shot in the shoulder and the actor would grip their stomach before keeling over.) Particularly effective is the way that humans who are killed by contact with the Helix end up a charred coppery-blue colour – really unsettling and chilling, even though it was actually the production team trying not to be too bloodily gory or explicit for kids!

The cast is also top-notch: Tom Baker was perhaps never better as the Doctor than he is around this period, as his larking around is still largely under check and as a result the moments where he does grin inanely at some imminent peril are made all the more effective, as are the sudden lapses into stoney-faced gravity which is when the audience knows that something is genuinely terribly wrong. It helps that in this story, the whole threat is his fault in the first place thanks to the inadvertent lift that he gave the Mandragora Helix to Italy: it’s not often in the original series that the main character is forced to face his fallibility and culpability, common though it is in the reboot.

Baker gets full-blooded support from Jon Laurimore as the full-out evil black-hearted villain Count Federico and from Norman Jones as the bonkers but compelling cult leader Hieronymous. Neither are subtle performances, you’d have to say, but they’re tremendous fun and never tip too far over into pantomime parody. It’s a measure of their success how much the poorer the serial is once they’re basically written out from part 4 – Federico shamefully dispatched almost out of shot as a side effect of the episode 3 cliffhanger, Hieronymous sadly wasted when having to perform anonymously from behind one of those stunning but impractical full face metal masks. There’s also a young Tim Pigott-Smith doing a perfectly decent earnest best friend characterisation as Marco, but unfortunately the final major guest character – Prince Giuliano – is a limp wet lettuce of a leader, seemingly unable even to plan a celebration ball without whining to the Doctor for advice.

The writing of this serial is also very strong – at least, it is for the first episode and a half, carefully setting up the guest characters all of whom have their own lives, problems and conspiracies nicely coming to the boil. The basic premise established is that of the battle between magic and superstition versus reason and science, and the Renaissance is certainly a perfect backdrop against which to play this out. But then midway through episode 2, the story suddenly falls apart. It’s as though having laid all this meticulous groundwork for a classy epic tale, the writer Louis Marks suddenly hit problems, lost interest – or more likely, knowing the way that Doctor Who operated back in this period, he simply ran out of time and had to deliver the pages regardless of the state they were in.

The first evidence for this is the way that Sarah Jane, having been rescued from being an imminent cult sacrifice not 15 minutes earlier, blunders straight back into their clutches; and the cliffhanger settles for a version of “oh, great, now we can try that whole sacrifice thing again.” A certain measure of repetition is to be expected in a weekly serial and indeed can be a good thing, but reprising something that even the most distracted viewer is going to remember as having just been done a few minutes earlier in the same episode is fairly lame.

On its own this incident would be a minor glitch scarcely worth mentioning, but unfortunately it heralds a fairly comprehensive collapse of the storytelling for the remainder of the serial. The rest of the story is meandering and tired: lots of running about but little of any interest actually happening, it’s all too easy to let the mind wander. It’s proof that in the classic era, even four-part serials (let alone six!) could be too much: this could make a leisurely 45 minute episode of the modern series without axing anything of significance.

The main casualty of the implosion of the narrative (other than the general level of viewer interest) is that the basic premise of science vs magic gets utterly lost. Indeed, the Mandragora Helix pretty much comes over as one of fire demons that the superstitious guards talk about, and the Doctor’s resolution to it all is so sketchily explained that it might as well be magic for all the indigenous Italians or even the viewing audience know or care. In other words, it not only forgets its science/magic concept, it also turns on it and betrays it at the vital moment.

All that said, there are perfectly decent Doctor Who serials with far worse flaws in their storytelling than this. It’s just that it’s especially annoying that the story falls through here after such a strong start and when absolutely everything else is in place to produce a classic. Instead we’d have to wait for stories a few months down the line in the same season to reach that level of all-round perfection, so I suppose it would be reasonable to describe “The Masque of Mandragora” as a dress rehearsal or beta test for what the series would be able to do in just a few episodes’ time. That makes the missteps here not only more acceptable, but even invaluable in the growth of the show during 1976.

And when all is said and done there’s still a huge amount to enjoy in this serial. You can even see it as a bonus that if you do happen to drop off during episode 3, then you don’t need to feel at all guilty – you haven’t missed anything of any importance, and neither will you gain anything in terms of plot comprehension if you rewind to try it again. Better to just let it lie.

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