THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
NOVEL "SYSTEM SHOCK"
AND THE DOCTOR WHO
THEMED EPISODE OF THE
THE CATACOMBS OF
DEATH, THE CURSE OF
MANDRAGORA & SECRET
OF THE LABYRINTH
'THE MASQUE OF MAN-
DRAGORA' DVD (BBC
IN FEBRUARY 2010.
AFTER AN ENCOUNTER
WITH THE MANDRAGORA
HELIX, THE DOCTOR AND
SARAH JANE LAND IN
15TH CENTURY ITALY.
THERE, IN THE MIDST OF
DANGER, SECRECY AND
INTRIGUE, THEY WITNESS
THE FLOWERING OF THE
AS THE ACCESSION OF
SAN MARTINO'S NEW
THE DOCTOR REALISES
THAT A THIRD VISITOR
HAS ARRIVED WITH HIM
IN THE TARDIS. IT IS A
FORCE WITH THE POWER
TO WIPE OUT HUMAN
HE HAS BROUGHT IT TO
EARTH - AND ONLY HE
CAN STOP IT...
4TH SEPTEMBER 1976 - 25TH SEPTEMBER 1976
Doctor Who’s fourteenth season isn’t just one of my personal favourites, but
one of almost everybody’s. Every serial that it contains is exceptional, save for this curious opening instalment (technically making it ‘exceptional’ too, just not in a positive way), which has now been lovingly restored by the Restoration Team and released on DVD.
Though I don’t think that it stands up to the bar set by the rest of the season, The Masque of Mandragora is nonetheless a competent enough tale. Notable mainly for the visual diversity of its location and its pseudo-historical setting, Louis Marks’ script tells a very human story about the inhabitants of San Martino. Throughout the emphasis is on period and character, as opposed to the unusually abstract alien antagonist, imbuing the story with an endearing, Hartnellish quality that sets it apart from those around it.
“Mandragora energy. And I brought it here. It got into the TARDIS!”
Shot in Portmeirion, the Italianate folly of The Prisoner fame, The Masque of Mandragora features some of the most sumptuous cinematography of the Tom Baker years. Director Rodney Bennett really makes the most out of every shot and set piece, lending the serial
a sense of splendour befitting a season opener. Inevitably the serial’s noteworthy location forms the subject matter of one of the DVD’s shorter features, Now and Then, which looks
at how the production team modified Portmeirion to look like renaissance Italy.
However, Masque is generally better remembered for introducing a new TARDIS control room designed by Barry Newbery. Personally I prefer its retro chic, and even those who are not so keen must concede that it symbolises the so-called ‘gothic horror’ era of Who. Such matters are the cornerstone of Bigger on the Inside, a nineteen-minute documentary that sees Tom Baker, Barry Newbery, Robert Shearman and Christopher H Bidmead chart the evolution of the TARDIS interior from An Unearthly Child all the way up to The End of Time.
“Come to think of it, this was the old console room...”
Oddly, the TV Movie TARDIS set doesn’t get a mention, yet the rarely-used tertiary console room of the New Adventures novels does. Such peculiarities are made up for, however, by some enlightening commentary from Bidmead and a veritable torrent of Robert Shearman’s devilishly wry observations. Shearman’s
comments concerning the Doctor and the
Master’s matching TARDISes from The
Time Monster are particularly droll, whilst
Bidmead approaches the time machine
with a little more reverence, concluding
his contributions with the quite charming
sentiment “we haven’t seen it [the ‘real’
TARDIS interior] yet, but perhaps we’re
working our way towards it.”
The new TARDIS exterior used from henceforth is less noticeable on screen, though that doesn’t stop Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman using its “rubbish” properties as one of the many loving barbs that comprise Beneath the Masque, their ten-minute send-up of The “Mask” of Mandragora and the time from which it hailed. The same duo that brought us the comic audio dramas The One Doctor and BANG-BANG-A-BOOM! are at the top of their game here, donning all manner of unflattering wigs and garbs in order to mock everyone
and everything even loosely related to the serial, from poor old Andrew Pixley to the title sequence’s new font.
Above: Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman get Beneath the Masque
The disc’s flagship special feature is the traditional twenty-five minute ‘making of’ feature. The Secret of Labyrinth documents the production of this serial with the Restoration Team’s usual care, though when compared to the more jovial featurettes mentioned above, it does feel a little flat. TV historian Jim Sangster spices things up a little with his camera script that choreographs the Cult of Demnos’ dance moves, but even so, the programme would have certainly benefited from Tom Baker’s iniquitous input. As ever, he dominates and enlivens the commentary, which he provides alongside his former producer, Philip Hinchcliffe; unit manager, Chris D’Oyly-John; and Gareth Armstrong, who played Giuliano in the serial.
The serial itself has never looked better, and as is so
often the case when watching a classic series DVD, I
find myself looking upon it a little more kindly than I did
previously, having devoured the disc’s bonus material. Hieronymous (Norman Jones) is a fabulous villain, if a
little hammy; his monstrously masked Cult of Demnos
the perfect contrivance to give the children of January
1976 nightmares. Count Federico is also rather an
entertaining character, as is his nephew Giuliano - a
poor man’s Hamlet in an even poorer man’s wig. His
relationship with Marco incessantly amuses, especially
when armed the knowledge that Tom Baker dubbed the two of them “Gert and Daisy” on set.
“All or nothing. I have to risk it...”
The beating heart of the tale though is Tom Baker’s Doctor. Baker makes the most of each and every scene, however prosaic it might appear on the page. All the stuff with the fruit on the sword and the football rattle is absolutely hilarious to watch, and is matched only by the Doctor’s sharp dialogue. At one point, for instance, he moans to Sarah about not knowing why he likes humans so much, to which she responds, “you’ve very good taste”. “That’s true”, he concedes, vindicated. Whether it’s Marks’ line or Baker’s, it’s still just as effective today.
Ultimately The Masque of Mandragora DVD serves its story well. The four episodes of the serial may not be anything to jump up and down about, being more akin to a New Earth than an Eleventh Hour, but they still have the capacity to entertain today. This isn’t a release that I’d urge you to rush out and buy, but it’s certainly going to be worth picking up when its price is duly slashed in a few months’ time.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007, 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The Doctor’s line to Sarah Jane about her ability to understand 15th century Italian being a “Time Lord gift” is a precursor to the more detailed explanation given by the ninth Doctor in The End of the World.
The Doctor encountered the Mandragora Helix once before (albeit unknowingly), in the first Doctor novel The Eleventh Tiger, and he would do so again in the seventh Doctor comic strip The Mark of Mandragora and the tenth Doctor novel Beautiful Chaos.
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