Doctor Who: The Masque Of Mandragora (1976/BBC DVD)
C+ Sound: C+ Extras:
B Episode: A-
you Tom Baker is to David Tennant as Basil Rathbone is to Jeremy Brett, you are
in for one of the very best classic Doctor
Who episodes ever. The Mask of
Mandragora kicked off Season 14 of Doctor
Who with style, class, and, almost unbelievably, a decent production
MoM is what is known in Who circles as a pseudo-historical and,
since it is set in 15th century Renaissance Italy, was able to draw on the
BBC’s considerable historical costume archives. As a season opener, they
went big, deciding to shoot in Portmerion, Wales, most famously known to
television fans as the location of the classic sci-fi/spy series The Prisoner (reviewed elsewhere on
is solid, classic Who: while
traveling through space, unbeknownst to the Doctor and Sarah Jane, the Tardis
takes on an unwanted passenger, a piece of energy from the Mandragora
Helix. When they come to rest in 15th century Italy and begin exploring, the
Helix energy leaves the Tardis and begins to create havoc. Sarah is
abducted by the worshippers of Demnos, who intend to sacrifice her to their
ancient Roman god. The Doctor is arrested and taken to court, where the
intrigue centers around a number of mysterious deaths involving the court
astrologer, Hieronymus, and Count Federico, who wishes to wrest the throne from
the young Giuliano.
traditional dual plotlines of the Doctor and his companion play out, with a
number of interesting, minor variations. Meanwhile, the Brethren of
Demnos, secretly lead by Hieronymus, mistakes the energy fragment of Mandragora
of the coming of the god Demnos. The usual machinations take place; Sarah
escapes, the Doctor is captured, the Doctor escapes, Sarah is recaptured.
Doctor deduces that the coming of the Helix at the Renaissance, as the world is
emerging from the Dark Ages, signals a turning point that might threaten the
development of civilization to come. The dual sets of villains, the
ambitious Federico and the cult of Demnos, offset each other, Hieronymus
killing off Federico while under the Helix’s sway. Eventually the Doctor
squares off against Hieronymus, a masque ball of the Brethren threatens the
court, and all is saved in a rather abrupt finish involving a roll of wire, an
altar, and an evident channeling of the Helix energy in an unexpected way.
are well above average, as is the casting, particularly Hieronymus (Norman
Jones), who could have stepped out of a Marvel golden age comic such as Doctor
Strange and is just over the top enough to provide all the right touches.
Abrupt ending aside, this is a superior episode, with hints at the return of
the Mandragora Helix sometime at the end of the 20th century. Rabid Who fans know that, in fact, this
prediction has come true twice, in different media.
extras, also, are delightful here. “The
Secret of the Labyrinth,” which was one of a handful working titles for the
episode, goes into the background story, with the original producer, writer,
director, and many of the original supporting cast interviewed. “Bigger on the Inside” is a real treat; a
sort of history of the TARDIS itself, prompted by the Doctor’s finding of an
old console room (which was used for the duration of the season) while
wandering about with Sarah Jane, and with a new look for the TARDIS on the
outside in this season opener. An extremely jowly, but otherwise still
impish, Tom Baker makes a brief appearance, advocating for more to be done with
the “bigger on the inside” concept, as does one of the former writers, who
alludes to an episode with the Master when there is a TARDIS inside a TARDIS
(inside a TARDIS). “Beneath the Masque,” another extra, is a sort of surreal send-up of
the original presentation of the episode and, as such, is mildly amusing.
veterans and novices alike, this is an episode not to miss.
- Don Wentworth