An encounter with the living energy structure known as the Mandragora Helix leads the TARDIS to 15th Century Italy. Between palace intrigue, the machinations of a sinister cult and a rogue fragment of Helix energy, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah have their hands full. There is not much time, for when Mandragora swallows the Moon, it will be time to strike.
The Masque of Mandragora feels like a show brimming with confidence as it kicks off Tom Baker’s third season and Elisabeth Sladen’s fourth, and their shared chemistry is front and centre here. This story is helped by the use of Portmeirion for the location shooting and some great set design which make the audience believe that the Doctor has really travelled back in time to 15th Century Italy and a good story which feels really fleshed out, even if the ending doesn’t feel as though it is given enough explanation or time to make it clear how the Doctor defeats Hieronymous and the Mandragora Helix.
The story is really strong here and actually quite mature, mixing trademark elements of the Hinchcliffe era (a sinister religious movement) with court politics and machinations, and yet the story never really feels like it drags. The idea of a sinister entity attempting to set back human development is a good one, and Louis Marks never lets the audience forget that it is the Doctor’s fault that the Mandragora Helix has come to Earth to wreak the death and chaos shown. The guest characters feel developed and fleshed out, whether it is the evil uncle, the scientifically curious Giuliano or the manipulative soothsayer Hieronymous. The story does include some elements of astrology and superstition, however, handles them deftly and without feeling like it is patronising – at one point in the story, Sarah is dismissive of astrology, with the Doctor rebutting her that it was powerful enough to hypnotise her. One of the strengths of the story is that it gives equal weight to the power struggle between Federico and Giuliano for the dukedom and the more mystical and The story does fall down a bit in the concluding moments, and I am still not entirely sure what the Doctor did to defeat the Mandragora Helix down in the tunnels below the town. When he reappears wearing Hieronymous’ mask, the Brethren of Demnos are dispatched all too easily. It is a small flaw in an otherwise faultless story and with the Doctor mentioning at the end that the Helix will return for Earth at the end of the 20th Century, I am surprised that neither Big Finish nor the show itself has attempted a sequel. It is well directed by Rodney Bennett, who does some great work here. This is perhaps best demonstrated by his work with the Mandragora Helix, especially when it exits the TARDIS through the open door. It is easy to imagine this looking pretty rubbish, but Bennett makes it feel like the ball of energy is really there floating through the Italian countryside. The realisation of action scenes and the Masque at the end is really good too. The scene where the TARDIS flies into the Mandragora Helix at the beginning of the story looks great and I really liked the echoing soundscape when the pair exit the TARDIS, especially when it’s used on the TARDIS dematerialising as it makes a usually comforting sound feel quite sinister.
The use of Portmeirion, best known for being the location for The Prisoner is effectively used here, doubling as an Italian town and for no moment would I have thought that this was actually shot in Wales. There is some great set work and set design that make this feel like it has a really high production value, such as the market seen ever so briefly when the Doctor is being chased by the guards and there’s a strong feeling some real love and care went into this. Whilst I’m talking about set design, it would be remiss of me not to talk about the secondary control room of the TARDIS, which looks beautiful. I love the simplistic nature of the design, as whilst wood might not seem like the most interesting design element to find in a science fiction setting but it looks really amazing and it is nice to see a different control room to the usual white and green number we are used to. I like the nods to other Doctors having used it previously, hinting at unseen adventures for both the Second and Third Doctors, with a recorder and a frilly shirt too. The Masque scenes at the end of Part 4 look fantastic and are a testament to the hard work of those in the production and costuming departments. Whilst all the costuming looks authentic, the masks for the Brethren of Demnos look really creepy and is especially effective in the tunnels beneath San Martino.
Giuliano and Marco are the Doctor and Sarah’s allies in this story, played by Gareth Armstrong and Tim-Piggott Smith respectively, as the successor to the Dukedom and his servant, however, there are hints of a deeper relationship than this. This relationship feels realistic and lived-in, with Marco’s devotion to his master put to the test by Giuliano’s uncle’s schemes and machinations. Giuliano is insatiably curious about the world and science in general, postulating at one point that the Earth moves around the Sun and partnering him with the Doctor does allow some of his curiosity to be satiated. Perhaps what stands out about Giuliano and Marco the most is that they feel very fleshed out – there are so many Doctor Who stories where the people the Doctors and his companions meet that feel very one dimensional – and these two and the rest of the main cast here feel very real.
