31 Dec 2003The Masque of Mandragora, by Paul Clarke
14 Mar 2004The Masque of Mandragora, by Alex Boyd

'The Masque of Mandragora' is very well made and contains almost all the right ingredients for a successful Doctor Who story. Despite this it remains rather overlooked, perhaps because, for all that it should be a classic, there is a slight impression of something that is less than the sum of its parts. 

The plot of 'The Masque of Mandragora' perfectly fills the story's four-episode length, and contains a number of subplots. The main threat is that of the Mandragora Helix, a mysterious and powerful alien entity that seeks to subjugate humanity because it believes that mankind will one day reach out into space and encroach on its territory. It therefore hijacks the TARDIS and uses it to travel to fifteenth century Italy, intending to destroy leading thinkers of the time and keep mankind in the dark ages. Tying in with this is the Cult of Demnos, a sect that practices human sacrifice and which is secretly headed by Hieronymous, court astrologer to Count Federico, the local tyrant. Finally, we have the power struggle between Federico and his nephew Giuliano, heir to the thrown of San Martino; Federico is a butcher who brutally rules the people and who killed his own brother for power, whereas Guiliano is a quiet, thoughtful and intelligent young man who wants the best for his people and who also has a thirst for knowledge that makes him eager to meet leading Renaissance thinkers and artists. These three plot threads mesh perfectly, making for a well-paced and interesting story. My only criticism of the plot is the Doctor realizing that Sarah has been hypnotized because she asks how she can understand Italian; the implication is that having been given this "Time Lord gift", she automatically understands how it works and should take it for granted, but it doesn't seem that odd that she should bring it up in conversation. This is, nevertheless, a minor criticism.

The production looks great, with superb location work prominent throughout (as a trivial aside, it's quite strange recognizing bits of San Martino from The Prisoner, both having been filmed in Portmeirion). The sets are generally very impressive; the stone walls of the catacombs are obviously fake, but unconvincing stone walls are a common problem of nineteen-seventies Doctor Who and easily forgivable. The palace interiors and the temple however are well realized. On the subject of sets, I'd also like to mention the debut of the TARDIS' wood-paneled secondary control room, which remains my favourite TARDIS control room set to date; dusty mahogany décor rather suits the Doctor's vaguely Edwardian wardrobe. The period costumes on display here also look very good (they were apparently recycled from a 1954 movie version of Romeo and Juliet) and contribute significantly to the story's rather convincing fifteenth century feel. 

In addition to all this lush production of the scenes set in Florence, the story also opens with some decent model work. When I first started buying old Doctor Who stories on video, I absolutely hated the spinning-model-police-box-against-a-backdrop-of-space effect, but nowadays I find it rather quaint and endearing. The surreal appearance of the TARDIS in the heart of the crystalline helix also looks rather effective, and although on first sight the red sparkler effect of the Helix energy approaching the TARDIS just looks cheap and nasty, once the story shifts to San Martino it somehow seems to fit in well. 

So why exactly do I find 'The Masque of Mandragora' vaguely unsatisfactory? The first clue lies in the acting. Gareth Armstrong is slightly wooden as Guiliano, but the rest of the guest cast is very good, especially Tim Piggott-Smith as Marco, Norman Jones as Hieronymous, and John Laurimore as Count Federico. Part of the reason these three are so good is that they seem to take the script very seriously, and that is part of my problem with 'The Masque of Mandragora'; ironically, it's taken too seriously. The principle human villains seem very earnest; Norman Jones portrays Hieronymous as seething with anger and resentment after years of ridicule and waiting to serve his dark god, and John Laurimore plays Federico as a humorless, vicious thug. They are both convincing performances and are unusually realistic in a series with more than its fair share of over-the-top ranting lunatics, but compared to villains such as for example Harrison Chase, they aren't quite mad enough to be memorable. I really wish I wasn't criticizing a Doctor Who story for having villains who are acted with conviction and restraint, but I am. Remind me about this when I review the next story…

