The Seven Faces of Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora

February 21, 2015 in Dr Who, Guest Blogs by GuestBlogs

A Guest Blog by Hevy782

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Tom Baker played the fourth incarnation of the Doctor for seven years and what an amazing seven years they were. And since he played the part for such a long time a lot of changes took place which means it’s hard to pin down a definitive story for his Doctor. Nevertheless, I still had to decide on a single story to represent this Doctor’s era and so after a large amount of indecisiveness I settled on The Masque of Mandragora. It comes from towards the end of his second full year as the Doctor and is Elisabeth Sladen’s penultimate adventure as the much loved Sarah Jane Smith. It is also the final story to be written by Louis Marks who had been writing for the series since William Hartnell was the Doctor and it was director Rodney Bennett’s last contribution to Doctor Who as well. I choose this story because it is probably the most balanced Fourth Doctor story as it is not as dark as stories such as Genesis of the Daleks but it’s also not as silly as others like City of Death. And now let’s not waste anymore time and move on to the synopsis.

The Masque of Mandragora begins with the TARDIS being dragged inside the Mandragora helix. The Doctor and Sarah manage to escape but end up bringing part of Mandragora with them to fifteenth century Italy. Here the Duke of San Martino has recently been assassinated by his brother Count Federico and the court astrologer Hieronymous. Now the only thing which stands in the way of Federico and the throne is the young prince Giuliano. The Doctor and Sarah both end up captured, the former by Count Federico and the latter by the mysterious Brotherhood of Demnos who intend to sacrifice her. The Doctor is accused of being a spy and sentenced to execution but is able to escape and he then rescues Sarah from the brotherhood. Hieronymous is then revealed to be the leader of the brotherhood who have been given great powers by Mandragora. Mandragora intends to use the brotherhood as it’s bridgehead on Earth so that it can send humanity back into the dark ages. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Sarah meet up with Giuliano who is concerned for the safety of his people. All three are then captured by Federico who intends to execute them but the Doctor convinces him to instead investigate the brotherhood. While doing so Federico is killed by Hieronymous and Giuliano can now safely take the throne of San Martino. The Doctor is then able to drain away Hieronymous’s power and put an end to Mandragora’s bridgehead leaving Earth safe once again.

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The Masque of Mandragora is, of course, a wonderful story and a very rich period piece. The sets and costumes are amazing and it truly does feel like Renaissance Italy. But perhaps what makes it authentic most of all is the location footage which, by the way, is seamlessly edited in with the studio work. Now of course they couldn’t go to Italy on a Doctor Who budget so instead they went to the tourist village of Portmeirion in Wales which stands in beautifully. Now onto Tom Baker’s brilliant performance as the Doctor and it really is wonderful here. There were times later in his era where he had a tendency to go a bit over the top but here he is under control. Of course he has to send it up just a little to make it entertaining but it’s not done so much as to make it difficult to believe in. There’s a wonderfully alien response to the death of the count and his humour during this scene has never raised a single eyebrow. But when the Sixth or Twelfth Doctors make a callous remark then all hell is raised for some reason. Obviously there has to be a limit but I’m just trying to put it into a bit of perspective, that’s all. Now enough ranting, let’s get back to the topic at hand which is this story. Alongside Tom Baker is Elisabeth Sladen who gives a superb performance as Sarah Jane Smith. The two work so great together (although I personally prefer her alongside the Third Doctor) but they also spend a lot of this story apart which allows Elisabeth Sladen to do some interesting stuff away from Tom Baker’s shadow.

Funnily enough there is a link between this serial and the previous one we looked at as Tim Pigott-Smith who plays Marco in this also played Captain Harker in The Claws of Axos. It’s an upgraded role for him as he plays Prince Giuliano’s loyal advisor and the two have an interesting double act going on between them. But more interesting than both of them though is Count Federico who is probably the best villain of the piece despite having no powers whatsoever. It’s all down to the performance and the writing and while both are fairly strong with the other villains they all just fall short compared to Federico. It is perhaps part of the reason why the last episode isn’t as entertaining as the others due to his death at the end of part three. The other reason is probably because the ending is a bit of a mess. For some it can completely ruin the story while others won’t mind it all too much as the rest of the story is good enough to overshadow it. Nevertheless it is a rather anti-climatic end to the story and while it’s not terrible it’s just not any good when compared to the quality of the rest of the piece. Now then, let’s take a few steps away from the ending and instead talk about the monster of the piece, Mandragora itself. There’s a nice idea behind it and it’s great to have a monster which isn’t really tangible but is still deadly. The special effects used do quite a nice job and they really do give an otherworldly feel to Mandragora but the voice of Mandragora is rather dire and the laugh is too over the top to be taken seriously. Luckily, these two elements don’t have too much screen time with the primary vocal point for Mandragora being Hieronymous. He’s very much your stereotypical villain but that does not take anything away from Norman Jones’ great performance. It was also a nice twist to have him revealed as the main antagonist of the piece as well as he was originally seen as a foil for Federico but then became a so much more.

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Overall, The Masque of Mandragora is a brilliant example of Doctor Who save only for the rather disappointing ending. So then, it’s an eight-out-of-ten from me and I’d say it’s definitely worth a look if you want to start exploring the Fourth Doctor’s era. Next week we’re moving into the eighties with the Fifth Doctor story Snakedance where a creature known as the Mara takes control of Tegan’s mind but until then be sure to sound off your thoughts on the story in the comments below.