Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros take a peek behind the Masque whilst no-one is looking...
Doctor Who was now into its fourteenth season and both star Tom Baker and producer Philip Hinchcliffe were comfortable in their respective roles in the show. Whereas Hinchcliffe would depart at the end of this new season, Baker would continue to star in the show for another four years. The previous season’s focus on ‘gothic’ horror was an astounding success, but it was season fourteen that would push things a little too far and incur the wrath of Mary Whitehouse. Before the National Viewer’s and Listener’s Association started to cause a stink, the new season of Doctor Who kicked off with a trip to fifteenth century Italy…
The Masque of Mandragora opens with the Doctor (Tom Baker) taking Sarah-Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) through the vast labyrinth of corridors that is the interior of the TARDIS (coming across a cavernous boot cupboard in the process) and finding a secondary control room. No sooner have they looked around the wooden console room than they realise that the TARDIS is being forced off course by the Mandragora Helix, which has decided to hitch a lift in within the Type 40 time and space vehicle.
The TARDIS materialises in Italy in the fifteenth century. Even before the stowaway Mandragora energy gets a chance to wreak havoc, all is not well in the court of San Martino—the nefarious Count Frederico (John Laurimore) has eliminated his brother in a bid to gain control of the province, and he is using the dubious dark powers of mystic Hieronymous (Norman Jones) to suit his own ends. Only his nephew Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong) stands between Frederico and the position of Duke.
The Doctor and Sarah-Jane discover that there is more to Heironymous that most people realise—he is the leader of the outlawed cult of Demnos, and he intends to welcome the arrival of Mandragora on Earth. Our Gallifreyan hero and his feisty journalistic companion must not only help Guiliano gain his rightful place as Duke, but also prevent the cult of Demnos from unwittingly assisting Mandragora from destroying all life on Earth.
The Doctor eventually finds himself in a gloomy below-ground environment, surrounded by cult-worshipping nutters—this worked so well for this story that they obviously kept that in mind for the next season’s Image of the Fendhal. It is in this place that the story takes an interesting and unconventional turn at the end of episode three by killing off the character regarded as the villain of the story and replacing him by another for the final part of the story. Though there are some that would argue that by suddenly despatching an established villain for one that has only been mentioned a few times previously weakens the story, everything works out in the end as the appearance of the new foe means that the stakes are much higher than just the control of the Dukedom and now the whole planet is in jeopardy.
Producer Hinchcliffe was buoyed by the success of Pyramids of Mars and wanted to make another period story (much to the initial annoyance of script editor Robert Holmes) and was inspired by Roger Corman’s take on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. The Masque of Mandragora is a very entertaining story; the Renaissance Italy setting makes for a nice change from the usual quarries and the location work in Portmeirion is first rate, immeasurably boosting the production values.
The climax of episode one sees the Doctor about to be executed and Sarah-Jane being dragged off to be sacrificed—there are some wags who would wryly comment that with Sarah-Jane, they could be pretty sure that they were sacrificing a virgin. How Sarah-Jane got to be in that position comes to mind, because before she is herded off to the sacrificial alter, she is left by herself for a while in what appear to be loose, easy-to-escape manacles. One scene near the end of this episode shows the Mandragora Helix on the rampage and attacking a guard—the wooden and unconvincing delivery of the dialogue immediately made us think ‘that’s a stuntman and he’s about to do some elaborate gag’ and sure enough, we were right, with said guard being despatched in an acrobatic manner. A quick look at the end credits revealed the individual to be Doctor Who stalwart stuntman Pat Gorman.
Speaking of stuntmen, along with Pat Gorman, fellow Doctor Who danger-seeker Stuart Fell also appears in this story, getting some nice screen-time as a performer during the lavish masked ball of the title. One of these two individuals (or it could have been fight arranger Terry Walsh) also dons a curly brown wig and doubles for Tom Baker in several scenes, although one of the swordfights has Baker clearly seen from the front, but the reversals make him look like he’s wearing a dodgy syrup, and what with the Hamlet theme of the story, it makes the viewer wonder ‘Tom B, or not Tom B…?’