Having recklessly criticized 'The Masque of Mandragora' for having good acting, I should point out that the real root of my problem with the story is actually the script. The fact is, the actors are quite right to take their roles seriously, because the script is rather serious. There is very little wit in this story, even from the Doctor; there are characteristic flashes of humour, such as when the Doctor casually slides an orange onto the point of a sword being waved next to his face in Episode One, but they are few and far between. With the Doctor and Sarah separated for quite a lot of the story, their usual light hearted banter is interrupted; even in 'Pyramids of Mars', when faced with Sutekh, the tension exhibited by the Doctor was occasional diffused by Sarah making half-hearted jokes, but there is little of that here. Again, I feel slightly churlish for making such a criticism, and in fairness I should point out that we do instead get some moments of very convincing concern for each other from the Doctor and Sarah. 

I have to conclude that anyone who hasn't seen 'The Masque of Mandragora' should not feel put off by my opinion of it; it may not be the most memorable story of the Hinchcliffe era, it may not boast an eccentric and charismatic villain, and it may not be the series' wittiest script, but it is a well-made and polished Doctor Who story with much to recommend it. It just doesn't quite work for me as well as I think it should.

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This is a somewhat overlooked, though well produced and entertaining story. 

Paul Clarke has written an excellent review that details the plot – that an alien energy wants to subjugate the earth in the fifteenth century, and that this power struggle is mirrored by power struggles on earth. Ultimately, the struggle for power is shown as futile here, and the thoughtful and empathetic Giuliano is (naturally and appropriately, I think) portrayed as an ideal ruler. Spoilers follow. 

As Mr. Clarke mentions, the story is, despite good supporting acting, the usually strong regulars, and a decent production, somehow unsatisfying. I think perhaps it comes down to the conclusion, and a little too much going unexplained. First, we aren’t allowed to see the conclusion of the battle between the Doctor and this alien force. While the reasons for this are clear – that the Doctor later appears in the guise of that same alien force and leads it to its own destruction – we still want a little more there. The attempt to create suspense is admirable, but undermined by the fact that we don’t really believe the alien force has destroyed the Doctor and won the day. In other words, the climax we’ve been building to is cut short in favour of another climax, where the disguised Doctor leads all the brethren (or, what remains of this alien energy helix) back to the same ruins they came from. From there, it’s the same glowing energy effect we’ve seen before, and all of them dropping to the ground. 

That said, it’s still a pleasure to watch these regulars, and the Doctor and Sarah have some nice moments, in particular a scene in episode four where the Doctor is doing some calculations and Sarah tiptoes to a chair to read and wait. It’s perhaps a tad sexist, but also has to be remembered we’re talking about a Timelord and a human, here. The conversation that follows is an interesting example of Doctor Who:

“Mandragora doesn’t conquer in the physical sense, it dominates and controls by helix energy – astral force. It takes away from man the only thing worth having.”

“Which is?”

“Well, a sense of purpose, what else? The ability granted to every intelligent species to shape its own destiny.” 

Here we see the typical vagueness of a Doctor Who plot device (“astral force”) put up against some solid themes and ideas, in the same breath, as the Doctor continues on about a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose is further illustrated in the plot: there are power struggles between the Mandragora energy alien and the Doctor (who wants humanity to have a sense of purpose) and the potential human rulers Count Federica and Guliano (Guliano would allow his people a sense of purpose). 

In a sense, this makes the entire fourth episode anti-climactic, as Count Federico is blasted to dust at the end of episode three. And we know the Doctor will go on to defeat the Mandragora energy. It’s possible that the best Doctor Who stories combine these kinds of themes and ideas without leaving the viewers scratching their heads about surface details and plot devices (we’re told at the end simply that the Mandragora has been sent “back to square one”). That said, this is an entertaining story with some worthwhile moments, such as the Doctor telling Guliano at the end that knowledge will come in time, and that keeping an open mind is the secret. And surely allowing others to create their own purpose, and explore their own pathways, is a part of keeping an open mind? As Sarah says, “Poor Guliano, he looks so wistful,” but Guliano is actually a brave character – he has the courage to be uncertain.

Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 14