I feel as though I say this every time that I write a review for a Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane story, but the chemistry between the two leads is fantastic, especially as they wander the TARDIS corridors at the beginning of the story stumbling upon the secondary control room. Elisabeth Sladen is particularly good when she is possessed by Hieronymous, an aspect of the plot which is dealt with all too briefly perhaps because the production were aware that this would play a part in her final story as a regular companion, The Hand of Evil. Nevertheless, the moment that the Doctor breaks the trance is really sweet, and when she is possessed, Sladen’s glee at seeing the needle is really quite unsettling. Sarah Jane has reached a point in her travels with the Doctor where nothing really surprises her anymore, as she states almost casually that she was almost sacrificed, like it’s an everyday occurrence! Baker is on top form here too, attacking mundane lines with his unpredictable nature and seemingly insatiable energy. There’s something about the way he announces to that the Count is dead which is quintessentially Tom Baker. The Fourth Doctor is a man of action here, whether escaping his execution at the beginning of Part 2, tripping his executioner with his scarf or joining Giuliano with a sword to fight off the Brethren, but unlike Jon Pertwee who played it very straight and seriously, Baker performs them with a sense of glee and manic energy, making this feel like this is some amazing adventure.
Verdict: The Masque of Mandragora is a historical story which sets the bar for future efforts. It has a good story, let down slightly by the ending, and a really strong group of guest characters. I’d love to see the Helix come back at some point! 9/10
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), John Laurimore (Count Federico), Norman Jones (Hieronymous), Antony Carrick (Captain Rossini), Gareth Armstrong (Giuliano), Tim Piggott-Smith (Marco), Robert James (High Priest), Brian Ellis (Brother), Pat Gorman (Soldier), James Appleby (Guard), John Clamp (Guard), Peter Walshe (Pikeman), Jay Neill (Pikeman), Peter Tuddenham (Titan Voice), Peggy Dixon, Jack Edwards, Alistair Fullarton, Michael Reid and Kathy Wolff (Dancers) & Stuart Fell (Entertainer).
Writer: Louis Marks
Director: Rodney Bennett
Behind the Scenes
- Working titles included Catacombs of Death, Doom of Destiny, Secret of the Labryinth and The Curse of Mandragora.
- This story marks the debut of the TARDIS secondary control room, designed by Barry Newberry, which would make its final appearance in The Robots of Death. Accounts vary as to why the set was not used for Season 15 as to whether it was scrapped due to the incoming producer, Graham Williams, not liking it, or it got damp and wet in storage between seasons.
- Elisabeth Sladen stayed contacted to Doctor Who for an additional seven months as she wanted to appear in this story.
- The fourth and final script written by Louis Marks. Marks passed away on 17 September 2010 at the age of 82.
- The first historical or pseudo-historical to take place outside of Great Britain since The Gunfighters.
- Norman Jones previously appeared in The Abominable Snowmen and The Silurians.
- Gareth Armstrong has appeared in The Silver Turk and Fourth Doctor Adventures The Renaissance Man and The Evil One for Big Finish.
- Tim Piggott-Smith previously appeared as Captain Harker in The Claws of Axos.
- Robert James previously appeared as Lesterton in The Power of the Daleks.
- Brian Ellis previously appeared in The Sontaran Experiment.
- James Appleby had previously appeared in The Faceless Ones, as well as in uncredited roles in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Romans and The Massacre.
- John Clamp went on to appear in an uncredited role in The Twin Dilemma.
- Peter Walshe previously appeared in The Sontaran Experiment as Erak.
- Jay Neill would go on to appear in The Invisible Enemy and Underworld, as well as in uncredited roles in The Enemy of the World, The Silurians and Colony in Space.
The cliffhanger at the end of Part 3, where the Count attempts to remove Hieronymous’ mask, only to find that there is nothing but the glowing energy of the Mandragora Helix beneath.
You humans have got such limited, little minds. I don’t know why I like you so much.
Because you have such good taste.
…That’s true! That’s very true!The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith
Previous Fourth Doctor review: The Seeds of Doom