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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Action > Adventure > Time Travel > British TV > Doctor Who: The Masque Of Mandragora (1976/BBC DVD)

Doctor Who: The Masque Of Mandragora (1976/BBC DVD)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: B     Episode: A-



If for 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 budget.


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 this site).


The plot 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.


The 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.


The 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.


The sets 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.


The 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.


For Who veterans and novices alike, this is an episode not to miss.



-   Don Wentworth


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