Feminists were probably more than a little pissed off that feisty go-getting journalist Sarah-Jane Smith is mesmerised in such a ridiculously easy fashion; all she does have what looks like a Christmas decoration dangled in front of her face for a few seconds and she’s under. However, this mesmerisation allows for the Doctor to finally give an explanation as to how the companions (and the viewers for that matter) are able to hear all of the foreign and extraterrestrial languages as English—although initially, the Doctor addresses this with the infamous ‘I’ll explain later’ line that was much-mocked in Steve Moffat’s Curse of the Fatal Death spoof for Comic Relief a decade or so ago.
If ever a Doctor Who story that was seriously needed a option to allow the viewer to watch it with new CGI effects it is the Masque of Mandragora (some would say that Jon Pertwee‘s Invasion of the Dinosaurs would be the one in most dire need, but even with spiffy new effects, it‘s would still be another dull six-parter). It’s a good story, but is let down by the effects work; the Mandragora Helix itself is little more than a sparkler tinted red and superimposed over the image—you almost expect to hear the Mission: Impossible theme playing whenever it appears. Though all was done in order to realise the entity, what with inventive camerawork on location to show the path of the thing, along with pyrotechnics and what-not, this is largely undermined by the fact that the Mandragora energy is still just a bloody red sparkler. So many people are killed or maimed by the Mandragora Helix in the story—but that’s what happens when you mess around with sparklers…
During episode two, the Doctor makes his way through an obligatory secret passage concealed within a castle, but the suspension of disbelieve is shattered when the whole stone wall the concealed door is built into wobbles in a way that is quite staggering. Many derogatory remarks have been made about Doctor Who’s sets and costumes over the years, but surely it wouldn’t have killed them to do a re-take and had a couple of grips prop the surrounding set up whilst the scene was being shot? Speaking of flubs, there is a rare instance in one episode in this story where Tom Baker treads on another actor’s line.
The first few minutes of The Masque of Mandragora is what would be termed today as ‘fan-wank’, but it’s good fan-wank; the interiors of the TARDIS feel as though they’re being executed correctly and the secondary console room looks absolutely wonderful. The fact that a Jon Pertwee velvet jacket and frilly shirt, along with a Patrick Troughton recorder can also be seen in this new area adds a sense of continuity to the proceedings. The only issue that people would have with the secondary console room is that the original one was handy because it was located right next to the main doors, but the secondary one is presumably stuck deep within the TARDIS and would take a five minute walk to get to from the main doors.
Tom Baker is arguably at the top of his game in this story; he had fully grown into the role by this point and was having fun, but without the ridiculous, over-the-top antics that marked his boredom during season seventeen—Baker was certainly getting star perks by this point, including (during the dungeon scene) having the inside of the manacles nicely padded for his comfort. In this episode, probably more than in any other time during the series, you get to see the Doctor acting more like a regular Timelord than usual–Baker gives a commanding performance when he plainly but passionately states that he is going to prevent the interference of the course of Earth’s development. It’s great stuff.
Elisabeth Sladen is as reliable as ever, still the headstrong, inquisitive companion, but also able to trip over or be influenced now and again; she tries to do her best with the borderline racist ‘I speak-a de good English’ line—she was probably hoping to get a part on Mind Your Language when they eventually started casting for that show. Sladen scrubs up remarkably well when she appears in episode four dressed in a long gown and has her hair up. Gareth Armstrong is good as the unready Duke-to-be, providing a sense of vulnerability to the character, but ultimately emerging victorious and stronger than he was at the start of the story. Tim Piggot-Smith plays Giuliano’s trusty friend Marco, but the carrot-topped actor just seems like he wandered in from another BBC costume drama and is acting his socks off in an overly melodramatic style—he‘s a good actor, but just didn‘t seem to have a handle on this.
