The Masque of Mandragora
Transmitted 4-25 September, 1976
The TARDIS has become compromised. An alien energy force has used the Doctor’s time travelling machine to transport it back to the 15th Century and take over the world through a cult of fanatics determined to bring back a long dead god. Standing between progress and destruction, the Doctor faces the unstoppable force of Mandragora Helix at a most crucial point in human history.
The third and final series of Doctor Who under Philip Hinchcliff and Robert Holmes is no less exciting and dynamic that the first two. Season 14 contains a tear-jerking send-off of Sarah Jane Smith, the first story in which the Doctor travels alone to Gallifrey, the introduction of Leela and two of my personal favorite stories ‘Robots of Death’ and ‘Talons of Weng Chiang.’ In that mix, Masque of Mandragora often gets overlooked which is unfortunate because it really is quite good. Filmed in Portmeirion (the same setting as Patrick McGoohan’s ITV series the Prisoner), it looks lovely and the costumes and set design are stunning. As through all of the Hinchcliff-produced Doctor Who stories (except for the rather poor-looking final part of ‘The Hand of Fear’), the production quality is of a higher standard than usual. Actress Lis Sladen had reportedly been thinking of leaving the program the previous year. With three years as Sarah Jane Smith under her belt, no one could say she had not made her mark at that point. But when she heard that ‘Masque of Madragora’ was being filmed in Portmeirion, she decided to stay on. Good thing, too.
‘The Masque of Mandragora’ is written by veteran scribe Louis Marks, who also wrote ‘Planet of Giants,’ ‘Day of the Daleks,’ and ‘Planet of Evil.’ An expert historian, he was well-suited to pen this adventure as it relies so heavily on actual historical fact. The combination of the factual and the fantastic is a common strength of Doctor Who, so adding the element of Gothic fantasy to mix only made this story all the stronger. Set in the critical point when science assisted Mankind in its tentative steps out of the dark age and into the age of reason, ‘The Masque of Mandragora’ is ideally placed to tell a dramatic and compelling adventure.
In addition to the interesting story and its setting, ‘The Masque of Mandragora’ also introduced a new console room. The secondary TARDIS console room is the finest design of the set this side of the McGann model. Influenced by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the set is done up in dark wood and brass with a shaving mirror and even a small staircase leading up to the interior doors. The story goes that the traditional console room set was too bulky and took far too long to get together for filming. Additionally, parts of the old set were becoming broken and in the case of the moving rotor, rarely worked at all. The new set designed by Barry Newbery is simply amazing, yet strangely only appears two more times on screen before being replaced by the old set (which looked dreadfully worse for the wear). It’s a shame that so little was done with this set as it has so much charm and character and also looks wonderful on screen.
The lead actors at this point had also gelled significantly to the point where one can see that they are one of if not the most successful pairings of the Doctor and his companion on screen. Tom Baker, a relative unknown before taking up the role of the Doctor, was most familiar for character roles in which his mad eyes and distinctive voice made him ideal for his signature portrayal of Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. As the Doctor, his acting was both subtle and explosive at times, dancing about with a logic all its own. This behavior would eventually become part of his egocentricity leading to his over the top acting in later stories, but here he is more restrained and committed to the actions on screen. The Doctor’s concern for Sarah Jane is genuine and sincere (after all, Baker himself was rather fond of Lis… and who isn’t?) as was his interactions with Hieronymous when his range escalates. In later years we would get ‘mad Tom Baker,’ but in this story we still have a consummate actor in his prime.
Lis Sladen is without a doubt one of the most successful companions in Doctor Who full stop. A sympathetic character, she is also fun to watch because she becomes so overwhelmed by situations. Cute as a button, her beauty stays clear of the ‘something for the Dads’ arena and remains attractive to family viewers while portraying a compelling character for young viewers looking for someone to identify with. Sladen often spoke of Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor as being one of friendship. She said that no matter what happened, she knew that her best friend would be there to save her. This is proven several times throughout her time on the program as she is captured, blinded, hypnotized, etc only to be picked up and carried on Baker’s shoulders out of harm’s way. This relationship of friendship between the Doctor and his companion is seen a few times before, most notably with the Third Doctor and Jo Grant. I wish that it was understood by the production team of the BBC Wales program who seem to think that there is no such thing as friendship, just undying love. But in this story, there are plenty of lovely scenes that display why the Doctor/Sarah dynamic was so popular. Aside from having someone to explain things to and save from danger, Sarah is the only person who seems to really understand and appreciate the Doctor. And of course the Doctor is quite protective of her.
After the Doctor and Sarah arrive in San Martino, they are trapped between Count Federico and the Duke Giuliano as they battle for control over their kingdom. While Giuliano has science and reason his side, Federico takes advantage of the superstitions of the time through the seer Hieronymous who has aspersions of his own through his brethren and their undying loyalty to the god Demnos. Seeking to bring back their god and rule through his power, Hieronymous is determined to hold society back in the dark ages and rule over them uses dark magics. Of course Federico knows none of this and also believes none of it. When the Mandragora Helix energy is transported through time and space to the brethren’s temple in answer to Hieronymous’ prayers, it tips the scales of power in an unexpected direction. The struggle changes from a political one to a battle for survival for an entire planet’s freedom.
While Jon Laurimore plays the perfect power-mad villain Federico (notice that he holds a whip in every single scene!), the show is stolen by Norman Jones as Hieronymous, a man so mad with power that his beard points the way to Hell. The part of the villain in Doctor Who can be a touchy thing. It’s easy to go over the top, but easier still to not go quite far enough. As Hieronymous, Norman Jones finds the perfect balance and presents one of the more impactful villains of this era. Right up there with the previous adventure’s Tony Beckley as Harrison Chase in ‘Seeds of Doom,’ Hieronymous is a delightful foe.
Culminating in a mad battle of energy blast-firing monks in a gala ball, The Masque of Mandragora is heavily influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, a classic Gothic story. Seeking dominion over Mankind through the Cult of Demnos, the Mandragora Helix burns away the human forms of its subjects, leaving behind only empty shells.
The story does have some peculiar moments in which the Doctor engages in fisticuffs more suited to his predecessor Jon Pertwee and shows that he is not only a talented equestrian but also an expert swordsman (we already knew this from ‘The Sea Devils’ and would get a refresher in ‘Androids of Tara’ and later still in ‘The King’s Demons’). Each of these action sequences is rather bizarre and may pull you out of the story for a bit as a (much shorter) stunt man takes Baker’s place, but at the time it was no doubt a tool used to retain viewers’ interest.
While watching this story with my wife, she did point out that it was a bit strange no one seemed all that concerned about the massive body count in the ballroom as moments earlier Giuliano was concerned for their safety. Stranger still is the fact that the Doctor cracks a joke after adding the bodies of the brethren to pile of corpses, but what can you do? The fate of everyone is at stake and besides, where else can the Doctor get some quality salami?
Doctor Who and The Masque of Mandragora is available on DVD and streaming from various sources such as Netflix and Amazon. It’s a magnificent story that seldom gets attention from critics or fans, so be the exception and watch it today.