The villains in this story really are archetypes—in Count Frederico, Laurimore is essentially playing it as Richard III, in much the same way that John Ringham did in the William Hartnell story, The Aztecs; he’s all seething menace and has that nephew-murdering intent in his eye. Norman Jones plays Hieronymous as the quintessential megalomaniacal, absurdly-bearded, staring-eyed slow-but-lusty drawling nutter—this works within the context of the story and within the time this was produced, but more cynical modern viewers will probably have trouble keeping a straight face. Toward the end of episode three, one of the villains exclaims ‘no-one can stop me now!’—this will induce shudders from some Doctor Who fans, as this can trigger repressed memories of Patrick Troughton’s less-than-wonderful story The Underwater Menace, where the megalomaniacal Professor Zaroff exclaims ‘nothing in the world can stop me now!’—yeesh!
An interesting thing to see in this story is that the Doctor spends much of it with a sword upon his person and gets to use it (purely in a defensive manner, of course…) - this makes for an interesting little wrinkle in the Doctor’s pacifistic outlook. Still, it would only be a few short years before a certain tall, burly chap would cause even more of a stink about the use of gratuitous violence in Doctor Who. The climax is surprisingly violent, too—as most of the people at the Masque are slaughtered. There is also a nice standing kick to the head performed by Tom Baker in this episode—one has to wonder why they went to all the effort of having the lead actor do this, when they could have just gotten either Stuart Fell or Terry Walsh to don a curly Irish and double for him…
The head of the cult of Demos is referred to as ‘the Great One’—does this mean that Jackie Gleason is under the mask? ‘One of these days, Alice - Bang! Zoom! I’ll swallow the moon, Alice!’
Doctor Who regular Dudley Simpson contributes what could be regarded as his best work during his time on the show. As well as providing some of his usual incidental music, he also throws in some experimental work, with one passage sounding remarkably like something from John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, which was released the same year. Simpson also scored the scene where the Doctor and Sarah Jane are usual astronomy equipment with a nice light touch that is refreshing for the show.
It’s sad to say it, but the restoration of the film sequences on the DVD release of The Masque of Mandragora does not appear to be up to the usual wonderful standards of the Doctor Who Restoration Team; though we certainly appreciate that there is only so much you can do when the original film elements have vanished into the ether,
The slightly disappointing restoration results could be explained by the fact that not only were the film elements originally transferred using a polygon prism telecine machine, but they were also interlaced, meaning that they were in rougher shape than usual and that the Restoration Team had to lavish more care and attention on them. The blob constantly visible during the film sequences of episode one were probably printed in during the transfer of the film to video and there was little that the RT could do with it, short of spending many hours painting out the blob from every single frame.
The Masque of Mandragora is presented in its original mono audio. Dudley Simpson’s impressive score sounds very nice and there is precious little in the way of hiss or distortion.
Audio commentary: Actors Tom Baker and Gareth Armstrong join producer Philip Hinchcliffe and production unit manager Chris D’Oyly-John provide a fairly entertaining track, with Baker being his usual self whilst throwing in a few interesting nuggets about his career. Armstrong doesn’t really say much of interest to Who fans, but D’Oyly-John come out with a few fascinating nuggets about the sometimes hectic nature of production. Hinchcliffe is always good at providing an entertaining commentary, as his knowledge of his time as producer on Doctor Who is always pretty sharp; in this track, he speaks about Mary Whitehouse’s dislike of the show and the interesting way that New-Who has continued the John Nathan-Turner trend of stunt-casting comedy actors. The only element missing from this being one of the great commentary tracks is the absence of Elisabeth Sladen, who was probably away filming The Sarah-Jane Adventures.
The Secret of the Labyrinth: This twenty-six minute documentary looks at the making of The Masque of Mandragora, with contributions from actors Gareth Armstrong, Tim Piggot-Smith, Anthony Carrick and John Laurimore, along with Chris D’Oyly-John, Philip Hinchcliffe, director Rodney Bennett, designer Barry Newbery, TV historian Jim Sangster and journalist Steve O’Brien. What makes this documentary a little different from most is that part of it was shot on location in Portmeirion—it’s nice to see several members of the crew walking around the brightly-coloured place. It’s interesting to see that some of the guest cast members have aged surprisingly well in the thirty-five-odd years since the story was filmed.
Bigger on the Inside: This is a nice little nineteen minute look at the history of the interior of TARDIS, from the original huge console room of the early Hartnell era, to the coral monstrosity of New-Who, with contributions from Tom Baker, designers Barry Newbery and Matthew Savage, producer Christopher H Bidmead, New-Who writer Robert Shearman and fashion editor and writer Francesca Gavin. This is a fairly brief but reasonably informative jaunt over the years on the series, mainly focusing on the original console room and the set for the New-Who interior, but stopping off on the way to address some of the more interesting diversions. The secondary console room—as premiered in The Masque of Mandragora—is only really briefly touched upon. It’s also disappointing to note that the wonderful TARDIS interiors seen in the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie are not mentioned at all. The star contributor here is probably Rob Shearman, who was a fan who became a writer, as he views the TARDIS from both perspectives.
Now and Then: This is another of the occasional featurettes that take a look at how the locations used for Doctor Who have changed (or not) over the years. This spends nine minutes looking at Portmeirion in Wales and gives and you a sense of the real geography of the environment and how there has been precious little change in over three decades.
Beneath the Masque: The spoof documentaries that occasionally appear amongst the special features of Doctor Who discs are something of a mixed-bag; for every wonderful Oh Mummy!, there is an Eye on Blatchford. This effort from former Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman and New-Who scribe Gareth Roberts falls somewhere in between. Hickman and Roberts almost giggle at their own cleverness as they bring you a light-hearted look at historical impact that The Masque of Mandragora had upon the world. Some of it is amusing, but much of it is juvenile and/or embarrassing as they seemingly try to emulate both Oh Mummy! and the televisual stylings of Victor Lewis-Smith (there are those who would say that anything Gareth Roberts writes is emulating someone else’s work…). In the end, it’s all very juvenile and bordering on amateurish, but there should be something to make hardened Doctor Who fans smile (even if it is the dubious sight of Roberts dragged up as Val Singleton.)
Production Subtitle Notes: As always, when this option is selected, the viewer is presented with a veritable blizzard of facts, figures and trivia about the production of The Masque of Mandragora.
Continuity: Relive those faraway times of yesteryear with these vintage voiceovers and trailers for The Masque of Mandragora—one of them also shows a rundown of the average Saturday night line-up on BBC1 in the mid-seventies. Naturally, Brucie Forsythe gets a mention.
Photo Gallery: A large amount of images from the story are provided for your edification, all set to some Dick Mills’ special sounds. It’s a pity that they couldn’t have used some of Dudley Simpson’s wonderful score to accompany the photos, but there you go.
Coming Soon: A near-two minute peek of the upcoming box-set of The Space Museum and The Chase included. From the specs that have been published for this set, it looks like it could be the standout release of the year.
PDF Materials: Pop this baby into your computer and you will be able to see all four original Radio Times listings for The Masque of Mandragora. Also included is a nice interview—accompanied by interesting illustrations—with Philip Hinchcliffe, who explains about the story and some of the changes that have taken place.
The Masque of Mandragora is a rattling good yarn, which continues the gothic horror that was begun in the previous season. With lovely location footage, lavish costumes, intense performances and an engaging story, there is much to enjoy here that any minor quibbles can be easily overlooked. Great stuff!
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 8th February 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono English
Extras: The Secret of the Labyrinth Documentay, Bigger on the Inside Featurette, Now and Then Featurette, Beneath the Masque Spoof Featurette, Production Subtitle Notes, Continuity, Photo Gallery, Coming Soon, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Rodney Bennett
Cast: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, John Laurimore, Norman Jones, Tim Piggot-Smith
Length: 99 minutes
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